Tag: government failure

Stopping the ‘Culture of Spending’

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s quick reversal on the subject of earmarks was a surprise, but that quick, largely symbolic win against profligate spending certainly won’t translate into a more permanent movement without sustained effort. Shortly after McConnell made his speech supporting a “moratorium” on earmarks, I spoke with Matt Kibbe of Freedomworks about turning the enthusiasm for smaller government into that enduring force. He said understanding public choice gives lawmakers a better shot at turning popular anger at government into reductions in its size and scope. Freedomworks recently held orientation sessions for freshmen members of Congress. A primer in public choice was on the agenda.

Cato’s Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice is a good place to start to understand the mechanics of government dealmaking.

Hot Heads and Government Failure

The left-wing blogosphere and left-leaning newspapers have spent the past few days joyously incensed over the story of a Tennessee city fire department that allowed a home to burn because the homeowner hadn’t paid his annual fire fee.

AlterNet’s Jonathan Holland titled-and-teased his post on the fire:

Ayn Rand Conservatism at Work – Firefighters Let Family’s House Burn Down Because Owner Didn’t Pay $75 Fee

Talk of limited government is appealing until you see what it actually means in practice: a society in which it’s every man for himself.

ThinkProgress’s Zaid Jilani thundered that the fire demonstrates that there are two competing visions of American society:

One, the conservative vision, believes in the on-your-own society, and informs a policy agenda that primarily serves the well off and privileged sectors of the country. The other vision, the progressive one, believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background. The conservative vision was on full display last week in Obion County, Tennessee.

(An aside: ThinkProgress loves to throw in partisan barbs, so Jilani claims that “every seat” of the Obion County Commission is “filled by a Republican,” a claim that Holland echoes. Nope. But then, ThinkProgress recently harangued Michael Cannon for an opinion that isn’t his, so ya’ know…)

Finally, today the New York Times editorial page chimes in:

In any case, the founding fathers left no message that government can make an object lesson of a neglectful citizen by letting his house burn down. The [homeowners] deserve an apology, even if it won’t come from the candidates peddling dreams of constricted government.

It’s unfortunate that these writers didn’t pause from their fervor to consider the facts. In a nutshell: The firefighters involved were from a city government fire department following a city government policy concerning people who didn’t pay a city government fee for a 20-year-old city government program that was adopted in response to a county government decision.

John Galt in Nomex this ain’t.

Beyond the facts, these writers are confused about basic political theory.

All three writers argue that fire service is a public good that shouldn’t be left to private action. “Public good” is a technical term referring to a type of market failure in which (to over-simplify) it would be easy for some people to benefit from a good without paying their fair share for it. As a result, public goods are at risk of being under-provided because of all the free-riding. The classic (though flawed) example of a public good is a lighthouse: a ship can benefit from the safety of its beacon without contributing to the lighthouse’s construction and upkeep.

But it’s unclear how the Obion County fire would be an example of a public goods failure – obviously a homeowner who fails to contribute to fire service can be excluded from receiving the service. A better example in support of the public goods argument might be that fire service is publicly provided so as to protect the neighbors of a house that’s on fire – though again, if you read the details of the Obion County fire, you find that it provides an example that such neighbors can be protected.

Indeed, the Obion County fire seems a clear example of government failure, not market failure. Because city government provides the service (albeit through a voluntary fee system for people like the affected owner who live outside the city lines), people likely consider it a subsidized public service. As a result, there is strong disincentive for any private firm to enter the market and offer competing service. It’s not difficult to imagine what a private fire service would do in an event like the Obion fire: it likely would extinguish the blaze and then send the homeowner a bill. There are plenty of examples of this sort of practice in private marketplaces. And it’s what the government fire company in Obion should have done. Instead, the firefighters stood by and watched the house burn.

One can’t blame the NYT editorial page, ThinkProgress, and AlterNet for trying to spin an example of government failure into a tale of the horrors of limited government. Just a few weeks out from a national election in which progressive candidates appear poised for a major waxing, the last thing the progressive side needs is a heartrending example of government failure. And yet, the Obion County fire is an example of why that waxing is sorely needed — and justified.

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Government of Continual Failure

The Washington Post is full of so many stories about government failure these days, it’s hard to keep up.

Today, on page A19 we learn about a Small Business Administration subsidy program that has a 60-percent default rate. On the same page, we learn that the U.S. Postal Service will lose $7 billion this year.

Flipping over to page A20, we learn that former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik is a liar, a tax cheat, and thoroughly corrupt.

Then flip back to A15, and columnist Steve Pearlstein rightly lambastes the latest stimulus scheme from Congress: ”This $10 billion boondoggle is nothing more than a giveaway to the real estate industrial complex.”

Finally, on A14, we’ve got government-owned Fannie Mae losing a colossal $19 billion this year and asking the Treasury for another $15 billion taxpayer hand-out.

