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Wasted or Wasteful? Are Bureaucrats All That Bad?

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The recent glorification of Cash for Clunkers is depressing. Although the program was not all that popular with the American public and its benefits were questionable, its lightning fast impact impressed the hyperactive news media. The Obama administration, beleaguered by endless weeks of health care drudgery, lapped up the positive PR.

The stimulus package, on the other hand, has received the cold shoulder, both from ordinary Americans and from the media. The $787 billion measure, which is in the process of righting the economy, gets very little love.

Indeed, studies have begun to trickle out tentatively calling the stimulus a success. Even conservative commentators are pondering what the likelihood of a successful stimulus means for future Republican administrations. And recent Gallup polling shows that Americans are becoming more optimistic about the direction of the economy: 40% believe it is improving, 7 percent more than last month.

However, only 41% of Americans think that the stimulus package will make the economy better in the short term. Worse, an Economist/YouGov poll found that a dismal 24% of Americans believe the stimulus package is working. Further, news outlets are making a cottage industry out of stimulus criticism. For example, the investigative journalism site ProPublica is doing a fantastic job of aggregating news stories on misspent stimulus funds and raising questions about how the administration is calculating its all-important "jobs created and saved" metric.

The gulf between the opinion of economists and the American public is generally quite wide, so perhaps the divergence in judgment about the stimulus should be unsurprising. Yet, the package includes lots of good things for most Americans, from tax cuts (even if unrecognizable) to increased unemployment benefits and subsidies for health insurance for the unemployed.

The divergence of opinion is more likely the result of a failure on the part of stimulus proponents to explain why and how government investment - that is, spending by bureaucrats - is actually a good thing.

Instead of defining why the Department of Energy and HUD and HHS and other agencies (most of the time) spend taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently - and so will spend stimulus dollars effectively and efficiently - there is a tendency for the administration simply to explain that it will ensure that these agencies will not spend money badly, that it will root out fraud and abuse. That is why Vice President Biden, not a lower-level administration official, is running stimulus oversight: so far, he has primarily been in charge of damage control, not coordinating stimulus spending among agencies. Government stimulus spending is presented by the administration as a necessary evil.

In the absence of an argument for why spending by the government makes sense, the American public has been captured by the conservative viewpoint that paints all bureaucrats as wasteful and unthinking. A similar situation has occurred in the debate about health care reform. Conservative opponents of reform have forced reformers to explain why government will not ration health care services, rather than explain how measures like comparative effectiveness research can improve care.

There is much to be said for how well the federal bureaucracy is functioning under President Obama. Just one example is the coordination between the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency to create livable communities connected to affordable housing, an initiative that breaks down the historical and illogical boundaries between the two agencies.

Another example, more to the point, is the expenditure of the stimulus's vast sums. No federal agency has yet buckled under the weight of the spending, funds have been directed relatively quickly from Washington to state governments, and the stimulus is more or less on track with the CBO's predicted spending timetable.

The Obama administration should not be afraid to explain that the federal bureaucracy has responded quite well to the gargantuan task of spending the stimulus. Otherwise, progressives will find themselves in the untenable position of arguing that spending is good but the spenders are bad.