Tag: federal budget

Boehner Endorses More Medicare Spending: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

While flipping through the radio on my way to pick my son up from school yesterday afternoon, I was dumbfounded to hear Congressman John Boehner talk about repealing Obama’s Medicare cuts on Sean Hannity’s show.

I wasn’t shocked that Boehner was referring to non-existent cuts (Medicare spending is projected to jump from $519 billion in 2010 to $677 billion in 2015 according to the Congressional Budget Office). I’ve been dealing with Washington’s dishonest definition of “spending cuts” for decades, so I’m hardly fazed by that type of routine inaccuracy.

But I was amazed that the presumptive future Speaker of the House went on a supposedly conservative talk radio show and said that increasing Medicare spending would be on the agenda of a GOP-controlled Congress. (I wondered if I somehow misinterpreted what was being said, but David Frum heard the same thing)

To be fair, Boehner also said that he wanted to repeal ObamaCare, so it would be unfair to claim that the interview was all Bush-style, big-government conservatism. But it is not a positive sign that Boehner is talking about more spending before he’s even had a chance to pick out the drapes for his new office.

Charitable Donations to the Government

The New York Times took a look at people who voluntarily send money to Washington in order to help pay down the federal debt. Last year, the Bureau of the Public Debt received $3.1 million in such donations. Looking at the federal budget, I found a total of $241 million in “gifts and contributions” for fiscal year 2010.

Charitable donations to the federal government are insignificant when compared to donations made to private charities. A Cato essay on welfare spending points out that Americans contribute more than $300 billion a year to organized private charities and volunteer more than 8 billion hours a year to charitable activities, which can be valued at about $158 billion.

Thus when given the choice, people overwhelmingly entrust their donations to private charities not the government. One can only imagine what donations to private charities would be if government at all levels didn’t confiscate trillions of our dollars in taxes every year.

Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, decided several years ago to leave most of his fortune to private charities. Buffett is notorious for advocating tax increases to support government spending. Yet, when he made the decision to donate his wealth, Buffett went with the private sector instead of the government.

A frustrating aspect of today’s public policy debate is that many pundits seem oblivious to the fact that the private sector could take care of those people truly in need if it was allowed to retain more of its earnings from the clutches of government. The government “crowds out” all kinds of private efforts and resources. If the government were to recede, private sector efforts to aid the needy would expand.

Obama and Infrastructure

The President is continuing his push for the federal government to go deeper into debt in order to fund infrastructure projects. While nobody disputes that the country has infrastructure needs, the precarious nature of federal and state finances indicate that policymakers need to starting thinking outside the box. Specifically, policymakers should be looking to make it easier for the private sector to fund and operate infrastructure projects.

As my colleagues Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren have explained, the main problem with government infrastructure spending is the lack of efficiency:

More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

A lot of what the the president wishes to spend taxpayer money on – for example, high-speed rail – is of questionable economic value. Unfortunately, policymakers all too often allocate resources on the basis of politics rather than economics.

For more on this topic, interested readers should check out our essays on the Department of Transportation. Also, an essay on privatization argues that “The benefits to the federal budget of privatization would be modest, but the benefits to the economy would be large as newly private businesses would innovate and improve their performance.”

A Thousand Cuts

That’s the title of a recent paper from the liberal Center for American Progress, which attempts to demonstrate “what reducing the federal budget deficit through large spending cuts could really look like.”

The authors, Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden, issue a challenge that I whole-heartedly embrace:

By showing sets of specific spending cuts we hope to deepen the discussion of where deficit reduction is going to come from. The challenge we issue is this: If you think all or most of the deficit problem should be dealt with on the spending side, are you then willing to own the cuts we outline? If not, then it’s time to go public with what your cuts are, with at least the same level of precision we do—no gimmicks, “sunsets,” or other games. No infomercial claims that you’ve got a magic elixir that gets the same results for half the money.

My colleague Chris Edwards anticipated this challenge with his 2005 book Downsizing the Federal Government. The book led to the creation of Cato’s Downsizing Government website, which is going department-by-department to outline specific — and substantial — spending cut recommendations.

The CAP authors lay out specific spending cuts of $255 billion in fiscal year 2015, which is the projected figure necessary to achieve a balanced “primary budget” in that year. (The primary budget is total spending minus outlays for servicing the federal debt). The White House’s most recent projections show “primary” spending of $3.8 trillion in FY2015, so we’re talking about an overall reduction of about 7 percent.

