Topic: Government and Politics

Pennsylvania Lawmaker Portraits Now Come With Conviction Footnotes

Truth in legislative portraiture from the Pennsylvania State Capitol, as reported by Kris Maher in the Wall Street Journal: “On Tuesday, officials in the capital, Harrisburg, placed plaques beneath the portraits of three former state House speakers and a former Senate president pro tempore listing when the lawmakers left office—and when they were sentenced to prison.” The idea was a compromise between those who felt the portraits should be taken down entirely and those who favored keeping them on display with no mentions of criminality. The plaques cost $63.75 each, and if their shaming presence even slightly improves lawmakers’ incentives to avoid corruption, they could prove a good investment: 

Pennsylvania was ranked the fifth most corrupt state in a recent study that analyzed federal data from 1997 to 2008. During that time, malfeasance among state officials appeared to boost per capita spending by about 5% in the 10 states with the highest levels of corruption, the study published in Public Administration Review found.

Paul Light on Government Failure

Paul Light of Brookings and NYU is a top expert on the federal bureaucracy. He has a new study on federal government failures over the 2001 to 2014 period.

Light’s paper is useful. He identifies 41 major federal failures, examines the reports completed on each, and classifies the types of mistakes that took place. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the recent veterans health care scandal, Light points to failures in both “operations” and “oversight.”

Certainly, government operations and oversight fail frequently. But I look at many of Light’s 41 events and see more fundamental failures than he does. Federal policies, for example, often distort the economy in ways that are bound to cause problems. Federal interventions based on coercion are generally worse than solutions developed in the private, voluntary sphere of society.  

Light classifies the 2008 financial collapse as a failure of federal “oversight.” He says, “after years of risky investments and with little regulation, the banking system collapsed under the weight of toxic assets created by risky mortgage loans, poorly understood financial instruments, and a credit crisis that froze the economy.”

But it was government policies—such as Federal Reserve interest rate policies and federal housing subsidies—that incentivized the bad behavior on Wall Street. Federal oversight may have been poor, but the main problem was that government-created distortions cascaded and undermined markets.

On Hurricane Katrina, Light notes that the federal emergency response was a failure in operations, and it is true that FEMA officials were mired in confusion and indecision when the storm hit. However, it was decades of misguided policies that encouraged many people to live in low-lying and dangerous areas in New Orleans in the first place, which made the disaster much worse.

After an initial coding of failures between “operations” and “oversight,” Light does proceed to look more deeply into why the government failed in each of the events. He finds multiple causes behind all of the failures, with the most common factor being poorly designed policies.

Still, there are deeper reasons why the government fails than the potentially fixable problems that Light identifies. Superficially, the veterans health care scandal is just a failure of “operations,” but the fundamental problem is the federal attempt to centrally plan an industry rather than relying on markets.

Light’s study is a thoughtful piece that will hopefully generate a broader discussion about government failure. The 15 factors in this recent testimony are my initial stab at identifying some of the more fundamental reasons for government failure.

Politicians Befriend Big Business, Undermine Free Market

The recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was one of the bigger shocks to American politics in some time. Congressional leaders, known to bring home the bacon for local folks, usually are handily reelected.

But Cantor’s loss will do more than simply reshuffle the biggest offices on Capitol Hill. He gave lip service to fiscal responsibility but was, argued Nick Gillespie of Reason, “atrocious and hypocritical in all the ways that a Republican can be,” constantly voting to grow government.

Indeed, Cantor’s constituency was as much corporate America as it was Virginia voters. Business was counting on him to help reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, known as “Boeing’s Bank” for lavishing extensive benefits on one company; extend terrorism risk insurance, which transfers financial liability for loss from firms to taxpayers; and preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which nearly wrecked the economy while subsidizing homeowners, builders, and lenders. 

CBO Long-Term Spending Projections

The Congressional Budget Office has released new long-term projections of federal spending and debt. Without reforms, spending is expected to rise steadily and dangerously as a share of the economy in coming decades. The chart below shows spending under CBO’s “extended alternative” scenario, which assumes that politicians keep current policies in place. Spending would rise from 17.6 percent of GDP in 2000, to 20.4 percent this year, to 31.8 percent by 2040.

Under that scenario, federal debt held by the public would rise from 74 percent of GDP this year to a giant 170 percent by 2040. But if spending and debt were to rise along that trajectory, we would surely have a major financial and economic meltdown long before we got to 2040.

Our fiscal outlook is actually much worse than reflected in this scenario. That’s because under the basic extended alternative, CBO does not take into account the negative effects of rising spending and debt on GDP over the long term. CBO does have a special chapter in their report looking at some of these negative effects—but only some of them. In this testimony, I mention reasons why the outlook is worse than under the CBO baseline.

    

Bulgaria Wins Balkan Prize

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 89 countries based on misery. The table below is a sub-ranking of all Balkan states presented in the full index.

 

All of the Balkan states in my index suffer from high unemployment and relatively high levels of misery.

