Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

NYT Infrastructure Story Crumbles

In the New York Times on Wednesday, David Leonhardt presented a chart under the headline “Amtrak Crash and America’s Declining Construction Spending.”

The chart shows federal, state, and local government construction spending as a share of GDP. Leonhardt discusses America’s “crumbling infrastructure,” particularly rails, bridges, highways, and airports. He highlights the spending decline as a share of gross domestic product over the past five years.

Leonhardt also cites Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider, who presented a similar chart after the collapse of a bridge near Seattle two years ago. Weisenthal’s brief piece was called “The Collapse Of Public Infrastructure Spending In One Chart.”

There is a big problem here: the falling spending that Leonhardt and Weisenthal point to has very little to do with transportation. The data come from the Census, which the two writers extracted from this Fed database. The data can be broken out into a dozen subcomponents for the period 2002–2015. If the writers had done that, they would have come to different conclusions.

The three largest subcomponents of government construction are highways and streets, education, and (non-road) transportation, which includes airports, seaports, and transit. Using the Fed database, I charted the three components in millions of dollars; that chart is below the jump. (I’ll look at spending as a percentage of GDP in a moment.)

Federal Spending Cut Plan 2015

According to opinion polls, Americans think the federal government is too big and too powerful. On average, people think that more than half of the tax dollars sent to Washington are wasted. When Gallup asked people what the most important problem facing the nation was, more people identified “government” than any other concern, including the economy, immigration, health care, and terrorism.

The people are right. The federal government is too big, too powerful, and too wasteful. Rather than defending our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the federal government often abuses those rights. The bigger it is, the more it abuses, and less well it functions.

The solution is a major downsizing. I have posted an updated plan to cut spending and balance the federal budget by 2020. The plan includes cuts to low-value and harmful programs across the government. Whether or not the government was running deficits, the proposed cuts would make sense because they would generate growth and expand freedom.

Political leaders should listen to the public’s concerns about big government. They should help lead a national discussion on programs to eliminate, devolve to the states, and privatize. They can start with the items in my new plan, including cuts to subsidies, entitlements, and state aid.

Why cut? Because Americans would gain more net benefits from the federal government if it were much smaller.

Huckabee’s Support for Higher Taxes and More Spending

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee launched his presidential campaign last week. Huckabee highlighted his fiscal successes as governor during his announcement. He claims that he cut taxes 94 times while governor, and he promised to bring his tax-cutting experience to Washington, D.C. Huckabee’s statements do not tell the full story. While Huckabee cut some taxes, his time in office also included a rapid increase in Arkansas state spending and multiple tax hikes. 

Huckabee took office in July 1996 after Governor Jim Guy Tucker was convicted for his involvement in the Whitewater scandal. Shortly after taking office,  Huckabee signed a $70 million  package of income tax cuts. It eliminated the marriage penalty, increased the standard deduction, and indexed tax brackets to inflation. The broad-based tax cut was Arkansas’s first in 20 years.  Huckabee followed it with a large cut to the state’s capital gains tax. These tax cuts were popular, and they improved Arkansas’s economic climate.

Huckabee’s fiscal policies then changed direction. Huckabee used the state’s tobacco settlement money to expand Medicaid, and he supported a large bond initiative to increase spending for infrastructure. These and other spending policies came with a hefty price tag.

Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)

My op-ed today at The Federalist discusses exciting developments in Canada and Britain regarding personal savings. Both nations have implemented universal savings vehicles of the type I proposed with Ernest Christian back in 2002. The vehicles have been a roaring success in Canada and Britain, and both countries have recently expanded them.

In Canada, the government’s new budget increased the annual contribution limit on Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) from $5,500 to $10,000. In Britain, the annual contribution limit on Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) was recently increased to 15,240 pounds (about $23,000). TFSAs and ISAs are impressive reforms—they are pro-growth, pro-family, and pro-freedom.

America should create a version of these accounts, which Christian and I dubbed Universal Savings Accounts (USAs). As with Roth IRAs, individuals would contribute to USAs with after-tax income, and then earnings and withdrawals would be tax-free. With USAs, withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason.

Retaliation and Intimidation within the VA

Mismanagement within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is chronic. The agency mismanages its projects and its patients. Last year’s scandal at the Phoenix VA centered on allegations that veterans waited months for treatment while never being added to the official waiting lists. The VA Secretary resigned and the agency focused on changing course. New reports suggest that agency reforms still have a long way to go.