The federal government is a mess. Policymakers have no idea what the effects will be when they spend billions on scheme after scheme. Most of them don’t read the legislation, they don’t understand economics, and they never admit mistakes when their schemes almost inevitably fail. Fully 40 percent of the vast federal budget will be debt-fueled this year, but few policymakers seem to care. And public corruption seems never-ending. 

Isn’t it time to give libertarianism a chance?

Fear of Freedom Leaves Only Faith Healing for Our Schools

Historian Diane Ravitch drives me nuts. She has written numerous, terrific books chronicling the ills of government control of education, including the wrenching social conflict it has caused; the ejection of meaningful content from textbooks and tests it has required; and the dominance of educrats over parents and children it has enabled. She has been, essentially, the official historian of government-schooling’s failure. And yet, in a new blog interview with journalist John Merrow, she appears not to comprehend the most important lesson her copious works have to offer: that government education is doomed to fail.

Why the huge disconnect between her historiography and willingness to act on its clear implications? Because, it appears, as much as she knows that government schooling fails, she fears educational freedom even more. “Privatization,” in her mind, is simply too dangerous:

I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have.  In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’  What’s your ideal approach?  Are we moving in that direction?

If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.

Unfortunately, while Prof. Ravitch knows a gigantic amount about education history, she exhibits precious little understanding of freedom or its economic subset, free markets. For one thing, charter schooling – a system by which public schools are given a right to exist and largely held accountable by government – isn’t even close to “privatization,” if by that we mean taking control from government and giving it to free, “private” individuals. Worse, Ravitch evinces a reflexive and, frankly, simplistic fear of free markets in hyperbolically asserting that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” I’d strongly suggest that she explore some non-education history – for instance, that of government-sponsored institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act; and federal regulation – before making any such over-the-top declaration again.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Prof. Ravitch fails to grasp – or, perhaps, to intuitively feel – how freedom works, and hence she fears it. Like many people, maybe she’s just not comfortable with seemingly ethereal spontaneous order, and needs to have some higher power pulling the strings to feel safe. Perhaps she fails to see how freedom, by fostering competition and innovation, produces all of the wonderful things we take for granted. Maybe she doesn’t really understand that it is due to freedom that we have an abundance of computers, coffee cups, cars, houses, package delivery services, miracle drugs, and pencils, not to mention religious pluralism, marketplaces of idea, and even happiness.

And then there’s the flip-side: government failure. While she has done more than perhaps any other historian to detail government failure and damage it has inflicted in education, Ravitch seems dead set against applying what she knows to public policy. She knows, for instance, that government often works precisely for the powerful special interests it’s supposed to keep in check. She doesn’t, though, seem to know why that is, and why it is the rule in government. She doesn’t appear to realize that the people who would be regulated, or who are employed by government, have by far the greatest motivation to get involved in the politics of their narrow areas, and hence exercise by far the most influence over them. And she doesn’t realize that it is only when special interests control government – not when they are in free markets – that they can exert unchecked power, because it is only then that they no longer have to get others to voluntarily do business with them.

Unfortunately, Ravitch’s apparent fear of freedom forces her to deny the only hope for making American education really work:  to empower all parents to choose, and to set educators free. Only then would schools be able to specialize in the needs of our hugely diverse children, and would children be able to attend them. Only then would educators have to compete for their money, forcing them to respond to the people they are supposed to serve rather than exercising political control over them. Only then would we see in education the kind of powerful innovation and progress we take for granted in everything from consumer electronics to restaurants.

And yes, freedom works in education, just as it does in almost every field of human endeavor. Despite much of the world having adopted the government-schooling model, we have ample evidence of this. For instance, James Tooley’s hugely important research reveals how private, for-profit schools are educating the world’s poorest children much more effectively than “free” government schools. And Andrew Coulson’s recent review of education research reveals that the more free an education system, the better its results.

Freedom, quite simply, works, and government, typically, does not. Which might be exactly why, after Ravitch has bashed “privatization” and “deregulation,” the only prescription she has left is blind, reality-ignoring hope: “At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.”

We should wait, in other words, for a miracle, a healing of that which is inherently broken. It is, of course, no solution at all, but both knowing the history of American education, and fearing real freedom, Ravitch has nothing else to offer.

Trapped Inside the Mime’s Box

Kevin Carey, policy director at the think tank Education Sector, asserts that when it comes to higher education libertarians are boxed in, unable to find a solution to out-of-control college costs that won’t violate at least one, basic libertarian principle:

This puts libertarians in somewhat of a box. On the one hand, they tend to be hostile toward the tens of billions of public dollars that flow into colleges every year. The more colleges cost, the greater the claim on the average citizen’s hard-earned money and thus reduction in their precious liberty etc., etc.

