Topic: Government and Politics

Sandefur, Science, and the State

Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur has a thoughtful post up on his blog that calls for “separating science and state.”  I recently posted on some questionable behavior by National Science Foundation employees, see here and here, but Tim’s blog gets to the heart of the matter and I highly encourage those interested in the subject to check it out.

Here are some teasers:

“It is morally reprehensible to use government’s coercive power—which, like it or not, means government’s power to imprison people, and to do other violent acts to them—to take away people’s earnings for projects that someone else considers worthwhile.”

“[A]ny time government can impose burdens on, or grant benefits to, private interest groups, those groups will use their time and effort to persuade government to do that in their favor. Legislation then gets enacted for the private benefit of political insiders, rather than for the “genuine public good.” This is just as true in science as it is in public contracting, occupational licensing, or any other endeavor. I believe it corrupts scientific integrity for investments and grants to be made on the basis of personal favoritism and political influence.”

“The question is not whether there is some hypothetically perfect way of deciding which research projects to fund and how; there is not. The question is whether there is any reason to believe that politicians are more skilled at making those decisions than are private individuals and private organizations. Given their expertise and their incentives, I see no reason to believe that government officials are more qualified to make those decisions, and good reason to believe they are less qualified.

“Closely related to the corrupting effects on the economy caused by government “investments” is the corruption of science that inevitably results from government interference…The bottom line is: when government writes the checks, it will make the rules, and those rules will interfere with scientific independence and scientific integrity.”

“Probably the most common objection to ending government subsidies for science research is that it’s necessary because private industry won’t make the investments for pure science, or is too insistent on immediate returns on investments so that private investors will not devote money to research that lacks an obvious commercial application…Terence Kealey has pointed out that scientific research is already largely funded by private industry, and that funding tends to be dramatically more efficient in making a real difference in the lives of real people…Private philanthropic organizations devote a tremendous amount of private money to scientific research, and it is good quality research. The March of Dimes, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society receive boatloads of money from non-government sources. The Hughes, Keck, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into top-notch scientific research. David Packard of Hewlett Packard gave $4 billion to his research foundation.”

“What’s more, take a more skeptical look at some of the alleged payoffs of government-funded research. It’s true that government-run science projects have sometimes created great new innovations (as well as some pretty awful ones). But a lot of these discoveries would have been made by private research institutions, for less cost, and with less bureaucratic interference. And much of the time, these alleged benefits are wildly exaggerated.”

Oh, So That’s The Problem

David Brooks on the Chris Matthews show explaining

I’m willing to forgive a little corruption…I think the biggest problem in Washington is not that we have too many people taking money….The biggest problem is we don’t have–know–have enough people who know how to pass legislation.

Not enough legislation.  I knew there was a problem.  Now back to the $800 billion stimulus.

Come On! Get a Piece of the Stimulus!

The lobbying frenzy to get each interest group’s agenda into the kitchen-sink stimulus bill continues to accelerate. Veterans groups want subsidies for veterans. The Creative Coalition, an association of people who have made millions by producing profitable art, argues that taxpayer-funded subsidies to unprofitable arts will produce another Orson Welles, Saul Bellow, or Burt Lancaster. One prominent actor, Patrick Swayze, is understandably more concerned that the bill include “maximum funding” for cancer research. Energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens wants energy subsidies in the bill. “The Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association is urging congressional leaders to dedicate funding for water and wastewater projects.” Religious liberals are pushing for hikes in welfare spending. Florida congressmen want more spending on space programs. I cited more examples a week ago:

“A Republican [in Ohio] called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” “Cities, towns ready to vie for stimulus funds.” “Road Builders Compete for Slice of Stimulus.” “West Michigan’s stimulus wish list.” “A State with a Wish List for Stimulus Spending.” “Steel industry lobbyists seem to have persuaded the House to insert a “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill it passed last week.” “JetBlue Goes to Washington to Discuss Economic Stimulus Plan.”

As with the TARP bailout, the lobbying will only heat up if and when the bill is passed. At that point, instead of trying to get your favorite line item into the bill, the challenge will become finding a member of Congress to pressure the bureaucracy to agree that your project meets the criteria for funding laid out in the bill. Considering that the headline summary of the bill runs 13 pages, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a provision to cover just about anything. And then, instead of productive activity, yet more money and talent will be directed to seeking subsidies from government. That’s no way to stimulate actual economic growth, though it will certainly stimulate the economy of Washington, D.C., and its prosperous suburbs.

Obama Transparency Update

President Obama may yet mend his first broken campaign promise — to post the legislation Congress sends him online for five days before he signs it.

In a statement to Politifact, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “We will be implementing this policy in full soon; currently we are working through implementation procedures and some initial issues with the congressional calendar.”

