Topic: Government and Politics

Tea Party Discovers Eric Cantor’s Record on Federal Spending

I was as surprised as everybody else by David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor yesterday. But I’m not really surprised that Tea Party-type voters were tired of Cantor’s voting record. In 2010, I noted that Cantor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Rep. Paul Ryan had published a book, Young Guns, which cast the Republican congressional leaders who preceded them as a group that “betrayed its principles” and was plagued by “failures from high-profile ethics lapses to the inability to rein in spending or even slow the growth of government.”

But, I wondered, how credible were the messengers? Once you ruin a brand, it can take a long time to restore it. And part of the solution is owning up to your own errors, not just pointing the finger.

Sadly, I discovered at the time that the authors didn’t have very clean hands when it came to the overspending and overregulation of the Bush years. Most relevantly for today, I found that Rep. Cantor voted for the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, expanding federal control over education. He voted for the costly Iraq war in 2002. He voted for the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act in 2003, which was projected to add more than $700 billion to Medicare costs over the following decade. He voted for the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which included the $700 billion TARP bailout. 

To be fair, he did get A’s and B’s in the annual ratings of Congress by the National Taxpayers Union, which means he had a better record on spending than most of his colleagues. But as the Tea Party’s been complaining, that’s not saying much.

David Brat, a professor of economics, promised in his campaign to “fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.” While I’m disappointed in his opposition to sensible immigration reform, I hope that if he does get to Washington he’ll bring a revitalized Tea Party message of fiscal responsibility and opposition to big business cronyism.

Eric Cantor’s Website

My Daily Caller op-ed today looks at the website of a typical modern politician, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY). His site is designed to impress voters and the media in his district with all the federal benefits he has brought home. Maloney is taking a pork and constituent service approach to gaining reelection.

There are other approaches to electoral success. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has a strategy of championing principles and specific issues that broadly resonate. The detail on Paul’s website is much better than most. Under “Issues,” he describes his general approach to each policy topic and discusses his stands on particular bills. Under “Budget” he provides a 106-page plan to cut spending.  

Looking at Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) website, you can see that he followed neither the pork nor the principled approach. If Cantor brought pork home to his district, he does not do a very good job telling people about it.

Regarding big ideas or describing his positions on issues, Cantor’s congressional website is nearly empty. Unlike most members, he does not even have an “Issues” section to explain his approach to tax reform, the budget, economic growth, civil liberties, energy, or other policies. His website is fluff.

Cantor’s primary defeat seems partly due to a lack of trust, meaning that voters in his district did not really know where he stood on issues or how he would vote. His website seems to have reflected his strategy of not taking hard stands and having few guiding principles. In his district, that ended up being a losing strategy.

(As majority leader, Cantor also runs this website. But for all the resources that office must have, this site is also very fluffy).


Los Angeles’ Confused Suit against Mortgage Lenders

Recently the City of Los Angeles filed suit against JP Morgan Chase.  The suit alleges “the bank engaged in discriminatory lending, which the City contends led to a wave of foreclosures that continues to diminish the City’s property tax revenues and increase the need for costly City services.”  So the City’s logic basically goes like this:  the housing market was humming along just fine, kicking off lots of property tax revenue allowing the City to spend like there’s no tomorrow, then evil JP Morgan comes in and lends to borrowers with the intention of pushing those borrowers into default, which pushed down housing prices, reducing property taxes and causing the city to cut “essential services”. 

So let’s start with the facts upon which I assume everyone can agree on.  Los Angeles experienced a massive boom in housing prices starting in the late 1990s (see chart below).  Rather than see this boom as temporary, the City increased property tax revenues as prices soared.  it spent those property tax revenues (have these people never heard of a rainy day fund?).  As the boom was building in 2002, according to the Census Bureau Los Angeles collected about $850 million in property tax revenue.  At the peak of the market in 2006 Los Angeles was collecting over $1 billion in property tax revenue, an increase of around 17% over four years.

