Tag: government spending

Spend Money to Save Money?

You know all those promises that spending more taxpayers’ money on some program will actually result in taxpayer savings – eventually? Check out this story in Sunday’s Parade magazine:

Ten years ago, Congress created a new system of government credit cards for federal employees booking work-related travel. The cards were meant to curb waste and abuse. But since their introduction, charges have doubled—from $4.39 billion in 1999 to $8.28 billion last year.

Among the expenses flagged in a new report from the Congressional Research Service: $3700 for laser eye surgery, $4100 for a first-class trip to Hawaii, and $100 million in unclaimed refunds for airline tickets that were purchased but never used.

Of course, the doubled spending is not all waste, at least not in the narrow sense. In the past nine Bush-Obama years, total federal spending doubled from about $1.8 trillion to $3.6 trillion. But certainly it doesn’t look like the promised efficiencies have been realized.

Public Tires of Wasteful “Stimulus” Spending

The president may believe that he’s created thousands (or is that millions?) of jobs, but the public doesn’t believe him.  In fact, according to Rasmussen Reports, a plurality of the public wants to drop the rest of the “stimulus” spending while keeping the tax cuts:

Forty-five percent (45%) of Americans say the rest of the new government spending authorized in the $787-billion economic stimulus plan should now be canceled. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that just 36% disagree and 20% are not sure.

Just 20% of adults say the tax cuts included in the stimulus plan should be canceled while 55% disagree. The stimulus plan includes $288 billion in tax cuts.

While there is a wide partisan gap on the question of stimulus spending, there is little partisan disagreement on maintaining the tax cuts.

President Obama on Monday vowed to speed up the pace of stimulus spending and said the money will help “create or save” 600,000 more jobs this summer.

However, only 31% of Americans believe the new government spending in the stimulus package creates new jobs. Forty-eight percent (48%) say the stimulus spending does not create jobs, and 21% are not sure.

This is certainly a better approach for growing the economy.  The people are proving to be a lot smarter than their governors in Washington.

Rotating Congress

In today’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank does a typically brilliant job deconstructing the activities of Congress. He looks at how members of the various defense committees put their energies into fighting for home-state hand-outs rather than focusing on broader defense issues from a national perspective.

The dominance of parochial interests over the general public interest is, of course, a long-standing problem in Congress. Members from cotton-growing states gravitate to the farm committees in order to defend cotton interests, while members from inner cities gravitate to committees overseeing urban affairs to defend programs that subsidize their constituents.

The result is that Congress spends a lot of money on items that don’t have broad public support, and it spends little time actually considering policies from a national perspective.

A partial solution to the problem would be mandatory committee rotations every two years in the House and Senate. All committee assignments would be made by random selection at the beginning of each Congress.

People will say: “You can’t do that because members on particular committees are often experts in their field.” That would be a good argument if members used their expertise to serve the general interest of the public. Rep. Jack Murtha is an expert on defense issues, and in theory he could be spending his and his staff’s time probing Pentagon operations, reviewing administration defense strategies, overseeing procurement programs to reduce waste, and other public-spirited activities.

But that is apparently not what Murtha and most other members of Congress spend their time doing. Anyone who watches congressional committee action on C-SPAN can see the pattern that Milbank describes–members use their brief time with important witnesses to get in on-the-record statements in support of favored special interests. And their staffs spend most of their time figuring out how to maximize the home-state grab from the budget, not examining big-picture policy issues.

We have a $3 trillion government because members of Congress love to spend money, as a sort of general proclivity. But they are particularly addicted to spending money on their home states. Random committee assignment would help to disrupt that addiction, and it would allow members to adopt a more neutral and critical eye on matters in front of the committees that they were assigned.

Declining Support for More Spending

The Pew Research Center has come out with the report of its latest survey on trends in political values.  There is much interesting stuff here. For example:

The public continues to broadly support stricter environmental laws and regulation, but its willingness to pay higher prices, and suffer slower economic growth for the sake of environmental protection has declined substantially from two years ago. In the new poll, 51% agree that protecting the environment should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and some job losses, down from 66% in 2007. At the same time, the share saying that people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment has dropped from 60% in 2007 to 49% currently. This represents a 17-year low point on this measure. Surprisingly, declines since 2007 in support for economic sacrifices to protect the environment have been particularly large among young people and political independents.

These results suggest one reason cap-and-trade is having trouble in Congress. Imagine what might happen if the public actually had to pay more for Obama’s green agenda.

The results are also consistent with the hypothesis that support for government spending should begin to decline almost immediately after Obama took office.

