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OPINION | Upgrade our 8-track government

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I’LL admit to using this line all the time: “The Howard Stern Show” asked Ringo Starr, “What did you do with the money?” “What money?” “The money your mother gave you for singing lessons.”

Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins surgeon Marty Makary told Tucker Carlson about a much-needed Covid-19 antibody test developed in January that was under review by the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Makary noted, “And we lost precious time when one of the original scientists submitted an application and was told that he had to submit it also by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it.” CD-ROM? They might as well have asked for applications on a deck of IBM punch cards with audio on 8-track tapes. The FDA budget is around $5.8 billion. What did you do with the money?

Last week, New Jersey put out a call for Cobol programmers to update its unemployment- benefits software, which runs on mainframes installed 40 years ago. Cobol was invented in 1959. New Jersey has a $39 billion budget. What did you do with the money?

I grew up in New Jersey (Exit 14), but this ineptitude is everywhere. A 2018 study revealed that only 42% of all state and local government computer systems were implemented after Oct. 25, 2001. The rest are “old or broken,” including two-thirds of those used for child support and half of those used for unemployment or vehicle registration.

The feds, who spend $88 billion a year on information technology, are worse and notorious for ancient systems. The Pentagon’s control of nuclear missiles and bombers until very recently ran on 8inch floppy disks from the 1970s. Some of the weather-tracking systems of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service were programmed in Fortran, as far back as the 1950s. Or the National Institutes of Health, which stopped buying fax machines...in 2019. And — yikes — remember the 2018 false alarm? “Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This Is Not a Drill.” And don’t forget how HealthCare.gov imploded in 2013.

According to the Government Accountability Office, as of May 2016 two different Internal Revenue Service computer systems used for tax data and refunds were written in “low level” assembly language 56 years prior. I get it: It works, so why mess with success? But in reality, those $1,200 tax rebates granted to Americans (including deceased ones) in the Cares Act have taken weeks, and if you expect a check, up to four months. Meanwhile, I can Venmo or Zelle money to your bank account in seconds. The IRS can do better.

In 1971 IBM introduced the 3270 terminal for data entry, those ubiquitous green screens, and 44 of the world’s top 50 banks still use the technology. It now has a fancier

Squandered funds lead to ancient software. That gives us crashes and delayed checks.


graphical front end, but maybe you have an eye like I do and spot its use in stores, airline counters and at every DMV. The problem is that it takes forever to alter the mainframe software or add new features.

Contrast this with Facebook, where new hires and even summer interns could, within a week of starting, see their features distributed to a billion users. That’s the speed of software in 2020.

On Monday, April 6 — 10 days after the Cares Act passed — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership with Google, Deloitte and Verizon to create a “Tech Surge” portal to handle the jump in unemployment claims. It was ready by 7 p.m. Thursday. Google claims to have offered other states similar technology to help scale the massive increase in demand.

But even public-private partnerships get political. The $10 billion contract Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, was won by Microsoft but Amazon sued, claiming irregularities. (Yes, the Pentagon is only now moving to the cloud.) This will be a mess for a long time.

Coming soon, like it or not, Phase 4 of the corona stimulus promises a phantasmagoria of infrastructure spending on porky bridges and rest areas named for U.S. senators. Watch your wallet. Can we spend some of this to upgrade from CD-ROMs and fax machines instead? We need government, but it should be limited. Meanwhile, government is learning fast what the private sector already knows: As soon as you digitize, technology investment is no longer static — it drags you along a capital-hungry continuum from mainframe, mini, client-server, PC, mobile-first, cloud-first to, soon, AI. The private sector digitizes to reduce head count and generate productive returns, but government grows and grows at the taxpayer trough.

Our government is an enormous entitlement engine with what feels like a patronage factory of two million federal workers averaging $135,000 in salary and benefits. Then add periodic stimulus bonanzas. So yeah, we know what happened to the money. But it’s finally exposed for all to see.

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