Free Market Central Interview: Tax Cuts Can't 'Pay For Themselves'? No Place To Cut Government? This Man Says 'Hogwash!'
Free Market Central
Politicians on all sides insist that we can’t have those big “beautiful” tax cuts originally promised by Donald Trump because the cuts have to “pay for themselves.” What they’re really saying is that tax cuts can't be large enough to curtail government spending. Tax cut opponents like to create the impression that Big Government’s current spending is so critical to our national welfare, it’s simply not feasible for cuts to be made—anywhere.
Really? Free Market Central spoke to Adam Andrzejewski, Founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, the non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission for the last six years has been to document government spending—all of it. Andrzejewski’s team has successfully collected data for $80 of every $100 taxed and spent across America. Open The Books’ massive database encompasses the federal checkbook since 2001; 47 of 50 state checkbooks; and 15 million public employee salary and pension records. All this data can be accessed by anyone at openthebooks.com or via the openthebooks mobile app. The spending abuses unearthed by Andrzejewski’s organization suggest that, contrary to the Washington narrative, there are plenty of opportunities to cut government, to put it mildly.
Tell us a little about Open The Books. What is the organization’s mission?
Thanks for your interest in our work. Our mission is succinctly summarized in our slogan, "Every Dime. Online. In Real Time." The first step toward cutting wasteful government spending is simply seeing the spending. Our goal is to capture every dime taxed and spent at every level of government: Federal, State and Local. If you can see the spending, then we can squeeze-out waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse.
That’s a remarkable achievement. How long did it take you to collect records for $80 of every $100 taxed and spent — and how do you do it?
In 2011, we started where we live, in Illinois, posting the pay and pensions of every public employee at every level of Illinois government. Then, we realized we could do the entire country.
Our process is very manual - filing tens of thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests. The data are then mapped and loaded on to OpenTheBooks.com and our Open The Books mobile app. Our database is today comprised of 4 billion individual government expenditures. We are the world's largest database of government expenditures that's publically accessible.
You’ve uncovered many outrageous spending abuses. Which one has sparked the most public indignation?
Our oversight audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs checkbook uncovered $20 million spent on high-end, luxury artwork coded as 'furniture.' We found 27-foot Christmas trees costing $21,000 and sculptures priced like five-bedroom homes.
In one California VA medical facility that serves blind veterans, two sculptures cost $700,000. Blind veterans can't see a fancy sculpture. This wasteful spending took place during a period when up to 1,000 sick veterans died while waiting to see a doctor. After our story broke on Good Morning America, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley used our findings in an oversight letter to then-VA Secretary Robert McDonald. Within 34 days, McDonald apologized for the fancy art and instituted new rules to stop the spending abuse.
What happened to all that high-end “furniture" and the sculpture?
It all still occupies space on VA property. Nothing was sold or recovered. Even the 'cubed rock' sculpture with a price tag of $1.2 million - landscaping included - still sits in front of a medical facility. According to the facility director, the art "creates a healing environment."
Not sure who that’s helping. Certainly not the countless veterans waiting to see a doctor.
The VA should adopt a new policy that veterans’ art should be displayed in veterans’ medical centers - not fancy art. It's common sense, but the VA refused to implement our suggestion.
Open The Books has uncovered numerous examples of astonishingly high salaries for a wide range of public employees. A frequent theme appears to be overtime abuse.
Big time. Recently, we gave oversight to the $2 billion in overtime paid by the Bill de Blasio administration in New York City. Because of the egregious overtime, school janitors outearn principals and made up to $206,000. Nearly 35,000 city workers cleaned off between $20,000 and $100,000 in overtime last year.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel paid out $300 million in overtime including 1,000 workers who received more than $40,000 each. Managers of a city auto pound made $148,000. 132 public safety dispatchers made more than $20,000 in overtime. Because of the overtime payouts, the city has more six-figure employees than the state of Illinois.
All of these examples show that public resources are mismanaged and taxpayers are being abused.
This truly seems to be endless. There is so much we haven’t discussed. Can you tell us about one example that really makes the blood boil: farm subsidies paid to people in cities.
The farm subsidy became so lucrative that it's now a gainful part of the return on farm property investment. We did an oversight report on farm subsidies flowing into major American cities - urban areas where there are no farms. The National Audubon Society - the conservation group headquartered in New York City - received $1 million in subsidies including tobacco subsidies and lamb slaughter subsidies.
Chicago is ranked 7th highest in the receipt of farm subsidies! We found $317,000 in federal farm subsidies were mailed to Rev. Minister Louis Farrakhan at his home in Hyde Park.
Doesn’t Reverend Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam have a food program that supposedly qualified as a “farm”?
It's true. The entity is called the 'Three Year Economic Savings Program.' It was based at Farrakhan's home address in Chicago. At the time of our oversight, the entity had not filed IRS informational returns, required nonprofit reports with the Illinois Attorney General. It was 'involuntarily dissolved' by the Illinois Secretary of State as an ongoing corporation.
How can readers find out what spending abuses take place in their own cities and towns? Tell us about your app.
Our 'Open The Books' app is free for Apple and Android and shows citizens all federal spending by ZIP code in a one to 50-mile radius. Now, citizens have the power in the palms of their hands to hold the political class accountable for tax and spend decisions.
It's instant journalism. In my ZIP code, I found $2 million went to our local Lamborghini auto dealer, $3.4 million flowed to our local Rolex jeweler, and my barber received $700,000. These were low interest, taxpayer backed 'small business administration' loans. The Lamborghini dealer went belly up and stuck taxpayers for the loan.
What do you think when you hear politicians say that tax cuts have to “pay for themselves.”
Only intellectually lazy politicians who are bankrupting the nation would say there's nothing left to cut. Congress must reassert itself using regular order and auditing each budget expenditure. We've never found - not one single time - a unit of government or federal agency running well. Taxpayers are always getting ripped off.
Where would you start cutting?
One bipartisan no-brainer would be to severely scale back the $1.5 billion per year spent on PR campaigns designed to convince taxpayers to pay even more money on bigger budgets for federal agencies and regulatory schemes.
There’s no public purpose for a phalanx of 5,000 federal public relations officers costing $500 million per year -- and it’s an abject waste of resources to spend over $1 billion annually with outside PR firms. We identified these firms charging the agencies up to $88 per hour for their interns, billing $275 per hour for graphic designers and $525 per hour for their own executives. Funding self-promotional agency PR campaigns is absurd.
Those cuts would be a great start. We could all do with more accountability and less “fake news”.
Check back with Free Market Central later this week for Part II of our interview. Adam Andrzejewski talks about the arms race among federal bureaucracies detailed by Open The Books in its oversight report, 'The Militarization Of America.'