The July/August 2013 issue of the Atlantic Magazine has an article “Can Government Play Moneyball?”, by two former budget officials, Peter Orszag (under President Obama) and John Bridgeland (under President Bush), which describes the very careless spending atmosphere in the federal government in recent years. “Based on our rough calculations”, they write, “less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.” They describe in great detail their efforts to introduce mechanisms to evaluate the performance of social service programs of various types and how difficult this has been to accomplish.
“Since 1990, the federal government has put 11 large social programs, collectively costing taxpayers more than $10 billion a year, through randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation. Ten out of the eleven – including Upward Bound and Job Corps – showed “weak or no positive effects on their participants.” Here’s another example. “The federal government’s long running after school program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, has shown no effect on academic outcomes on elementary-school students – and significant increases in school suspensions and incidents requiring other forms of discipline. The Bush administration tried to reduce funding for the program” but was overruled by Congress. “Today the program still gets more than $1 billion a year in federal funds.”
Lots of people complain that the sequester is a “dumb” way to cut federal spending. Of course, it would make far more sense to cut back spending in a rational way by evaluating all programs, keeping the effective ones and eliminating the ineffective ones. As the sequester takes bigger and bigger across-the-board spending cuts each year for nine more years (it’s a program to cut $1 trillion over ten years), the big spenders in Congress are going to start crying “Uncle”! because their own favorite programs will be effected more and more deeply each year. Maybe then, hopefully sooner than later, Congress will gain some collective common sense and accept the fact that there is a better way to make the significant budget cuts that are necessary.
Let’s hope so!