Topic: Government and Politics

FutureGen: Economic and Political Decisions

People who support expanded federal intervention into areas such as energy and health care naively assume that policymakers can make economically rational and efficient decisions to allocate resources. They cannot, as a Washington Post story today on FutureGen illustrates.

The story describes the political battle over the location of a $1.8 billion ”clean coal” plant. I don’t know where the most efficient place to site such a plant is, or  if such a plant makes any sense in the first place. But the story illustrates that as soon as such decisions are moved from the private sector to the political arena, millions of dollars are spent to lobby the decisionmakers, and members of Congress are hopelessly biased in favor of home-state spending regardless of what might be best for the national economy as a whole.

President Obama has promised to ramp up spending on such green projects. So get ready for some huge political fights over the big-dollar spoils, and get ready for some monsterous energy boondoggles.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato this week:

  • Writing at the Adam Smith Institute blog, Phillip Salter discusses Patrick J. Michaels’s proposal that scientific articles should be available online for public comment.
  • Penning his thoughts on Obama’s plan to raise taxes on oil and gas usage, Wintery Knight cites Jerry Taylor’s research that shows why similar price control programs didn’t work in the 1970s.
  • Reihan Salam quotes William Niskanen on The Atlantic’s Washington blog in a post about the “starve the beast” theory that says lawmakers can slow government’s growth by lowering taxes and running up deficits.
  • Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias responds to Michael Cannon’s work on health care reform in a post about Obama’s White House health care summit.
  • Dr. Paul Hsieh of FIRM (Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine) and Brian Schwartz of Patient Power cite John H. Cochrane’s Cato paper on free market solutions to health care security.

Week in Review: A Health Care Summit, School Choice and Ayn Rand

Obama Holds White House Health Care Summit

President Obama hosted almost 150 elected officials, doctors, patients, business owners, and insurers on Thursday for a White House forum on health care reform. The Washington Post reports Obama “reiterated his intention to press for legislation this year that dramatically expands insurance coverage, improves health care quality and reins in skyrocketing medical costs.”

Cato senior fellow Michael D. Tanner responds:

The Obama administration and its allies mainly seek greater government control over one-seventh of the U.S. economy and some of our most important, personal, and private decisions. They favor individual and employer mandates, increased insurance regulation, middle-class subsidies, and a government-run system in competition with private insurance. On the other side are those who seek free market reforms and more consumer-centered health care.

These differences are profound and important. They cannot and should not be papered over by easy talk of bipartisanship.

In a new article, Tanner explains why universal health care is not the best option for Americans seeking a better system:

If there is a lesson which U.S. policymakers can take from national health care systems around the world, it is not to follow the road to government-run national health care, but to increase consumer incentives and control.

To find out how the free market system can increase health care security, read University of Chicago professor John H. Cochrane’s new policy analysis, which explains how markets can “provide life-long, portable health security, while enhancing consumer choice and competition.”

Battle Over Washington DC School Choice Program Continues

Congressional Democrats are considering cutting the funding for a pilot education program that sends low-income children in Washington, D.C., to private schools through vouchers. The program serves as an example of how helpful school choice programs can be to children who are born into families that cannot afford to send them to good schools.

Adam Schaeffer, policy analyst at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, says even the mainstream media is on the side of school choice this time.

In a recent study, Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, demonstrates the superiority of market-based education over monopolies.

For comprehensive research on the effectiveness of charter schools, private schools, and voucher programs, read Herbert J. Walberg’s book, School Choice: The Findings.

Cato Celebrates Women’s History Month

The Cato Institute pays homage to three women during Women’s History Month who unabashedly defended individualism and free-market capitalism early in the 1940s — an age that widely considered American capitalism dead and socialism the future.

In 1943, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand published three groundbreaking books, The God of the Machine, The Discovery of Freedom and The Fountainhead, that laid the foundations of the modern libertarian movement.

