Close Enough for Government Work

I know of quite a few people who harbor rather dark conspiratorial theories of how government works. There is this sense that the government possesses some malevolent genius and the technical expertise to execute the most complex strategies with speed and accuracy. Yet, I always respond: “show me the evidence.” There is ample evidence of sloppy, buffoonish, and ham-handed behavior and unintended consequences, often cloaked in arrogance and obscured by the opacity of thousand-page statutes. Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone too much cause for relief. A bully with an IQ of 80 is still worrisome. And government can still cause a lot of damage through its inattentive and sloppy actions. There is a reason why a common response to mediocrity is: “close enough for government work.”


The last few days have brought more evidence of government ineptitude. Here are a few examples:

1. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a sting operation to test the Affordable Care Act’s eligibility-verification system. As Sophie Novack (National Journal) reports:

Eleven of 12 fake online or telephone applications were approve…. Five of six phone applications were successful, with the exception of one caller who declined to give a Social Security number. Six online applications were initially blocked by the verification system, but the investigators were able to find a workaround by going through the call center.

In nine of the eleven cases, “cost-sharing subsidies” were secured. As Megan McArdle (Bloomberg) notes: “It sounds like the systems that are supposed to check identity, immigration status and income simply aren’t working at all; the system just assumes that you are who you say you are.” Yes, but in the end, some people who didn’t have insurance will now have insurance and, as they say that’s “close enough for government work.”

2. As we visit the world of government subsidies, another GAO report released this month found that “Federal agencies reported an estimated $105.8 billion in improper payments in fiscal year 2013.” The five programs with the highst reported amounts:

  1. Medicare Fee-for Service: $36 billion in improper payments (an error rate of 10.1 percent)
  2. Earned Income Tax Credit: $14.5 billion in improper payments (an error rate of 24 percent)
  3. Medicaid: 14.4 billion in improper payments (an error rate of 5.8 percent)
  4. Medicare Advantage (Part C): $11.8 billion in improper payments (an error rate of 9.5 percent)
  5. Unemployment Insurance: $6.2 billion in improper payments (an error rate of 9.3 percent)

This list did not include the USDA’s School Breakfast program that had an error rate of 25.3 percent, worth a mere $831 million. There is some good news here: first, 2013 ($105.8 billion) was an improvement over the previous year ($107.1 billion). More importantly, even agencies with the highest error rates still managed to get most of the payments right. And as they say, that’s “close enough for government work.”

3. As most political scientists will recall, Max Weber defined the state as having a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” Recent months have brought new evidence that this monopoly power is rarely executed with precision (e.g., some 4 percent of those sentenced to death were innocent). The newest data point comes from Arizona, where another execution was botched. As Erik Eckholm (New York Times) explains:

what would normally be a 10- to 15-minute procedure dragged on for nearly two hours, as Mr. Wood appeared repeatedly to gasp, according to witnesses including reporters and one of his federal defenders, Dale Baich.

In the end, most people sentenced to death are guilty. And in Arizona, the convicted murderer finally died. As they say, that’s “close enough for government work.”

One thought on “Close Enough for Government Work

  1. The state does not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. People have a right to defend themselves. What a nonsensical statement.

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