Tag: lobbyists

The Defense Lobby, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Bloomberg’s Roxana Tiron reports that Congress is nearing a deal to postpone some of the most contentious provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA) until March 2013, or later. This is good news for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which has been lobbying since late last year to undo at least that portion of the BCA that pertained to the Pentagon’s budget (i.e. that portion that threatens to cut most deeply into its members’ profits).

Although the mechanics of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts are problematic, the scale of the Pentagon build-down would be modest by historical standards. And yet, the mere suggestion that sequestration might actually occur has sent the industry into apoplexy. The AIA’s campaign has included the release of a new report claiming that the BCA cuts could result in over 1 million lost jobs, and warnings that hundreds of thousands of workers would be receiving pink slips just a few days before the November elections.

In short, sequestration is a horror show, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the AIA’s public relations effort is designed to scare the wits out of the audience. “Sequestration,” explains Della Williams, the chief executive of Fort Worth-based Williams-Pyro Inc., “is surgery with a chain saw.”

But just as some people aren’t easily scared by campy slasher flicks, there are still a few people in Washington—especially Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR)—who are cheering for the guy with the chainsaw.

The two sides squared off in separate events last Thursday. At the Bloomberg Government Defense Conference, AIA President Marian Blakey, Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) called for bipartisan compromise on taxes in order to fund further Pentagon spending increases. Judging from the number of times that speakers invoked his name, Norquist posed a greater threat to national security than China or Iran. Levin, in particular, scorned ATR’s famed taxpayers’ pledge, and suggested that it was largely responsible for the impending catastrophe.

Norquist is characteristically unfazed by all this special interest pleading for more money. While Blakey and her congressional friends were attempting to rally the troops and rustle up more money, Norquist was reaffirming his opposition to higher taxes—including the closing of tax loopholes that generate more revenue—at a meeting on Capitol Hill. There is no Pentagon budget escape hatch in ATR’s pledge. If the defense industry wants more, it will have to get it from elsewhere in the budget.

The fight over sequestration, taxes, and the defense budget reveals text book cases of two perennial public policy realities: the politics of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; and the economics of the seen vs. the unseen.

With respect to the first case, the defense industry, broadly defined, benefits disproportionately from Pentagon spending. And that industry can count many interested parties within its coalition. In addition to the defense companies, including the executives and the shareholders, there are also the workers’ at these firms (often represented by a union). Then there are the mayors and local officials who represent communities that are home to defense firms.

Given what is at stake, it is understandable that all of these groups have amped up their lobbying efforts to fend off sequestration. To take just one example, a single F-35 will cost, on average, nearly $125 million ($112.5 million for the aircraft, plus another $22 million for the engine). Prime contractor Lockheed Martin spent $15 million on lobbying in 2011 and is expected to spend even more this year. Such expenses can easily be justified to investors and shareholders if they are seen as protecting the company’s cash cow.

Individual taxpayers, by contrast, have little incentive to organize, and even less incentive to pool their money to fight against the AIA. The cost of the F-35, spread around to every taxpayer, amounts to about a dollar (if we just count the 122 million people who paid federal income taxes). Generally speaking, people do not scrutinize where every tax dollar goes; indeed, payroll tax withholding causes Americans to ignore what they pay in monthly taxes.

A few groups, including Norquist’s ATR, try to offset this imbalance of interests, and they have been reasonably successful. But Norquist’s pledges would be worthless if voters didn’t agree with him. But many do. In this poll (.pdf), for example, half of all respondents were opposed to having their taxes go up in order to pay for higher Pentagon spending.

