Is Efficient Government A Good Thing?

One of the behind-the-scenes initiatives of President Bush’s budget staff the past six years has been something called the Program Assessment Ratings Tool (PART) analysis. It’s an effort to measure the “effectiveness” and “efficiency” of nearly 1,000 federal programs. Each program is graded on how well it achieves its “goals,” with marks ranging from “effective” (the equivalent of an A grade) to “ineffective” (the equivalent of an F grade).

In Tuesday’s Investor’s Business Daily op-ed section, Ernest Christian and Gary Robbins take a look at the results to date of the effort:

Congress is about to wave its wand over nearly $1 trillion of additional “discretionary” spending that will, among other things, perpetuate or increase funding for nearly 500 expenditure programs that are not even “moderately effective,” according to the Office of Management and Budget. This includes more than 200 expenditure programs that have failing grades of D or F.

By our calculations, the OMB study, called Program Assessment Ratings Tool (PART), further reveals that on average more than half of all federal expenditure programs are falling about 50% short of their stated goals.

This means that out of every dollar spent, 50 cents may possibly be accomplishing something worthwhile, but the remaining 50 cents might as well have been poured down a rat hole. In these cases alone, the cost of government incompetence is over $250 billion per year.

The list of programs with the lowest grades might make any supporter of limited government point wildly and say, “Told you so!” This rogue’s gallery includes the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s pork-filled Community Development Block Grants, the Department of Education’s Even Start literacy program, and Amtrak.

But what about the ones that received the equivalent of an A or B grade – those programs that are “effective” or “moderately effective”? That list includes homeless assistance grants, agricultural export subsidies, Indian housing loan guarantees, the non-insured crop assistance program, and corporate welfare programs like the Trade and Development Agency which subsidizes overseas demand for the products of various corporations.

The main activity these programs are really “efficient” at is spending your money in new and interesting ways on things they shouldn’t be spending your money on in the first place.

Take the non-insured crop assistance program, for instance. This program subsidizes farmers who aren’t holding a federal crop insurance policy in the event of a crop-damaging natural disaster. What did it do to earn the honor of being listed as “moderately effective”? It became very good at increasing the number of crops eligible for subsidies.

Sure, knowing when the government is losing money to fraud or mismanagment is important. But it makes more sense to determine whether these programs should exist at all before deciding what they should be “efficient” at doing. Besides, an efficient but unjustified wealth-redistribution program might actually be worse than an inefficient one. The former will likely be better at finding innovative ways of expanding the scope of its operations.

Slapping the “efficiency” label on certain federal programs is a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. You can dress up Leviathan, but it’s still Leviathan.

Chocolate Chutzpah

Americans love their chocolate. So it’s no surprise that one of the most-read pages currently on the New York Times’ website is Monday’s op-ed decrying a proposal to change federal regulations on what can be legally labeled “chocolate.”

Under Food and Drug Administration regulations, “chocolate” must contain crushed cacao beans and may contain a short list of other ingredients, including spices, nuts, sweeteners, and dairy products. Confections that do not comply with those regulations cannot carry the “chocolate” label.

Some candymakers have petitioned the FDA to expand the list of allowable additives to include various fats. If that happens, chocolatiers could substitute cheaper vegetable oils for expensive cocoa butter — the fat in cacao beans that provides chocolate’s melt-in-your-mouth texture. By substituting away from cocoa butter, confectioners would lower their production costs,  which would lead to greater profit margins or, if the candymakers compete on price, lower chocolate’s price to consumers.

To be clear, chocolatiers can already make this substitution, but the resulting product cannot legally be called “chocolate.” A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but “chocolate-like candy” apparently doesn’t sell as well as “chocolate.”

That brings us to the NYT op-ed, penned by Mort Rosenblum. He laments:

The proposal would widen the gap between good and awful. Industrial food companies could sell their waxy [confections] for less. But purveyors of the real thing have no corners to cut. While discerning chocoholics will fork over whatever it takes, those who can’t pay will never know chocolate.

