Tag: state governments

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Federal Subsidy Programs Top 2,000!

January 22, 2010 is a day that should live in infamy, at least among believers in limited government. On that day, the federal government added its 2,000th subsidy program for individuals, businesses, or state and local governments.

The number of federal subsidy programs soared 21 percent during the 1990s and 40 percent during the 2000s. The entire nation is jumping aboard Washington’s gravy train. My assistant, Amy Mandler, noticed the recent addition of two new Department of Justice programs, and that pushed us over the threshold to reach 2,001.

There is a federal subsidy program for every year that has passed since Emperor Augustus held sway in Rome. We’ve gone from bread and circuses to food stamps, the National Endowment for the Arts, and 1,999 other hand-out programs from the imperial city on the Potomac.

Figure 1 shows that the number of federal subsidy programs has almost doubled since the mid-1980s after some modest cutbacks under President Ronald Reagan.

Most people are aware that federal spending is soaring, but the federal government is also increasing the scope of its activities, intervening in many areas that used to be left to state governments, businesses, charities, and individuals. To measure the widening scope, Figure 1 uses the program count from current and past editions of the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. The CFDA is an official compilation of all federal aid programs, including grants, loans, insurance, scholarships, and other types of benefits.

Figure 2 shows the number of subsidy programs listed in the CFDA by federal department. It is a rough guide to the areas in society in which the government is most in violation of federalism—the constitutional principle that the federal government ought not to encroach on activities that are properly state, local, and private.

As the federal octopus extends its tentacles ever further, state governments are becoming no more than regional subdivisions of the national government, businesses and nonprofit groups are becoming tools of the state, and individualism is giving way to a more European desire for cradle-to-grave dependency.

Yet recent election results indicate that Americans may be starting to wake up and fight back. Whether we are more successful than Cicero and Cato the Younger in battling to retain our limited-government republic remains to be seen.

Can Scott Brown’s Election Stop the Federal Takeover…of Education?

Yesterday, I wrote about President Obama’s proposal to extend the Race to the Top program, this time letting school districts completely bypass state governments and apply directly to the feds for funding. I pointed out that the proposal was one among several troubling signs that Obama intends to put Washington fully – and, of course, unconstitutionally – in charge of American education.  At the time, I didn’t realize how right I was.

When I was writing yesterday I was basing my comments on documents from the White House’s website and hadn’t yet read the details of what went on at the President’s photo-op announcing the proposed extension. I sure wish I had: At the dog-and-pony show, the President just came right out and said that he wants to push aside states – mentioned by name was famous holdout Texas – that dared to invoke the Constitution and not participate in a program that was, Constitution or no Constitution, supposed to be voluntary.  

“Innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms,” intoned the President. 

Fortunately, Texas Governor Rick Perry wasn’t about to be cowed: “I will say this very slow so they will understand it in Washington, D.C.: Texas will fight any attempt by the federal government to take over our school system.”

So it’s pretty certain now, more so even than just 24 hours ago: President Obama wants to federalize American education.

Thankfully, a lot can clearly happen in 24 hours. Yesterday’s election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts could very well send shockwaves of fear through the ranks of Democratic (and maybe even Republican) legislators in DC, who might finally get the message that Americans just don’t like federal takovers. Heck, perhaps even the President will get the message. If so, then maybe even something as relatively small as a $1.35-billion scalpel designed to cut through states and get right at districts could be seen as too dangerous to handle.  

That’s speculation, of course, but we should know a lot more  in just, oh, the next 24 hours.

Is Keynesian Stimulus Working?

In his Brookings Institution speech yesterday, President Obama called for more Keynesian-style spending stimulus for the economy, including increased investment on government projects and expanded subsidy payments to the unemployed and state governments. The package might cost $150 billion or more.

The president said that we’ve had to “spend our way out of this recession.” We’ve certainly had massive spending, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the economy, as the 10 percent unemployment rate attests to.

It’s not just that the Obama “stimulus” package from February has apparently failed. The total Keynesian stimulus is not measured by the spending in that bill only, but by the total size of federal government deficits.

The chart shows that while the federal deficit (the total “stimulus” amount) has skyrocketed over the last three years, the unemployment rate has more than doubled. (The unemployment rate is the fiscal year average. Two months are included for FY2010.)

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The total Keynesian stimulus of recent years has included the Bush stimulus bill in early 2008, TARP, large increases in regular appropriations, soaring entitlement spending, the Obama stimulus package from February, rising unemployment benefits, and falling revenues, which are “automatic stabilizers” according to Keynesian theory.

