Chris Edwards

Barbarians Inside the Gate

I watched the congressional conference committee on the budget yesterday on CSPAN, and it seemed like the final fall and sacking of Rome. Two of the remaining generals defending fiscal sanity, Reps. Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, pled with the invading barbarians to limit their fiscal pillaging and warned that the Treasury was empty. But the barbarians, in the form of Rep. Rosa DeLauro and others, had visions of spreading the empire’s gold widely, and were not deterred by talk of damage to future generations.

The barbarians are inside the fiscal gate. The gate is the 60-vote margin usually required for big, new spending programs to pass in the Senate. Ryan and Hensarling were right that the Democrat budget plan could be a major turning point in the nation’s fiscal history. The “reconcilation” process approved by the Democrats lowers the bill passage margin in the Senate to a simple majority. The procedure was put in place in the 1970s to control spending and reduce budget deficits. But the Democrats may try to use that budget-restraint mechanism for the opposite — to pass a massive new health care subsidy program.

Ryan and Hensarling have proposed an alternate fiscal vision, but their troops have left the field, and they will need to rebuild their armies before they can put that vision in place.

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

One Small Step for Private Airports

The New York Times reports that the nation’s only privately financed commercial airport is set to open in Branson, Missouri.

Unlike government transportation projects such as the Big Dig, this private project has gone well so far: “‘I think it’s some kind of record,’ Jeff Bourk, executive director of the airport, said of the speed of the construction. ‘On other projects I’ve been involved in, there’s a lot more red tape.’”

On the broader issue of America’s airports, the Times notes:

Every one of the 552 airports providing commercial air service in the United States receives some kind of federal money, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and these airports are owned by public entities, municipalities, transportation districts or airport authorities.

In airports, America embraces socialism, while free enterprise has taken hold abroad. Many major cities around the world have privatized their airports in recent decades, as I discuss here.

The growth in private airports faces a number of hurdles in America. One problem is that government airports receive federal, state, and local subsidies, which makes it hard for private companies to compete. Another problem is the tax-deductibility of state/local (”muni”) bonds, which gives government facilities a financing advantage over private projects.

Canada and Jefferson’s Natural Progress

Thomas Jefferson famously opined that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” but Canada has bucked that gloomy forecast in recent years. As my co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday showed, Canada has:

  • Cut government spending
  • Cut government debt
  • Balanced its budget consistently
  • Pre-funded its version of Social Security to make it solvent
  • Decentralized power within its federation of provinces
  • Cut taxes, particularly corporate taxes 

Meanwhile, the United States has headed in the opposite direction in each of these policy areas. Consider further that Canada has other economic policy advantages over the increasingly uncompetitive welfare state to its south:

Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

Demand for Subsidies

My op-ed on National Review Online today provided new information about the increasing number of federal subsidy programs. The federal welfare state is expanding rapidly.

One friendly reader emailed me:

Ever cross your mind that there’s a reason government programs increase over time? I’ll clue you in: Programs increase because of public demand.

It’s not rocket science, people want more services. Period. Somebody’s got to pay for them. Hences taxes. Or perhaps borrowing. Or a combination of both. In any event, there’s no evidence people are willing to get along with fewer services.

The situation seems simple to me; so why can’t you ideologues on the far right understand what’s going on. Instead, you simply go on bemoaning the existence of programs and taxes you don’t like.

There are numerous problems with this reader’s views, including constitutional problems. But one thing that strikes me is the underlying assumption of the “public interest theory of government,” or the idea that democracies and bureaucracies operate to efficiently provide “services.”

In reality, there are structural problems in government that bias policymakers toward fiscal irresponsibility, as our current $1.8 trillion federal deficit indicates. The issue is not ideology, it is scientific: Does the government actually work as the optimists, like this reader, believe? I think the empirical evidence is in on that question.

Corruption Rewarded in Government

In Downsizing the Federal Government, I discussed some of the corruption surrounding former Senator Ted Stevens:

Another example of abuse engineered by Senator Stevens involves Alaska Native Corporations. Because of rule changes slipped in by Stevens, these shadowy businesses based in his state are allowed to circumvent normal federal procurement rules and win no-bid contracts. The result of such loopholes is that taxpayers do not get value for their money. For example, in 2002 a half billion dollar contract for scanning machines at U.S. border crossings was given to a native corporation with little experience in the technology, instead of established leaders in the field who were not allowed to bid.

The Washington Post did a good job of bringing the scandal of ANCs to light a few years ago. Did the spotlight on ANCs and connections to disgraced Senator Stevens convince Congress to move ahead with reforms? Hardly. From Government Executive today:

Obama’s Budget Cuts

The Obama administration has issued a modest list of budget cuts for programs that are “duplicative” and “ineffective.”

That’s a good start for spending reforms, but a more substantial way to end “duplication” would be to terminate all $500 billion of federal subsidies sent to state governments each year, which duplicate properly state-level activities such as highway building.

Further, cutting some “ineffective” programs ignores the broader question of whether programs represent just and legitimate uses of government power. We can make farm subsidies more “effective,” for example, but that does not make it ethical to transfer $20 billion each year from hard-working taxpayers to often high-income farm businesses.

I’d like to see the Obama administration attack Washington’s overspending problem in a more dramatic and fundamental way.

For now, here’s a great place to start:

 

FutureGen: Economic and Political Decisions

People who support expanded federal intervention into areas such as energy and health care naively assume that policymakers can make economically rational and efficient decisions to allocate resources. They cannot, as a Washington Post story today on FutureGen illustrates.

The story describes the political battle over the location of a $1.8 billion ”clean coal” plant. I don’t know where the most efficient place to site such a plant is, or  if such a plant makes any sense in the first place. But the story illustrates that as soon as such decisions are moved from the private sector to the political arena, millions of dollars are spent to lobby the decisionmakers, and members of Congress are hopelessly biased in favor of home-state spending regardless of what might be best for the national economy as a whole.

President Obama has promised to ramp up spending on such green projects. So get ready for some huge political fights over the big-dollar spoils, and get ready for some monsterous energy boondoggles.

Defense Cost Overruns

Wow, a bipartisan effort to actually do something about government waste. From the Washington Post today:

A bill to end cost overruns in major weapons systems would create a powerful new Pentagon position — director of independent cost assessments — to review cost analyses and estimates, separately from the military branch requesting the program.

Those reviews, unlike in the current process, would take place at key points in the acquisition process before a weapons program can proceed, according to legislation sponsored by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

This seems like a step forward, but cost overruns are a big problem across the entire federal government, not just at the Pentagon. Federal financial management of energy, highway, and computer projects has been appalling, for example. I’ve written about this here and elsewhere.

The government needs to buy weapons, and so we should try to improve the Pentagon process as best we can. However, the federal government does not need to buy highways, airports, air traffic control computers and many other things that have chronic cost overruns. Those items should be privatized.

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