As a chocophile, I sympathize with Rosenblum’s opinion of the would-be chocolates. But his lament is difficult to square with chocolate’s history, its current market trend, and basic economics.

When edible chocolate first appeared in the mid-19th century, the high price of cacao made it an endulgence for only the wealthy. Fortunately, the confection became more affordable a few decades later when chocolate makers started mixing in cheaper additives. The most important of those was milk, first popularized by the Swiss entrepreneur Daniel Peter (with help from a powdered milk maker named Henri Nestlé). In the United States, Milton Hershey experimented with the same idea, resulting in his affordable and popular ”great American chocolate bar.” Some Rosenblum predecessor likely complained that the added milk and sugar meant that consumers “will never know chocolate,” but it’s difficult to see Peter’s and Hershey’s creations as anything but a benefit to the consumer.

Nor did milk chocolate lead consumers to turn away from “real” chocolate. Until Monday’s NYT op-ed, recent news coverage on the chocolate industry has trumpeted the strong market trend toward premium chocolate. With plenty of Hershey’s, Whitman’s, and Russell Stover’s on the market, Americans nonetheless are buying more See’s, Godiva, and Lindt’s, and are searching for chocolate bars with higher and higher cacao content. And the large chocolate manufacturers are responding to the demand for premium chocolate.

From an economic perspective, this makes perfect sense. Consumers shift from a product to its substitute because they find the substitute preferable. In the case of the would-be chocolates, consumers would shift away from “real” chocolates because they prefer either the price or the taste of the new confections. Rosenblum makes clear his opinion that “real” chocolate is far better tasting, so only consumers with a strong concern about price would make the switch. Those consumers would not fail to “know chocolate” — they just would be unwilling to pay its price. Meanwhile, people who do prefer “real” chocolate — people who happily pay chocolate’s current price — will go on paying that price to enjoy the food of the gods.

A concern that Rosenblum’s op-ed could have raised is that consumers may be misled as to the nature of the candy bar they are purchasing if the “chocolate” regulation is amended as proposed. But even that concern seems hollow. As noted above, premium chocolates are currently en vogue, and the chocolate bars in the checkout lines at my Trader Joe’s boldly advertise their cacao content (some topping 85%). If the federal government were to change the chocolate regulations, quality chocolatiers would quickly respond with labels telling consumers that their chocolates contain no “foreign fats.”

Rosenblum’s op-ed is a fun and informative read, but the alarm it raises is, well, hard to swallow.

And now, I think I’ll head across the street to the CVS and grab a Ritter Sport bar.

Andrew Sullivan Joins the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

…in this post, where he also critiques Michael Moore’s SiCKO.  Sullivan writes:

[A]llowing individuals to own their own health insurance and carry it from job to job would be a more meaningful reform [than the Romney healthcare initiative] - and univeralism can be over-rated. On this, I’m in agreement with this National Review editorial.

Read the entire post.

Politics and Pricing

There are two ways to price products:

The market way, used for thousands of products for hundreds of years, and

the government way, used for certain politically favored products, such as milk, since the 1930s.

This is 2007. Don’t policymakers have enough experience yet to understand that one of these methods is simple, effective, and efficient, while the other is unfair, wasteful, and bureaucratic?

Liberals, Conservatives, and Free Speech

Libertarians sometimes say that they are “liberal on free speech but conservative on economic freedom,” or that “liberals believe in free speech and personal freedom, while conservatives believe in economic freedom.” That proposition got another test in the Supreme Court yesterday. Conservatives and liberals split sharply on two free-speech cases.

And let’s see … in two 5-4 decisions, the Court’s conservative majority struck down some of the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaign speech and upheld a high-school principal’s right to suspend a student for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. Liberals disagreed in both cases.

