Topic: Government and Politics

The Politics of Stimulus Spending

USA Today investigates how members of Congress are “working behind the scenes to try to influence how the [stimulus]  money is spent.”

Congress and President Obama proudly noted that there were no earmarks in the $787 stimulus bill. But…

Ten of 27 departments and agencies receiving stimulus money have released records of contacts by lawmakers under Freedom of Information Act requests USA TODAY filed in April. Those records detailed 53 letters, phone calls and e-mails recommending projects from 60 members from February through the end of May. Thirteen of those lawmakers voted against the stimulus package.

Critics of the stimulus bill pointed out that government money is always politically directed. It’s little consolation to be proven right.

Rotating Congress

In today’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank does a typically brilliant job deconstructing the activities of Congress. He looks at how members of the various defense committees put their energies into fighting for home-state hand-outs rather than focusing on broader defense issues from a national perspective.

The dominance of parochial interests over the general public interest is, of course, a long-standing problem in Congress. Members from cotton-growing states gravitate to the farm committees in order to defend cotton interests, while members from inner cities gravitate to committees overseeing urban affairs to defend programs that subsidize their constituents.

The result is that Congress spends a lot of money on items that don’t have broad public support, and it spends little time actually considering policies from a national perspective.

A partial solution to the problem would be mandatory committee rotations every two years in the House and Senate. All committee assignments would be made by random selection at the beginning of each Congress.

People will say: “You can’t do that because members on particular committees are often experts in their field.” That would be a good argument if members used their expertise to serve the general interest of the public. Rep. Jack Murtha is an expert on defense issues, and in theory he could be spending his and his staff’s time probing Pentagon operations, reviewing administration defense strategies, overseeing procurement programs to reduce waste, and other public-spirited activities.

But that is apparently not what Murtha and most other members of Congress spend their time doing. Anyone who watches congressional committee action on C-SPAN can see the pattern that Milbank describes–members use their brief time with important witnesses to get in on-the-record statements in support of favored special interests. And their staffs spend most of their time figuring out how to maximize the home-state grab from the budget, not examining big-picture policy issues.

We have a $3 trillion government because members of Congress love to spend money, as a sort of general proclivity. But they are particularly addicted to spending money on their home states. Random committee assignment would help to disrupt that addiction, and it would allow members to adopt a more neutral and critical eye on matters in front of the committees that they were assigned.

Cash for Clunkers Lesson: How to Use the $$ to Buy a Gas Guzzler

My son’s station car is an old Ford Explorer AWD which, despite being a V-6, was rated at about 15 mpg.  Approaching 100,000 miles, the SUV’ s resale value is very low.

The House approved a bill to give him a $3,500 voucher to buy a car that is supposed to get only 18 mpg, or $4,500 if it gets 20 mpg.  Only 18-20 mpg?  That’s not moving us much closer to President Obama’s pie-in-the-sky 35.5 mpg goalpost is it?

Consider how easy it would be to game this giveaway program by using that $4,500 voucher to buy a big SUV or V-8 muscle car.

First of  all, with Chrysler and GM dealerships folding, it should be easy to buy a mediocre Chevy Cobalt or Dodge Caliber for about $10,000 more than the voucher.

What you do next is sell that boring econobox, even if you end up with $1,000 less than you paid – that still leaves you with $3,500 of free money, courtesy of taxpayers.

As this  process unfolds, the flood of resold small cars will make it even  harder for GM, Chrysler and Ford dealers to get a decent price for small cars, because of added competition from new cars being resold as used.

That’s their problem, not yours.

So, take the $9,000 net from reselling the crummy little car plus the $4,500 from Uncle Sam.  Then use that $13,500 to make a big down payment on a used Cadillac Escalade,  Toyota Tundra pickup or Corvette.

File this under “unintended consequences” (my own file is running out of space).

How Many Jobs Saved? We Do Not Know

In the past couple of days the administration has been discussing the employment impact of its stimulus package. Employment has declined steadily since adoption of the package, so it might seem odd to claim that it has already had beneficial impacts. The administration’s response is that employment would have declined even faster without the stimulus, so hundreds of thousands of jobs have been saved.

The administration might be right, but how can we know? The short answer is, we cannot know with any confidence because we cannot know what employment would have been in the absence of the stimulus. Thus, the concept of “jobs saved” is problematic; it allows the administration to conclude, no matter how bad things get, that the stimulus worked because the economy would have been even worse without the stimulus.

Ezra Klein: Socialized Medicine = Slavery

The Church of Universal Coverage really, really, really wants you to think that the Democratic health care reforms moving through Congress are not “socialized medicine.”  Last year, I wrote a paper about why they’re wrong. On June 25, I’ll be debating the issue at a Cato policy forum with the Urban Institute’s Stan Dorn.

Today, The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein lends his voice to the chorus of socialized-medicine deniers. Klein doesn’t add much to the discussion, except for this: Klein (correctly) observes, “Socialized medicine is a system in which the government owns the means of providing medicine” (emphasis his).  Single-payer systems, like the U.S. Medicare program or France’s health care system, are not socialized medicine because “the payer does not own the doctors.”

