Tag: government programs

Oberstar Comes to the EDA’s Defense

When Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) lost his bid for reelection in November, it brought to an end a congressional career that spanned nearly a half century. As a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Oberstar’s faith in the ability of the federal government to turn taxpayer water into wine was typical for a politician ensconced in the Washington Beltway bubble.

Oberstar reemerged this week to voice his support for legislation reauthorizing the Economic Development Administration, which is still being debated on the Senate floor. In an op-ed written for The Hill, Oberstar says that “It is disheartening to see that the agency I helped create more than 45 years ago which has had constant bipartisan support is now under unwarranted partisan attack in an economic environment when the kinds of jobs this agency helps create are needed more than ever.”

Oberstar says that it is “particularly troubling” that the EDA is receiving scrutiny after being unanimously reauthorized only three years ago. And without specifically naming him, Oberstar takes a shot at Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) for turning against the agency after having previously “supported and praised EDA investments in his home state.” Considering how rare it is for a member of Congress to admit to having made a mistake, I’d say that DeMint’s recent admission in the Wall Street Journal that he was wrong to have supported the EDA is refreshing.

DeMint correctly noted that the mistaken rationale behind the EDA’s creation during the Great Society is the same as the Democrat’s $814 billion stimulus bill: government programs can solve economic problems. Indeed, the longer the economic recovery remains sluggish and uncertain, the more the American people are questioning the ability of the federal government to simply turn on the money spigot and make the pain go away. For people like Jim Oberstar, that’s an unsettling development.

Many Americans are starting to understand what my colleagues and I have been repeatedly pointing out: there’s no free lunch when it comes to government programs. As a Cato essay on the Economic Development Administration explains, claims of the benefits from spending only look at half of the equation:

The EDA does create government jobs, and perhaps some private sector jobs, but that is only the visible effect. What is invisible, or ignored by policymakers, are the jobs never created because of the taxes that were raised to pay for EDA programs. Every dollar that the government extracts from the economy to pay for programs destroys more than a dollar of private sector economic activity. Taxation reduces the resources available for private sector job creation, and it also distorts the economy by altering price signals for working, saving, and other productive activities.

Oberstar offers anecdotal evidence of the EDA’s successes and trots out the familiar job creation and private sector leveraging claims often made by the agency’s proponents. For instance, he touts the EDA’s “exclusive mission of creating and retaining American jobs by leveraging private investment in the nation’s economically distressed communities and every dollar that the agency invests leverages another $6.90 in private/public investment to create the economic environment for small business to grow and prosper.”

One of the examples Oberstar cites as an example of an EDA success is support for “Washington State’s growing wine industry which currently employs more than 14,000 people and generates more than $3 billion to the state’s economy.” That’s an odd choice after touting the EDA’s assistance to the “nation’s economically distressed communities.” Besides, why should federal tax-paying winemakers in states other than Washington have to effectively subsidize their competition? And as the Cato essay notes, if the EDA is “generating real returns” as Oberstar states, then “surely local entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would be interested in funding such projects without government help.”

Finally, Oberstar singles out Cato for citing “three decade old GAO reports” in our criticism of the EDA. Actually, Cato’s essay on the EDA cites reports going back three decades.

Support for the Eternal Federal Welfare State Is Bipartisan

George Will makes a good point in his latest column: Democrats maintain a peculiar “conviction that whatever government programs exist should forever exist because they always have existed.” Will’s observation centers around the shameless Democratic attacks on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal to reform Medicare and Medicaid.

According to Will, “Ryan’s plan would alter Medicare. But Medicare has existed in its current configuration for only 46 of the nation’s 235 years.” Actually, “current configuration” isn’t quite accurate. For example, Medicare’s prescription drug component added by Republicans, which Ryan voted for, went into effect only five years ago.

Regardless, I agree with Will that so-called “progressives” have a “constricted notion of the possibilities of progress”:

The hysteria and hyperbole about Ryan’s plan arise, in part, from a poverty of today’s liberal imagination, an inability to think beyond the straight-line continuation of programs from the second and third quarters of the last century. It is odd that “progressives,” as liberals now wish to be called, have such a constricted notion of the possibilities of progress.