But the best way to bend down the long-term higher education cost curve and thus reduce government spending is to increase government regulation in the form of mandatory reporting. So it’s a pick your poison situation for the Cato folks — would you rather have Big Brother’s hand in your wallet or his eye on your business? You really can’t avoid both.

Now, I don’t want to seem obnoxious about this. After all, in the same piece that produced this quote, Carey notes that “while my politics are pretty far from Cato’s and I often think they’re wrong, they tend to be wrong in interesting ways.” I thank him for that (I think), though I should note that the impetus for his piece is a paper that comes from the John William Pope Center – the same paper I discuss here – not from Cato. So it might not even be Cato that Carey finds interesting. Regardless, here’s my potentially obnoxious-sounding reply:

Without even discussing the extremely dubious assumption that more regulation will lead to lower college costs, wouldn’t the best, most direct way to “reduce government spending” obviously be to, well, reduce, or even stop, government spending?

Of course it would, and that is the obvious solution for libertarians! It would get Big Brother out of our wallets and kill whatever justification subsidies might give him to gaze into our business. And it wouldn’t just make libertarians feel better – the benefits would accrue to almost everyone. If students and donors, rather than taxpayers, were to cover much more of colleges’ costs, taxpayers would save money, colleges would be unable to charge as much as they currently do, and schools would have to focus much more on their customers and patrons.

So there is no either-more-regulation-or-higher-costs box. Indeed, the only box that libertarians could possibly be trapped in is a mime’s box – a purely illusory one that someone has to really, really want to believe in for it to have any sort of existence at all. 

Having broken free of the invisible, intangible box, let me address one other thing that Carey brought up both in the discussion held at Cato, and his latest commentary:

The problem is that colleges aren’t just going to unilaterally release lots of new information on their own. Nor would it help matters much if they did; for data to matter it has to be standardized in a way that allows for comparison. That’s why companies report one set of quarterly financial results to the SEC, not 50 different sets to each state. Given that higher education is a national market this leads to a similar national solution: The federal government should compel colleges to release much more information about success as a condition of receiving direct or indirect federal aid.

The idea that a market that happens to be national in scope somehow requires federal control is both very common, and very inaccurate, simply equating “national” with “federal” and moving on from there. Even worse, though, is the even more basic assumption that to get something good, or just standardized, government control is required.

Whether it’s McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris, an item on the menu in Beverly Hills is going to be essentially the same as in New York City. Why? Not because Washington says it must be, but because that keeps the customers coming. Or consider the QWERTY keyboard: It became the national standard by free-market, not government, forces. And how about the Model T, which was driven by Americans from Maine to San Diego? It was standardized not because the federal government said “this is a national car, so we must make it the national standard,” but because one company produced it and it was freely chosen by customers from sea to shining sea. And how do we choose automobiles today? Not by going to some federal report on what a car should be (though perhaps that day is coming) but, often, by consulting such trade mags as Road and Track.

Clearly, we don’t need government to set standards or inform consumers – markets will do those things themselves. But that markets will set their own standards is just part of the story. Sometimes – indeed, almost all of the time – you simply don’t want a single standard: Vegetarians don’t want a great steak. Many people would rather click than type. The English major fascinated by Chaucer doesn’t need a cyclotron. The working mom often doesn’t want the same education as the parentally funded 18-year-old.

And then there is the gigantic – but usually ignored – problem of government failure: Government regulation and standardization is very costly. It can be used to crush the opponents of the politically well-connected rather than advance the common good. It can have crippling unintended consequences. And, as former Dickinson College president, Clinton-era Department of Education assistant secretary, and current George Mason University professor A. Lee Fritschler made clear at the discussion of the Pope Center’s paper, it also simply fails – a lot. Indeed, based on his experience at the Department of Education, Fritschler is adamant that the feds are simply incapable of effectively regulating higher education.

So once again, Carey sees a mime’s box. This time, though, it’s not one he imagines entrapping libertarians, but one he thinks Washington can drop on the ivory tower to make it work right. It’s a different box, but just as illusory.

All-Star Lineup in New York

Cato is planning a seminar in New York on April 30 with an all-star lineup of speakers: Nat Hentoff, our new senior fellow and perhaps the leading First Amendment advocate of the past generation. Top climate scientist Pat Michaels. Peter Schiff, the financial guru who spent 2006 and 2007 failing to persuade people that the U.S. housing and financial markets were on the verge of collapse. And Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s top scientists and the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine profile for his “heretical” views on global warming. Check out the program:

  • 11:05–11:35 a.m. Nat Hentoff —Keynote Address: An Endangered Native Species: The First Amendment
  • 11:35–11:55 a.m. Pat MichaelsClimate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know
  • 11:55 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Peter SchiffEconomic Crisis: A Government Failure
  • 12:30–2:00 p.m. Freeman Dyson —Luncheon Address: Climate Disaster, Safe Nukes, and Other Myths

Register for the event here ($100 per person).

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