Topic: Government and Politics

Highways and the Federal Gas Tax

Another day, another news article supportive of raising the federal gas tax. This time it’s the Wall Street Journal. The article notes that there is strong public opposition to raising gas taxes, but then proceeds to give us the arguments in favor of it, but none against. So for the next reporter writing about raising the gas tax, here are some policy reasons against it.

Let me zero in on two points made by the Journal story.

First, it says, “elected officials from both parties are treading into the debate cautiously, framing the issue around improving highway safety and local economies by repairing a growing backlog of troubled roads and bridges.”

I don’t think that’s true about a “growing backlog.” In fact, our highways and bridges appear to be improving, not getting more “troubled.” Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show that of the nation’s 600,000 bridges, the share that is “structurally deficient” has fallen from 22 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2013. The share that is “functionally obsolete” has also fallen.

Meanwhile, the surface quality of the interstate highways has steadily improved. A study by Federal Reserve economists examining FHWA data found that “since the mid-1990s, our nation’s interstate highways have become indisputably smoother and less deteriorated.” And they concluded that the Interstate system is “in good shape relative to its past condition.”

The Journal says, “The federal levy … has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since the first year of the Clinton administration, despite multiple proposals over the years to raise it. Over the past decade, Congress has approved higher spending for highway construction but hasn’t raised the tax to pay for it, creating periodic funding crises.”

It’s true that Congress has not raised the gas tax recently, but that’s because the American people have been consistently against it in polls. The problem is that Congress has gone ahead and jacked up spending anyway. So we don’t have a “funding” crisis, but a “spending” crisis.

Gas tax supporters say that it is time to raise the tax because it has not been raised in two decades. What they leave out of the story is that the gas tax rate more than quadrupled between 1982 and 1994 from 4 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents, as shown in the chart below the jump. Thus, looking at the whole period since 1982, federal gas tax revenues have risen at a robust annual average rate of 6.1 percent (based on Tax Foundation data). So, again, we have a spending crisis, not a funding crisis.

Museum of Government Failure

The Washington Post reported that NASA spent $349 million on a rocket test facility that is completely unused. It is an impressive structure, a handsome monument to congressional folly, as the photo shows.

The story made me ponder an idea I’ve had for a while. Why not collect similar stories of federal waste and present them in a Museum of Government Failure in Washington?

About 18 million tourists visit D.C. each year. They view the grand government buildings, and they see the monuments to the great political leaders. They learn about the government’s successes in places such as the Air and Space Museum, and they read the pro-government history in places such as the Capitol Visitor Center. They also might notice the man-and-horse statue outside the FTC, which signifies the government’s heroic battle to strangle trade.

We need more balance in the D.C. tourist experience. Major failures are a fundamental part of the government’s story, but most of the boondoggles and scandals get forgotten. How many people remember the appalling scandals at HUD during the 1980s? Or the $2 billion down the drain on the Superconducting Supercollider, or the $10 billion down the drain on the Yucca Mountain waste site?

I envision a museum near the Smithsonian that would give tourists a reality-based perspective on the government. It could display a scale model of the NASA rocket facility with photos of the politician responsible, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). It could explore failures in history, such as a diorama of a boondoggle Indian trading post from the 1790s. It could have a video screening room showing disgraceful moments caught on tape, such as the Abscam sting of the late 1970s. So if there is a philanthropist out there who wants to educate Americans on the government’s real track record, this is an idea to consider.

I Googled the other day, and was pleasantly surprised that someone is proceeding with such a project. Jim and Ellen Hubbard have proposed a Museum of Government Waste, and have filmed a related movie. I understand that their idea began as an investigation into pork barrel politics, but they are now considering an actual museum. Budget expert David Williams is also involved in the project.      

It will be interesting to see what these folks come up with. Good for them for taking the initiative. They should note that the problem in Washington is broader than just “waste” in the sense of porky projects. Instead, it is government failure on a grand scale, meaning the vast spending and regulation that costs us much more than it benefits us, while also reducing our freedom. I’m not sure how that can be captured in museum displays, but it is worth a try. A possible model is the private International Spy Museum in D.C., which gets 600,000 visitors a year.