Yes, Ryan’s plan displays “imagination” and I would add that it took political guts to suggest the reforms knowing that the left would nail him to the cross. However, let’s not forget that Ryan’s plan would also further cement these twin pillars of the federal welfare state. For all the silly accusations that Ryan is proposing to “privatize” Medicare, his plan repeatedly states that his aim is to “save” it:

Letting government break its promises to current seniors and to future generations is unacceptable. The reforms outlined in this budget protect and preserve Medicare for those in and near retirement, while saving and strengthening this critical program so that future generations can count on it to be there when they retire.

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I understand Ryan’s assurance to “those in and near retirement” that Medicare as they know it won’t be touched. However, I can’t square Ryan’s reference at the outset of his plan to the “timeless principles of American government enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – liberty, limited government, and equality under the rule of law” with his intention to strengthen “this critical program so that future generations can count on it be there when they retire.”

Now that Ryan’s plan has taken its inevitable beating from demagoguing Democrats, the GOP appears to be upping the “save Medicare for future generations” rhetoric.

Here’s tea party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) as reported by Politico:

‘I understand the benefits that Medicare brings to America. It should be a part of our country,’ Rubio added. ‘I want Medicare to exist in a way that is unchanged for people that are in Medicare now. I want Medicare to exist when I retire. I want Medicare to exist when my children retire. And I don’t want Medicare to bankrupt itself for our country. And Medicare, as it’s currently structured, will go bankrupt.’

If that’s what Rubio, Ryan, and the rest of the congressional Republicans desire, then thank you for being honest. But please stop wrapping the intention to maintain for eternity a gigantic federal welfare state in the mantle of individual liberty, limited government, and the Constitution.

Government Cheese

Self-anointed elites have been relentless in prodding government planners to apply their enlightened solutions for the purported benefit of the ignorant masses. As a result, the federal government has become a Super Nanny monitoring and guiding the intimate activities of the nation’s 300 million inhabitants. However, the government is not altruistic and does not have the solutions for how people should live their lives.

The amalgamation of programs and regulations that constitute the federal government is basically a reflection of the myriad special interests that have won a seat at Uncle Sam’s table. Government consists of fallible men and women who are naturally susceptible to pursuing policies that have less to do with the “general welfare” and more to do with rewarding the privileged birds incessantly chirping in their ears.

One result is that government programs often work at cross purposes. A perfect illustration is the confused U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spends taxpayer money subsidizing fatty foods while at the same time setting nutritional guidelines with the purported aim of getting Americans to eat healthier.

The New York Times explains:

Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits. “This partnership is clearly working,” Brandon Solano, the Domino’s vice president for brand innovation, said in a statement to The New York Times.

But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino’s, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Your tax dollars are being used by the USDA to help Domino’s Pizza (and Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, and Burger King according to the article) sell its product. Of course, the government isn’t trying to help these fast food giants so much as it’s trying to help a particularly favored special interest: farmers.

While calls to get rid of subsidies for Dairy Management would obviously be on target, the better move would be to get rid of the entire USDA, which the New York Times comically refers to as “America’s nutrition police.” The USDA has been around for almost 150 years, and yet Americans have never been fatter. If there’s a solution to America’s obesity “problem,” it won’t be found in Washington. In a free society, the only solution is to make individuals responsible for the consequences of their own decision-making.

See these essays for more on downsizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A Post-Health Care Realignment?

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Joe Biden’s Big F-ing Deal, progressives have led a consistent and largely successful campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Now, Matt Yglesias suggests, it’s time to take a victory lap and call it a day:

For the past 65-70 years—and especially for the past 30 years since the end of the civil rights argument—American politics has been dominated by controversy over the size and scope of the welfare state. Today, that argument is largely over with liberals having largely won. […] The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures. Instead, you’re looking at carbon pricing, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform as the medium-term agenda. Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage. This will probably lead to some realigning of political coalitions. Liberal proponents of reduced trade barriers and increased immigration flows will likely feel emboldened about pushing that agenda, since the policy environment is getting substantially more redistributive and does much more to mitigate risk. Advocates of things like more and better preschooling are going to find themselves competing for funds primarily with the claims made by seniors.

