There was Vice-President Al Gore, holding up an ashtray in a Newsweek magazine photo. A simple glass square, it looked for all the world like an ordinary ashtray. But, no: This one was special-manufactured to precise government specifications.
Ten pages of specifications, to be exact. The requirements for a Type I “ash receiver,” as it’s called, start like this: It must have “a minimum of four cigarette rests, spaced equidistant around the periphery and aimed at the center of the receiver, molded into the top.”
There are even specifications on how the “ash receiver” should be tested. You place it on a maple plank, 44.5 millimeters thick, and hit it with a hammer and a steel punch point “ground to a 60 percent included angle.”
To pass muster the ashtray has to shatter into shards of “6.4 millimeters or more on any three of its adjacent edges.”
No wonder government costs so much. Adding all sorts of custom requirements drives up the cost of manufacturing. A simple ashtray costs several times what it would cost in a store. Gore tells stories of computers purchased by the government at nearly three times their normal cost.
I saw this first-hand as a young man when I worked in the Department of the Navy. All procurement documents had to cross my desk. I saw whole books of specifications written on products that could be purchased off the shelf for a fraction of the price.
Later, as an assistant to a US Senator, one of the first things I did was write the Defense Procurement Act of 1957. It won considerable publicity at the time by highlighting an example not unlike Gore’s ash tray: I unearthed an eight-page, detailed specification for the purchase of a ping pong ball.
Gore aims to cut government waste through the National Performance Review, released to much fanfare a few weeks ago. The report contains a lot of good ideas, but unfortunately its recommendations are far too tame. It proposes ways to save about $100 billion over the next five years, a figure that means almost nothing to a nation heading toward bankruptcy at the rate of a billion dollars a day.
Peter Grace of Citizens Against Government Waste puts it well: The review, he says, “uses a butter knife on a job that requires a chain saw.”
Gore’s plan has been called “reinventing government” but that’s a vast overstatement. It hardly even tampers with government. And the danger is that people may think real cuts are taking place, while in fact government continues to expand under the same old welfare-state philosophy.
The folks who really reinvented government were Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, who proposed a limited government that would preserve liberty by taking on only specific tasks, like defense and preserving public order. With this philosophy, we could quickly cut literally hundreds of superfluous programs and genuinely reduce the federal deficit.
This is where the real problem lies: In an underlying philosophy that allows government to expand into every pocket of society and creates vast bureaucracies to regulate them.
What we end up with are books full of detailed regulations . . . and exorbitant prices for ash trays and ping pong balls.