Ettlinger and Linden acknowledge that their proposed spending cuts will invite criticism. For instance, the authors only conjure up $57 billion in spending cuts from “entitlement” programs, which are the chief drivers of our unsustainable fiscal direction. More than 40 percent of the cuts come from defense. While many conservatives will have a problem with defense cuts, it’s definitely something Cato scholars support. In fact, the proposed cuts match up well with defense cuts proposed in a new policy analysis written by my colleagues Ben Friedman and Chris Preble.

Where we part ways with the authors of the paper is the presumption that “most spending cuts are painful, and in some ways, harmful.” There are two sides to the spending coin. As the Downsizing website repeatedly demonstrates, government spending not only inflicts pain on those who are forced to pay for it, but it also has harmful effects on the economy and even those who it purportedly helps.

Ettlinger and Linden also make a claim that is both subjective and obvious: “The truth is that, contrary to popular wisdom, most federal government dollars go to good and popular things.”

Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that most federal spending goes to “good things,” there’s still the tiny little question of whether the government should undertake the spending. What about the possibility — we’d say reality — that there are superior private and voluntary alternatives to the federal government assuming responsibility for doing “good things”?

From a moral perspective, it’s important to remember that everything “good” the government does necessarily comes with a “bad” given that government forcibly takes from one to give to another.

The authors claim that federal dollars go to “popular things.” Of course, subsidies are always popular with the recipients. Farm subsidies are popular with farmers, weapons programs are popular with defense contractors, and subsidized student loans are popular with students. As Frederic Bastiat so succinctly put it, “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

Regardless, Ettlinger and Linden deserve credit for moving the ball in the direction of a serious debate on which government programs can be cut. As they correctly note, the position that all we need is “just a little belt-tightening and reductions in wasteful government spending” is “nonsense.”

GOP’s Pledge to America

The House Republicans’ release of its “Pledge to America” has been met with criticism from across the ideological spectrum. While excoriation from the left was inevitable, those who were hoping that the GOP would set out a detailed agenda for limiting government were also not satisfied.

The 48-page document contains more pictures of Republican members of Congress than it does evidence that the GOP is seriously prepared to cut spending. While the introductory commentary is designed to appeal to the tea party movement, the actual “plan” to return budgetary sanity to Washington is both timid and incomplete.

The following are some thoughts on the pledge’s “plan to stop out of control spending and reduce the size of government”:

  • The document immediately notes that the “lack of a credible plan” to tackle the mounting federal debt causes uncertainty for employers and investors. The problem is the GOP leadership doesn’t have a credible plan to address the debt, or at least this document doesn’t offer one.
  • It disingenuously promises to “cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” when in fact it only intends to do so for a small portion of the overall federal budget. The reduction would apply to discretionary, non-security spending, which only accounts for about 15 percent of total federal spending.
  • Not only does the GOP punt on the big-ticket programs like Social Security and Medicare, the document devotes an entire section to maintaining the interventionist foreign policy that is helping to bankrupt the country. The GOP doesn’t appear to understand that the American people are having an increasingly difficult time understanding why the government continues to take bricks out of our own economy in order to build nations around the globe.
  • The document says that the GOP will “root out government waste.” Waste goes with government the way peanut butter goes with jelly. Nancy Pelosi has made the same promise, which demonstrates the vacuous nature of the proposal.
  • The GOP says it will cut the operations budget of Congress. That’s fine, but the legislative branch’s budget is only about $5 billion.
  • Calling for an end to the federal government’s control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a good idea. But that’s an easy position. They should instead be calling for an end to the government’s entire disastrous role in subsidizing homeownership.
  • The document calls for a freeze in federal non-security hiring. One would have thought the GOP would at least address exorbitant federal civilian employee pay. Freezing (or reducing) federal employment would take care of itself by eliminating agencies and programs, which is something the document doesn’t lay out a plan to do.
  • The GOP proposes to continue holding weekly votes to cut spending via its YouCut initiative. It’s a fine idea, but most of the cuts offered for consideration thus far have been relatively insignificant. For example, one of the cuts being proposed this week would “reduce funding for the wild horse and burro program to previously projected levels.” Not only would this only save $280 million over ten years, the GOP couldn’t even find the nerve to call for its outright abolition.
  • One piece of good news is that the GOP explicitly calls for the repeal of Obamacare.

With the Democrats content to irresponsibly promise more free lunches in the face of an unsustainable fiscal situation, it would have been refreshing for the House Republicans to square with the American people. However, with this document the GOP largely fell back on limited government platitudes.

Federal vs. Private Pay: A Response to OPM Director John Berry

The release of updated industry data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which show that the average federal employee continues to earn significantly more in compensation than the average private sector employee, has Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on the defensive.