On Rand’s centennial, Cato executive vice president David Boaz highlighted the many contributions she made to liberty:

Although she did not like to acknowledge debts to other thinkers, Rand’s work rests squarely within the libertarian tradition, with roots going back to Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Jefferson, Paine, Bastiat, Spencer, Mill, and Mises. She infused her novels with the ideas of individualism, liberty, and limited government in ways that often changed the lives of her readers. The cultural values she championed — reason, science, individualism, achievement, and happiness — are spreading across the world.

Republicans and Earmarks

This week, a handful of fiscally conservative Republican senators have been trying to cut earmarks out of the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the legislation contains 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has sought to strike specific items, like the $200,000 earmark for Tattoo Removal Violence Prevention Outreach Program in Burbank, California and the $1.9 million earmark to the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has taken a broader approach by introducing an amendment to strike all earmarks from the bill and revert to last year’s spending levels.

Not surprisingly, they have been unsuccessful. And given recent events, one must wonder if these efforts by fiscal conservatives are even welcomed by members of their own party.

The amendments introduced by Coburn and McCain were defeated by opposition from not only by the majority of Democratic senators, but also many Republican appropriators, like Senators Thad Cochrane (R-MS) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

And despite his occasional anti-earmark rhetoric and support for the Coburn and McCain amendments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of the chief beneficiaries of the earmark-laden omnibus bill. Reports suggest he requested either $75 or $51 million for his home state of Kentucky. Either way, he will obtain far more than his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), whose earmark requests total $26 million.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has been fairly consistent in her criticism of the earmarking process and, for the most part, has voted accordingly. Proving that Republican affection for earmarking is a bicameral phenomenon, her stance attracted ire from Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO), formerly one of the highest-ranking Republicans in House, who said he “would hope that Claire would change her mind on this,” as he praised Senator Kit Bond’s (R-MO) prowess at earmarking.

Now, earmarks make up a relatively small slice of the overall budget, but as Coburn has noted, the problem with earmarks is ‘‘the hidden cost of perpetuating a culture of fiscal irresponsibility. When politicians fund pork projects they sacrifice the authority to seek cuts in any other program.”

For more on earmarks, check out the “Corporate Welfare and Earmarks” chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Defense Cost Overruns

Wow, a bipartisan effort to actually do something about government waste. From the Washington Post today:

A bill to end cost overruns in major weapons systems would create a powerful new Pentagon position – director of independent cost assessments – to review cost analyses and estimates, separately from the military branch requesting the program.

Those reviews, unlike in the current process, would take place at key points in the acquisition process before a weapons program can proceed, according to legislation sponsored by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

This seems like a step forward, but cost overruns are a big problem across the entire federal government, not just at the Pentagon. Federal financial management of energy, highway, and computer projects has been appalling, for example. I’ve written about this here and elsewhere.

The government needs to buy weapons, and so we should try to improve the Pentagon process as best we can. However, the federal government does not need to buy highways, airports, air traffic control computers and many other things that have chronic cost overruns. Those items should be privatized.

Your Government at Work

In case you are the careless sort who doesn’t ask who is funding all of those wonderful government projects around you, the Obama administration intends to create a special stimulus brand.  Really.

Reports ABC News:

President Obama announced today that his administration will begin stamping an emblem on projects funded by the economic stimulus package so that people can easily recognize the effects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

All projects will be stamped with the ARRA logo (short for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) and lists the website on the emblem.


In remarks at the Department of Transportation this morning, Mr. Obama referenced the new emblems.

“We’re also making it easier for Americans to see what projects are being funded with their money as part of our recovery. So in the weeks to come, the signs denoting these projects are going to bear the new emblem of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” Obama said. “These emblems are symbols of our commitment to you, the American people – a commitment to investing your tax dollars wisely, to put Americans to work doing the work that needs to be done.  So when you see them on projects that your tax dollars made possible, let it be a reminder that our government – your government – is doing its part to put the economy back on the road of recovery.”

Of course, I’m sure the program has nothing to do with the desire to win political points for bringing goodies to the voters.  No one in Washington thinks like that.  On the other hand, when the inevitable abuse and waste emerges, the administration might begin tearing off its brand as quickly as it once put it on.