A congresswoman at a recent congressional hearing described the VA as having a “culture of retaliation and intimidation.” Employees who raise concerns about agency missteps are punished. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which manages federal employee whistleblower complaints, reported that it receives twice as complaints from VA employees than from Pentagon employees, even though the Pentagon has double the staff. Forty percent of OSC claims in 2015 have come from VA employees, compared to 20 percent in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

During the hearing, a VA surgeon testified about the retaliation he faced following his attempts to highlight a coworker’s timecard fraud. From July 2014 until March 2015, his supervisors revoked his operating privileges, criticized him in front of other employees, and relocated his office to a dirty closet before demoting him from Chief of Staff.

Another physician was suspended from his job shortly after alerting supervisors to mishandled lab specimens. A week’s worth of samples were lost. Several months later, he reported another instance of specimen mishandling and his office was searched. He became a target of immense criticism.

Breastmilk, Formula, and WIC

The federal government runs more than 2,300 subsidy programs. One of the problems created by the armada of hand-outs is that many programs work at cross-purposes.

Government information programs urge women to breastfeed. This website says, “the cells, hormones, and antibodies in breastmilk protect babies from illness. This protection is unique and changes to meet your baby’s needs.” Breastfeeding, the government says, may protect babies against asthma, leukemia, obesity, ear infections, eczema, diarrhea, vomiting, lower respiratory infections, necrotizing enterocolitis, sudden infant death syndrome, and diabetes. 

The alternative to breastfeeding is baby formula. Some moms need to use formula, but you would think given the superiority of breastmilk that the government would not want to encourage formula. But that is exactly what the government does with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “largest single expense” in the $6 billion program is subsidies for formula. If you subsidize something, you get more of it. And, presumably, more formula means less breastmilk.

Failing Aviation Administration (FAA)

The federal government operates the air traffic control (ATC) system as an old-fashioned bureaucracy, even though ATC is a high-tech business. It’s as if the government took over Apple Computer and tried to design breakthrough products. The government would surely screw it up, which is the situation today with ATC run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The Washington Post reports:

A day after the Federal Aviation Administration celebrated the latest success in its $40 billion modernization of the air-traffic control system, the agency was hit Friday by the most scathing criticism to date for the pace of its efforts.

The FAA has frustrated Congress and been subject to frequent critical reports as it struggles to roll out the massive and complex system called NextGen, but the thorough condemnation in a study released Friday by the National Academies was unprecedented.

Mincing no words, the panel of 10 academic experts brought together by the academy’s National Research Council (NRC) said the FAA was not delivering the system that had been promised and should “reset expectations” about what it is delivering to the public and the airlines that use the system.

The “success” the WaPo initially refers to is a component of NextGen that was four years behind schedule and millions of dollars over-budget. That is success for government work I suppose.

The NRC’s findings come on the heels of other critical reports and years of FAA failings. The failings have become so routine—and the potential benefits of improved ATC so large— that even moderate politicians, corporate heads, and bureaucratic insiders now support major reforms:

“We will never get there on the current path,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said two months ago at a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill. “We’ve spent $6 billion on NextGen, but the airlines have seen few benefits.”

American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker added, “FAA’s modernization efforts have been plagued with delays.”

And David Grizzle, former head of the FAA’s air-traffic control division, said taking that division out of FAA hands “is the only means to create a stable” future for the development of NextGen.

The reform we need is ATC privatization. Following the leads of Canada and Britain, we should move the entire ATC system to a private and self-supporting nonprofit corporation. The corporation would cover its costs by generating revenues from customers—the airlines—which would make it more responsible for delivering results.

Here is an interesting finding from the NRC report:  “Airlines are not motivated to spend money on equipment and training for NextGen.” Apparently, the airlines do not trust the government to do its part, and so progress gets stalled because companies cannot be sure their investments will pay off. So an advantage of privatization would be to create a more trustworthy ATC partner for the users of the system.

ATC privatization should be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to forge a bipartisan legislative success. In Canada, the successful ATC privatization was enacted by a Liberal government and supported by the subsequent Conservative government. So let’s use the Canadian system as a model, and move ahead with ATC reform and modernization.