Archives: 03/2011

Tax-consumers Use Our Money to Lobby for More of Our Money

I have two items published today about how governments and other tax-consumers use taxpayer dollars to lobby the government to get more taxpayer dollars. Politico Arena asks, “Will the public warm up to the health care law?” My reply:

I’m amused – at best – that the vast United States government is using my tax dollars to try to persuade voters that the signature legislative accomplishment of the president’s term is actually a good idea. Search Google for the term “Obamacare,” and the first paid link is for healthcare.gov, a government propaganda site for the Affordable Care Act. They’re also using Medicare.gov that way. And roping in poor old Andy Griffith for a TV ad that Factcheck.org says uses “weasel words” to “mislead” seniors.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the administration had a “lot of reeducation to do.” If administration officials were confident that their health care scheme was a good idea, they wouldn’t need to spend tax dollars – in a year when the deficit exceeds $1.5 trillion – to try to sell it to the citizens. And this raises a real question for democratic governance: Are the people supposed to tell policymakers what policies they want, or should policymakers use the people’s money to tell them what they should want?

Meanwhile, at the Britannica Blog I cite other examples of tax-funded lobbying:

Between broadcasts of “Downton Abbey” and “Frontline,” PBS viewers are implored to call their congressman and keep the money flowing. Public radio websites blare “Protect KCRW, Write your representative, write your senator.” Announcements on the radio carry the same message….

My colleague Richard Rahn complains, “Taxpayer dollars are also used to fund international organizations, which, in turn, lobby the U.S. Congress for not only more money for themselves, but also for higher taxes on the American people.”…

The Hill newspaper reported in 2009, “Auto companies and eight of the country’s biggest banks that received tens of billions of dollars in federal bailout money spent more than $20 million on lobbying Washington lawmakers in the first half of this year.” Later in the year the Huffington Post found, “Twenty-five top recipients of government bailout funds spent more than $71 million on lobbying in the year since they were rescued.”

And I ask:

Lobbying is constitutionally protected. The First Amendment guarantees not just freedom of speech and of the press but also “the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But does that mean the government itself has a right to petition itself for a piece of the pie?

Mitch Daniels and ObamaCare, Round Two

In a March 4 article for National Review Online titled, “Mitch Daniels’s Obamacare Problem,” I explain how Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is undermining the effort to repeal ObamaCare, and how he might do even more damage to that movement as the Republican nominee for president.  My article came under fire from Daniels’ policy director Lawren Mills (in the comments section of my article), Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute, and Bob Goldberg of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

Today, NRO runs my response.  An excerpt:

In brief, the trio believes that Daniels’s expansion of government-run health care is a conservative triumph. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation…

Daniels has an ObamaCare problem that could hurt the repeal movement if he doesn’t deal with it. Turner is creating more ObamaCare problems. This isn’t the first time conservatives have danced with the devil on health-care questions (see Massachusetts), but with health-care freedom now at its moment of maximum peril, that needs to stop. It will probably, however, take more than just the usual voices of protest to stop it. Tea Party and traditional conservative groups should perhaps spend less time attacking congressional Republicans over relatively minor tactical disagreements, and more time educating the governors, state legislators, and (yes) policy wonks who are actively implementing ObamaCare in their own backyards.

I’ll be speaking tonight at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Galen Institute (among others).

Mitch Daniels and That Social Issues ‘Truce’

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin is surprisingly alone as a conservative beating up on Gov. Mitch Daniels this week for his reiterated call for a “truce” on social issues while the country confronts the “new Red Menace” of deficits and debt. The Post’s “Fix” reports the latest:

In a new interview for the online television program “Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson”, Daniels expands on the idea he first laid out in a profile for the Weekly Standard that economic issues – and the debt in particular – should take precedence over social issues.

“If you don’t believe that the American public is mortally threatened – as I do – by this one overriding problem we have built for ourselves, then of course I’m wrong,” Daniels told Robinson in an excerpt of the interview, which is set to air on Monday. “All I was saying was, we’re going to need to unify all kinds of people, and we’re going – freedom is going – to need every friend it can get.”

The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll finds that Republican voters like the idea of focusing on fiscal issues.

Meanwhile, look at the letters in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal in response to the article “Americans Don’t Want a ‘Truce’ on Social Issues” by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Every one of them defends Daniels, in language like this:

“Man cannot live on bread alone, but man cannot live if the monetary and fiscal structure of the nation collapses on top of him.”

“Mr. Land’s statement that, ‘Most social conservatives are also fiscal conservatives’ did not seem to be in effect during the George W. Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Those social conservatives significantly increased the size of our government and our debt.”

