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A report criticized Justice Department for extravagant spending

Matt Welch says it's natural to make light of the $16 muffin

He says government doesn't exercise any spending restraint

Welch: Larger issue of uncontrolled spending is deadly serious

Editor’s Note: Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of Reason, and co-author (along with Nick Gillespie) of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.”

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Have you heard the one about the Justice Department’s $16 muffins? Probably not, though even if you have, this latest revelation of workaday government waste has long since lost its capacity to shock. And therein lies the real problem.

For those catching up: The DOJ’s OIG (Office of Inspector General) Tuesday released an audit showing that the department spent nearly $500,000 for food and beverages at just 10 Justice-sponsored conferences in 2008 and 2009.

“One conference,” auditors found, “served $16 muffins while another served Beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres that cost $7.32 per serving. Coffee and tea at the events cost between $0.62 and $1.03 an ounce. At the $1.03 per-ounce price, an 8-ounce cup of coffee would have cost $8.24.”

Some outrage at this routine squandering of taxpayer money predictably ensued, but so did not a small amount of eye-rolling and mirth. The Baltimore Sun editorial board, for example, said that while “Wasteful government spending deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms possible” (the Sun’s preferred strong terms being “Washington chokes on its muffins”), the overspending is “far from the cause of nation’s deficit.”

Matt Welch
Courtesy Reason
Matt Welch

This is true, as far as it goes.

The nation’s current and future deficit is driven overwhelmingly by health care, military and retirement spending, each of which involve ever-increasing promises that have proved politically career-threatening to scale back.

That’s why politicians prefer instead to talk about $16 muffins and $600 toilet seats – it’s the least expensive way to simulate fiscal responsibility. The boy who cries muffin while signing onto every new major entitlement and military adventure is not in any position to deliver lectures about tax-dollar stewardship. And never forget that the spending frenzy is distinctly bipartisan: Even alleged fiscal radical Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the Iraq War and Medicare Part D.

So should we just greet muffinflation with a weary shrug? Not remotely, no.

The lesson of government waste, whether on $16 muffins or $535 million loan guarantees to solar power companies or $48 billion in “improper” Medicare payments, is one worth relearning every day.

Managers whose budgets do not depend on customer satisfaction and who do not face competitive pressure in the marketplace, will not, on balance, spend their money wisely. Vendors selling to those managers know that price matters much less than it does to, say, Wal-Mart. And anywhere there is political urgency and official involvement high up the command chain, conditions will begin resembling a gold rush.

As major Solyndra investor and Barack Obama donor George Kaiser told a crowd of his fellow Oklahomans not long after Obama’s stimulus was announced in 2009, “There’s never been more money shoved out of the government’s door in world history and probably never will be again than in the last few months and the next 18 months. And our selfish, parochial goal is to get as much of it for Tulsa and Oklahoma as we possibly can.”

There is no such thing as war without the brutal, violent death of innocents, including children. Similarly, there is no such thing as government spending without gobs of disgusting waste, graft and corruption. It’s all cooked right into the system.

That’s why muffin-cynicism troubles me most. The same Baltimore Sun that can decry such waste in one breath, will invite it in its next: “Let Congress vent its spleen and deal with whoever is responsible for the Justice Department’s very poor judgment,” the editorial board wrote. “Then it should get back to the business of creating jobs and stimulating the weak economy in the short-run and adopting sensible economic policy that reduces the deficit in the long-term.”

As long as we believe that government is good at creating jobs and stimulating the economy, we’re going to be stuffed by much more than just $16 muffins.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.