Topic: Government and Politics

Political Graffiti

Yesterday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would name a future federal courthouse after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

As National Journal reports:

The panel even named a yet-to-be-built courthouse after Senate Majority Leader Frist, unusual for a sitting member of Congress. That was a compromise forged after Senate Transportation-Treasury Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., could not spare enough funds within his limited allocation to build the Nashville courthouse that Frist requested, a committee aide said.

So it seems that appropriators are not only shamelessly slapping the names of sitting senators on federal buildings; they are also using the naming rights to encourage additional spending.

It is too early to know if this provision will remain in the final version of the spending bill, but for what it’s worth, the Rules of the House of Representatives state:

It shall not be in order to consider a bill, joint resolution, amendment, or conference report that provides for the designation or redesignation of a public work in honor of an individual then serving as a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator.

Rules, however, are meant to be broken. And broken again.

The Big Dig

With Boston’s Big Dig highway project in the news, a brief review is in order:

As the project was getting started in 1985, government officials claimed that it would cost $2.6 billion and be completed by 1998. The cost ultimately ballooned to $14.6 billion and new problems continue to arise as the project finally nears completion. (The federal share of the project’s cost was $8.5 billion.) In 2004, hundreds of leaks were found in the project, which added millions of dollars in taxpayer costs. And in recent weeks, parts of new road tunnel ceilings have collapsed. 

Raphael Lewis and Sean Murphy wrote an excellent Boston Globe series a couple of years ago revealing how the Big Dig had been grossly mismanaged. A key problem was that Massachusetts repeatedly bailed out bungling Big Dig contractors instead of demanding accountability. Contractors were essentially rewarded for delays and overruns with added cash and guaranteed profits.

When federal money is involved, state and local profligacy and corruption are usually the result. For background on the general problem of cost overruns on federally funded projects, see my compilation of evidence here.

Reality Sets In on Capitol Hill … Finally

A number of Republicans on Capitol Hill have come forward in recent days with a new “spin” on events in Iraq, reports the Washington Post:

Faced with almost daily reports of sectarian carnage in Iraq, congressional Republicans are shifting their message on the war from speaking optimistically of progress to acknowledging the difficulty of the mission and pointing up mistakes in planning and execution.

Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) is using his House Government Reform subcommittee on national security to vent criticism of the White House’s war strategy and new estimates of the monetary cost of the war. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), once a strong supporter of the war, returned from Iraq this week declaring that conditions in Baghdad were far worse “than we’d been led to believe” and urging that troop withdrawals begin immediately.

The Post’s Jonathan Weisman and Anushka Asthana write, “Republican lawmakers acknowledge that it is no longer tenable to say the news media are ignoring the good news in Iraq and painting an unfair picture of the war.”

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.) likened the situation in Iraq to the Bush adminstration’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina. In both instances, the White House/GOP spin was, and is, so at odds with what Americans see on television every day that the party’s credibility on a host of issues is called into question. “I still hear about that,” McHenry told the Post. “We can’t look like we won’t face reality.”

Gutknecht revised his version of reality after his most recent trip to Iraq. He was a leading opponent of a timeline for withdrawal in congressional debate last month, at one point urging, nay chastising, his colleagues, “Members, now is not the time to go wobbly.”

He appears to have come full-circle. “I guess I didn’t understand the situation,” he conceded, and he has concluded: “Essentially what the White House is saying is ‘Stay the course, stay the course.’ I don’t think that course is politically sustainable.” He therefore now supports a partial troop withdrawal on the grounds that it would “send a clear message to the Iraqis that the next step is up to you.”

“If we don’t take the training wheels off,” he went on to say, ”we will be in the same place in six months that we’re in today.”

Amen.

(Gutknecht’s new position is similar to that articulated by Cato scholars for some time. To see the full extent of Cato’s work on the subject, visit our Iraq page.)

The six House Republicans who voted against the authorization to use force against Iraq in October 2002 — Ron Paul (Tex.), Jim Leach (Iowa), John Hostettler (Ind.), Connie Morella (Md.), Amo Houghton (N.Y.), and John Duncan (Tenn.) — should wear their wisdom and foresight as a badge of honor. All other Republicans, and the remaining Democrats who voted for the war and have not yet admitted their error, can recover a shred of respectability by making an intellectual and personal journey similar to that of Shays, Gutknecht, McHenry, Jim Gerlach (Pa.), and others.

Americans can grouse, “What took you so long?”, but the more constructive response is “Thank you for coming to your senses.”

Ralph Reed and the GOP

Christian Coalition co-founder Ralph Reed lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia yesterday by more than 12 points. After a career at the top of Republican politics – chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, Southeast Regional chairman of Bush-Cheney, one of Time’s 50 future leaders of America – it’s got to be galling to lose a Republican primary for a ceremonial job like lieutenant governor. Reed was tarred by his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He became a poster boy for the downward spiral of the Republican Party – the born-again activist with the choirboy face who helped transform the GOP into a religious party and then got caught taking millions of gambling dollars to lobby against rival gambling firms. Makes the K Street Project look positively, well, saintly.