The AIA’s other line of attack—the claim that substantial cuts in military spending will have a devastating impact on the economy, resulting in a million or more lost jobs—reveals the age-old broken-window fallacy. The AIA wants people to focus on that which is seen—defense workers who are laid off—and to ignore any consideration of how the economy as a whole will be better off if the resources that had previously gone to building planes and rockets are allocated elsewhere in the economy. These transitions are certainly difficult and painful for the individuals and firms involved, but they can be expected, all other factors being equal, to have salutary aggregate effects, especially over the long term. I’ll have more to say on that point later this week, drawing on my previous study of San Diego in the late 1950s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read a succinct explanation of the broken-window fallacy from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. And, if you’re really motivated, consider reading a less succinct, but more colorful, discussion of the phenomenon by Hazlitt’s intellectual forefather, the French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Apple: Too Big Not to Nail

In Sunday’s New York Daily News, I deplore the efforts of politicians and regulators to drag successful companies into the parasite economy of Washington, the most recent example being Apple. As the article says,

Heard of “too big to fail”? Well, to Washington, Apple is now too big not to nail.

I was prompted to these reflections by a recent article in Politico. The Wall Street Journal used to call itself “the daily diary of the American dream.” Politico is the daily diary of the rent-seeking class. And that class is very upset with Apple for not hiring many lobbyists, as illustrated by Politico’s front-page cartoon:

The story begins:

Apple is taking a bruising in Washington, and insiders say there’s a reason: It’s the one place in the world where the company hasn’t built its brand.

In the first three months of this year, Google and Microsoft spent a little more than $7 million on lobbying and related federal activities combined. Apple spent $500,000 — even less than it spent the year before.

The nerve of them! How do they expect lobbyists to feed their families? Then comes my favorite part:

The company’s attitude toward D.C. — described by critics as “don’t bother us” — has left it without many inside-the-Beltway friends.

“Don’t bother us”—yes! Don’t tread on me. Laissez nous faire. Leave us alone. Just let us sit out here in Silicon Valley, inventing cool stuff and distributing it to the world. We won’t bother you. Just don’t bother us.

But no pot of money can be left unbothered by the regulators and rent-seekers.

Apple is mostly on its own when the Justice Department goes after it on e-books, when members of Congress attack it over its overseas tax avoidance or when an alphabet soup of regulators examine its business practices.

And what does the ruling class say to productive people who try to just avoid politics and make stuff? Nice little company ya got there, shame if anything happened to it:

“I never once had a meeting with anybody representing Apple,” said Jeff Miller, who served as a senior aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee for eight years. “There have been other tech companies who chose not to engage in Washington, and for the most part that strategy did not benefit them.”

As I noted in the Daily News, back in 1998 Microsoft was in the same situation—a successful company on the West Coast, happily ignoring politics, getting too rich for politics to ignore it—and a congressional aide told Fortune’s Jeff Birnbaum, “They don’t want to play the D.C. game, that’s clear, and they’ve gotten away with it so far. The problem is, in the long run they won’t be able to.” All too true.

Watch out, aspiring entrepreneurs. You too could become too big not to nail.

When the Government Lobbies Itself

“National Public Radio (NPR) is paying the lobbying firm Bracy, Tucker, Brown & Valanzano to defend its taxpayer funding stream in Congress, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Secretary of the Senate,” reports Matthew Boyle at the Daily Caller. Once again, a government-funded entity is using its taxpayer funds to lobby to get more money from the taxpayers.

When the bailouts and takeovers started in 2008-9, I noted that there was lots of outrage in the blogosphere over revelations that some of the biggest recipients of the federal government’s $700 billion TARP bailout had been spending money on lobbyists. And I wrote:

It’s bad enough to have our tax money taken and given to banks whose mistakes should have caused them to fail. It’s adding insult to injury when they use our money — or some “other” money; money is fungible — to lobby our representatives in Congress, perhaps for even more money.

Get taxpayers’ money, hire lobbyists, get more taxpayers’ money. Nice work if you can get it.

