Government Failure? Or Hidden Success?

Look for the incentives.

Americans - indeed, most people across the world - are so inured to government failure and waste that yet another example is hardly news.  Bridge to Nowhere?  Mafia Museum?  $1,000 toilet seats?  Been there, done that, threw the T-shirt away, but it keeps coming back.

There are situations, however, in which an apparent government failure could very well be a roaring success in disguise.  How can this be?  Because as a layman, you use the wrong measure of success; the people in charge are using a quite different measure.

It's hard to say for sure - no doubt intentionally - but the city of Atlanta, Georgia, may be providing us with just such an example.  AP reports:

Six months after Atlanta business leaders set up parking meter-like machines to accept spare change donations and discourage panhandling, just $500 has been deposited - not much help for beggars who say they can sometimes raise $300 in a day on their own.

Despite the program's dismal beginnings, Atlanta leaders are encouraged. They are installing more of the "giving meters" and using signs to make more people aware of the machines. In other cities, like Denver, thousands of dollars have been raised to help the needy.

As any visitor to an American city since the 1960s knows full well, our metropolitan streets are infested with persons who were once called "bums," but who have since been upgraded to "homeless."  Sometimes, these folks simply huddle in a corner with an alms bowl in front of them; more commonly, they shout out a plea for money to passers-by, and in some places, aggressively pursue anyone who looks like he can spare a tenner.

Needless to say, ordinary citizens don't like to deal with homeless bums.  They don't like the smell; they don't like being harassed as they go about their daily business; and they certainly don't like the guilt trip beggars try to send them on.

There was a time when local police, responding to voter pressure, would give the homeless the "bum's rush," moving them out of the jurisdiction or into prison and clearing the public way.  That was, alas, before the advent of the ACLU and the victory of liberalism.

Today, the homeless not only have, so we are told, a right to panhandle and harass the public; they have a right to be present in any public place, even if their presence destroys the ability of the normal public to enjoy that same place.  Many is the previously attractive park now abandoned by the citizenry due to perennial homeless infestation.  New Jersey endures a homeless person who passes the time filing lawsuits against local libraries and transit agencies which would prefer that he stink up some other place; an infamous 1991 case resulted in libraries not only being forbidden from barring odoriferous patrons, but a $150,000 settlement check made payable to the bum.  That didn't last long; he's now back on the street and suing NJ Transit on similar grounds.

Atlantans, like the citizens of anywhere else, would prefer not to trip over derelicts at every step.  In fact, surveys showed the homeless problem to be visitors' second biggest complaint.  Clearly, it's entirely necessary for the city government to Do Something.  But what?

The scheme as reported was to encourage people who might otherwise throw a buck to the beggar to instead put it in a special "giving meter."  Then that money would be used for homeless services.

It didn't work - that is, it didn't work in the sense of collecting much money.  Installing the meters cost far more than they ever collected; still, the city plans to install many more.

Yet another example of government pointlessness?  That's the take of other pundits - but they are very much mistaken.

To be blunt, it's unlikely that the city fathers of Atlanta care much about actually helping the homeless, to say nothing of how Atlanta businesses feel - after all, bums don't pay taxes, don't make campaign contributions, don't usually buy stuff, drive away customers, and probably don't vote.  The powers that be could hardly care less about getting money to them.  All they want is to get them off the street.

If they dared, no doubt the police would round 'em up and ship 'em out - but they read the national news, and know full well they'd never get away with that.

Perhaps they can come up with some other means of discouragement?  Aha!  Ergo, these "giving meters," which are effective decoys for the sympathetic quarter.

Measuring the success of the "giving meters" by how much they collect is entirely the wrong metric.  No, their success can be seen by how much they cause the homeless not to collect - and thus, by not collecting much, they are "encouraged" to go elsewhere, preferably outside the city limits.

As springtime brings out more beggars, city leaders are trying to target people... with the message that ending panhandling starts by closing your wallet.

"We have to change folks who feel like this is the right way to give," said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a revitalization group spearheading the "giving meters" campaign.  [emphasis added]

Spot on!  The city fathers of Atlanta are not to be ridiculed for a wasteful boondoggle.  They are to be commended for dreaming up this effective anti-liberal jujitsu - using the language of "caring for the homeless" and "giving meters" as a way to accomplish their real goal of getting rid of the homeless.  Not bad!

Now we just need for Republicans to learn these skills.  Maybe a junket to Atlanta is in order?

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
$300 a day? Maybe I need to change professions! Unfortunately, unless I missed something, there isn't really any way to know how much this has actually reduced direct giving to the poor.
April 2, 2009 8:28 AM
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