Tag: public choice

Public Choice and Spending Cuts

The Institute for Humane Studies Learn Liberty project continues to offer clear-headed analysis in video form. The latest effort features Ben Powell of Suffolk University explaining the concept of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in the context of ongoing budget fights.

Cato recently produced two short videos on complementary aspects of the budget fights. For a more detailed treatment of many aspects of public choice, get your free (cheap!) copy of Cato’s excellent book, Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice.

Lobbying Wolves on the Prowl

The other day I noted that the budget cuts agreed to last week contained lots of familiar faces. Many of the agencies and programs getting a trim were also cut in 1995 in a rescissions package put together by Gingrich Republicans. In the fifteen intervening years, federal spending exploded across the board, which means that an occasional trim job doesn’t accomplish much if the goal is to limit government.

The reason why is that if the scope of government activities isn’t curtailed, the cuts will be short-lived. As long as the agencies and their programs remain, special interests won’t stop agitating Congress to continue, or more likely, increase, funding.

A recent article in The Hill reports that lobbyists are already hard at work:

Groups that advocate for everything from more foreign aid to bolstering the nation’s transportation system saw several of their favorite government programs suffer deep spending cuts in the fiscal year 2011 budget deal.

With millions of dollars now axed from what they consider key federal initiatives, groups are planning to redouble their efforts and lobby to restore as much funding as possible in next year’s budget.

(Note to reporter: A lot of adjectives could be used to describe the spending cuts. “Deep” is not one of them.)

A fellow who lobbies for foreign aid argues that cutting it won’t balance the budget and that “We need to be planting the seeds for future economic prosperity around the world.” It’s true that even eliminating foreign aid wouldn’t balance the budget, but every little bit helps. But what’s striking is his arrogant pronouncement that “we” (taxpayers) need to be forced by the federal government to send our money abroad for the causes he fancies.

A lobbyist with the National League of Cities is relieved that the GOP didn’t get the small cut in local handouts that were originally proposed, but is nonetheless concerned about the “anti-spending climate in Washington”:

‘We’re talking about staff layoffs at the city level. Cities are also going to have completely reorganize their budgets mid-year and prioritize some things out.’

‘In this environment, the numbers from fiscal year 2011 might be the new baseline but our message isn’t going to change,’ Wallace said. ‘We’re focusing on those local programs that create jobs and spur economic growth.’

Cities prioritizing spending? Heaven forbid. Suck more money out of the private sector in order to save bureaucratic deadweight in local government? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for economic growth to me. (See here for more on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local governments.)

Then there are the transportation lobbyists. These folks would probably argue that a giant escalator to nowhere would be a wise use of taxpayer money:

Dean’s group is lamenting spending cuts made to the high-speed rail program, transit security grants as well as funding for “fixed guideway” projects, which include commuter trains, cable cars and ferryboats among other public transit systems.

For the fans of The Simpsons who didn’t catch the escalator reference, see this link for my feelings on government-funded rail projects. (Fans and non-fans should check out these essays on urban transit subsidies and high-speed rail.)

In Washington, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets greased. Lobbyists for government programs exist to make sure that Congress hears their wheel squeaking. Yes, the deck is stacked against those who are forced to foot the bill, but if taxpayers want federal agencies and their programs to get more than a trimming every fifteen years or so, now is the time to make a lot more noise.

Thursday Links

  • The Obama Doctrine fails to address the limitations of Washington’s attempts to shape foreign conflicts.
  • The 2012 Republican presidential field has thus far failed to produce a small-government conservative.
  • FREE E-BOOK: Government Failure: A Primer on Public Choice is available for reading and download (PDF) for a limited time on our website.
  • Republicans and Democrats are quibbling over a measly $61 billion in spending cuts–that’s a failure of leadership.
  • Under the failing status quo, Big Sugar wins, and Joe Taxpayer loses.
  • Ian Vásquez, director of Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, joined C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to talk about the failure of foreign aid:


Why Ryan-Rivlin Beats ObamaCare on Costs — and Spending

Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein asks of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) Medicare voucher proposal (co-authored with former Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin):

Why are the cost savings in his bill possible, while the cost savings in the Affordable Care Act aren’t?…when it comes to the ACA, Ryan firmly believes that seniors will quickly and successfully force Congress to reverse any reforms that degrade their Medicare experience. That’s a fair enough concern, of course. What’s confusing is why it isn’t doubly devastating when applied to Ryan-Rivlin.

Set aside that Klein violates Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy: Never say costs when you mean spending.  And that he uses the word “affordable” to describe ObamaCare.

There are two reasons why the Medicare spending restraints in the Ryan-Rivlin proposal are more likely to hold than those in ObamaCare.