The deficit-fueled Keynesian approach to recovery is not working. The time is long overdue for the Democrats in Congress and advisers in the White House to reconsider their Keynesian beliefs and to start entertaining some market-oriented policies to get the economy moving again.

Debt Aggravates Spending Disease

USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon reports that ”state governments are rushing to borrow money to take advantage of cheap and plentiful credit at a time when tax collections are tumbling.” That will allow them to “avoid some painful spending cuts,” Cauchon notes, but it will sadly impose more pain on taxpayers down the road.

When politicians have the chance to act irresponsibly, they will act irresponsibly. Give them low interest rates and they go on a borrowing binge. The result is that they are in over their heads with massive piles of bond debt on top of the huge unfunded obligations they have built up for state pension and health care plans.

The chart shows that total state and local government debt soared 93 percent this decade. It jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to $2.3 trillion by the second quarter of 2009, according to Federal Reserve data (Table D.3).

Government debt has soared during good times and bad. During recessions, politicians say that they need to borrow to avoid spending cuts. But during boomtimes, such as from 2003 to 2008, they say that borrowing makes sense because an expanding economy can handle a higher debt load. I’ve argued that there is little reason for allowing state and local government politicians to issue bond debt at all.

Unfortunately, the political urge to spend has resulted in the states shoving a massive pile of debt onto future taxpayers at the same time that they have built up huge unfunded obligations for worker retirement plans.

We’ve seen how uncontrolled debt issuance has encouraged spending sprees at the federal level. Sadly, it appears that the same debt-fueled spending disease has spread to the states and the cities.

False Accounts of Massachusetts’ Health Reforms

Recent editorials in both the Boston Globe and The New York Times contained some staggering falsehoods about the cost of Massachusetts’ health reforms.  Here is a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Globe:

The editorial “Mass. bashers take note: Health reform is working” [Aug. 5] states that “the cost to the state taxpayer” of the Massachusetts health reforms is “about $88 million a year.”  That claim is unquestionably false.  The cost to state taxpayers is 19 times that amount, while the total cost is 24 times that amount.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation explains that the $88-million figure represents not the total cost to the state government, but the average annual increase in the state government’s costs.  Worse, the editorial completely ignores new spending by the federal government and the private sector, which account for 80 percent of the law’s cost.

According to Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates, health reform will cost at least $2.1 billion in 2009.  The total cost to state taxpayers is at least $1.7 billion and growing.  (The fact that other states’ taxpayers bear the balance should not be a source of pride.)

One wonders how such a falsehood comes to appear on a leading editorial page.

And one I sent to the Times:

The Massachusetts Model” [Aug. 9] understates the cost of the Massachusetts health plan.

The editorial claims, “the federal and state governments each pa[y] half of the added costs, or about $350 million” in 2010.  The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which generated that estimate, assumes that Massachusetts will eliminate $200 million in subsidies to safety-net hospitals next year.  Given that those hospitals are currently suing the Commonwealth and exerting political pressure to increase such payments, those assumed cuts are hypothetical.  More certain is the foundation’s estimate that the on-budget cost will reach $817 billion in 2009.

Yet the foundation’s estimates also show that the law (1) pushes 60 percent of its cost off-budget and onto the private sector; (2) costs about three times the $700 million that the editorial suggests, and (3) is covering 432,000 previously uninsured residents at a cost of about $6,700 each, or $27,000 for a family of four.  That’s more than twice the average cost of family coverage nationwide.

The editorial admonishes that “the public should demand an honest assessment, from critics and supporters” of the Massachusetts health plan.  Indeed.

A fuller response to these spurious claims may be found here.

I wish I could run a newspaper, so I could print false stuff and then not correct it.  Oh wait, I do blog…

Government Employment Up or Down?

The New York Times editorialized today about the supposed “brutalizing” effects of state and local government spending cuts. They claim that “most states also have cut their public workforces.”

Yet USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon takes a look at the actual data, and he finds that state and local governments added 12,000 workers in the latest quarter, while the private sector cut 1.3 million jobs.

Thus, it appears that “brutal” restructuring is going on in the private sector, but not in the government sector. Indeed, Cauchon finds that “a huge influx of federal stimulus money to state and local governments more than offset a sharp drop in tax collections” this quarter. The article shows that state and local government spending rose quickly in the first three quarters of 2008, then dropped for two quarters, but is now rising again quite quickly. That doesn’t sound very brutal to me.

Too often editorial boards and columnists seem to write economics articles based on their preconceived notions about what they think is going on, without looking at any solid data. Cauchon’s columns at USA Today are a refreshing alternative to the sort of impressionist writing on economics we see in the NYT editorial today.