(I don’t think the congressional calendar has much to do with it. More likely, White House staff and perhaps President Obama himself didn’t take the promise seriously in the months running up to his inauguration. They could have been ready, but evidently didn’t plan to post bills for five days before signing until they heard about it from the public.)

For a time, it appeared that the administration would weasel out of the promise with a half-measure — posting bills on Whitehouse.gov while they made their way through Congress. But the Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal called that out as error. Vietor’s statement puts to rest the concern that the White House will break the promise with such half-measures.

An important question, of course, is “Why?” Aren’t bills sent to the president faits accomplis? No, they’re not. As I said in a post on Tech Liberation Front:

If the White House were to implement the promised practice of leaving bills sitting out there, unsigned, after they pass Congress, that would have significant effects. The practice would threaten to reveal excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks which could bring down otherwise good bills. President Obama’s promised five-day cooling off period would force the House and Senate to act with more circumspection.

Lawmakers’ political-risk sensors are well tuned, and none of them want to bring down a bill regarded as important because it contains something the public regards as foolish.

Blumenthal also points out (in the comments) that the White House practice of posting bills online could pressure Congress to follow a similar path, “which would have a much greater effect than the President posting bills.” Indeed, it would.

And sure enough, a campaign is on to get the Senate to wait five days before voting on the deficit spending bill (sometimes referred to as an “economic stimulus” bill). A 778-page compromise amendment was made available in the wee hours of Sunday morning with a vote planned for Monday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. — something like 40 hours later, most of them falling on a weekend.

And last week, a group of leading House Republicans wrote to the Speaker asking that the omnibus spending bill be posted online. (With “TARP” and the deficit-spending/economic stimulus bill capturing all the attention, most funding decisions for the regular operations of the government haven’t been made. Congress kicked them over to March back in September, and hundreds of billions more in spending will be moving through Congress in the next couple of weeks.)

Another “Why?” is effectively asked by my colleague Tad Dehaven. Why the focus on transparency when we should be working simply to reduce the size and wastefulness of government? (Tad puts it more stirringly: “[W]hether you get incinerated by a bomb dropped from 50,000 feet in the air or go before a firing squad in which you know the name, rank, and serial number of the shooters, the result is the same.”)

The broad public and electorate don’t necessarily know that government is as large and wasteful as we libertarians believe it is. Transparency is a way of making this information available to them and putting the public in a position to object. When you know the name, rank, and serial numbers of your executioners, you at least have some chance of making the case for clemency.

At the December 2008 Cato policy forum on transparency entitled Just Give Us the Data!, I said (cleaned up for easy reading):

Transparency is a means to an end, and that is oversight… . I think libertarians believe in oversight because on balance it will diminish public demand for government. When they see where the money goes and what happens with it, they’ll realize perhaps that private solutions are better than government solutions. Liberals and progressives believe that transparency will validate and strengthen federal programs — clean up the political process… . Whatever the case, transparency is a win-win bet. If government programs are validated and work better, that’s better than just having government programs in place and failing.

There is wide agreement on the benefits of transparency, even if we don’t know precisely which benefits we will get the most of. The Sunlight Foundation is no libertarian group, but Nisha Thompson of Sunlight posted last week extolling the virtues of knowing where the money goes. Transparency is a good thing, and it will be good for the president to mend his promise to practice transparency in his office.

Does Bipartisanship = Bigger Government?

The Washington Post praises the “attempt to rise above the partisan squabbles that too often have paralyzed Washington” that led to agreement on a massive spending bill. Denouncing “the old ways” and “the customary blame-gamesmanship,” the Post editorializes:

The gang of 20 or so moderate Democrats and Republicans, led by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), heeded the president’s call for bipartisanship and hunkered down to produce the bill announced Friday night. Though the details of the package still need to be examined, the senators’ effort was an admirable one.

Being respectful and working together are very nice attributes. But the bottom line must be whether the country is better off with the product of the bipartisanship. And in this case the core of the controversy is whether a government running a $1 trillion deficit should spend another $820 billion (which willl almost certainly be more after it emerges from conference committee) that it doesn’t have. The Post asserts that the bill is “aimed at providing the quick and large injection of funds into the economy experts say is necessary.” But the Post knows very well that many economists disagree with that claim.

The Democratic and Republican senators who have made possible the passage of the largest spending bill in history have done the country no favors. The Post’s editors may disagree with that assessment. But the issue should be freedom, economic recovery, and the morality of piling more debt on our children, not process and politeness.

Japan’s Stimulus Model

As 200 economists said in the New York Times, ” More government spending did not solve Japan’s ‘lost decade’ in the 1990s.”

And it looks like Times reporters can confirm that:

Japan’s rural areas have been paved over and filled in with roads, dams and other big infrastructure projects, the legacy of trillions of dollars spent to lift the economy from a severe downturn caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble in the late 1980s. During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world — totaling 180 percent of its $5.5 trillion economy — while failing to generate a convincing recovery.