Then the market begins to slow in 2006, prices decline and surprise property revenues decline as well.  A central flaw in Los Angeles’ logic is that the inflection point in prices came before that in delinquencies.  Put simply, Los Angeles has their causality wrong.  Price declines drove foreclosures.  Yes, I suspect there was a feedback from foreclosures to prices, but the temporal order of events strongly suggests price declines was the driver here.

Now one could argue that loose lending drove up prices in the first place.  But then that would mean that LA owes mortgages lenders for all that extra property tax revenue it collected during the boom.  Somehow I suspect they aren’t interested in sharing the up-side of boom/busts, just the downside.  And if LA believes that foreclosures drove down prices and hence revenues, why isn’t the city suing all the borrowers who walked away from their homes?  After all, under the City’s theory these delinquent borrowers cost the City tax revenues.  But since some of these borrowers are voters, I doubt we’ll see any consistency from the City there.

At the end of the day this suit appears little more than cheap pandering meant to distract from the dysfunctional governance of Los Angeles.  If mortgage lenders had any sense they’d just cut off lending to LA altogether, but then they’d probably get suited by DOJ for discriminating.  Can’t win either way.

Progressivism Is Bad for Your Health

The American citizenry is already used to our progressive friends taxing the hell out of everything they don’t like: smoking, drinking, fatty foods, etc. But now, apparently, the hyper-progressive and very cash-strapped D.C. Council is seriously considering slapping a 5.75 percent tax on health club memberships. That is riveting stuff, considering how many progressives out there are urging the unwashed masses rest of us to eat our broccoli and get on that treadmill.

The nation’s capital is, of course, a temporary home to that most progressive and fittest of couples: POTUS and FLOTUS. There is a government website with a catchy name “Let’s move.” It features many a picture of our First Lady in a variety of physical activities. What fun!

Not to be outdone, the Exerciser in Chief can take pride in “The President’s Challenge,” which is “the premier program of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.” The President’s Challenge, its website tells us, “helps people of all ages and abilities increase their physical activity and improve their fitness through research-based information, easy-to-use tools, and friendly motivation.”

The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to say that “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” And so it is with the D.C. council, which in its perpetual quest for more revenue might very well end up discouraging behavior that progressives claim to want to encourage.

Welcome to Absurdistan on the Potomac!

Linear Thinking and the Rahn Curve: Responding to a Critic

There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

Pareto on Piketty

“The man in whose power it might be to find out the means of alleviating the sufferings of the poor would have done a far greater deed than the one who contents himself solely with knowing the exact numbers of poor and wealthy people in society.”

—Vilfredo Pareto, “The New Theories of Economics,” Journal of Political Economy 5: 485–502 (1896–97).

Vultures on K Street

Washington, D.C. is chuckling at the news that two vultures–real live vultures, the sort that circle the sky over roadkill–have settled in to nest in the very urban setting of K Street, symbolic home of lobbyists. Washington Post reporter Theresa Vargas spoke to a raptor expert about what it all means: “Unlike hawks that find their food by seeing it, he said vultures use their sense of smell, following the scent of decay to its source.”

That’s a funny line, but as libertarians at nearby Cato could have explained, it contains a bit of an embedded fallacy. In Washington, the ultimate source of decay is not so much the lobbying but the government’s gathering unto itself an endless array of powers enabling it to punish some economic actors and reward others. Some of those sharp-clawed K Street raptors are looking for fresh carrion to drag back to their paying clients, but they wouldn’t find much to do if Congress and the White House weren’t willing to take down the prey for them. Other lobbyists–maybe we could pick some more admired bird to represent them?–work to keep their clients from becoming today’s lunch or tomorrow’s roadkill.

If you want to cut down on Washington’s growing flock of professional vultures, the best strategy is to cut off the carrion supply by shooing the government away from areas of life it shouldn’t be in.