Friday, January 16, 2009

Obama shouldn't waste stimulus money on Byrne grants

Some bad ideas apparently just won't die, we learn from Radley Balko at The Agitator:

President-Elect Obama’s stimulus package calls for $3 billion in new Byrne Grants, and $1 billion in COPS grants—both are federal block grant programs for local police departments. For some reason, Democrats seem to love these grants. The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress had begun phasing them out.

As I explained in a piece for Slate last October, studies have shown both programs to be ineffective at fighting crime. Worse, there’s good evidence that they actually cause harm. While designated for community policing efforts, COPS grants have actually been used by many departments to start or outfit SWAT teams, a point I explicitly made in July 2007 to Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), when I testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime he chairs. Scott seemed surprised when I told him. But apparently, it didn’t affect him enough to prevent him from restarting the program.

Byrne Grants, meanwhile, are often tied directly to drug arrests, warping police department priorities by encouraging low-level drug busts to juke up department arrest statistics . . . so they can apply for more grants. We have Byrne grants to thank for the civil rights disasters in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, and for the continuing problem of out of control multijurisdictional drug task forces.

In Texas, the biggest Byrne grant funded projects have seemed almost cursed. Governor Perry canceled funding for the state's network of regional drug task forces after the scandals Balko mentioned, shifting most of the money instead to border security grants to South Texas Sheriffs (one of whom, ironically, was allegedly on the payroll of the Mexican Gulf Cartel).

But there's a more important, pragmatic reason Byrne grants shouldn't be part of a "stimulus" package: Law enforcement spending doesn't provide the dramatic economic multiplier effects as do other government of expenditures like health care or education.

When the state funds more low-level drug enforcement by regional task forces, for example, a few officers may be employed, a few new vehicles purchased, etc.. But when arrests are made it actually takes money out of the economy and puts potential workers (and taxpayers) 100% on the state's dole - Texas state prisoners cost taxpayers nearly $18,000 per year per inmate.

By comparison, say the feds were to pick up half the tab for the state's Medicaid or CHIP expenses. The feds already match the state's Medicaid contribution by about 2-1 (more for CHIP), so paying half the state's share would mean we get a 4-1 return on our investment or higher, plus more people get health care. Instead of hiring cops and jailers to remove workers from employment, expanding health care increases employment in health care services, products, etc., which increases the multiplier effect even more.

If the feds wants to invest in jobs programs, cops and prisons have a relatively small economic multiplier effect (see this report from the Sentencing Project) while other investments - in education, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure, for example - will give much more job-producing bang for the buck.

Unlike Balko, I'm actually more or less a Keynesian; I believe in the idea behind the stimulus package, including assistance to states. But Byrne grants aren't good stimulus. They should only be debated on the law enforcement merits (and on those, they should be rejected). They're by far among the worst available options for boosting the economy.

RELATED (Updated 1/17): While we're on the subject of the incoming president's economic policies, I noticed Obama has floated the name of a new chief of the Ex-Im Bank, Fred Hochberg, who has mostly garnered attention because he would be Obama's first openly gay appointee. Whoever is the new head of the Ex-Im Bank, they need to revisit the inadequate due diligence policies installed by their predecessor after the agency gave loans to fake companies associated with the bloody Juarez cartel. We've seen a few media reports and one arrest, but I'm convinced that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Ironically, the man who oversaw the Ex-Im Bank when those loans were made, and whose decision it was to not require more thorough vetting, was later appointed by President Bush as Chief Investment Officer of the Troubled Asset Relief Fund. Personally I'd prefer the new president put somebody in that slot who's a little more keen on preventing fraud.


Anonymous said...

Oh, not to worry. Even thought the democrats are good at giving away money for grants, those grants pretty much have to be modeled after Lee P. Browns community oriented policing.

Anonymous said...

You're all idiots....Obama and Osama are brothers!

Anonymous said...

In my community my congressman was going around trying to get support from the police and sheriffs for this program before the election and well before the stock market crash. I don't think economic stimulus has anything to do with this. I think Joe Biden is probably trying to reactivate this initiative.

The police & sheriffs were not that keen about it because they had learned the hard way the federal funds are unreliable. What we saw last time was a big increase in misdemeanor arrests with no apparent increase in felony arrests. I guess the extra cops were picking the low hanging fruit.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever noticed thugs witth extra dark windows on their vehicles? Cops will not bother them because they may be a problem to the police....but they will stop old poeple with dark windows. COPS are scared and DUMP!

Anonymous said...

I am so tired of politicians trying to force sqaure pegs into round holes, it's painful.
Honestly, I don't understand why they don't research these things before they throw money into them. I live in a small town and know quite well what happens when you put money in the hands of po po w/little man complex. They go after women, infants, children and the elderly and stay out of high crime areas. They wreck cars, and do all kinds of illegal things. Oh yea, who pays ther cleaning bills? It costs to have the pinpoint cotton white shirt and khaki trousers cleaned and starched daily. I nearly did time for being in possession of antibiotics. No, no they don't need money.