That said, the least miserable Balkan country is Bulgaria. For all of its problems, including a recent bank run, the country’s currency board system - which I, as President Stoyanov’s adviser, helped design and install in 1997 - provides monetary and fiscal discipline, and produces positive results in a region plagued with problems. 

Should Boehner Sue Obama?

Well into our sixth year with this president, we’re long past the point of having to demonstrate his indifference to the rule of law—the unconstitutional appointments, the Obamacare rewrites, the IRS and VA scandals, the list goes on.  In fact, it’s Obama’s indifference simply to doing his job that lately has drawn attention. “The bear is loose”—on the golf course, in the pool hall, dining late with athletes and entertainers. It’s driven House Republicans to talk of impeachment and of a House suit against him for his failure to faithfully execute the laws.

Both would be a mistake, Thomas Sowell tells us this morning, and he’s right. As November’s mid-term elections loom just ahead, either course would shift public attention from Obama to his critics, just as happened when the House impeached President Clinton. Not that there isn’t a case to be made for both impeachment and a suit. But impeachment, at the end of the day, is less a legal than a political matter, as we saw in the Clinton episode. So too is the suit that Speaker Boehner is now considering. Both proposals, therefore, have to be looked at through that lens.

To a good many in the House, however, a suit against the president seems like the lesser but wiser course. And contrary to first impressions, including my own, such a move is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In fact, if one takes the time to wade through the dense testimony that our good friend Elizabeth Price Foley presented to the House Judiciary Committee last February, it soon becomes clear that the standing objection that arises immediately with such a suit could likely be overcome in this case.

But even if a suit could get off the ground, would one be wise? True, unlike with impeachment, where the House is the “grand jury” and the Senate the “court,” in this case it wouldn’t be the other political branch attacking the president. Rather, attention would be directed to the third, non-political branch of government, where the action would be happening, and that would soften the attack to some extent, making it seem less a political than a legal charge. But those are subtleties. In the hands of the media, they’d likely pass over most heads as we move toward November.

And what turns on November? Nothing less than the courts themselves, as Sowell points out. To elaborate just a bit on the point, after November, Obama will have two more years in office. He got off to a slow start exercising the most long-lasting of a president’s powers, the power to nominate judges for lifetime appointments on our federal courts. But he’s catching up. We saw just last month how his two Supreme Court appointments have read the Constitution on some of the most important cases of the Court’s just-concluded term.

Well it’s no different below, especially in the courts of appeal, except that it’s less noticed. We tend to focus on the Supreme Court, which blinds us too often to the fact that the Court decides only 70 or so cases a year while the 13 federal appellate courts terminate some 60,000 cases—and they don’t always follow the guidance of the Supreme Court in doing so. It’s crucial, therefore, given the inclination of this president to see his view of the Constitution reflected in the people he nominates for seats on those courts, to have a Senate over the next two years that will carry out its advice and consent responsibilities more responsibly than has been done under the leadership of Harry Reid. Anything that distracts from that focus should be avoided.   

Government Infrastructure and Political Enthusiasm

Most politicians are optimistic about the government’s ability to intervene and solve problems. That’s one reason why they run for office. Neocons, for example, have excessive faith that foreign intervention can fix the world, while liberals embrace the misguided idea that subsidies and regulations can boost the economy.

On infrastructure, we’ve seen political enthusiasm leading to overpromised and underdelivered projects since the founding of the nation. The construction of the National Road—funded by Congress beginning in 1806—was fraught with problems. The Army Corps of Engineers has been known for boondoggles since the 19th century. In recent decades, government infrastructure has become so notorious for waste that The Simpsons had an episode about a failed monorail scheme.

Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsoms’ book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, examined the inefficiency of the government’s fur-trading infrastructure from 1795 to 1825. Chapter 2 of the book looked at how 19th century subsidies for steamship transportation were wasteful and damaging.

Chapter 3 of the book looks at the orgy of state government canal building from the 1820s to the 1840s. Here is the basic story:

  • New York State funds construction of the Erie Canal, which opens in 1825.
  • The Erie Canal is a big success, which spurs canal fever across the nation and encourages other state governments to hand out subsidies. Government canal schemes are launched in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois. There is particular excitement about subsidized “internal improvements” among Whig politicians, including Abraham Lincoln.
  • However, politicians overestimate the demand for canals in their states and underestimate the costs and difficulty of construction. They do not recognize that the Erie Canal is uniquely practical and economic as it traverses relatively flat land and connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic.
  • Some of the state-sponsored canals are huge boondoggles and are abandoned. And other than the Erie Canal, all of the state canals sustain heavy losses, including other subsidized canals in New York.
  • After the failures, numerous states privatize their infrastructure and change their constitutions to prevent politicians from wasting further money on such schemes.

Thomas DiLorenzo writes about these issues here. And Clifford Thies goes into detail about the canal follies in this Cato Journal article. As these authors discuss, governments unfortunately made similar mistakes subsidizing railroads in the 19th century.

Perhaps our current political leaders are not funding escalators to nowhere—as they did on The Simpsons monorail episode—but today’s uneconomic streetcars and high-speed rail schemes are not that much different.