First, ObamaCare’s restraints amount to nothing more than ratcheting down the price controls that traditional Medicare uses to pay health care providers.  Structuring Medicare subsidies in this way – setting the prices that Medicare pays specific providers – makes it very difficult to lower those prices, because the system itself creates huge incentives for providers to organize and lobby to undo those restraints.  As I explain more fully in this op-ed from September 2010, Medicare vouchers would change that lobbying game by reducing the incentives for provider groups to expend resources in the pursuit of higher Medicare spending.  That gives the Ryan-Rivlin restraints a much better shot at surviving.  (Seriously, it’s a pretty cool feature.)

Second, Klein predicts a backlash against Medicare vouchers because he says it amounts to “giving seniors less money to purchase more expensive private insurance.”  The notion that Medicare is less costly than private insurance is pure, uninformed nonsense.  Medicare and a “public option” are attractive to the Left precisely because such programs hide the full cost of their operations from enrollees and taxpayers.  It is a virtue of vouchers that they would reveal to Medicare enrollees the actual prices of the coverage and services they demand, because that information will spur enrollees to be more cost-conscious when selecting a health plan and consuming medical services.  That, in turn, will force insurers and providers to compete on the basis of cost to a degree never before seen in this nation, competition that will generate the sort of cost-saving innovations that Jim Capretta discusses here.

Both of these reasons boil down to the truism that nobody spends other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.  We’ll make a lot of progress in this country when the Left realizes how much damage they’ve done by ignoring that truism.

‘1099’ Repeal Speaks Volumes About ObamaCare

From my latest Kaiser Health News op-ed:

When 34 Senate Democrats joined all 47 Republicans last week to repeal ObamaCare’s 1099 reporting requirement, their votes confirmed what their talking points still deny: ObamaCare will increase the deficit, no matter what the official cost projections say…

This public-choice dynamic [of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs] is why the Congressional Budget Office, the chief Medicare actuary, and even the International Monetary Fund have discredited the idea that ObamaCare will reduce the deficit. It is one of the principal reasons why, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” In other words, the game is rigged in favor of bigger government.

It also explains why the Obama administration is sprinting to implement ObamaCare in spite of a federal court having struck down the law as unconstitutional. The White House needs to get some concentrated interest groups hooked on ObamaCare’s subsidies – fast.

Read the whole thing here.

Tax Lawyers, Tax Complexity, and the Broader Problem of a Self-Serving Legal Profession

The Internal Revenue Code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most qoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior - whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group - including lawyers - to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

Congress: Where 20 Jobs = $580m

When talking to groups about the political economy of trade protection, I always mention concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs. Public choice theory explains many bad policies, of course, but tariffs and subsidies are excellent examples of interventions that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Congress, or specifically two members of that esteemed body, have recently provided me with a textbook example. The Generalized System of Preferences is a federal program that offers duty-free access to the U.S. market to certain goods from certain developing countries. Or, I should say, was a federal program, because it expired on December 31. My opinion of the program is ambivalent at best, but one cannot deny that the program brings real cost savings to American consumers and businesses – to the tune of $580 million a year – through lower import duties.

But those duty savings are, apparently, worthless in the face of special interest politics. From Inside U.S. Trade on January 6 [$]:

An Alabama sleeping bag manufacturer that benefited from the expiration late last year of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program is now taking further steps in an attempt to ensure that Congress does not renew the program this year in the same form.

Exxel Outdoors CEO Harry Kazazian this week said his company is in the process of expanding its U.S. plant by adding workers and increasing production, and that this expansion is occurring as a direct result of the fact that Congress allowed the GSP program to expire on Dec. 31.

Under GSP, Bangladeshi sleeping bags that competed with the Exxel Outdoors product were able to enter the U.S. duty-free. On behalf of Exxel Outdoors, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) last year refused to let any renewal of GSP pass that would not remove at least some sleeping bags from the scope of the GSP program (Inside U.S. Trade, Dec. 23).

With the future of the GSP program still uncertain, Kazazian said he is now expanding his Alabama plant in part to put pressure on Congress to either not renew the GSP program, or renew it in a modified form that would exclude imported sleeping bags from its scope.

Kazazian said that if GSP is renewed in its old form, he would have to reverse his expansion plans. He reasoned that members of Congress may be more willing to accommodate Sessions and remove sleeping bags from GSP if faced with the prospect that renewing the program in its full form would lead to the firing of U.S. workers.

“I can’t see how anyone would make any decisions against us,” he said in an interview this week. “We are going to work as hard as we can to make sure sleeping bags are exempted from the GSP.”

These expansion plans must be really something if they can justify holding up such a broad program, right?

Kazazian said that he plans to hire 20 additional employees to start a fourth production line at the Alabama plant. He said he will commence the first phase of its expansion this month by investing in additional equipment and retooling the plant’s operations.

That’s right, readers. The GSP expired and millions of U.S. consumers and businesses (not to mention developing country exporters) are being penalized to save a hypothetical 20 (that’s two-zero) jobs that don’t even exist yet. The jobs being lost by businesses that depend on the GSP to keep them competive are, apparently, not worth consideration. And as for consumers’ buying power being eroded, well forget it.

Come back, Mancur Olson. Your country needs you.