Tag: government programs

Cato Launches New Web Site Exposing Wasteful Government Spending

Did you know that the average American family spends $1,000 each year on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whether or not it consumes that agency’s services?  Or that the federal government annually spends $1,500 per household on net interest costs alone?

In an ongoing effort to shed light on runaway government spending and expose wasteful government programs, Cato launched a new Web site today that examines the federal budget department-by-department to see which agencies can be reformed or terminated. DownsizingGovernment.org describes which programs are wasteful, damaging and obsolete in an era of trillion-dollar deficits.

The research exposes that many public outlays—though vigorously defended by the politicians who created them and the constituencies they purport to help—are remarkably ineffective at achieving their core aims.

Here are just a few examples:

Appearing on CNBC Monday, DownsizingGovernment.com editor Chris Edwards explained more about the site:

Plus, keep track of where your tax dollars are going by following DownsizingGovernment.com on Twitter (@DownsizeTheFeds) and Facebook.

Funding ACORN

The ACORN scandal provides a good opportunity for citizens concerned about profligacy in Washington to explore some of the tools available to find out where their tax money goes.

A good place to start your research is the Federal Audit Clearinghouse on the Census website. All groups receiving more than $500,000 a year from the government are required to file a report. Just type in “ACORN” as the entity and the system pops up the group’s filings. My assistant John Nelson summarized the federal programs and amounts received by ACORN in recent years:

2003

Housing Counseling Assistance $1,168,388

Community Development Block Grants $388,273

Home Investment Partnership $8,000

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $204,082

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $85,000

Total $1,853,743

2004

Housing Counseling Assistance $2,209,009

Community Development Block Grants $221,007

Home Investment Partnership Program $21,092

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $127,183

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $105,000

Total $2,683,291

2005

Housing Counseling Assistance $2,605,558

Community Development Block Grants $367,560

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $153,082

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $140,917

Total $3,267,117

2006

Housing Counseling Assistance $1,955,074

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $59,541

Rural Housing and Economic Development $47,619

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $150,000

Community Development Block Grants $238,809

Total $2,451,043

2007

Housing Counseling Assistance $1,813,011

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $46,608

Rural Housing and Economic Development $30,504

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $60,000

Community Development Block Grants $372,950

Total $2,323,073

My colleague, Tad DeHaven, has discussed why these HUD programs that funded ACORN ought to be abolished completely.

Subsidy information is also available from IRS Form 990, which is filed by all non-profit groups and compiled at Guidestar and other websites. I am not an expert on this data, but Velma Anne Ruth of ABS Community Research has done a detailed analysis, which she kindly sent to me. She finds that federal funding for ACORN was about $1.7 million in 2008 and about $2.2 million in 2009.

Finally, a user-friendly website to research recipients of federal grants and contracts is www.usaspending.gov.

ACORN’s share of overall federal subsidies is tiny, but as thousands of similar organizations have become hooked on 1,800 different federal subsidy programs, a powerful lobbying force has been created that propels the $3.6 trillion spending juggernaut. ACORN’s own website touts its lobbying success in helping to pass various big government programs. So cutting off ACORN is a start, but just a small start at the daunting task of cutting back the giant federal spending empire.

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.

Why a “Public Option” Is Hazardous to Your Health

President Obama and other leading Democrats have proposed creating a new government health insurance program as an “option” for Americans under the age of 65. In a new study, Cato scholar Michael F. Cannon shows that government programs cost more and deliver lower-quality care than private insurance. “If Congress wants to make health care more efficient and increase competition in health insurance markets, there are far better options,” argues Cannon.

Fannie Med? Why a “Public Option” Is Hazardous to Your Health, Cato Policy Analysis No. 642

Why Taxing the Rich Is Not Enough to Fund Big Government

Appearing on Fox News on Monday, Cato’s Daniel J. Mitchell explained why taxing the rich to pay for big government programs may make for a good sound bite on the campaign trail, but when there aren’t enough wealthy people to tax, the middle class ends up footing the bill.

“When politicians are aiming at the rich, it’s the middle class that winds up getting hit in the crossfire,” Mitchell said. “They use ‘tax the rich’ as the rhetoric, but they always go after the ordinary people to get more money to fund their big government schemes.”

Watch the whole thing:

How Many Uninsured Are There?