Why Acquisition Reform Fails

Senators Carl Levin and John McCain this week introduced legislation to improve how the Pentagon buys things – defense acquisition reform. The President is on the same page. So chances are the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce will have a new set of rules to learn some time this year.

Here’s the bill.  Highlights: a series of new reporting requirements about systems analysis of new programs, a new official to come up with cost estimates of weapons systems, another official to oversee developmental testing, a requirement for competitive prototyping of new weapons, which can be waived, and an effort to make waiving Nunn-McCurty breaches a little more onerous (the idea was that you cancel weapons systems that experience excessive cost growth, but it never happens), plus some other minor bureaucratic changes. McCain claims that the legislation will cut back on cost plus contracts in favor of the fixed price variety, but the legislation does not address that.

At best this bill will create some marginal improvements in defense acquisition. More likely it will simply add hassle.

Acquisition reform is practically seasonal at the Pentagon, as this PowerPoint slide show comically demonstrates. And things have only gotten worse – more programs over budget and behind schedule over time. (Read this recent testimony from a Congressional Research Service expert for details.) According to another expert, former Pentagon weapons testing chief Tom Christie, the trouble is not the existing acquisition rules but the failure to use them to control costs. He says so in a chapter for the book America’s Defense Meltdown, which we will be discussing here at a forum on March 13.

The reasons for the failure of acquisition reform are complicated, but one surely is that these are technocratic solutions to political problems. The trouble is what we want, which is several technological miracles in each new platform, not how we buy it, as my professor and sometimes co-author Harvey Sapolsky explains in a recent Defense News op-ed:

The truth is you can’t fix the acquisition system. All the insiders know this…We can’t fix it because we want crazy things. We want a system that can fire missiles from a submarine hiding beneath the surface of the sea and hit a target thousands of miles away. Or we want a tank that can survive a shaped charge round, pack its own lethal punch and is airlifted by a C-130.

Systems have to perform reliably in the snow, in the mud, in the sand. They have to communicate with every friend and not reveal themselves to any foe. And we want them soon, not later.

Worse, we already have a lot of first-class ships, aircraft, missiles and tanks; proposed new weapon systems have to be a lot better than them or any obvious modification we can make. To be worthy of our approval, the advocates of the new system have to dazzle us with expectations of what will soon be in our arsenal, something no enemy can match. It will likely cost billions, but it will be great.

With that gleam in their eye, the services seek bids for the weapons that will define their futures. Only a few contractors can qualify to make offers. After all, only a few firms know the acquisition regulations well enough and have sufficient engineering talent to manage complex projects.

Moreover, government-encouraged mergers have further thinned the ranks of eligible firms. Given that new starts in most weapon lines are once-in-a-decade-or-more events, project awards are survival tests. Not surprisingly, false optimism abounds.

For more, read his recently co-authored book.

What about using more fixed price contracts and less cost-plus contracts, as McCain suggests? Isn’t it obvious that unless you pay someone a set price rather than whatever he says it costs, he will rip you off? Actually, no, not in defense contracting. Chris Preble and I addressed this in an oped last October:

In a cost-plus contract, the contractor gets paid whatever it costs to make a good, plus a profit. McCain claims that these agreements encourage contractors to spend as much possible and send the government the bill. This argument is confused. Defense contractors have essentially one customer: the Pentagon. Repeatedly gouging your only customer, one with a small army of auditors, is likely to lead to bankruptcy.

New technology is hard to price. If we used fixed price contracts— as McCain proposes—for new complex projects, like the next-generation bomber the air force will soon build, the contractors would simply ask for more money up front to limit their risks. If we force a low price on them, they will likely blow through what is allocated and ask for a new contract. Because military services badly want the weapons they contract for—and starting over would take years—Pentagon officials would then be forced to rewrite the deal.

What acquisition reform would work? It might help to increase the number of civilian acquisition overseers and pay them more, given that their workload has expanded, and to allow them more flexibility in their work, not less, as this legislation would. But these are still minor fixes. You can’t fix acquisition until you change the incentive structure that produces its outcomes. Until the services and their Congressional backers start to accept platforms that push the technological envelop less, the problems will persist.