Ralph Reed lost a Republican primary election on the same day the anti-marriage amendment failed to pass in the House of Representatives. Maybe one day we’ll look back on July 18 as the day that the Republican party decided not to be a religious party and started to become once again a broad-based conservative political party.

The Incredible Expanding Farm Program

The Washington Post reports that a federal program to help dairy farmers and ranchers hurt by drought has been expanded to benefit farmers untouched by drought conditions:

In all, the Livestock Compensation Program cost taxpayers $1.2 billion during its two years of existence, 2002 and 2003. Of that, $635 million went to ranchers and dairy farmers in areas where there was moderate drought or none at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post. None of the ranchers were required to prove they suffered an actual loss. The government simply sent each of them a check based on the number of cattle they owned.

It’s a typical story of government handout programs. Under “pressure from ranchers and politicians in a handful of Western states that were hit hard by drought,” the Bush administration in 2002 created a fund to compensate them. Within days members of Congress were demanding that more counties be included, and they were. But that still wasn’t enough, and in 2003 Congress expanded the program to cover any kind of weather-related disaster. And then President Bush declared that the shuttle explosion over Texas constituted a disaster, so that made more counties eligible. County USDA officials were pressured to find any kind of “disaster” that would qualify local farmers for handouts.

The Post has run other articles in this series, with titles like Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don’t Farm and Growers Reap Benefits Even in Good Years. Yet even with front-page stories in Congress’s hometown newspaper, the farm program rolls merrily along, handing out more and more subsidies with less and less plausibility.

It’s enough to make you a public choice economist. So the question is, why doesn’t it make Washington Post and other mainstream-media journalists and editorial writers more skeptical about the benefits of government programs? A great deal of what we know about the failures of government, or way that politics really works, comes from mainstream journalists. Yet many journalists continue to assume that every problem in society suggests a government program to fix it.

Paternalism in Arizona

NPR reports:

In a bid to increase voter participation in Arizona, Dr. Mark Osterloh is spearheading a ballot initiative that would automatically make each person who casts a vote eligible to win a million dollars in unclaimed state lottery money.

I would ask two questions about this proposal: Will it work?  Should it be undertaken?  I think “no” should be the answer to both questions. 

Will it work? Many experts argue that it is rational not to vote. The act of voting involves costs and benefits. The costs are getting information about the candidates, going to the polling place, standing in line and so on. The benefits to the voter are the benefits a voter expects his preferred candidate or party to deliver multiplied by the probability that his vote will swing the election to his preferred party or candidate. That probability is very low, which means that the benefits a voter can expect from voting are also quite low. They are much lower, in fact, than the costs of voting. 

The lottery measure proposes to add to these benefits the expected value of a $1 million dollar payoff. However, that value is also quite low.  2,038,069 people voted in Arizona in 2004.  Each would have had an equal chance of winning the payout. Hence, the expected value of the lottery payment in 2004 would have been 49 cents. Would that additional 49 cents attract many more voters to the polls in Arizona? It seems unlikely. Imagine that every voter was promised two quarters to come to the polls and vote. Would that tip their cost-benefit calculations toward voting? 

Of course, we might say that the state of Arizona should exploit the irrationality of voters who lack information about the number of voters or the ability to calculate an expected value. States already exploit such shortcomings with state lotteries. In that regard, the proposal seems unseemly, even immoral. 

Advocates would no doubt argue that the state might exploit voter irrationality for the higher good of getting people to the polls. Is voting such a valuable activity that the state should force taxpayers to subsidize it? 

Clearly voting is not valuable for those who choose not to vote. The justification for subsidizing voting and the lottery must be that voting provides benefits to people other than the voters who choose not to vote. At one time, experts thought non-voters differed substantially in outlook from voters. If so, voters were a skewed sample of the electorate, and elections did not contain all information about the preferences of “the people.” Studies have shown, however, that non-voters do not differ substantially in ideology or in partisanship from those who do not vote. If everyone voted, the outcomes of elections would change little if at all. It is unlikely, therefore, that society would gain much new information from the electorate by subsidizing an election lottery. 

In the end, for all the appearances of incentives and rational calculation, Mark Osterloh is just another paternalist who believes that people would be morally better if they participated in politics. He enlists the greed of the gambler to serve the endless crusade to “improve” the character of other people through state action. The proponents of the lottery inhabit a world where voting has replaced prayer, and politics has taken the place of religion. What is missing from this crusade, like other crusades before, is any sense that people should be left alone to make their own decisions about whether to vote and that whatever decision they make should be respected, even by the busybodies who think politics is next to godliness. 

And the unclaimed lottery money, of course, should be sent back to the people of Arizona through a tax cut.