Pork or Bags of Cash?

I’ve been noodling through a government reform thought experiment, but can’t seem to reach a conclusion. See what you think…

The reform would address that most nefarious dynamic: When the benefits of government spending are concentrated and the costs are dispersed, government will grow and spending will increase.

Mancur Olson described this dynamic more than 40 years ago in The Logic of Collective Action. Steve Slivinski, in his new book Buck Wild, summarizes Olson’s idea as follows:

Olson pointed out that the disparity in incentives between taxpayers and what we now call “special interests” results from an inherent disadvantage of the larger group (i.e., taxpayers) compared to the smaller group (i.e., recipients of public dollars) in its ability to organize to defend its interests. It is this inherent bias in favor of the small special interest groups that provides a very robust explanation of why we still have Big Government, even though many taxpayers would prefer smaller government. “It would be in the best interest of those groups who are organizing to increase their own gains by whatever means possible,” writes Olson. “This would include choosing policies that, though inefficient for the society as a whole, were advantageous for the organized groups because the costs of the policies fell disproportionately on the unorganized.”

To borrow an example from Steve’s book, the National Endowment for the Arts had a 2004 grant budget of $47.4 million — equal to about 0.01% of income taxes. The NEA awarded 1,970 grants that year, so the average grant amount was $24,000. Grant recipients would thus have considerably more financial incentive to lobby for continuing the NEA than individual taxpayers, who on average contribute less than a buck per year to the program, would have to lobby for discontinuing it.

This dynamic is made worse by the common belief that if a government program is cut, its money will be rerouted to some other program instead of returned to taxpayers. Consider, for instance, the lightly-trafficked regional airport in my hometown, which is using a forthcoming, large federal grant to finance a major expansion of its runway. When local residents complained that the expansion was a waste of taxpayers’ money, project defenders responded that the federal government would spend it in some wasteful fashion anyway, so why not do so locally?

The “organized group” that gains the most from Olson’s dynamic is politicians. Because they control the public fisc, they receive the entreaties and gratitude of special interests, and they parlay that gratitude into campaign contributions and electoral support. The result is that politicians and special interests mutually benefit from this dynamic while taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

Nor does the dynamic require bad actors. Special interests can act on the sincere belief that their causes benefit society, and politicians can share that belief or else be brought to embrace it by the quasi-Darwinian forces of elections. In short, Olson’s dynamic appears to be a natural part of the political system.

Unfortunately, it’s a very costly part, as Duke University’s Mike Munger described earlier this summer in an essay on econlib.org. (Will Wilkinson discusses Munger’s essay here, and Munger chats about it on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk here.) Special interests — whether units of government or private entities — will invest resources in lobbying and other efforts to gain the government money. Those investments, in aggregate, may pay off for the special interest (because the government money received offsets the cost of the successful and unsuccessful lobbying efforts), but significant resources are wasted from the perspective of society.

To understand this, suppose a special interest spends L dollars a year on lobbying, and that lobbying yields G dollars in government money. If L < G, the special interest will continue its lobbying, because the cost is offset by the government money received. But the cost to society for the special interest obtaining G is G + L (because society ultimately funds the special interest) + various deadweight losses D from taxation.

 Hopefully, the benefit purchased by the grant will outweigh G + L + D. But there are many cases where that appears not to be the case — consider Ted Stevens’ $231 million “Bridge to Nowhere” for the 50 people of Gravina Island, Alaska. So, society is stuck with paying G + L + D for a benefit that sometimes isn’t even worth G.

Government spending, in theory, is supposed to be for public goods — goods for the benefit of the general public that are not sufficiently provided through private markets because they are neither rivalrous nor exclusive. (There are all sorts of fights over how to understand “sufficiently,” but we need not worry with that here.) However, projects like the Bridge to Nowhere and other instances of pork-barrel spending are better understood as either club goods (goods that are exclusive) or private goods (goods that are rivalrous and exclusive).Neither of those latter two categories of goods seems an appropriate candidate for government provision — or, at least, for federal government provision. Yet it is those two groups of goods for which special interests are willing to spend L in order to gain G.

Can we somehow break up this dynamic, reduce L, and increase the likelihood that public spending goes to true public goods instead of dubious club and private goods?

To do so, we would have to overcome Olson’s dynamic. That would require:

  1. assuring that the money saved from foregone spending is returned to taxpayers (or, at least, to the public),
  2. reshaping the budget system so that politicians are politically rewarded for the money they save, and
  3. aggregating special interest “pork” spending so that taxpayers will have greater incentive to organize.

Hence, my thought experiment: What if individual politicians were given the choice between spending the money allocated to pork barrel spending on actual projects, or handing that money directly to their constituents?

Think about this on the federal level. In essence, each congressional district has its own pork fund (funded in accordance with the congressman seniority, party affiliation, political favors, etc.) that it divvies up among local and national special interests. What would happen if each congressman were given the choice of, instead of simply funding pork, handing out some or all of the money to his constituents?

Public choice analysis asserts that the congressman would follow whichever course of action is most likely to get him reelected. If the politician’s laundry list includes some meritorious public goods that would benefit his community (and thus earn his constituents’ gratitude), he would direct some of the money to those goods. He may also continue to fund some of the club and private goods, if he believes enough voters have a strong-enough preference for them.

But, I suspect, the congressman would detect a strong voter preference for receiving bags of cash instead of dubious-value government goods and services. And that intense preference, I think, would reduce pork barrel spending. That, in turn, would reduce special interests’ incentives to pursue that money, which would reduce L.

But is my suspicion wrong? Would politicians prefer to hand out cash to large numbers of constituents or cut the ribbon for Bridges to Nowhere (after handing out cash to construction companies)?

Moreover, if I am right that handing out cash to constituents is more appealing, would the unintended consequences of this reform (e.g., politicians using the handouts to redistribute wealth to the median voter) be worse than its benefits?