Anonymous said...

Let't not forget that our state's overblow sex offender registry that includes many people who are not guilty of any forced offense or offense against a child is tied directly to Byrne grants which are far less than what it cost our state to monitor for life 19 year olds who had consensual sex with their teenage girlfriends .

Anonymous said...

Look for some serious gaming of the numbers with these programs.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sick of the Drug War and the waste and disaster that it is.

Anonymous said...

"Law and Order" can get out of control, obviously. We learned that from the spectacle of the Task Force debacle in Texas.

If I were officer Byrne's family I think I would rather that very large amount of taxpayer money be spent on education or health care, in officer Byrne's name.

Anonymous said...

"We have Byrne grants to thank for the civil rights disasters in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, and for the continuing problem of out of control multijurisdictional drug task forces."

Byrn grants didn't cause Tulia and Hearne, rather the lak of proper supervision by le management did.

Anonymous said...

"I believe in the idea behind the stimulus package, including assistance to states."

Stimulus my aching a.. They don't even know where the first round of funding went!

Most Americans are able to balance a checkbook and do not spend more than they have, two traits that are sorely lacking in Washington.

When it comes to deception, misleading accounting and lack of disclosure, Uncle Sam is the father of all con artists. Indeed, as large as the current crisis is, all the losses racked up by the Nitwit Sector pale when compared with what our government has done.

Anonymous said...

The Byrne Grant helps redistribute wealth.

It takes money from the masses and is used to support more authorities to take even more from the poor, as in Hearne and Tulia, which most of the people they arrest qualify as.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 8:40 who writes: "Stimulus my aching a.. They don't even know where the first round of funding went!"

I didn't say I supported the bank bailout (notice the update to this post criticized the guy named as CIO of TARP). And I agree with your complaints about "deception, misleading accounting and lack of disclosure," and would add that when it comes to government finance, those traits are both longstanding and bipartisan.

But I do think a (targeted, not pork-laden, willy nilly) stimulus package is a responsible federal approach right now. The question, as you rightly allude to, is whether Congress can do anything in a targeted or smart way, or if pork barrel politics is all they know how to do. Maybe that's true, but to assume government impotence going in will also solve nothing.

Expanding health care coverage, in particular, is a great way to expand employment and reduce local tax burdens, with large multiplier effect attached both to overall spending and each additional state dollar.

If you're looking for public safety bang for the buck, I'd prefer to see an expansion of mental health services included in any national health care proposal, which would do more than Byrne grant spending to reduce mental-illness related crime. That keeps more people in the labor force, or at least out of prisons where taxpayers must pick up every dime for their care.

My view is deficit spending is okay in a crisis. When it WASN'T okay was for the last 8 years when President Bush inherited a twelve figure surplus and turned it into a trillion dollar deficit during economic GOOD TIMES. That's part of how we got into this mess (and thank God he didn't succeed in privatizing social security!). But there are only so many tools in the tool box, and this (along with expansionary monetary policy) are the things the government is able to do to try to influence the economy.

Or as the gambling addict might say, in for a penny, in for a pound. :) I'm not saying these are good options, just that they're the options that exist and if we're going to borrow a trillion dollars per year, we should spend it on things that boost the economy. Does the strategy create its own long-term problems? Yes, indeed. But as John Maynard Keynes famously announced, "in the long run we're all dead."

Anonymous said...

To your 7:35 post, I no longer support Byrne grants. There remains today very little accountability with little or no oversight when it comes to knowing how the many is being spent.

And that's what concerns me about any more stimulus money. Is there going to be an accounting?

Congress should be required to operate on a balanced budget.

Right on about mental health funding! And lets expand that to drug rehabilitation and public education.

Retired LE 2008

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm with you on the risk of drunken-sailor stimulus funding, but I'm not sure I agree with this: "Congress should be required to operate on a balanced budget."

I could make an argument either way on that, but as my father likes to say, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." That couldn't happen now without tax hikes and spending cuts that would cripple the economy, Depression style.

In retrospect, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Clinton was on the right track building up a surplus to pay some of the debt down while the boom was going, but then Bush put two wars and his tax cuts on the national credit cards. Now the numbers basically look like caricature.

So I understand the distrust, I just don't see a lot of options.

Rage Judicata said...

Let't not forget that our state's overblow sex offender registry


Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the risk of drunken-sailor stimulus funding, but I'm not sure I agree with this: "Congress should be required to operate on a balanced budget."

My reasoning in taking that position is that it will make them live within their means and not spend money they don't have.

Thanks for the debate. That's why I like your blog.

Anonymous said...

"I'm with you on the risk of drunken-sailor stimulus funding, but I'm not sure I agree with this: "Congress should be required to operate on a balanced budget."

Gosh writer, if those tinted windows are as dark as you say and if it's at night, and the thug is going the other way, how the h... can the popo tell how old you are, much less the color of your skin?

Anonymous said...

Did pork silence El Paso's drug debate? Read the blog at