That’s right. Under socialized medicine, the government owns the doctors. When human beings can be owned, we call that slavery. Klein was probably just trying to do what other Church of Universal Coverage faithful have done over the past few years: narrow the definition of socialized medicine to the point where it has no meaning at all. (Duh, Canada doesn’t have socialized medicine – they don’t put Canadian doctors in chains, do they??)

Instead, Klein was inadvertently helpful because he clarified that the reforms he supports, and the reforms before Congress, would give the government ownership over the human capital of doctors and other clinicians. Whether we’re talking about wages, insurers’ assets, medical facilities, medical products, or even clinicians’ labor, ownership is a bundle of rights. If health care reform gives government the right to exclude people from using those resources in forbidden ways (e.g., retainer medicine, balance-billing, pure fee-for-service, whatever), then government gains control over a larger share of each bundle of ownership rights.  That equals more state ownership – of financial, physical, and even human capital – which is the very yardstick Klein uses to define socialized medicine.

If only all the socialists could be so helpful.

Should You Vote on Keeping Your Local Car Dealership?

There are lots of reasons Washington should not bail out the automakers.  Whatever the justification for saving financial institutions – the “lifeblood” of the economy, etc., etc. – saving selected industrial enterprises is lemon socialism at its worst.  The idea that the federal government will be able to engineer an economic turnaround is, well, the sort of economic fantasy that unfortunately dominates Capitol Hill these days.

One obvious problem is that legislators now have a great excuse to micromanage the automakers.  And they have already started.  After all, if the taxpayers are providing subsidies, don’t they deserve to have dealerships, lots of dealerships, just down the street?  That’s what our Congresscritters seem to think.

Observes Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune:

The Edsel was one of the biggest flops in the history of car making. Introduced with great fanfare by Ford in 1958, it had terrible sales and was junked after only three years. But if Congress had been running Ford, the Edsel would still be on the market.

That became clear last week, when Democrats as well as Republicans expressed horror at the notion that bankrupt companies with plummeting sales would need fewer retail sales outlets. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., led the way, asserting, “I honestly don’t believe that companies should be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave it to local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves.”

Supporters of free markets can be grateful to Rockefeller for showing one more reason government shouldn’t rescue unsuccessful companies. As it happens, taxpayers are less likely to get their money back if the automakers are barred from paring dealerships. Protecting those dealers merely means putting someone else at risk, and that someone has been sleeping in your bed.

The Constitution guarantees West Virginia two senators, and Rockefeller seems to think it also guarantees the state a fixed supply of car sellers. “Chrysler is eliminating 40 percent of its dealerships in my state,” he fumed, “and I have heard that GM will eliminate more than 30 percent.” This development raises the ghastly prospect that “some consumers in West Virginia will have to travel much farther distances to get their cars serviced under warranty.”

Dealers were on hand to join the chorus. “To be arbitrarily closed with no compensation is wasteful and devastating,” said Russell Whatley, owner of a Chrysler outlet in Mineral Wells, Texas.

Lemon socialism mixed with pork barrel politics!  Could it get any worse?  Don’t ask: after all, this is Washington, D.C.

Echoes of Smoot-Hawley

President Barack Obama appears to have learned something compared to candidate Obama: protectionism isn’t to America’s advantage.  Unfortunately, it is not clear that Congress has learned the same lesson.  Three free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration remain in limbo, while no one is pushing to reinstate the president’s so-called fast track negotiating authority.

And past protectionist actions are now bearing ill fruit.  The “stimulus” bill required that construction money be spent in the U.S.  Although the provision was amended in response to foreign criticism, some Canadian firms have been adversely affected.  So Canadian cities have begun boycotting American products.

Reports Reuters:

Canadian municipal leaders threatened to retaliate against the “Buy America” movement in the United States on Saturday, warning trade restrictions will hurt both countries’ economies.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities endorsed a controversial proposal to support communities that refuse to buy products from countries that put trade restrictions on products and services from Canada.

The measure is a response to a provision in the U.S. economic stimulus package passed by Congress in February that says public works projects should use iron, steel and other goods made in the United States.

The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and Canadians have complained the restrictions will bar their companies from billions of dollars in business that they have previously had access to.

“This U.S. protectionist policy is hurting Canadian firms, costing Canadian jobs and damaging Canadian efforts to grow our economy in the midst of a worldwide recession,” said Sherbrooke, Quebec, Mayor Jean Perrault, also president of the federation that represents cities and towns across Canada.

The municipal officials meeting at the federation’s convention in Whistler, British Columbia, endorsed the measure despite complaints by Canadian trade officials.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day told the group on Friday that Ottawa was actively negotiating with Washington to get the “Buy American” restrictions removed.

Thankfully, this bilateral spat isn’t likely to spark another Great Depression.  However, it illustrates how protectionism is self-defeating.  Other countries will not stand by silently as American legislators attempt to bar their products from the American market.  And U.S. workers will be the ultimate victims as the cycle of retaliation spreads.