Canada and Jefferson’s Natural Progress

Thomas Jefferson famously opined that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” but Canada has bucked that gloomy forecast in recent years. As my co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday showed, Canada has:

  • Cut government spending
  • Cut government debt
  • Balanced its budget consistently
  • Pre-funded its version of Social Security to make it solvent
  • Decentralized power within its federation of provinces
  • Cut taxes, particularly corporate taxes 

Meanwhile, the United States has headed in the opposite direction in each of these policy areas. Consider further that Canada has other economic policy advantages over the increasingly uncompetitive welfare state to its south:

  • Canada has more liberal immigration policies for highly skilled workers than does the United States, which has added greatly to the entrepreneurial vibrancy of Canada’s economy.
  • Canada has long had a stable,  efficient, and competitive financial sector, which avoided the government-assisted meltdown that occurred in the United States.
  • Canada has a home ownership rate as high as the United States, yet it does not have a distortionary mortgage interest tax deduction.
  • Canada recently implemented large Roth IRA style savings accounts, which are much more flexible than the U.S. version.
  • The Canadian federal capital gains tax rate is 14.5 percent, which compares to the current 15 percent in the United States and 20 percent under Obama’s tax plan.
  • Canada has no federal ministry or department of education. The K-12 schools are the sole responsibility of the provinces, yet Canadian kids  generally do better than American kids on international tests.
  • In recent years, Canada has probably been more supportive of NAFTA, and free trade in general, than its main trading partner, the United States.

Major pro-market reforms are possible in advanced welfare states – Jefferson can be proven wrong, as Canada illustrates. U.S policymakers can prove Jefferson wrong as well. They can start by cutting spending, decentralizing power out of Washington, and making pro-growth tax reforms in response to globalization, as Canada has, rather than imposing self-defeating “Buy America” provisions and making childish rants about “corporations moving jobs offshore.”

First 100 Days: More of the Same

President Obama campaigned on a promise of change. But the first 100 days of his administration have seen a continuation of the Bush administration’s irresponsible fiscal policies: more bailouts, higher spending, and mounting debt.

The president has already signed a tax hike that disproportionately hurts lower-income people, and is seeking additional tax increases to fund a transition to a more centrally-planned, European-styled economy.

Just as previous administrations have done, the president is using the current economic ‘crisis’ to justify further government encroachment upon the private sector. In doing so, dangerous precedents are being set that could have negative repercussions for future economic growth and individual liberty.

Waste, Fraud, and Stimulus

At Capitol News Connection, brought to you each morning by your tax dollars, they reported this morning:

With more than a trillion tax dollars tied up in the Troubled Asset Relief Program and stimulus spending, Congress is trying to figure out how to account for every penny.

Uh-huh. Congress is always on top of our federal dollars.

Coincidentally, just hours after the CNC report, the Government Accountability Office released a report warning about the lack of oversight procedures in the kitchen-sink stimulus bill. And a few days earlier the inspector general for the TARP program reported that Treasury has no real details on how TARP funds are being spent. In fact, IG Neil Barofsky told Congress that there were 20 criminal investigations into possible TARP fraud already underway.

Two months ago Barofsky and the comptroller general had warned of the likelihood of waste in huge new government programs:

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, told a House subcommittee that the government’s experiences in the reconstruction of Iraq, hurricane-relief programs and the 1990s savings-and-loan bailout suggest the rescue program could be ripe for fraud…

Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general of the U.S., told the subcommittee that a reliance on contractors and a lack of written policies could “increase the risk of wasted government dollars without adequate oversight of contractor performance.”

One of Greg Mankiw’s readers worked on the new Department of Homeland Security and reported recently:

[Y]ou cannot juice up a government agency’s budget by tens of billions (or in the case of the stimulus package, hundreds of billions) and expect them to be able to process the paperwork to contract it out, much less oversee the projects or even choose them with any kind of hope for success. It’s like trying to feed a Pomeranian a 25 lb turkey. It’s madness. It was years before DHS got the situation under control and between the start and when they finally assembled a sufficiently capable team of lawyers, contracting officials, technical experts and resource managers, most of the money was totally wasted.

Linda Bilmes, coauthor with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, analyzes the massive problems in three somewhat smaller government projects — the Iraqi reconstruction effort, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and the Big Dig artery construction in Boston — and finds that “in any organization that starts to increase spending very rapidly there are risks of waste, fraud and inefficiency.”

Milton Friedman summed up the basic problem with government waste back in 2002:

When a man spends his own money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about how much he spends and how he spends it. When a man spends his own money to buy something for someone else, he is still very careful about how much he spends, but somewhat less what he spends it on. When a man spends someone else’s money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about what he buys, but doesn’t care at all how much he spends. And when a man spends someone else’s money on someone else, he doesn’t care how much he spends or what he spends it on. And that’s government for you.

Members of Congress can make all the speeches they want about their commitment to ferreting out waste and fraud, but waste and fraud are inevitable in government spending and inevitably large in such massive programs. Some people think that’s fine. At least they’re realistic. But reporters shouldn’t fall for politicians promising to spend unprecedented sums of other people’s money quickly and wisely.