Topic: Government and Politics

How Cheap Are Politicians?

Dan Morgan has another excellent Washington Post report on our tangled web of farm subsidies, tariffs, government purchases, and so on. This time he examines the sugar industry’s political contributions–“more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million to candidates, parties and political funds” in 2007 alone. Most of the money went to Democrats, apparently, which might explain why Democrats opposed more strongly than Republicans an amendment to strike the sugar subsidy provisions from the bill. Morgan delights in pointing out members of Congress such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Queens and Manhattan and Rep. Steven Rothman of bucolic Hackensack and Fort Lee, New Jersey, who received funds from the sugar magnates and voted to protect their subsidies despite the fact that they would seem to have more sugar consumers than sugar growers in their districts.

One wants to be careful here. The assumption that contributions drive congressional votes is often exaggerated. Party, ideology, region, religion, and other factors may have much more influence on how a member votes than contributions, and contributions often reflect a member’s votes rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the sugar subsidy is so manifestly a bad policy, and support for it seems so obviously an odd position for urban northeastern Democrats, that it is hard to resist the suspicion that contributions play a role in getting 282 members of the House of Representatives to support it.

So $1.5 million is a lot of money, and it seems to have done the trick. But … is it really so much money? According to Morgan, the sugar provisions in the farm bill are worth $1 billion over 10 years. That’s a huge return on investment. In what other way could a business invest $1.5 million to reap $1 billion? And look at the contributions–“more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million.” That is, the average contribution was less than $1700. Morgan writes that a fundraiser for Maloney raised $9,500, and she also received $5,000 from a union that represented sugar workers. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) received $5,500 from sugar interests. That’s not very much money.

So the really interesting question is why we don’t see more such investments. If indeed, as Morgan’s article would lead us to believe, an investment of $1.5 million in political contributions can ensure a payoff of $1 billion, why doesn’t everyone do it? Congress hands out some $2.8 trillion a year. There aren’t many pots of money in our society bigger than that. Getting one percent of that, or one-hundredth of one percent of that, would be worth a lot. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this, lest politicians start raising their prices and lobbyists persuade even more industries to invest in Washington.

Quiggin Says “libertarian,” Reynolds Said “Libertarian”

As Justin notes below, Aussie social democrat blogger John Quiggin recently wrote that Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has renounced being “a libertarian.” Quiggin then launches into a bizarre spleen-venting about libertarians, including the charge that Cato’s opposition to the Iraq war is sotto voce. (If you listen carefully, you can still hear the echoes from Justin’s shriek of frustration. And rightly so.)

Justin’s not the only one who should be frustrated; Quiggin completely misunderstands what Reynolds wrote. (I thought Australians knew English?)

Here’s the Instapundit post that Quiggin cites as showing Reynolds’ change in philosophy:

CONFESSIONS OF A former card-carrying Libertarian. I’m one of those, myself. Takeaway line: “From here, it looks as if the Republicans have become wrong and corrupt, the Democrats are stupid and corrupt, and the Libertarians have gone plain crazy.”

UPDATE: Bill Quick: “Do I ever understand where Steve is coming from, because I live in the same damned place.”

Get it? Reynolds isn’t talking about libertarianism, but about the LP. And the GOP. And the Dems. That is, it’s a (critical) comment about political parties adrift from sound political philosophy, not about Reynolds changing his political philosophy.

Quiggin apparently spent less time reading and understanding Reynolds’ point than he did skimming Cato’s website.

Cato and the ‘Republican Tent’

Justin is quite right to object to John Quiggin’s charge that Cato has somehow soft-pedalled its opposition to the the Iraq war. But I wanted to also object to his comment about Cato “remaining within the Republican tent,” which I personally found even more aggravating.

There certainly are a few issues where Cato scholars have agreed with the White House, with Social Security reform and immigration being the most obvious examples. But there are also plenty of examples of Cato scholars sharply criticizing the White House and the Republican leadership. Here is Cato’s Neal McCluskey criticizing the president’s signature education policy initiative. Here is a Cato paper criticizing the Republicans’ expansion of Medicare. Here are two books criticizing the Republicans for abandoning their small-govenment roots. Here is Gene Healy and Tim Lynch’s devastating brief on the Bush administration’s civil liberties record. Here is a critique of the GOP’s Federal Marriage Amendment. Here is a podcast of yours truly opposing the White House’s stance on warrantless wiretaps. Here is Cato’s Jim Harper arguing against the REAL ID Act, which is backed by the White House. Here are repeated critiques of the Republicans’ pork-laden energy bill. Here is Cato’s Roger Pilon arguing for lifting the ban on “drug reimportation,” a ban the White House supported.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And that’s in addition to all the foreign policy work Justin already noted. Cato scholars criticize Republican policymakers constantly. We are not, and have never sought to be, “within the Republican tent.” Unfortunately, partisanship seems to have so curdled public discourse that many on the political left seem to reflexively assume that anyone who’s not in “the Democratic tent” must ipso facto be in the Republican tent. Even a cursory review of our recent work makes it clear that’s not true.

