Sign Pollution

This week I was on the road in Ohio. It was a week of gray, rainy weather, so my mood wasn’t great. Still, I was struck by how ugly our state looks from the perspective of our interstates, due in significant part to the overabundance of signs that line the highways.

IMG_1891We’ve got a sign pollution problem. Speed limit signs and traffic alert signs. Signs stating that you need to wear your seat belt because it’s a state law. Signs unnecessarily announcing “caution overhead hazard” when there is a bridge looming immediately ahead. Signs advising that fines are doubled in work zones, mile markers, “no edge lines” signs, exit signs, rest area signs, “emergency stopping only” signs, signs listing every fast food outlet, gas station, and hotel at the exit that is approaching, signs warning that bridges ice over before roadways, merge markers, and electronic billboards about missing adults, among countless others.

Ohio may not have the striking scenic beauty of, say, the Grand Tetons or the coastline at Big Sur, but the rolling farmland is pleasant — if you could see it without all of the ugly, institutional signs that seemingly appear every 100 yards or so. (And don’t even get into how much those signs cost.)

When I was a kid, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson launched an “America the Beautiful” campaign that sought to minimize the number of billboards on highways and their ability to block the view of the countryside. There also was a powerful commercial featuring “Iron Eyes” Cody as a proud native American who sheds a tear at the trash thrown from a passing car, which made me into a lifelong opponent of littering. Ironic that now it’s our government, with its zeal to post signs for every conceivable reason, that is the offender.

The Governmental Accountability Problem

On Thursday the State Department’s Inspector General issues a report stating that $6 billion in contracting money spent by the Department over the last six years cannot be properly accounted for. The report noted “significant financial risk” and “lack of institutional control” and, astonishingly, reported that the State Department could not even produce contract files documenting precisely how $2.1 billion was spent.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the report is the apparent utter lack of concern about accountability in spending our tax money. In the State Department, the inspector general position — which is supposed to be a kind of public watchdog — went unfilled for almost six years. Moreover, there have been fraud warnings and prior reports about slapdash controls and accounting for money shoveled overseas and paid to private contractors, and the State Department failed to address the problems.

I have two reactions to this news. First, this is the kind of story that feeds the fury of fiscal conservatives, who believe that the federal government takes too much of our money and then simply wastes a lot of it. The government takes in and spends so much money that even an astronomical sum like $6 billion is only a drop in the bucket — but we’ll never know precisely how that $6 billion was spent and how much of that money was lost to fraud, corruption, or simple overspending by unconcerned bureaucrats. How could an important position like inspector general go unfilled for six years?

People who support big government spending tend to pooh-pooh the focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but I remain convinced that a federal government that actually had to tighten its belt because of budget reductions would find lots of places where money could be saved or spending reprioritized. At present, with the federal government awash in cash fueled by constant, large-scale deficit spending, the government has no incentive to be careful and prudent in its spending — and as a result reports and warnings about financial accountability tend to be ignored.

Second, this story can’t help whatever presidential aspirations Hillary Clinton may have. She ran the State Department for much of the period when accountability was lacking and warnings apparently were disregarded. As I understand it, part of her pitch is that she would be more fiscally conservative than other Democrats who might seek the presidency — but this report really undercuts the perception of careful stewardship of the public fisc that Hillary Clinton is trying to project. If you strongly believe that the government needs to get its fiscal house in order, how can you vote for someone who presided over a department that couldn’t even document how it spent $6 billion? If a public company were in a similar situation, the CEO would be fired, the SEC investigators would be knocking at the door, and private lawsuits would be inevitable.

It may never happen, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if we elected administrations that actually paid attention to the unglamorous nuts and bolts of accounting for their spending, reassessed whether long-time programs were still truly needed, tried to save a penny here and there, and acted like they took financial responsibility seriously, rather than worrying about immediately jetting off to some faraway location for a photo op with a reset button?