D.C. Obesity


Fat City: How Washington Wastes Your Taxes, by Donald Lambro,Chicago: Regnery/Gateway, 1980, 405 pp., $12.95.

Over the past ten years Donald Lambro has been a reporter for UPI in Washington, and the last three of those years he has devoted exclusively to uncovering waste, fraud, and mismanagement in the federal government. The result of that effort is Fat City, an extensive, but by no means comprehensive, catalog of government waste.

The major flaw in Fat City is not that it goes too far in recommending cuts, but rather that it doesn't go nearly far enough. Some may argue that Lambro is seeking to avoid controversy and that his book will be more persuasive and have greater impact on the general public if he simply lists those programs that are blatantly wasteful. Lambro's preface, however, indicates that his reticence to make more sweeping recommendations to cut the cost of the federal government lies with his conventional view of the proper role for government in our society:

Now certainly, a nation of 220 million people needs and demands a big government to manage its affairs, defend its people, and meet basic social needs.…Most Americans quite correctly believe that government must play an important role in insuring that the basic, human needs of all Americans be provided.

In light of the above quote, if Congress and the president were to abolish the 100 agencies and programs listed by Lambro (cuts that would save an outright $20 billion), or even reduce spending by as much as $100 billion, which is the amount Lambro estimates is squandered by the Feds, government would still remain very big. Carter's proposed fiscal year 1981 budget was well over $600 billion. Three years ago the federal budget was $402 billion. The problem with Fat City is that the author perceives the government to be merely overweight, rather than the obese leviathan it is.

The Libertarian Party, in its 1980 "White Paper on Taxing and Spending Reduction," was able to concisely recommend $200 billion in spending cuts within 79 pages. It took Lambro 405 pages to list $20 billion in cuts. Of course, Fat City is a much more detailed examination of spending programs, as well it should be. But one cannot help but question Lambro's priorities. For instance, why spend two pages attacking VIP lodges and retreats that cost taxpayers $28,000 a year—but completely ignore astronomical waste in the Social Security System, the enormous postal service subsidy, or the several billion the US government spends in providing the national defense for wealthy nations like Germany and Japan?

Especially irksome about Fat City is Lambro's insistence on separating "good" spending from "bad." It's as if the primary problem with government were not so much that it has gone beyond its proper role—although he recognizes that as a problem—but that it has unwisely expended our tax dollars in areas in which it has a legitimate right to be involved. In discussing the boondoggle-ridden National Science Foundation, for example, he writes:

It goes without saying that there is much that NSF has done and is doing that is of inestimable value and importance to the advancement of science and for the benefit of mankind. A $104,000 grant to a Wisconsin laboratory which was examining the possibility of getting safe red food color from beets is one example of useful, goal oriented research worthy of the taxpayer's support.

Whether the research is worthy or not is—ought to be—a decision for the marketplace rather than for government-created bureaucracies.

In advocating the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, Lambro exercises extreme caution. "Ending these programs does not mean that financial assistance to orchestras, museums, and art galleries cannot be provided by local and state governments who, after all, know and appreciate the needs of their artistic institutions and organizations best." It doesn't make any difference to the unhappy taxpayer whether the money being taken from him to subsidize the arts is taken by the state, local, or federal government. A subsidy by any other name is still a subsidy. Fat City is unfortunately riddled with such weak-kneed, sometimes even apologetic, approaches to spending reductions.

Another critical shortcoming of Fat City is its limited scope. It fails to ask the important questions, How did government spending get so out of control? and What can be done to reform the system that made this monstrous bureaucracy possible? Failure to ask these questions, and to suggest solutions, reduces Fat City to simply a well-researched catalog of government extravagance. But given the limited scope of the book, it has succeeded in its mission: namely, to overwhelm the reader with a sense of the vastness of government bureaucracy in Washington, and its attendant waste.

Most importantly, Fat City is valuable ammunition for the taxpayers' movement. When politicians and special interests evince genuine concern over government spending but then ask, "Where can we cut?" Fat City is ready with some answers. This book, despite its shortcomings and unwillingness to accept a truly limited role for government, does succeed in putting to rest the notion that there is little room for additional cuts in the federal budget.

It also dispels the claim that cuts in spending will endanger vital services. A case in point was the budget crisis in New York in 1975 when Mayor Beame was making well-publicized cutbacks in the fire and police departments—what Lambro calls the "widows and orphans first" approach to budget cutting—but was leaving the wasteful and redundant city agencies unscathed. This kind of blatant political blackmail can be effectively countered with Lambro's book.

In essence, Fat City serves as a defense against irrational budget cuts and an offense against irrational expenditures. All in all, it is a worthwhile contribution to the taxpayers' movement. One can only hope it will have some impact on the federal bureaucracy.

Lance Lamberton is the editor of Dollars & Sense, the news publication of the National Taxpayers Union.