At the same time, Dan Mitchell wrote that companies that received government money and then lobbied for more “deserve a reserved seat in a very hot place.” Taxpayer-funded lobbying is a scandal, but it’s a scandal that has been going on for decades:

As far back as 1985, Cato published a book, Destroying Democracy: How Government Funds Partisan Politics, that exposed how billions of taxpayers’ dollars were used to subsidize organizations with a political agenda, mostly groups that lobbied and organized for bigger government and more spending. The book led off with this quotation from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

The book noted that the National Council of Senior Citizens had received more than $150 million in taxpayers’ money in four years. A more recent report estimated that AARP had received over a billion dollars in taxpayer funding. Both groups, of course, lobby incessantly for more spending on Social Security and Medicare. The Heritage Foundation reported in 1995, “Each year, the American taxpayers provide more than $39 billion in grants to organizations which may use the money to advance their political agendas.”

In 1999 Peter Samuel and Randal O’Toole found that EPA was a major funder of groups lobbying for “smart growth.” So these groups were pushing a policy agenda on the federal government, but the government itself was paying the groups to lobby it.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for the very lobbying that seeks to suck more dollars out of the taxpayers. But then, taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize banks, car companies, senior citizen groups, environmentalist lobbies, labor unions, or other private organizations in the first place.

The Market for ‘Pull’ on Capitol Hill

Economists can actually measure the value of insider connections:

[L]obbyists connected to US Senators suffer an average 24% drop in generated revenue when their previous employer leaves the Senate. The decrease in revenue is out of line with pre-existing trends, it is discontinuous around the period in which the connected Senator exits Congress and it persists in the long-term. … Measured in terms of median revenues per ex-staffer turned lobbyist, this estimate indicates that the exit of a Senator leads to approximately a $177,000 per year fall in revenues for each affiliated lobbyist.

The fall is steeper, the researchers find, when the departing member of Congress sat on a powerful committee such as Appropriations, Senate Finance, or (on the House side) Ways and Means. Lobbyists who are ex-staffers are also more likely to quit the lobbying business once “their” member departs office. Incidentally, actual per-lobbyist revenue is lower than you might assume from the above figures, because many lobbying contracts are shared out among several participants with each individual getting only a portion of the proceeds. (Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Mirko Draca, and Christian Fons-Rosen, “Revolving Door Lobbyists,” via Alex Tabarrok).

If you needed another reason to vote against that unsatisfactory incumbent this fall, reflect that by doing so you’ll also be dimming the stars of his or her unsatisfactory ex-staffers.

Your Health Insurance, Designed by Lobbyists

Christopher Weaver of Kaiser Health News has an excellent article in today’s Washington Post on the various government agencies that will now be deciding what health insurance coverage you must purchase, and how many of those decisions will ultimately fall to lobbyists and politicians:

For years, an obscure federal task force sifted through medical literature on colonoscopies, prostate-cancer screening and fluoride treatments, ferreting out the best evidence for doctors to use in caring for their patients. But now its recommendations have financial implications, raising the stakes for patients, doctors and others in the health-care industry.

Under the new health-care overhaul law, health insurers will be required to pay fully for services that get an A or B recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force…[which] puts the group in the cross hairs of lobbyists and disease advocates eager to see their top priorities – routine screening for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or HIV, for example – become covered services.

And it’s not just the USPSTF that will be deciding what coverage you must purchase:

[P]lans must also cover a set of standard vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as well as screening practices for children that have been developed by the Health Resources and Services Administration in conjunction the American Academy of Pediatrics. Health plans will also be required to cover additional preventative care for women recommended under new guidelines that the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue by August 2011.

The chairman of the USPSTF says the task force will try “to stay true to the methods and the evidence… the science needs to come first.”  A noble sentiment, but as my colleague Peter Van Doren likes to say, “When politics and science conflict, politics wins.”  Witness how industry lobbyists have killed or neutered every single government agency that has ever dared to produce useful comparative-effectiveness research.  (You’re next, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute!)

