It’s for the Children

It’s for the Children

And other Big Government fairy tales
July 19, 2011
Originally published in National Review Online

The government robber barons justify themselves by telling you that big government is for your own good or, even better, “it’s for the children!” What they really do is treat you like a child. The robber barons’ regime is predicated on the idea that a bureaucrat knows better than a private individual what choices should be made; and in the process, big government infantilizes the people it “serves” or, more accurately, fleeces.

THE DEPARTMENT OF SCHOOL-LUNCH SAFETY
Sometimes it really is “for the children,” and the children aren’t very happy about it. Take, for example, the school district of St. Paul, Minn., which decided its job was to change students’ dietary habits. In 2010, it declared that its schools would become “sweet-free zones.” No longer would children be rewarded with candy. Cupcakes as birthday treats became a thing of the past. Brownies at bake sales were right out.

The reason given for the move was childhood obesity. School superintendent Valeria Silva discovered that the obesity rate in St. Paul’s public schools was 40 percent, 11 percent above the national average. So she decided it was her job to do something about it by banning sweets — though there is very little evidence that such programs have any effect on obesity. The students realize this.

“All my friends say, ‘This really sucks,’” Misky Salad, a ten-year-old fifth-grader at Chelsea Heights Elementary told the Star Tribune. “A lot of us feel it should be up to us to determine what we should do with our bodies.” How very liberty-loving of her — but how utterly opposed to the nanny state. Perhaps the St. Paul public-school teachers could use their time better by expanding Misky’s vocabulary beyond “sucks” than by policing the possibility of her having cookies in her lunch bag.

Programs such as St Paul’s very rarely work because there is a wealth of sweet carbohydrates beyond the school gates. Take, for instance, Jamie’s School Dinners, a project of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Disgusted at the standard of food served in British schools, in 2004–2005 he started a project to bring healthier school lunches to the students. After a well-publicized TV series and no end of hectoring of children, lunch ladies, and politicians, the British government earmarked almost $1 billion in public funds to improve the standard of school lunches, based on Oliver’s advice.

It failed. Badly. Before Naked Chef Jamie’s intervention, about 45 percent of students took school lunches. Five years later, after the government had spent vast amounts of money following Oliver’s ideas about what makes a good school meal, that figure had slumped to 39 percent. Oliver might have made more nutritious meals, but they were favored by well-educated families, not the working-class families he had crusaded to save; they simply opted out of the program. Oliver brought his busy-body philosophy to Huntington, W. Va. in 2009–2010, with similar results. As the leftist website AlterNet reported, Oliver’s meals exceeded the county’s fat-content and calories guidelines and were much more expensive:

The reality behind Food Revolution is that after the first two months of the new meals, children were overwhelmingly unhappy with the food, milk consumption plummeted and many students dropped out of the school lunch program, which one school official called “staggering.”

In England and Huntington, West Va., school administrators would have been better off remembering the adage that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. The real beneficiaries of such programs are not the children, who don’t want them, but the bureaucrats who are employed to check the schools’ progress, tabulate and file results, produce “performance indicators,” issue reports, and, most important, demand more funding. It is programs like these that drive up education costs and continue to be funded when teaching budgets are cut. Bureaucrats always look after their own — their interests aren’t yours.

THE EPA CONQUERS AMERICA
It’s bad enough that Congress keeps churning out oppressive, government-enriching regulation. But sometimes bureaucrats even “tailor” laws to give themselves powers that Congress didn’t intend them to have. That’s what’s happening with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which asserts it can alter the plain meaning of the Clean Air Act in order to regulate greenhouse gases.

The EPA announced in 2009 that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. That finding paved the way for a huge power grab by EPA bureaucrats. It could lead to the EPA’s complete regulatory control over the nation’s energy supply and kill its use.

Large apartment buildings and hospitals will need EPA operating permits to continue running their furnaces. Everything from your lawn-mower to the local TV station’s traffic helicopter will be regulated for fuel economy. The EPA could close the nation’s power plants, send electricity prices skyrocketing, and be responsible for rolling blackouts. All for our own good of course — and on our dime. If you wanted to design an anti-stimulus package, you’d be hard-pressed to top this.

The EPA already holds massive power to stop energy projects. It has used its regulatory powers to hold up the construction of new coal, gas, nuclear, and even renewable-energy power plants and electricity-transmission lines around the country. Hundreds of viable energy projects, and thousands of private-sector jobs, are at this very moment held up by regulatory delay.

But that’s just part of the problem. The EPA’s claim that it is obliged to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant will oblige it to impose costly, time-consuming permitting requirements on tens of thousands of previously unregulated small businesses and millions of previously unregulated entities. Even the EPA recognizes this danger, warning that its permitting programs could crash under their own weight, halting construction projects and leaving millions of firms in legal limbo. So it is trying to rewrite the law it says it has to enforce — and all for its own convenience. It is doubtful this legal trickery will survive legal challenge, but the bad news is, if the law the EPA says it has to enforce isn’t rewritten, the result will be a vastly expanded EPA budget and staff and the blocking of about every construction and energy project you can imagine. It’s a win-win scenario for the EPA and a lose-lose scenario for the rest of us.

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?
Whenever EPA tells us what a great job it is doing in protecting our — and our children’s — health, you might wonder how the Obama administration validates its claims. The answer is simple: It asks the EPA! The agency doesn’t just draft and enforce regulations, it measures its own performance. That’s how it can get away with absurd assertions like the one that says enforcement of the Clean Air Act provides $30 in benefits for every $1 in costs. Indeed, EPA boss Lisa Jackson told Congress that the EPA should be able to regulate greenhouse gases precisely because it has a 40-year history of delivering trillions of dollars of benefits to the nation.

Yet when independent scholars look at these claims, they find the numbers just don’t add up. For instance, economist Garrett Vaughn found that the EPA’s claim of massive benefits from the Clean Air Act derives from a bunch of accounting tricks. They claim that manufacturers who are forced to raise their prices because of EPA rules simply pass on these costs to the customer, so they bear no cost themselves. It appears that the EPA economists have never heard of the law of demand: When price goes up, demand falls. Similarly, the EPA assumes compliance costs of $0.00 after a very short time, which allows for an infinite benefit-to-cost ratio.

Because the EPA generates these fantastical benefits numbers, it has ample justification for imposing yet more costly regulation on the American public. It follows that anyone who opposes these new rules obviously wants to poison the air.

No one in government questions these numbers, because that would stop the inexorable move towards more government. Yet, as economists Richard Belzer and Randall Lutter commented about EPA’s year 2000 cost-benefit report:

The same agencies that evaluate performance also design and administer the very regulatory programs they are evaluating. It is hard to understand why anyone should expect self-examinations to be objective and informative. Investors want businesses to be audited by analysts without financial conflicts of interest. Scientists reject research that cannot be replicated independently. Consumers flock to independent testing organizations rather than rely exclusively on sellers’ claims. Only in the public sector, where bureaucrats are protected from the discipline of market forces, do we rely on self-evaluations of performance.

Until we do something to stop these outrageous, evidence-free claims of effectiveness by the EPA and other government agencies, government will keep on growing. At the moment, we are stuck somewhere between “The Emperor with No Clothes” and Orwell’s Animal Farm. Only those are allegories, and this is real life.