Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Independence in 1776; Dependence in 2014

Since the 1960s, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) has provided a list of all federal subsidy programs. That includes subsidies to individuals, businesses, nonprofit groups, and state and local governments. The CFDA includes subsidies for farmers, retirees, school lunches, rural utilities, the energy industry, rental housing, public broadcasting, job training, foreign aid, urban transit, and much more.

The chart below shows that the number of federal subsidy programs has almost doubled since 1990, reaching 2,282 today. The genesis of the CFDA was the explosion of hand-out programs under President Lyndon Johnson. Members of Congress needed a handy guide to inform their constituents about all the new freebies.

The growth in subsidies may be good for the politicians, but it is terribly corrosive for American society. Each subsidy program costs money and creates economic distortions. Each program generates a bureaucracy, spawns lobby groups, and encourages more people to demand further benefits from the government.

Individuals, businesses, and nonprofit groups that become hooked on subsidies essentially become tools of the state. They have less incentive to innovate, and they shy away from criticizing the hand that feeds them. Government subsidies are like an addictive drug, undermining American traditions of individual reliance, voluntary charity, and entrepreneurialism.

The rise in the size and scope of federal subsidies means that Americans are steadily losing their independence. That is something sobering to think about on July 4.

Which subsidies should we cut? We should start with these.

Federal Highway Spending

The federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is running out of money. Congress will likely pass a short-term fix for the program in coming weeks. Over the longer term, many policymakers favor raising taxes to close the $14 billion annual gap between HTF spending and revenues.

Tax-hike advocates say the gap is caused by insufficient gas tax revenues. It is true that the value of the federal gas tax rate has been eroded by inflation since it was last raised two decades ago. But the gas tax rate was more than quadrupled between 1982 and 1994 from 4 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents. So if you look at the whole period since 1982, gas tax revenues have risen at a robust annual average rate of 6.1 percent (see data here).

In recent years, gas tax revenues have flat-lined. But the source of the HTF gap was highway and transit spending getting ahead of revenues, and then staying at elevated levels.

The chart below (from DownsizingGovernment.org/charts) shows real federal highway and transit spending since 1970. Real highway spending (red line) has almost doubled over the last two decades, from $29.1 billion in 1994 to $56.2 billion in 2014. Real transit spending (green line) has also risen since the mid-1990s. (If you visit the /charts page, you can see the dollar values by hovering the mouse over the lines.)

For more, see my congressional testimony and also recent items by Emily Goff.

A Plea to End Corporate Welfare

Following last week’s event for Ralph Nader’s Unstoppable, I sat down with him to discuss some of the ideas he expressed about how best to gather a large coalition to end corporate welfare, crony capitalism, and corporatism. We may agree more than this discussion indicates, but we disagree quite a bit, as you’ll see. You be the judge.

A somewhat longer audio version is available here.

Cato Spending Charts

How much does Congress spend on Veterans Affairs, the IRS, or Customs and Border Protection? How much has spending increased over time?

You can answer those questions quickly and easily with Cato’s updated charting tool for the federal budget.

The tool allows you to plot real outlays for about 500 departments, agencies, and programs, 1970-2014. All data is from the Office of Management and Budget.

The chart page opens blank. Click “+” to open a department and then check boxes for the departments, agencies, and programs you want to plot.

To save your chart as an image or a pdf, right click on it.

This chart shows spending on the three largest federal agencies. The data is in constant 2014 dollars.

California, Drought, and Water Policy

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Stanford economics professor Edward Lazear provides an economist’s view of the California drought situation:

Many parts of the country, notably California and Texas, are experiencing intense drought… Yet weather isn’t the only problem: government-dictated prices, coupled with restrictions on the transfer of water, have made a bad situation much worse.

That is true. Freeing up markets would go a long way toward easing water battles and water shortages throughout the American West. Government controls on water transfers and prices suppress markets, and the resulting distortions harm the economy and the environment.

Lazear’s proposals make sense, but he overlooks one key reform: getting the federal government out of the water business. Much of the water infrastructure in the West is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and its policies are a fundamental problem, as Peter Hill and I discuss in this essay.

Hill and I examine Reclamation’s history of waste, bureaucratic arrogance, pork barrel politics, and environmental damage. We discuss water rights, water prices, and water economics. We recommend that Reclamation’s assets be transferred to state governments, or even better to the private sector.

Reclamation’s massive Central Valley Project, for example, should be handed over to the State of California. The CVP was originally supposed to be a state project. It was approved by the California legislature and by a state referendum in 1933. But then the state decided to lobby Washington for funding and was successful, so the federal government took it over.

But it is time to stop central-planning America’s water policies. Water issues in the West are far too complex for a distracted Washington to deal with properly. The states have different legal structures for water rights, different types of farming, and different access to groundwater. So the states should be the ones to control their water infrastructure, which would allow them to tailor their policies to the unique challenges they each face.

Big Business Clashes with Libertarians and Tea Party over Ex-Im Bank

Two weeks ago I wrote about the efforts of big business to defeat libertarian-leaning legislators in states across the country. To confirm my point, on the same day the article appeared the Michigan Chamber of Commerce endorsed the opponent of Rep. Justin Amash, the one of whom I had written, “Most members of Congress vote for unconstitutional bills. Few of them make it an explicit campaign promise.”

Now a battle is brewing in Congress that pits libertarians and Tea Party supporters against the country’s biggest businesses. The Wall Street Journal headlines, “GOP’s Attack on Export-Import Bank Alarms Business Allies.” The “rise of tea-party-aligned lawmakers” is threatening this most visible example of corporate welfare, and David Brat’s attacks on “crony capitalism” in his surprise defeat of Eric Cantor have made some Republicans nervous. Amash told the Journal, “There are some large corporations that would like corporate welfare to continue.”

The biggest beneficiaries of Ex-Im’s billions are companies such as Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar,  according to Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center. Cato scholars have made the same point, including Aaron Lukas and Ian Vasquez in 2002 and Sallie James in 2011.

Matthew Yglesias of Vox notes, “The Export-Import Bank is a great example of the kind of thing a libertarian populist might oppose. That’s because the bank is a pretty textbook example of the government stepping in to arbitrarily help certain business owners.” And he points out that supporters of the Bank include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO, Haley Barbour, and Dick Gephardt. He could have added Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said he worried about “a libertarian theology that’s really starting to creep in.” I hope he’s right.

Small Is Beautiful

Thank you for reading the Cato blog and doing what you do to help spread freedom. Now you have the chance to advocate liberty every day while you are going to work or running errands.

New at the Cato store is this handsome DownsizingGovernment.org bumper sticker.

 

The sticker is appropriate for bumpers, hoods, fenders, and windshields, or even around your home on garage doors and mailboxes.

And here’s a special deal for Cato blog readers: the first 25 people to email my assistant Nick (nzaiac [at] cato [dot] org) with their street address will receive a free sticker.

And there’s more: members of Congress and top White House aides are eligible for as many free stickers as will fit on their Lexus and BMW bumpers! More than anybody else, these folks need a daily reminder that Small is Beautiful When It Comes to Government.