One issue that a Museum of Government Failure would have to tackle: What should be sold in the gift shop? Perhaps a Lego kit of the Bridge to Nowhere? T-shirts with the humorous “I am not a crook” line? Science kits with experiments in ethanol and other wasteful energy sources?

One thing for sure is that the museum should not take any federal grants: that would guarantee that construction costs would soar!

Nine TEN! Questions on the House Vote to Tweak ObamaCare’s Employer Mandate

Tomorrow, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will vote on a measure that would alter the definition of full-time work, for purposes of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, from 30 hours per week to 40 hours per week. The measure is likely to pass. The House approved a similar measure last Congress, but it never went anywhere in the Senate, which was then under Democratic control. Now that Republicans have a majority in the Senate, there’s a chance the measure could clear both chambers of Congress. The president threatens a veto. Yuval Levin writes this change “seems likely to be worse than doing nothing.”

I have a few questions about this supposed threat to ObamaCare:

  1. This legislation would reduce the burden of ObamaCare’s employer mandatem but it would also increase government spending by making more workers eligible for health-insurance subsidies through ObamaCare’s Exchanges. How is that a policy victory?
  2. The legislation would therefore shift part of ObamaCare’s cost from an organized and influential interest group (employers) to a disorganized and less-influential interest group (taxpayers). How is that strategically smart?
  3. The legislation would make ObamaCare more tolerable for an organized and influential interest group (again, employers), thereby reducing their incentive to lobby for full repeal. How is that strategically smart?
  4. House Republicans say they are committed to repealing ObamaCare entirely. If so, why is this bill, rather than a full-repeal bill, the first item on their agenda? 
  5. House Republicans say this bill will show they can govern. But they also acknowledge the president will veto it. How is that governing?
  6. This legislation would merely lessen the burden of the employer mandate, and only for some employers. By June, however, the Supreme Court could completely invalidate employer-mandate penalties for all employers across 36 states. (See King v. Burwell.) How is this legislation a wise use of Congress’ time, when a Supreme Court ruling could go much farther in just a few months?
  7. A King ruling could also invalidate Exchange subsidies in 36 states, thereby exposing millions of Americans to the full cost of ObamaCare’s hidden taxes. That would give Congress more leverage than ever before to reopen and repeal the law. With this legislation, House Republicans are playing small ball with no leverage. How is that strategically smart?
  8. If enacted, this legislation would actually reduce the leverage a King ruling would give Congress to reopen and repeal ObamaCare. How is that strategically smart?
  9. The president has said he would veto this legislation. Given the above, should Republicans believe him?

Note that many of these questions also apply to repeal of the employer mandate before a King ruling, and sometimes after.

Update: I forgot a question. (Ten questions!)

10. This legislation would repeal a perverse incentive for employers to cut workers’ hours from just above to below 30 hours per week. It would replace that perverse incentive with a perverse incentive to cut the hours of other workers from just above to below 40 hours per week. Those other workers would complain that Republicans just made ObamaCare worse for them. How is that a political win, or strategically smart?

(Cross-posted at Darwin’s Fool.)

Happy New Year: A Time to Celebrate Human Progress

The media are full of headlines about war, sexual assault, inequality, obesity, cancer risk, environmental destruction, economic crisis, and other disasters. It’s enough to make people think that the world of their children and grandchildren will be worse than today’s world.

But the real story, which rarely makes headlines, is that, to paraphrase Indur Goklany’s book title, we are living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner and more peaceful planet. (Allister Heath summed up his argument in a cover story for the Spectator of London, without all the charts and tables.) Fortunately, beyond the headlines, more people do seem to be recognizing this.

The Cato Institute, for instance, has created an ever-expanding website on human progress, known simply as HumanProgress.org.

Here’s Steven Pinker expanding on the information in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in Slate:

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. 

He has charts of the data in each of those areas. And here’s Pinker at the Cato Institute discussing why people are so pessimistic when the real trends are so good:

Close the Government to Close Bad Government Programs

The lame duck Congress suffered through its usual year end brinkmanship before avoiding a government shutdown.  Horrors! What would people do if politicians weren’t able to legislate, regulate, and dictate in the “public interest?” 

