Grant us a limit to grants
Feb. 15, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

Most of my readers are no doubt familiar with what is known as “the serenity prayer,” which goes something like this: “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I would like to submit the following curmudgeonly update to that old saw: “grant me the strength not to throttle the next fathead who tells me how wonderful grants are.”

Did you notice that subtle little play on words there? That was a literary technique for introducing the subject of grants, based on the homonyms “grant,” the noun, and “grant,” the transitive verb. The former is a topic that really burns my bacon.

When it comes to grants, it seems like there are hordes of people who are asking others to grant them a lot more than strength and serenity. They are looking for what Webster might call cash, cabbage, coinage, or even moola. In other words, they want our money.

I don’t have any objection to private philanthropic organizations making grants. They have the right to do whatever they want with their dough. What concerns me is the increasing number of grants that involve public money.

This is an important distinction, and judging from the way some people talk, it is a subject that begs for clarification.

There seems to be a perception out there that grants are “free money,” or that they are somehow a gift from our benevolent Uncle Sam.

This is misguided thinking. A grant is not a gift.

Merriam-Webster defines a grant as “a transfer of property by deed or writing.” That is really the nub of the problem. Since the government does not have any money (contrary to what some of our legislators seem to think) of its own, this means that a grant is a means of transferring property from one group of people (the taxpayers) to another group of people.

I am not suggesting that grants are intrinsically bad. Some of them are certainly used to benefit the public good. I am merely suggesting that grants are not the best way to use our money.

Government is many things, but efficient is usually not one of them.

In essence, what is happening is that government is taking money out of the pockets of taxpayers, playing a bit of a shell game with it, and then transferring it back and forth a few times in such a convoluted way that even mob money-laundering experts must admire the system’s diabolical effectiveness.

Then, the money ends up in the hands of some bureaucratic agency that will force applicants to jump through a series of inefficient hoops before the agency decides how to dole out the money, some of which may ultimately go back to the very taxpayers from whom it was taken in the first place.

The effect of all this smoke and mirrors stuff is that it disassociates the money from its source, which is how the government sells the illusion that it is providing a gift to the recipient.

It seems to me that even in this dismal economy, there are more grant programs than ever. A more efficient way to stimulate the economy would be to leave the money in the hands of the people who worked for it in the first place.

According to one source (www.grants.gov), there are 26 different federal agencies administering more than 1,000 different grant programs each year.

At the state level, according to the Minnesota Office of Grants Management (www.grants.state.mn.us), there are 22 state agencies administering grants in more than 15 general categories.

There is nothing about this arrangement to suggest efficiency, transparency, or effectiveness.

Even among those who realize that grants are not “free” money, there seems to be a tendency to proceed on the principle that “the grant money is going to go to someone, so why not me?”

Some of the projects that are completed with grant money would never be done without grant money, and in some cases, these projects should not be done. We should be making decisions about what projects are funded based on our overall priorities, not on how they fit into the guidelines of a particular grant program.

Another little scheme that the government has cooked up involves matching grants. I think these little beauties were developed by someone who got his early training on a carnival midway.

Matching grants work like this: the government takes some of your money, and then offers to give it back to you as a gift, but only if you spend it on a project approved by the government, under terms dictated by the government, and only if you put up a matching amount (more of your own money). PT Barnum would be proud.

Taxpayers beware. If the government comes around offering free money, you better check your wallet, because that is probably where it came from in the first place.