Archives: 02/2016

Bush Grew Bureaucracy Faster than Obama

President Obama’s new budget includes a table showing the number of executive branch civilian employees the administration expects to have in 2017. With that, we can compare the growth in federal government employment over eight years of Obama (2009 to 2017) to eight years of President George W. Bush (2001 to 2009).

Federal civilian employment rose from 1,738,000 million in 2001, to 1,978,000 in 2009, to a proposed 2,137,000 in 2017. Thus, employment grew 13.8 percent under Bush and 8.0 percent under Obama, as shown by the bars on the left of the chart below.

Overall since 2001, federal civilian employment has increased by 399,000 workers, which is like a mid-sized city populated entirely by bureaucrats.

Perhaps the Bush increase stemmed from the build-up of Pentagon civilians to support the president’s war efforts? No, that was not it. The bars on the right show that the nondefense workforce grew 17.2 percent under Bush and 10.1 percent under Obama.    

If the next president wants to save some money, he or she should consider that the extra 399,000 workers since 2001 are costing taxpayers about $120,000 each in wages and benefits—that’s about $48 billion a year.

A Two-Millennia Relationship Between Climate and Economic Data

Introducing their intriguing work, Wei et al. (2015) write that “investigating climate-society relationships has long been a hot topic,” noting that “many studies have demonstrated the important roles of climate change in facilitating the rise or fall of ancient communities.” However, they report that “intense arguments regarding the economic effects of global warming” remain to be clarified in such investigations.

Against this backdrop, Wei et al. set out to investigate the long-term relationship between the climate and economy of China. More specifically, they derived a 2,130-year long record of the Chinese economy based on 1,091 records extracted from 25 books on Chinese history and economic history, spanning the period 220 BC to 1910 AD. This new proxy was then statistically analyzed in conjunction with historical proxies of Chinese temperature and precipitation previously compiled by Ge et al. (2013) and Zheng et al. (2006), respectively. And what did that analysis reveal?

The three Chinese researchers found that warm and wet climate periods coincided with more prosperous and robust economic phases (above-average mean economic level, higher ratio of economic prosperity, and less intense variations), whereas opposite economic conditions ensued during cold and dry periods (where the possibility of economic crisis was “greatly increased”) (see Figure 1 below). They also report that temperature was “more influential than precipitation in explaining the long-term economic fluctuations, whereas precipitation displayed more significant effects on the short-term macro-economic cycle.”

In concluding their paper Wei et al. write that, “from a deep time perspective, our study may provide new insight into the current intense arguments regarding the economic effects of global warming.” Indeed it does; and that insight reveals a warmer (and wetter) climate favors economic prosperity. Given this data-derived relationship, why are the leaders of so many nations hell-bent on halting any future rise in global temperature, especially when two millennia of climate and economic data suggest such a rise would benefit the economy? As the late Casey Stengel would have said, “doesn’t anybody know how to play this game?”

How David Brooks Created Donald Trump

Donald Trump, David Brooks (Credit: AP/John Locher/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)

The ugliness of this year’s presidential race makes The New York Times’ resident erstwhile conservative David Brooks wistful for Barack Obama. The irony is that David Brooks, Barack Obama, and their respective tribes bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

“I miss Barack Obama,” Brooks laments, because “over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” Brooks cites Hillary Clinton’s emails and some other stuff, but everyone knows he’s talking about The Donald. “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free.” By the time he’s done, Brooks upgrades Obama’s integrity to “superior.”

We all have difficulty seeing our blind spots. That’s why we call them what we call them. But Brooks’ obliviousness here is awe-inspiring.

Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP presidential field by appealing to resentments stoked by both political tribes. Even Brooks is even doing it, right there in his column.

Trump is riding resentments Obama has stoked by ruling as an autocrat. Rather than accept that voters elected a Republican Congress for the purpose of restraining his ambitions, Obama famously boasted he can act without Congress, because “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

He has repeatedly circumvented the democratic process and he knows it, as when he boasts, “I just took an action to change the law.” When challenged, he tries (with some success) to intimidate courts into writing tortured opinions in his favor. Still his executive overreach has been on the losing end of more unanimous Supreme Court rulings than either of his two immediate predecessors. Even allies admit he plays fast and loose with the rule of law.


When a president doesn’t play by the rules, he is telling his political opponents their votes don’t matter. That breeds resentment.

Andrew Coulson, In Memoriam

Earlier this week, we lost a giant. Andrew Coulson, Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, passed away after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer. In the days that followed, colleagues, friends, and admirers paid tribute to his achievements, reminisced about his character and virtues, and reflected on his legacy. What follows is a compilation of those tributes.

Neal McCluskey remembers Andrew in an interview with Caleb Brown:

Adam B. Schaeffer, former colleague and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute:

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. […]

Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.

Adam concludes his tribute with a recommended reading list of Andrew’s works, which are among “all the wonderful gifts he’s left us.” 