When government agencies are making non-scientific value judgments–e.g., are these studies reliable enough to merit an A or B recommendation? what should be the thresholds for an A or B recommendation? will the benefits of mandating this coverage outweigh the costs?–politics does even better.  Witness Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) overruling a USPSTF recommendation when she “inserted an amendment in the [new] health-care law to explicitly cover regular mammograms for women between 40 and 50. “

Speaking of value judgments, the one flaw in Weaver’s article is that it inadvertently conveys a value judgment as if it were fact.  He writes that the mandate to purchase coverage for preventive services is “good news for patients” and that 88 million Americans “will benefit.”  Whether the mandate is good news for patients depends on whether patients value the added coverage more than the additional premiums they must pay.  (The administration estimates that premiums for affected consumers will rise an average of 1.5 percent.  One insurer puts the average cost at 3-4 percent of premiums.  Naturally, some consumers will face above-average costs.)  Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is ultimately a subjective determination. (The best way to find out, as it happens, is to let consumers make the decision themselves.)

It’s Summer in Washington and the Livin’ Is Good

“According to a new Regional Income Earnings Index developed by the Martin Prosperity Institute, Greater Washington, D.C. is the nation’s metropolitan region with the highest income,” writes Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class.

Washington, which produces rules, regulations, and political consulting services, ranks just ahead of San Jose and Stamford, Connecticut, where people invest their own money to produce software and allocate capital for a complex economy.

Even before the Obama administration started concentrating job creation on the federal sector, the Washington Post was reporting

The three most prosperous large counties in the United States are in the Washington suburbs, according to census figures released yesterday, which show that the region has the second-highest income and the least poverty of any major metropolitan area in the country.

Rapidly growing Loudoun County has emerged as the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation, with its households last year having a median income of more than $98,000. It is followed by Fairfax and Howard counties, with Montgomery County not far behind.

This of course reflects partly the high level of federal pay, as Chris Edwards has been detailing. And it also reflects the boom in lobbying as government comes to claim and redistribute more of the wealth produced in all those other metropolitan areas.

To slightly amend a ditty I posted a few years ago,

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,

Don’t let ‘em make software and sell people trucks,

Make ‘em be bureaucrats and lobbyists and such.

Business Roundtable: We Love/Hate Big Government

Regular readers of this blog know that big corporations often are enemies of free markets and individual liberty. So it is hardly suprising to know that the Business Roundtable, a lobby representing CEOs of major companies, supported the wasteful and ineffective stimulus program in 2009 and the bloated new health care entitlement in 2010. Big companies, after all, are quite proficient at working the system to obtain unearned wealth and to rig the rules against smaller competitors.
 
What is surprising, however, is that representatives of that organization now have the chutzpah to complain about a “hostile environment for investment and job creation.” Equally galling, the group has published a document called “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth.” We’ve all heard the joke about the guy who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. The Business Roundtable has adopted that strategy, except this time taxpayers are the butt of the joke. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

The chairman of the Business Roundtable, an association of top corporate executives that has been President Obama’s closest ally in the business community, accused the president and Democratic lawmakers Tuesday of creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.” Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability … to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.” …The final straw, said Roundtable president John Castellani, was the introduction of two pieces of legislation, now pending in Congress, that the group views as particularly bad for business. One, a provision of the administration’s financial regulation overhaul, would make it easier for shareholders to nominate corporate board members. The other would raise taxes on multinational corporations. The rhetoric accompanying the tax proposals has been particularly harsh, Castellani said, with Democrats vowing to campaign in this fall’s midterm elections on a platform of punishing companies that move jobs overseas. …Seidenberg polled the members of the Business Roundtable and a sister organization, the Business Council. The result was a 54-page document, delivered to Orszag on Monday, chock full of bullet points about actions taken or considered by a wide array of executive agencies, including the White House Middle Class Task Force and the Food and Drug Administration. We believe the cumulative effect of these proposals will help defeat the objectives we all share – reducing unemployment, improving the competitiveness of U.S. companies and creating an environment that fosters long-term economic growth,” Seidenberg wrote in a cover letter for the document, titled “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth.”

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