Tuesday, December 15, 2015

We're getting played constantly...

...and we need to put our collective foot down.

Check out this ruling from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An audit conducted by a GAO General Counsel indicated that the EPA had been misusing social media platforms as a means of ginning up support for its Clean Water Rule (which is a huge overreach of government authority, but that is neither here nor there). From the conclusion of the ruling:
The use of appropriated funds associated with implementing EPA’s Thunderclap campaign and establishing hyperlinks to the NRDC and to the Surfrider Foundation webpages violated prohibitions against publicity or propaganda and grassroots lobbying contained in appropriations acts for FYs 2014 and 2015. Because EPA obligated and expended appropriated funds in violation of specific prohibitions, we also conclude that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1)(A), as the agency’s appropriations were not available for these prohibited purposes.
The issue is that the EPA and its agents tried to "increase awareness" of the issues involved in the Clean Water Act via social media with posting that disguised their source (i.e. the EPA) in order to give the appearance that the postings were coming from "regular people" and/or from private advocacy orgs. And as the New York Times details, this is not the first time government agencies have crossed this line:
The G.A.O. concluded similarly that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid violated the anti-propaganda act in 2004 when it covertly paid for news videos distributed to television stations without disclosing that it had funded the work. The Department of Education, in 2005, was also found to have violated the same law when it hired a public relations firm to covertly promote the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
But you know, it seems to me that there shouldn't be a line here to begin with. Why, exactly, is the government engaging in marketing and advertising for this type of stuff at all?

The government is supposed to be in charge of the overall system. It is tasked—at national, state, and local levels—with specific functions and duties, like maintaining the court system, providing security through police and armed forces, keeping infrastructure in good repair, and so on. I understand the need of elected politicians to brag about what they are doing, to notify the public of things like improvements and success stories, but this can be accomplished through press conferences, interviews with the media and in some cases simple signage. Also, notifying people about deadlines and the like (taxes, healthcare, etc.) is completely understandable.

But all of the above stuff is fundamentally informative. It's not about trying to sway public opinion on specific issues (maybe on specific politicians), make money, or increase the authority/reach of a given government agency. In contrast, the EPA's campaigns are most assuredly of these latter sorts, as are the above transgressions of other agencies.

Of course, one might just write these off as aberrations, I guess, especially since the GAO has successfully pointed them out. Yet, I think that the issue goes much deeper. Much of the stuff that is acceptable by GAO standards shouldn't be acceptable, at all. For instance, there is the United Stated Postal Service. The Constitution tasked the feds with establishing postal routes, but that's about it. Why is the USPS advertising services? Why is it marketing itself via its support of things like bicycling teams? Why is it trying to compete with private entities like UPS and FedEx? The USPS has a simple job to do and it should just do it.

At the State level, there are the millions upon millions of dollars spent on marketing and advertising for lotteries. Talk about something way over the line. Think about it. Regardless of whether or not one sees these lotteries as a good idea (I don't think they are), promoting them means targeting an audience. And who is being targeted? As a matter of course, people who need money, right? People who are not wealthy, many of whom are in fact poor, and retired people living on fixed incomes, this is the target audience.

So States are purposefully trying to wrest dollars from their own citizens for a game of chance where almost all participants are going to lose money. And a good chunk of these citizens lack the disposable income to spend on such things. It's actually pretty outrageous: the States are using marketing and advertising to make citizens worse off. It's exactly the opposite of "promoting the general welfare," isn't it?

Beyond all of this, there are the agencies like the EPA and the Department of Education—and plenty more at state and local levels—trying to force their own agendas, to justify their own leaderships' vision, on the public at large. All told, what we have are countless billions of dollars being spent by people in the government on stuff that the government isn't actually supposed to be doing, isn't actually tasked with doing.

Limited government. It's actually a thing. Look it up.

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