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

Emigrants Transform Institutions - For the Better

The potential negative impact of immigrants on American political and economic institutions is the best argument against liberalized immigration and the economic, social, national security, and criminal objections are not convincing.  Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett dig into this argument, which they call the “Epidemiological Case for efficient migration restrictions,” and find it mostly wanting (their paper is the best I’ve read in a long while).  I’ve co-written an academic journal article, Cato policy paper, and other work about how immigration could affect institutions.  There is more evidence that immigration improves institutions than that it worsens them although there is still much work to be done on this issue and questions remain.

But there is evidence that emigration improves a source country’s institutions.  Fredrik Segerfeldt summarizes some of the evidence in his new book for the Adam Smith Institute in the UK.  In Chapter 6 of his book, Segerfeldt observes:

Mexican migrants play an important role in shaping political atti­tudes in the country, both through social remittances and after returning home. Political participation increases, democratic com­petition intensifies, it becomes more difficult for leading members of the party in power to enrich themselves and the chance that the rul­ing coalition will retain power decreases. In short, Mexico’s exodus makes it more democratic.

Although much of the research above deals with Mexico, there are other results indicating that emigration can strengthen democracy. In a macro study of a large number of poor countries, economists find that emigration increases both democracy and economic freedom in the sending country.

How does emigration improve Mexican economic and political institutions?  By breaking up cronyist and interventionist political arrangements:

Emigration can also help to break up or at least weaken governance based on patronage. In such countries voters tend to vote for the rul­ing party, because otherwise they risk losing the benefits that the power distributes. Entire communities will be dependent on the rul­ing party, which impairs democracy. But when people in a commu­nity receive income that is not from the state or the ruling party, citi­zens become more independent and can therefore vote for the oppo­sition if they want to. In Mexico, remittances reduce the support for the PRI, the party which, with the help of patron-client methods, managed to retain control of the country during most of the 20th cen­tury (between 1929 and 2000).

Migration and remittances may also be a way to break up old hierar­chies based on class and ethnicity. In San Pedro Pinula in Guatemala, for example, residents of the Mayan people, with the help of both returning migrants and remittances, have slowly but surely been able to challenge the ethnic underclass role they had for five centu­ries. In the oases of southern Morocco, the Haratin, poor black, land­less workers, have enhanced their status thanks to remittances from abroad.

Segerfeldt’s summary of that research can help explain the important finding by Joshua C. Hall that the ability to emigrate is correlated with improvements in source country economic freedom: 

Exitability, a variable created by Brown (2014) to capture how easy it is for citizens to “vote with their feet” is related to the change in economic freedom from 1980 to 2010 in a statistically significant manner across all specifications. This provides some indirect evidence to the importance of “exit” versus “voice” with respect to the question of institutional reform.

Emigration benefits governance in sending countries, increasing the returns from liberalized immigration policies in the developed world.  This is an exciting time to be working on how immigrants affect economic and political institutions.   

Pentagon Bureaucracy

Many articles in recent years have expressed concern about Pentagon bloat. Mackenzie Eaglen called for streamlining the Pentagon’s “army of bureaucrats.” Ray Mabus said “Twenty percent of the Pentagon budget, one dollar out of five, is spent on … the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the defense agencies … Pure overhead.”

Robert Gates said the Pentagon is a “gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy,” where 40 percent of spending goes to overhead, and there are 30 layers of staff under the secretary. Fareed Zakaria called the Pentagon “some kind of gigantic socialist enterprise.”

My favorite bureaucracy story is the recent one about the admiral in charge of navy intelligence who has not been allowed to see any secret intelligence for two years. That is pretty absurd, even for a socialist enterprise.

One measure of Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucracy is the number of civilian (non-uniformed) employees, as shown in Chart 1. (Data from the new federal budget and prior ones).

The number of DoD civilians soared from 659,000 in 2007 to 771,000 in 2011, but then declined to 738,000 by 2016. The peak and fall generally followed the peak and fall in the numbers of uniformed service members over those years.

However, Chart 2 shows that there has been an upward trend in the ratio of DoD civilians to uniformed. In President Obama’s first year of 2009, there were 703,000 civilians and 1.54 million uniformed, for a ratio of 0.46. In 2016 there were 738,000 civilians and 1.34 million uniformed, for a ratio of 0.55.

The relative increase in the civilian bureaucracy is a concern. One might think that Pentagon productivity would have increased because of advances in technology. Shouldn’t procurement be more efficient these days, as we’ve moved from paper forms to electronic databases? Apparently, such gains from technology have been dissipated elsewhere. John Lehman says: “With so many layers and offices needed to concur on every decision, it now takes an average of 22½ years from the start of a weapons program to first deployment, instead of the four years it took to deploy the Minuteman ICBM and Polaris submarine missile system in the Cold War era.”

Aside from wasted cost, the more bureaucratic bloat there is, the more it saps the energies of our uniformed service members. John Lehman estimates that “roughly half of all uniformed personnel serve on staffs that spend most of their time going to meetings and responding to tasks from the hundreds of offices that have grown like mold throughout the vast Defense Department.” The fault, of course, lies not with the service members, but with the complex and top-heavy system that Congress and Pentagon leaders have built over the decades.