So the liberals strongly defend a student’s right to engage in nonsensical speech that might be perceived as pro-drug, but they approve a ban on speech criticizing political candidates in the 60 days before an election.

Now I’m for free speech in both these cases. But if you had to choose, which is more important–the right of a high-school student to display silly signs at school-sponsored events, or the right of citizen groups to criticize politicians at the time voters are paying attention? Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and conservatives are more inclined to protect it than are liberals. That’s a sad reflection on today’s liberals.

The liberal attitude toward speech is also on display on the front pages of our leading liberal newspapers. A banner headline in the Washington Post reads “5-4 Supreme Court Weakens Curbs on Pre-Election TV Ads/Ruling on McCain-Feingold Law Opens Door for Interest Groups in ‘o8.” This long headline mentions “TV Ads” and “Interest Groups” but never uses the words “speech” or “First Amendment.” But the sidebar on the high-school case is headed “Restrictions on Student Speech Upheld.” For that issue, a straightforward understanding that speech is involved. And the New York Times website leads with “Justices Loosen Ad Restrictions in Campaign Finance Law,” while the sidebar on the school case reads, “Vote against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools.” Though I should note that the old-fashioned, tree-destroying version of the Times does have a subhead reading “Political Speech Rights.”

Maybe libertarians should try to describe their philosophy by saying “libertarians believe in the free speech that liberals used to believe in, and the economic freedom that conservatives used to believe in.”

Mauritius Accelerates Move to Flat Tax

With the world’s list of flat tax nations growing every year, the pressure to adopt good tax policy is becoming more powerful. The latest example comes from the Indian Ocean. Mauritius already had adopted a flat tax, with the new system scheduled to go into effect in 2009. But tax competition is leading the government to implement the pro-growth system even sooner. Tax-news.com reports:

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economic Development Rama Sithanen has announced the introduction of a flat corporate income tax, as the government strives to create conditions for “robust, sustained and inclusive growth” whilst opening the economy, facilitating business, and accelerating the transition to global competitiveness. …Central to attaining this goal is the reduction of corporate tax to a flat rate of 15%, a measure which has been brought forward by two years to July 1, 2007. This flat rate will also apply for personal income tax. Initially, the government had planned to reduce corporate tax in stages, starting with a cut in the top rate to 22.5% last year, to 20% this year and to 15% by 2009. …the Finance Minister stated….”We…have a system that is now geared towards rewarding effort and entrepreneurship.”

The Great Writ of Habeas Corpus

A few weeks ago, when I introduced ACLU executive director Anthony Romero at a Cato Book Forum, I began by asking

which right the American Founders considered most basic, that is, indispensable to securing all the others. Is it the right to property, which Arthur Lee described as “the guardian of every other right,” because without it we are all at the mercy of whoever controls all the resources? Is it the right to keep and bear arms, without which resistance to the state is rendered toothless? Is it, as Thomas Jefferson said, the right to trial by jury that protects citizens from the arbitrary power of the state? Is it the case that, as Winston Churchill said – not an American Founder, of course, but always good for a quote – “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize”? Or could it be the writ of habeas corpus, known as the Great Writ, which in 1969 the Supreme Court called “the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action”?

Afterward, my smarter colleague said, “It’s habeas.”

So that’s why it’s good that the ACLU has declared today a “Day of Action to Restore Law and Justice.”  ACLU members and others are rallying on Capitol Hill and visiting congressional offices asking Congress to restore the right of habeas corpus.

One of the most frightening elements of the powers asserted by the Bush administration in the war on terror is the power it claims to arrest American citizens and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge. The conservatives of the American Freedom Agenda have joined the ACLU in calling for repeal of the Military Commissions Act and restoration of the right of habeas corpus. Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein petitioned Congress not to curtail habeas corpus as it considered the Military Commissions Act last fall, to no avail. This issue will provide a good test of the proposition that divided government is a good thing. Will the Democratic Congress do the right thing and restore our constitutional rights?