The traditional civics book notion of government is that the state does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  If the state focused on its most fundamental tasks, we might notice if it closed.

Unfortunately, the state has turned into something very different.  It’s now a welfare agency for the wealthy, a vast soup kitchen for special interests, an engine for social engineering at home and abroad, and a national nanny determined to run citizens’ lives.  Closing down Washington’s great income redistribution racket actually would help most Americans. 

Yet, as I point out in the American Spectator:  “perhaps the most irritating, even infuriating, government activity is paternalism.  There’s a basic difference between a gang of highwaymen and Congress.  The first group takes your cash and then leaves you alone.  The second group empties your wallet or purse, and then insists on sticking around for your benefit to manage your life.  Your new overseers expect not only regular payment but eternal gratitude.”

Consider the campaign against smoking.  Adults are entitled to smoke cancer sticks if they want.  The idea that not one restaurant or bar in a city of thousands or state of millions can allow someone to smoke is, well, outrageous.

Another “Oops” Moment for Paul Krugman

I’m tempted to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Paul Krugman.

As a leading proponent of the notion that bigger government stimulates growth (a.k.a., Keynesian economics), he’s in the rather difficult position of rationalizing why the economy was stagnant when Obama first took office and the burden of government spending was rising.

And he also has to somehow explain why the economy is now doing better at a time when the fiscal burden of government is declining.

But you have to give him credit for creativity. Writing in the New York Times, he attempts to square the circle.

Let’s start with his explanation for results in the United States.

…in America we haven’t had an official, declared policy of fiscal austerity — but we’ve nonetheless had plenty of austerity in practice, thanks to the federal sequester and sharp cuts by state and local governments.

If you define “austerity” as spending restraint, Krugman is right. Overall government spending has barely increased in recent years.

But then Krugman wants us to believe that there’s been a meaningful change in fiscal policy in the past year or so. Supposedly there’s been less so-called austerity and this explains why the economy is doing better.

The good news is that we…seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result. We are finally starting to see the kind of growth, in employment and G.D.P., that we should have been seeing all along… What held us back was unprecedented public-sector austerity…now that this de facto austerity is easing, the economy is perking up.

But where’s his evidence? Whether you look at OMB data, IMF data, or OECD data, all those sources show that overall government spending has been steadily shrinking as a share of GDP ever since 2009.

Obamacare and the Rule of Law

This spring, the Affordable Care Act will make its third trip to the Supreme Court. But King v. Burwell is different from its predecessors. Instead of challenging Obamacare’s constitutionality, or the way certain regulations burden particular types of plaintiffs, this lawsuit questions how the executive branch has enforced the law generally—or, more precisely, modified, delayed, and suspended it.

After supporting the challengers’ successful request that the Supreme Court take up this case, the Cato Institute has now joined with Professor Josh Blackman on an amicus brief that alerts the Court to the separation-of-powers and rule-of-law violations attending the ACA’s implementation. Through a series of memoranda, regulations, and even blog posts, President Obama has disregarded statutory text, ignored legislative history, and remade the law in his own image.

King focuses on tax credits—the subsidies that allow people to pay increased premiums—one of the key pillars of Obamacare that the administration has toppled. To assist those who lack employer-sponsored insurance, and because it couldn’t command states to establish exchanges, Congress authorized these credits for residents of states that do create the exchanges. The statute expresses this design in language that is clear as day: Individuals receive tax credits if they bought a qualifying health plan “through an Exchange established by the State.”

In other words, if a state failed to establish an exchange, its residents—who would end up buying plans through the federal HealthCare.gov—would not be eligible for the subsidies. (The ACA’s Medicaid expansion plan operated with a similar carrot-and-stick approach until the Supreme Court rewrote it.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia: only 14 states set up exchanges, meaning that the text of the law denied subsidies in nearly three-quarters of states. This result was untenable to an administration intent on pain-free implementation. To obviate the uncomfortable compromises Congress reached, the executive engaged in its own lawmaking process, issuing a regulation that nullifies the relevant ACA provision.