Milk for Kittens: What Pigford Should Teach President Obama

Was Pigford a failure or a success? If you’re a taxpayer you’d almost certainly say it was a failure. As much as $4.4 billion in payouts made mostly to people who had no legitimate claim of discrimination by the USDA. As the NY Times put it, Pigford was “a magnet for fraud.”

If you’re a left-wing politician who sees government as a machine for transferring money from one group of people to another and benefiting your chances for reelection in the process, then Pigford was arguably a success. I’m talking of course about Barack Obama who pushed for Pigford’s extension as a Senator and then gave claimants a “license to raid the till” as President. But the Times also points to Secretary Vilsack and Sen. Menendez as involved in pushing for more payouts. The people who pushed this were progressive Democrats and, prior to the publication of the Times’ article this week, there was no downside for these folks. Maybe now, belatedly, there will be.

There’s another group who undoubtedly sees Pigford as a big win. That’s all the thousands of dishonest “attempted to farm” claimants who, one way or another, heard about the payouts and decided they were entitled to some of it.

What Pigford demonstrates is the same lesson that every government transfer of money demonstrates. If you offer if, they will come. As one person interviewed by the Times put it “It is a little bit like putting out milk for a kitten. The next night, you get 15 kittens.” That’s not a comment about a particular race or gender, it’s a statement about human nature.

Given a choice between working to earn $50,000 and lying on a government form to get it delivered in the mail, many people will choose the latter. What’s true of Pigford is also, if not equally, true of Medicaid, Social Security disability, food stamps, free cell phones and so on. Fraud is rampant wherever something of value is being given away for free.

And as the Times story makes clear, corruption breeds more corruption. When the first Pigford checks arrived, suddenly thousands more convinced themselves they were also entitled to a slice of the pie. Eventually, the fraud became so rampant that it was impossible to single out anyone in the crowd:

In Arkansas, prosecutors rejected a test case against a Pine Bluffpolice officer who had admitted lying on his claim form. Paula J. Casey,the United States attorney in Arkansas in 2000, said that singling outone individual raised questions of selective prosecution.

Pigford provides an important case study in the dangers of government generosity, one which ought to be a lesson to the Senator/President who helped expand the payouts. Unless carefully controlled and scrutinized, government generosity breeds corruption and corruption spreads quickly until it is stopped. In the wake of this scandal, President Obama–who often frames his actions in terms of what is good for the needy, i.e. milk for kittens–needs to signal that he understands the dangers as well as the needs.