In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conceded that, perhaps, the agency really sucks at performing its assigned tasks and should reevaluate how it does things; a federal jury told off the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for entrapping a handful of dummies into a high-profile political kidnapping plot; and several of the federal government's own economists placed the blame for soaring prices on runaway government spending. That's some impressive governance, for a certain value of "impressive," and it certainly doesn't come cheap. In fact, on this Tax Day, some of us might be forgiven for wishing we could skip not just the tab, but also the services for which it's supposed to pay.
It's no joke that government doesn't come cheap. In revisiting its federal spending and revenue forecasts for 2021, the Congressional Budget Office conceded in January that its "projection of $3.43 trillion for federal revenues in 2021 was too low—by $614 billion" and its "projection of $7.07 trillion for federal outlays in 2021 was too high—by $250 billion." Not that taking in more money than anticipated and spending a bit less means the feds balanced their books. No, not even close. In the end, the feds spent "only" $2.78 trillion more than they collected. And they do that every year, so it adds up.
"How did we end up with $28.43 trillion in federal debt?" the U.S. federal government's DataLab helpfully asks of the figure at the end of 2021. "It is similar to a person using his or her credit card for a purchase (rather than cash, check, or a debit card) and not paying the full credit card balance each month. Over the years, if the federal government experiences more deficits than surpluses, the federal debt grows."
Debt is up by $12 trillion since the end of 2019. That means the federal government had a serious spending problem even before the demands of the pandemic, understands what it's doing wrong, and keeps doing it anyway. So, yeah, government is expensive.
What we're told (by government fans) that we'll get in return for that rising credit card bill is an institution that can competently coordinate resources, reliably enforce laws, and at least not inflict more harm than good. But year after year, that keeps proving to be too much of an ask, especially during a crisis when government is supposed to demonstrate its value.
"Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky announced plans Monday to revamp the agency that has come under blistering criticism for its performance leading the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic," The Washington Post reported April 4. "Since the pandemic began more than two years ago, the once-storied agency has been under fire for its pandemic response, from initial delays developing a coronavirus test, to the severe eligibility limits to get the test, to missteps often attributed to Trump administration meddling. But even under the Biden administration, the agency's guidance on masking, isolation and quarantine, and booster doses has been repeatedly faulted for being confusing."
Unsurprisingly, pandemic policy is a big deal when a new virus makes its way across the globe and your agency's name is "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention." But it wasn't just the federal government that dropped the ball in coordinating the response to COVID-19. State governments angered the public with intrusive and often arbitrary policies that officials frequently enforced only against the common folk while flouting themselves. Some folks were so enraged that they planned revenge against the governor of Michigan for her heavy-handed policies. Or did they? Jurors weren't impressed by the prosecution's case; they acquitted two alleged conspirators and failed to reach verdicts for the other two.
"Prosecutors built their case on a trove of audio recordings and encrypted texts from 2020 in which some of the men vented about Covid-19 restrictions, spoke about political violence and debated the best way to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, from her vacation home in northern Michigan," noted The New York Times. "Yet the very existence of those recordings and text conversations underscored defense lawyers' theory of the case: that the supposed plot had been conceived and nudged ahead by a network of F.B.I. agents and informants who preyed on the worst instincts of their loose-lipped targets."
That federal agents would lure people into a government-crafted criminal plot becomes even more plausible when you realize they have a history of doing exactly that.
"Practices including the use of confidential informants, undercover operations, and entrapment are part of the history of surveillance operations conducted by U.S. law enforcement," Oxford University's Sara Kamali pointed out in a 2020 article on the treatment of right-wing activists and Muslims by the FBI and the New York City Police Department. "Providing incentives to recruit informants, pitting community members against each other, and wielding egregious entrapment tactics, threatening a myriad of charges from immigration violations to tax fraud, to justify the war on terrorism make up the reality of how terrorists are created and caught in the post-9/11 world."
It must be even more galling for Americans set-up by the powers-that-be to know that they paid for the experience with their tax dollars. Of course, the dollar doesn't buy as much entrapment as it used to. Inflation has eroded the purchasing power of our money, causing pain for Americans even before they sign their 1040 forms and pay their share of various agency budgets (and interest on the debt!).
"Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 8.5 percent before seasonal adjustment," the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on April 12. That's "the largest 12-month increase since the period ending December 1981." Especially hard hit were food, which suffered an 8.8 percent increase, and energy, which soared by 32 percent. And yes, you can thank the feds for the economic pain.
"Since the first half of 2021, U.S. inflation has increasingly outpaced inflation in other developed countries," wrote Òscar Jordà, Celeste Liu, Fernanda Nechio, and Fabián Rivera-Reyes, economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, in a paper published at the end of March. "Estimates suggest that fiscal support measures designed to counteract the severity of the pandemic's economic effect may have contributed to this divergence by raising inflation about 3 percentage points by the end of 2021."
As Reason's Veronique de Rugy pointed out, "Over the course of the pandemic, the Treasury Department issued roughly $6 trillion, $2.7 trillion of which was monetized by the Federal Reserve. Americans were sent $5.1 trillion through various programs, including individual checks and unemployment bonuses." Lockdowns and social-distancing orders interrupted production, she added, and the flood of money "greatly inflated demand for the durable goods still being produced."
On the plus side, if you resent the incompetence of the CDC, the peril posed by the FBI, and the overall damage inflicted by the federal apparatus, devalued dollars may buy less of such government (though borrowing will probably account for the rest). That's cold comfort, but it may be the only kind available on Tax Day.