Chris Edwards

Injustice of Federal Subsidies

Ohio lawmakers are hot under the collar about federal stimulus dollars possibly helping Georgia bid away one of its big employers. Here’s the Dayton Daily News:

NCR’s news release touting its decision to move jobs from Dayton to the Atlanta, Ga. suburbs includes one factoid that has Ohio lawmakers in a fury: The City of Columbus, Ga. plans to use federal stimulus dollars to buy a building and construct another to accommodate the 870 manufacturing jobs expected to come to the that Atlanta suburb. ‘The fact that economic stimulus dollars were used to move an Ohio company to Georgia at taxpayer expense is an outrage,’ said state Sen. Jon Husted.

Added U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Columbus: “Federal stimulus money is being used to create winners and losers among workers in different states and that’s just not right; it’s dirty.”

All I can say to both parties is that’s what you get for building an imperial city on the Potomac and spending the last few decades destroying the constitutional principle of federalism. As I’ve described in this study, regional warfare over federal subsidies has escalated in recent years. It’s horribly wasteful, and it’s getting worse.

Federal Workers Not Underpaid

The head of the Office of Personnel Management claims that federal workers are underpaid compared to private sector workers by 20 percent, on average. Federal unions and other cheerleaders for the bureaucracy have been making similar claims for years.

I’ve pointed out the dramatic acceleration of federal compensation over the last decade and the excessive generosity of federal worker benefits.

Federal workers are not underpaid.

Now a Human Resources expert writing in The Washington Post backs up my claims. Lily Garcia writes:

The primary advantages of working for the federal government are generous benefits, solid pay, and relative job security, a combination that is challenging to find in the private sector, even in the best of times … In addition to these benefits, federal employees, contrary to popular belief, are paid relatively well.

One policy implication is that federal worker compensation would be a good place to look for budget savings to reduce the federal deficit. We could start with a two-year freeze on federal salaries to save about $20 billion. During a recession, private wages are not increasing, so why should federal wages?

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

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:

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