Beyond Venture Socialism

By R. Clayton Strang

It’s a safe assumption that American citizens, no matter their party affiliation, believe government is wasteful. Government programs never come in on budget, as the recent and predictable example of the Affordable Care Act demonstrates. The American people were told that the ACA would cost $900 billion in ten years, but the latest estimates by the CBO indicate that it will cost a staggering $2.6 trillion in its first in that same time period. This does not even begin to include the multitudes of anecdotal stories we have all heard about government agencies spending hundreds of dollars on relatively inexpensive items such as hammers. We hear these accounts and accept them as, perhaps, exaggerations of actual government waste.

Recently, I was approached by an individual with a similar story about a particularly metastatic case of waste. This person has asked not to be named, but what she has allowed me to share is that she was an employee of the Washington State Department of Licensing. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call her Julia. Julia, having renounced her government handout-chasing ways, came to me with a story about a chair. Allegedly, upon being hired at the DOL, a desk chair was purchased for her. Wondering why the chair she was currently using was insufficient, she paid special attention tothe new one when it arrived. Finding the chair unremarkable, Julia set about trying to find out how much it had cost. After discovering the outrageously high price of $500.00, she then learned that it was made by inmates in Washington State’s prisons.

As it turns out, this story is not anecdotal, but based in reality. There is, in fact, a government owned company in Washington State called Correctional Industries wherein prisoners are allowed to work making various products. According to RCW (Revised Code of Washington) 72.09.00, Correctional Industries was set up in an attempt to “offset tax & public support costs” of running the prisons in the State. When one continues reading the RCW’s and WAC’s (Washington Administrative Code) concerning Correctional Industries, several disturbing facts come to light.

In order to ensure that this program was successful, the clientele for Correctional Industries was legislated into existence. Institutions of higher education are required, by law, to “develop a plan to build higher education business with Correctional Industries to increase higher education purchases of correctional industries products” and even set a minimum percentage of said institution’s total goods and services that must be purchased from Correctional Industries. The legislators also mandated in RCW 72.60.160 that any product made by Correctional Industries be given preference by state agencies over similar products made by any other company. One might assume that these laws would guarantee business for this venture, but, unfortunately for bureaucrats, the blundering ham-hand of government coercion offers no competition to the deftness of Smith’s “Invisible hand”. For in a separate law, all government agencies and offices are not simply required to give preference to CI products, but told that they “shall” purchase any products offered by CI, even going so far as to state, “These goods and services shall not be purchased from any other source” They then backed that law up with a regulation stating the same thing, just to drive the point home.

This is not an issue unique to Washington State. Other states, and even the United States Government, are involved in similar rackets. Federal Prison Industries, run by the federal government, makes uniforms for the United States Armed Forces. Recently, when budget cuts were announced, the various private companies that made and supplied military uniforms were told that their services would no longer be required, as those needs would be taken care of by FPI.

You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “Yes, but the government must be saving taxpayer’s money by doing these things, right?” But remember Julia’s chair! Looking at the products offered by Correctional Industries in Washington State and the prices charged, only a politician running for re-election could claim that any money is saved. A run of the mill office chair at an office supply store might cost roughly $150.00, whereas, a similar chair from CI will cost between $300.00 and $450.00. Now, if this program is really designed to “offset tax & public support costs,” they’re going about this in a typically governmental fashion. It appears as though the government is merely moving the taxpayer’s money from one government agency to another, saving nothing, all while pretending that the cost of running prisons is offset by the program. In fact, since products comparable to those produced by inmates can be purchased from the private sector at a lower cost, our government is spending more money than is necessary. On top of the inflated cost of the goods made by inmates, the inmates are then paid an industry standard wage, further inflating the cost to the taxpayers. To add insult to injury, money that would enter the private sector is being withheld in favor of government expansion.

Spending is clearly out of control; it has been for many years and only continues to get worse. Government has moved well beyond its first and most important responsibility: protection of the people. Instead, at many levels, government has grown and reproduced like a parasite feeding off of an increasingly emaciated host. The fault does not rest with programs like Correctional Industries alone, but it can truly be said that programs such as these are part of the problem. Do your fellow taxpayers a favor and find out if programs like these exist in your state. This can be accomplished with a simple Google search. If they do, bring it to the attention of your friends and neighbors, as well as your state representative or senator. If they are as concerned about ensuring that the taxpayers’ hard-earned money is well spent as they so eloquently claim on the campaign trail, they may even listen to you.
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