I’d like to believe this is true, though I can’t say I’m persuaded. It seems at least as likely that, consistent with the historical pattern, the new status quo will simply be redefined as the “center,” and proposals to further augment the welfare state will move from the fringe to the mainstream of opinion on the left.

That said, it’s hardly unheard of for a political victory to yield the kind of medium-term realignment Yglesias is talking about. The end of the Cold War destabilized the Reagan-era conservative coalition by essentially taking off the table a central—and in some cases the only—point of agreement among diverse interest groups. Less dramatically, the passage of welfare reform in the 90s substantially reduced the political salience of welfare policy. The experience of countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, moreover, suggests that if Obamacare isn’t substantially rolled back fairly soon, it’s likely to become a political “given” that both parties take for granted. Libertarians, of course, have long lamented this political dynamic: Government programs create constituencies, and become extraordinarily difficult to cut or eliminate, even if they were highly controversial at their inceptions.

We don’t have to be happy about this pattern, but it is worth thinking about how it might alter the political landscape a few years down the line.  One possibility, as I suggest above, is that it will just shift the mainstream of political discourse to the left. But as libertarians have also long been at pains to point out, the left-right model of politics, with its roots in the seating protocols of the 18th century French assembly, conceals the multidimensional complexity of politics. There’s no intrinsic commonality between, say, “left” positions on taxation, foreign policy, and reproductive rights—the label here doesn’t reflect an underlying ideological coherence so much as the contingent requirements of assembling a viable political coalition at a particular time and place.  If an issue that many members of one coalition considered especially morally urgent is, practically speaking, taken off the table, the shape of the coalitions going forward depends largely on the issues that rise to salience. Libertarians are perhaps especially conscious of this precisely because we tend to take turns being more disgusted with one or another party—usually whichever holds power at a given moment.

The $64,000 question, of course, is what comes next. As 9/11 and the War on Terror reminded us, the central political issues of an era are often dictated by fundamentally unpredictable events. But some of the obvious current candidates are notable for the way they cut across the current partisan divide. In my own wheelhouse—privacy and surveillance issues—Republicans have lately been univocal in their support of expanded powers for the intelligence community, with plenty of help from hawkish Democrats. Given their fondness for invoking the specter of soviet totalitarian states, I’ve hoped that the folks mobilizing under the banner of the Tea Party might begin pushing back on the burgeoning surveillance state. Thus far I’ve hoped in vain, but if that coalition outlasts our current disputes, one can imagine it becoming an issue for them in 2011 as parts of the Patriot Act once again come up for reauthorization, or in 2012 when the FISA Amendments Act is due to sunset. In the past, the same issues have made strange bedfellows of the ACLU and the ACU, of Ron Paul Republicans and FireDogLake Democrats.  Obama has pledged to take up comprehensive immigration reform during his term, and there too significant constituencies within each party fall on opposite sides of the issue.

Further out than that it’s hard to predict. But more generally, the possibility that I find interesting is that—against a background of technologies that have radically reduced the barriers to rapid, fluid, and distributed group formation and mobilization—the protracted health care fight, the economic crisis, and the explosion of federal spending have created an array of potent political communities outside the party-centered coalitions. They’ve already shown they’re capable of surprising alliances—think Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist.  Suppose Yglesias is at least this far correct: The next set of political battles are likely to be fought along a different value dimension than was health care reform. Precisely because these groups formed outside the party-centered coalitions, and assuming they outlast the controversies that catalyzed their creation, it’s hard to predict which way they’ll move on tomorrow’s controversies. It’s entirely possible that there are latent and dispersed constituencies for policy change outside the bipartisan mainstream who have now, crucially, been connected: Any overlap on orthogonal value dimensions within or between the new groups won’t necessarily be evident until the relevant values are triggered by a high-visibility policy debate.  Still, it’s reason to expect that the next decade of American politics may be even more turbulent and surprising than the last one.

A Tale of Two Frauds

The President has announced a government crackdown on Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The effort appears to be an attempt to make it easier for Americans to swallow the health care “reform” he’s trying to shove down their throats. As House Republican leader John Boehner correctly asked, “Why can’t we crack down on fraud without a big-government takeover of health care?”