Tales from the Clinton Dynasty

Nina Burleigh, who covered the Clinton White House for Time and who once said of President Clinton, ”I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” reviews a new biography of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post. She writes, “The details are riveting as ever. Who can get enough of POTUS sweating on the phone at 2 a.m. with a love-addled 24-year-old woman, placating her with job promises, knowing his world is about to explode as surely as a Sudanese powdered-milk factory?”

It seems a cavalier way to refer to the bombing of a factory in a poor country, a factory that was not in fact making nerve gas, and a bombing that happened suddenly, just three days after Clinton’s traumatic speech to the nation about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Critics suggested that he wanted to change the subject on the front pages. Bombings aren’t funny, and Burleigh’s jest does nothing to put to rest the cynical, “Wag the Dog” interpretation of Clinton’s action.

Tax-and-Spend or Borrow-and-Spend?

In Virginia,

Pat S. Herrity wants a new elementary school and middle school for southern Fairfax County. Douglas R. Boulter wants to hire more zoning inspectors. Vellie S. Dietrich Hall calls for more and better-paid police. Gary H. Baise promises roads, an expanded auditor’s office and the newly created post of county ethics officer.

And they all pledge to lower property taxes.

Meet the Republicans running for the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 6.

In Virginia, as in Congress, voters get a choice between tax-and-spend Democrats and borrow-and-spend Republicans. As I’ve argued before, there’s a bit of fat in the Fairfax County budget. It’s too bad that voters aren’t offered any candidates who would trim it.

Limited Government: Good for Thee, But Not For Me

An interesting, if not encouraging, piece today by Jonah Goldberg in the LA Times about how Americans, although all for limited government in theory, are all-too-fond of the goodies government throws their way in practice. People usually like stuff, especially if someone else pays for it. Consequently, according to Mr Goldberg, the constituency for limited government is small. That might explain the lack of advocates for a very limited government among the front-runners for the Republican nomination (Side note: I have often wondered how many of the Democrats I know would lose their enthusiasm for Ron Paul if they looked beyond his anti-war stance).

Things might get worse, too. A 2006 study from the Heritage Foundation shows that the number of people who receive some sort of assistance from the government grew two and a half times more quickly than the U.S. population as a whole between 1962 and 2005 (see graph 10). And although it does not measure the same thing, a recent report by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation shows that 42 percent of Americans didn’t pay any income tax in 2006 (hat tip: Chris Edwards).

It seems we may be reaching a crucial “tipping-point” of dependency talked about in the Heritage report, although obviously it can only go so far before those being looted pull the plug (Say, that sounds like a good idea for a book plot!).

Bush IS a Big Spender

Investor’s Business Daily, responding to an article appearing in several McClatchy Company newspapers, argues that President Bush isn’t a big spender because outlays as a share of GDP are not that different today that they were during the Clinton years. But this analysis has two shortcomings:

First, it looks at average spending as a share of GDP over an administration’s total tenure. What matters more is that federal spending was down to just a bit more than 18 percent of GDP when President Clinton left office. It’s now more than 20 percent of GDP today.

More important, spending as a share of GDP involves both a numerator (government outlays) and a denominator (economic output). But consider what has happened to federal spending: by that measure, Bush unambiguously has been fiscally irresponsible.

This doesn’t mean that spending as a share of GDP is not an important measure. Indeed, IBD is correct to explain that it is the most appropriate measure of the overall burden of government relative to activity in the productive sector of the economy.

What does this say about the Bush years? Well, the good news is that the American economy has enjoyed strong growth since the supply-side 2003 tax rate reductions. The bad news is that a significant chunk of that new output has been diverted to government coffers.

The McClatchy piece says discretionary spending under Bush has risen an inflation-adjusted 5.3% in his first six years, outstripping the 4.6% under Johnson — and way above President Reagan’s meager 1.9%. By “almost any yardstick,” the article continues, Bush “generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors.” Any yardstick,” that is, except the most important of all — spending as a share of GDP. On this, Bush is actually lower than most of his predecessors. Spending as a share of GDP is the most important measure of the size of government, since it measures what government actually takes from the national economy.