“What Mr. Land fails to understand is that most fiscal conservatives in the 50 states are social moderates.”

“I congratulate Gov. Daniels for having the courage to acknowledge that there is only so much government can do—a welcome confession to Christians who believe that absolute certainty in one’s own correctness is less an expression of profound faith than human hubris.”

On Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast, John Samples discusses Mitch Daniels and the changing politics of social issues.

Pielke’s Problem

I generally admire the work of Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist in the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. His new book on climate change is refreshingly honest and non-ideological, if a bit overly technophilic. His broader work offers the important insight that science alone cannot direct public policy, but rather it can only lay out possible results of different policy choices.

Given the quality of his work, I was disappointed by Pielke’s op-ed in today’s NYT defending Congress’s legislated obsolescence of the incandescent light bulb. He argues that government standard-setting is an important contribution to human welfare, and the light bulb standard is just part of that standard-setting (though he does suggest some minor policy tweaks to allow limited future availability of incandescents). 

To justify his argument, Pielke points out the great benefit of government-established standard measures, as well as quality standards:

Indeed, [in the United States of the late 19th century] the lack of standards for everything from weights and measures to electricity — even the gallon, for example, had eight definitions — threatened to overwhelm industry and consumers with a confusing array of incompatible choices.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Germany’s standards agency, established in 1887, was busy setting rules for everything from the content of dyes to the process for making porcelain; other European countries soon followed suit. Higher-quality products, in turn, helped the growth in Germany’s trade exceed that of the United States in the 1890s.

America finally got its act together in 1894, when Congress standardized the meaning of what are today common scientific measures, including the ohm, the volt, the watt and the henry, in line with international metrics. And, in 1901, the United States became the last major economic power to establish an agency to set technological standards.

 Alas, this argument doesn’t support Pielke’s light bulb standard.

The weights-and-measures and product standards that he cites are examples of government response to market failures—instances where private action is unable to reach efficient results. Concerning weights and measures, a type of market failure known as the collective action problem can make it difficult to establish standard measures privately. Getting everyone to agree can be like herding cats, and there is ample incentive to secretly defect from that standard — e.g., a gas station would love to sell you a 120-ounce “gallon” that you assume is a standard 128 ounces. (OTOH, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem, such as the standardization of railroad track gauges in the late 19th century.) Likewise, quality standards can be understood as a response to a kind of market failure known as the information asymmetry problem— e.g., a producer of low-quality goods may knowingly try to pass them off as high-quality goods. (Again, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem.)

As libertarians, we recognize that there are market failures, and that government can sometimes mitigate them. (That’s why we’re not anarchists.) Also as libertarians, we recognize that government intervention can result in outcomes even less efficient than the original market failure. (That’s why we’re not run-of-the-mill Democrats or Republicans.)

But where is the market failure with incandescent bulbs? After nearly 125 years of use, people know the drawbacks and advantages of incandescents—that they use more electricity than other types of bulbs and have a shorter lifespan, but they cost very little and work much better in certain applications—from dimmer switches to Easy-Bake Ovens—than other bulbs. Besides, CFL bulbs were widely available before Congress’s 2007 legislation, and LED lights were already in the R&D pipeline.

Perhaps Pielke would argue that there is a market failure with incandescents: the negative externality of air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. But incandescent lighting is only one of many, many electricity-using devices, and electricity generation is just one of many, many sources of air pollution. So why the focus on just this one externality source instead of advocating a policy that broadly addresses emissions? And why devote his op-ed to discussing technology standards, and make no mention of air pollution?

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

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NPR — A New Target for Harkin?

Secret recordings apparently revealing rampant dirty dealing. Big headlines. Taxpayer dollars wrapped up in it all. Surely all this ugliness — even if it turns out that the reality isn’t nearly as bad as inital reports make it sound — is coming from the favorite target of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), evil for-profit colleges!

Nope. It’s National Public Radio. And I assume Harkin and his pals will give NPR the exact same over-the-coals treatment they’ve been giving for-profit schools.

OK, I’m probably not able to assume that at all — but I should be.

Norquist Is Right, Coburn Is Wrong: Tax Increases Undermine Good Fiscal Policy

There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington — largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media — on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax-increase pledge. The other side features Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. You shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate, for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic about that because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the broadening of the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already-legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax-increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

  • Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.
  • Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.
  • Milton Friedman was right when he said that “in the long run, government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending — while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new BFFs in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Reagan, Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.