The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy tackles the question:

The Census Bureau estimates that the number of uninsured amounts to 45.7 million people. But the agency might be over-counting by millions due to faulty assumptions…

Even though legislation won’t cover many of them, illegal immigrants are especially difficult to enumerate: Few raise their hands to be counted. Prof. [Jonathan] Gruber estimates they make up about 13% of the uninsured today, or nearly six million people of that 45 million number…

Of the rest, some people are eligible for health insurance but don’t know it and many can afford it but don’t want it. About 43% of uninsured nonelderly adults have incomes greater than 2.5 times the poverty level, according to a report released Tuesday by the business-backed Employment Policies Institute.

He left out a few things, though.

The estimate of 46 million uninsured, which comes from a less-than-ideal government survey, has been the occasion of a fraud on the public.  For 20 years, the Church of Universal Coverage told us that 40-some million Americans are uninsured for the entire year.  Then, experts including the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said that no, 40-some million is the number who are uninsured on any given day, and a lot of those people quickly regain coverage.  The number of Americans who are uninsured for the entire year is actually 20-30 million.  Yet the Church of Universal Coverage kept using that 40-some million estimate as if nothing had happened – even though the meaning of that estimate had completely changed.

The Congressional Budget Office also reports that as many as 15 percent of those 20-30 million chronically “uninsured” are eligible for government programs, so they’re effectively insured.

According to economists Mark Pauly of the University of Pennsylvania and Kate Bundorf of Stanford, as many as three-quarters of the uninsured could afford coverage but choose not to purchase it.  Again, according to the Congressional Budget Office, 60 percent of the uninsured are under age 35, and 86 percent are in good-to-excellent health.

Government intervention has made health insurance unnecessarily expensive for them, so these folks quite sensibly don’t want to be ripped off.  Mandating that they buy coverage is really about hunting them down and taxing them.

The “Culture of Spending” from the Mouths of Babes

Each semester, when I speak to Cato’s new employees and interns, I give them a quick discussion of some of the reasons that government tends to grow, such as the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs and what James Payne called “the culture of spending.” In his book by that title, Payne noted:

The congressman lives in a special world, a curiously isolated world that is dominated by the advocates of government action. He is subjected to a broad chorus of persuasion that incessantly urges the virtues of spending programs. Year after year he hears how necessary government programs are.

Day after day, year after year, people come to the congressman’s office with stories about why some particular government program is needed – to help their grandfather, their brother-in-law, their community – and rarely if ever does a constituent fly to Washington to urge his congressman to vote against any particular one of the myriad programs that add up to his entire income tax bill.

The Washington Post has a great illustration of this problem in the Sunday paper. The little town of Owego, New York, was excited to hear that Lockheed Martin would build the new presidential helicopter – it’s called Marine One, though fortunately for Lockheed the government wanted 23 of them – at a plant in Owego. But as the price tag ballooned from $6.8 billion to $13 billion, even politicians began to see it as an unnecessary expense. The military canceled the program on June 1. Hundreds of jobs will be lost in Owego. And as the Post writes:

An 11-year-old Owego girl, whose parents are longtime Lockheed employees, recently hand-wrote a letter to Obama. It was published in the local newspaper and quickly became a voice for her shaken community.

“Lockheed is the main job source in Owego,” Hailey Bell, now 12, wrote. “If you shut down the program, my mom may lose her job and a lot of other people too… . Owego will be a ghost town. I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here! Please really, really think it over.”

I’m sure she loves her parents and her town. And there’s no reason to expect Hailey to understand what $13 billion means to taxpaying Americans all over the country. But this is just the kind of story that members of Congress hear all the time: save my parents’ jobs, save my community, save our farms. And it all adds up to a $4 trillion federal budget with a $1.8 trillion deficit. (And by the way, if you Google “fiscal 2009 budget,” you will quickly find the Obama administration’s budget page, which somewhat oddly does not show the actual budget totals but does invite you to “Use the map below to learn more about how the President’s 2010 Budget is restoring long-term opportunity and prosperity in your state.”)

For a more, shall we say, adult view of what it means to direct federal dollars to particular areas, we might turn to an advertisement in the Durango, Colorado, Herald in 1987, which touted the Animas-La Plata dam and irrigation project  and made explicit the usual hidden calculations of those trying to get their hands on federal dollars:

Why we should support the Animas-La Plata Project: Because someone else is paying the tab! We get the water. We get the reservoir. They get the bill.

That’s the way they tell it back home, usually without putting it in writing. In public and in Washington, they say, “Without this dam, our little town will waste away. Only you can save us, Mr. Congressman.” And it’s bankrupting us.