As I’ve noted before, improper payments made by Medicare and Medicaid is may well be $50 billion more than the already appalling $100 billion annual figure the president cited. Administrative efforts to rein in fraud and abuse are welcome, but they won’t solve the huge and fundamental inefficiencies of these programs. Because the law requires government health care programs to quickly get payments out the door, Uncle Sam will always be engaged in a costly game of “pay and chase.”

The broader problem is that government programs aren’t subject to market discipline. Policymakers and administrators have little incentive to be frugal because they face few or no negative consequences when playing with other people’s money.

Most of us have noticed how good private companies can be at reducing fraud. I recently received a call about questionable charges on my Discover credit card. After quizzing me on a list of purchases made with my card in the past 24 hours, it became clear that someone had gotten control of my account. Discover immediately closed the account, opened an investigation, and removed me from any liability for the fraudulent charges.

What amazed me is that I only had about $300 worth of charges on my card. It’s not a big account and thus not a big money maker for Discover. Yet, within 24 hours of a string of suspicious charges, the company was right on top of it before I even realized anything nefarious was going on. Private markets don’t always work this well, but government programs almost never do.

Trouble in Massachusetts

Yesterday, Cato released a new study, “The Massachusetts Health Plan: Much Pain, Little Gain,” which showed that official estimates overstate the gains in health insurance coverage resulting from a 2006 Massachusetts law by at least 45 percent.  The study also finds: supporters understate the law’s cost by nearly 60 percent; government programs are crowding out private insurance; self-reported health improved for some but fell for others; and young adults are responding to the law by avoiding Massachusetts.

Given that the Massachusetts health plan bears a “remarkable resemblance” to the Obama plan, the study should serve as a warning sign to members of Congress, says Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies.

The study has received coverage in Investor’s Business Daily, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Detroit News, The Washington Times, the Reason Foundation and the Pioneer Institute.

$98 Billion in Improper Payments

The Obama administration and its allies in Congress want the federal government to expand its role in subsidizing health care. We are told that this expansion will restrain rising health care costs. But an OMB report yesterday that the government made $98 billion in improper payments last year – $55 billion of which came from Medicare and Medicaid – ought to raise suspicions about that claim.

According to Reuters, OMB Director Peter Orszag told reporters that the embarrassing figures from Medicare and Medicaid demonstrate the need for health care reform. I would concur if “reform” meant reducing the government’s role in health care. However, he means the opposite, which raises the question of how giving more money to an already waste-prone and bureaucratic federal health system can possibly make sense for the economy.

The administration has promised to cut down on improper payments with the aid of a new executive order. According to the Associated Press:

Under the executive order, every federal agency would have to maintain a Web site that tracks improper payments, error rates and outstanding payments. If an agency doesn’t meet targets for reducing error rates for two years in a row, the agency director and responsible official will have to directly report to OMB to explain the delinquency and new actions they will take.

Somehow I doubt this will amount to much of a deterrent. The AP also said the administration plans to impose penalties on government contractors who receive improper payments. But last month it was reported that “the Department of Defense awarded nearly $30 million in stimulus contracts to six companies while they were under federal criminal investigation on suspicion of defrauding the government.”

Democrat Tom Carper, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on federal financial management, seemed to partly understand the broader meaning of the improper payment estimates:

It goes without saying that these results would be completely unacceptable in the private sector, as they should be in government, especially at a time of record deficits…Unfortunately, these numbers may still be just the tip of the iceberg since they don’t even include estimates for several major programs, including the Medicare prescription drug plan.

Yes, Senator, which is precisely why bigger government – be it stimulus, bail outs, or health care reform – is an inferior option to letting the marketplace provide for our wants and needs.

Carper is also right about the $98 billion figure being the “tip of the iceberg.” As has been noted here before:

The Government Accountability Office estimates that the two major government health programs are currently losing a combined $50 billion annually to such payments. But that estimate probably low-balls the actual losses. Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow, a top specialist in health care fraud, estimates that 20 percent of federal health program budgets are consumed by improper payments, which would be a staggering $150 billion a year for Medicare and Medicaid.

See this essay for more on fraud and abuse in government programs.