THE PODIUM | Feds’ fumbling on vets’ hospital is part of an all-too-familiar pattern

Author: Lance Cayko - August 8, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018

Lance Cayko

With the recent opening of the new U.S. Department Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora, we should all be asking ourselves some questions.

Why does the government foul up so often? Is it a bug? Or is it a feature?

First, a little reminder of the facts. The hospital is opening five years later than planned. At $1.7 billion, it costs over three times more than the original budget, the astonishing equivalent of over $1,400 per square foot of built space! Even with these massive overruns and delays, the facilities are inadequate: there is no PTSD clinic, and there are too few hospital beds. The design is flawed, with things like mobility concerns from the garages through the massive corridors of the building.

For all these reasons, the old VA hospital will no longer be shut down as planned, and the VA will probably have to lease an outpatient clinic in Denver to provide necessary care. As an incredulous interviewer recently put it: “Let me get this straight: We have built a new house. We are keeping our old house, and we are leasing space in another house?”

Yep. And to add insult to injury, the VA’s director of construction and facilities management, who has overseen the project, was at the ribbon cutting still gainfully employed. No one was criminally charged for this fiasco or even fired. The VA was getting ready to fire one executive and was investigating another one, but both retired before action could be taken. Probably with full pensions.

This is far from the first time we are facing this type of governmental disaster. Here are some other recent examples: Part of the $126 billion – yes, that is billion with “B” – spent on the *reconstruction* of Afghanistan is a $43 million automobile filling station for compressed natural gas – a fuel which the locals don’t use and cannot afford, and a station which costs $500,000 in neighboring Pakistan.  In NYC, they have just spent over $2 million on a public bathroom in a park with four stalls, a few urinals and four sinks. In DC, the new visitors’ center was supposed to cost $265 million and take four years. It ended up costing $621 million and took eight.

Conclusion? The fundamental problem with government is that no one has “skin in the game.”

You can add your own disaster to the list. There is no shortage.

Partisans will blame the other side. Or excuses will be found. Promises will be made that, if we just throw the bums out, this time will be different. How many times have we heard that?

But at some point, we have to ask ourselves: A bug? Or a feature?

Professional investors have a rule. Before they invest in any project, they insist that everyone must have “skin in the game.” They must have real financial and reputation downside if the project fails. Because they know that, without this, costs will balloon, sweetheart deals will be struck, delays will expand and performance will lag.

Conclusion? The fundamental problem with government is that no one has “skin in the game.”

A private company that spent $1,400/sq ft on a building would be bankrupt. Its directors and officers would be without jobs (and pensions). The stigma of this failure would haunt their careers. They would struggle to ever raise money again for one of their projects. The money spigot would be shut.

But with the power to tax, the money for the government just keeps flowing. Sure, there are embarrassing public hearings, but these are lost in the next news cycle. And the cost to each voter of waste like this is too small to justify activism.

In the private sector, incompetence has consequences. In the public sector, voting and the political process are very poor disciplinarians.

So what is the solution? Can we reform government and make it better? After decades and thousands of attempts, we have the answer. And it is “no.” The only solution to bad government is to have a lot less of it.

Because incompetence and waste in government is not a bug. It’s a feature.

Lance Cayko

Lance Cayko

Lance Cayko is director of communications for the Libertarian Party of Colorado.