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Di Leo: Lessons from a Busy Flagpole: Everything Government Does Has a Cost



 US Flag over the US Capitol

By John F. Di Leo - 

We live our private lives with choices, some expensive, some cheap, some free.

We can choose to buy tickets to the theater, or watch free television at home… we can choose to buy an expensive dinner at a restaurant, or whip up something at home with whatever we have in the fridge… we can go to a hotel on vacation, or stay at home. We have lots of options that are virtually free, so when we need to tighten our belts, there are plenty of ways to do so.

Government is different. Virtually everything that government does costs money. Even things that would appear to be free.

Sometimes more, sometimes less… but if government does it, there is a cost.

A new program requires an office to manage it, with staff who, once hired, are almost certainly on payroll for the rest of their lives. The taxpayer pays not only the obvious cost of the program itself, but the staffers, the office, the utilities, the oversight by higher agencies, the publication of that office's regulations and decisions in a host of reports, budgets and lawbooks… not to mention the courtroom costs when the tiniest aspects of the program are litigated by those affected by it.

For the small programs, there's only a little of all that, and for big programs, there's a lot of all that. But there's always at least some of all that.

For example… consider the decision to raise a flag over the Capitol building in Washington… perhaps in honor of some good local person, such as a retiring mayor, a businessman, a president of the local garden club in a congressman's home district.

It sounds like such a choice would be a nice, free honor, a worthy show of respect without any cost to taxpayers, just a nice sort of "shout-out," right?

But this longstanding practice, which occurs dozens of times a day (or sometimes much more) at the Capitol, requires staff to purchase and transport those flags to the Capitol, and staff to raise and lower these flags, one per honor, high above the Capitol building, each and every hour of each and every day…. and it requires staff to ship these flags with a formal letter of recognition and appreciation to the recipient thus honored, so the recipient can display both the letter and the flag on the wall (because once a flag has been flown over the Capitol, it's special, you know)… it’s a wonderful, patriotic program.

Do you know how many retiring mayors and garden club presidents and Jaycee chairmen and school board superintendents and other local worthies there are in a nation of 330 million people?

Neither do I.

But there are enough that they keep that flagpole busy… swapping out American flags practically every minute of every day.

Over 100,000 flags are flown over the Capitol every year, in a program with a total cost in the millions of dollars annually… a cost that's difficult to estimate because only the individual flag purchases are carefully reported. The actual cost of congressional staff and packaging and shipping and all that raising and lowering and transporting around the Capitol complex… well… that's all spread out among the 535 Congressional offices.

We individuals do buy these things, by the way. They aren’t free. The requester usually sends a check ranging from $22 to $31 or so to the Congressman or Senator when he requests the honor, so he thinks that he's paid for the full cost of the service… but these are government charges, which virtually never cover the full cost of the program.

In the private sector, a business knows the cost of its products, every cost from raw materials to production to sales to distribution, and they know the labor costs of supply and marketing and fulfillment, so they can easily determine their profit margin variance from product to product.  They can tell if a $7 flyover charge is enough to cover the costs, and if a $4 shipping charge is right or wrong.  But with the government, we'll never be able to pin down exactly what most of these real costs are.

But that's fine, in this case, isn’t it?

Because this program – the one we’re talking about, the one we like, the one we respect – is a noble, patriotic program, and in a country of 330 million people and a multi-trillion dollar budget, if its real cost is a bit higher than the revenue it brings in, well, that truly is a drop in the bucket. 

Maybe the real shipping cost is six or eight or ten dollars, not the four we charge. But, hey, “it’s close enough for government work,” as the saying goes.

But if that's the case, for a program that most of us think of as being virtually free, a small, patriotic honor that means nothing to the budget, in the grand scheme of things…

… then just imagine what this means for all our other government programs.

We have lots of huge programs… programs that everyone knows are huge, and terribly costly: the Armed Forces, Social Security, Medicare, the Post Office, the ICBM program, NASA…

But what we forget is that all the small programs are amazingly expensive too, and they all add up.

Practically every federal Department has a bureau of statistics with hundreds of government employees collecting estimates on every imaginable statistic from both public and private sources, all across the country.

Practically every federal Department has offices that generate grants of federal funds to worthy and unworthy projects and people, both public and private, all across the country.

Practically every federal Department has helpful outreach programs, to teach farmers to farm, to teach policemen how to police, to teach social workers to socialize the unemployed. All across the country.

Most of these programs are well-intentioned. All these programs cost money. Taxpayer money.

And it all adds up.

So, the next time you think of some harmless thing the government can do – not a big thing, maybe just a small, nice thing – like establishing an official Barack Obama Day in the state of Illinois, for example… consider this:

Everything the government does, however small, costs us tax dollars. Even if all it costs is the time for a government secretary to issue a document in triplicate, mail it out, and enter it into the public record, remember that it is one of millions of such actions, and they all add up.

Governments do not always plunge their nations into incompetence and bankruptcy from the big things, like wars and famines and depressions.

Sometimes, cities, states and nations are broken by an abundance of little things… like too many little school districts weighing down a state with $400,000 school district administrator salaries and $100,000 retired teacher pensions… and too many roads being rebuilt at 150% the necessary cost because of Davis-Bacon clauses… and too many well-intentioned legislators and executives, passing out lots of tiny little goodies in the form of grants and other checks.

Even the little things add up, until you finally reach the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The next time you’re overweight, and you ask a dietitian for advice on how to lose it, pay close attention.  

When you ask dietitians how best to lose weight, you know, they don't just tell you to watch yourself at mealtime… only at mealtime…

 They warn you to watch all those irresistible little hourly snacks as well.

Because it all adds up.

Copyright 2017 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based writer, actor, Customs broker and transportation professional. He has been a recovering politician for twenty years now (but, like any addiction, you’re never really cured).

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.


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