In light of Berry’s assertion that Cato and other critics of federal pay are not “advancing a factually-oriented debate,” I’d like to make a few comments:  

First, the Washington Post reports that top OPM officials point to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that “[f]ederal employees made on average 22 percent less than workers in similar private-sector jobs.” To Berry’s credit, he dismissed that figure (along with comparisons made using BEA data) as being “faulty.”

Even if the BLS data comparison were true, it would only reflect wages. Federal benefits are generally more generous than those found in the private sector. We use the BEA data because it provides the most comprehensive accounting for the value of employee benefits.

Second, defenders like Berry point to higher education levels in the federal workforce relative to the private sector as a reason for the higher average compensation in the former. Because the aggregate private data includes industries with lower-skilled employees, like restaurants, defenders say comparing averages isn’t fair. 

However, breaking the BEA data out across 72 industries shows that the federal civilian workforce as an industry ranks sixth in terms of average compensation. As one would expect, average compensation in the restaurant and bar industry is dead last, and financial services are at the very top. (See this blog for the breakdown.)  

Third, in addition to ignoring benefits, defenders also ignore other perks of federal employment, including extreme job security. According to BLS data, in 2009 a private sector employee was more than three times more likely to be laid off or fired than a federal employee. As my colleague Chris Edwards points out in an essay on federal pay, federal workers also “receive generous holiday and vacation schedules, flexible work hours, training options, incentive awards, generous disability benefits, and union protections.”

Fourth, BLS data shows that a federal employee is more than 8 times less likely to quit than a private sector employee. We’ve argued that this indicates that federal employees recognize that the generous combination of wages, benefits and job security is hard to match in the private sector, so they stay put.

Defenders of federal pay haven’t adequately addressed this point. Attributing this discrepancy to a selfless motivation on the part of federal employees to serve the nation would be nonsense. A question that defenders need to answer is: if comparable private sector pay is so much better, why don’t more federal employees leave for the private sector? If they’re as high-skilled and educated as defenders claim, why settle for less than they’re worth?

The question of worth leads to the fifth, and in my opinion, the most important point.

I think the most valid criticism defenders of federal pay offer up is that we’re comparing “apples and oranges.” However, although they have a point, it’s not for the reasons they suggest.

In the private sector, an employee’s compensation is a reflection of his or her value in the market. For instance, one may not like that LeBron James makes millions of dollars playing basketball, but that’s what the market for professional basketball players says his production is worth. It’s no different for a considerably lower-paid employee in the restaurant industry.

What’s a federal employee worth? How does one measure a government employee’s production? Government isn’t subject to market disciplines. It can’t go out of business. It has no competitor. It doesn’t need to earn a profit or even break even. It doesn’t receive its revenue from voluntary transactions – its revenues are obtained via taxation, which is paid by individuals under compulsion and force.

Therefore, federal employee compensation is a function of the political process. Government employees are plugged into a pay scale, and can move up the scale by simply sticking around. President Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2011 budget that federal civilian employees receive an arbitrary across-the-board 1.4 percent pay increase. What does that figure have to do with a federal employee’s worth?

Federal and private employees are apples and oranges because the former is dependent on the latter for its existence. In the natural world, this relationship is call parasitism. This is not a pejorative statement. Every dollar earned by a federal employee is one less dollar that a private sector employee earns. One can argue over a federal employee’s value to society, but one cannot argue that the perceived value doesn’t come at the expense of the private sector.

According to the BEA, total federal wages and benefits amounted to $240 billion in 2009. That’s $240 billion in economic resources extracted from the private sector. Given that the private sector has lost millions of jobs while federal employment continues to expand, defenders of federal pay can’t just dismiss the critics as being “unfair.”

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GOP Spending Cap

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee have announced support for caps on the discretionary spending portion of the federal budget. According to press reports, discretionary spending under the cap for fiscal year 2011 would be approximately $20 billion less than what the president has proposed.

Appropriators – often referred to as the “third party” in Washington – exist to do one thing: spend other people’s money. Getting appropriators to agree to place any sort of limit themselves is a plus.

However, it’s hard to get excited about spending $20 billion less than the president. As the following chart shows, discretionary outlays have soared in the past decade:

With three months still to go in the current budget year, the federal deficit has already hit the trillion dollar mark. By year’s end the government will have borrowed about $1.4 trillion. It’s like the entire discretionary budget – defense and hundreds of other activities – are all financed by borrowing from the next generation.

Republicans apparently want agitated voters to see this gesture as evidence that the party is serious about out-of-control spending and deficits. But capping spending at the already exorbitant levels that Republicans helped reach isn’t exactly a big reform. Instead, Republicans need to propose the elimination of entire agencies and major programs for them to be taken seriously as a party willing to confront the nation’s looming financial crisis.