There Is No Such Thing as Mandatory Federal Spending

Sometimes, governments lie.  For example, the U.S. government describes outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as “mandatory” spending, in contrast to “discretionary” spending on things like national defense and bridges to nowhere.

Yet “mandatory” spending is not really mandatory.  It too is discretionary, and everyone knows it.  The only thing that makes “mandatory” spending different is that Congress creates legislative formulas that automatically determine spending levels, instead of determining spending levels each year through the regular appropriations process.  Congress can change those formulas at its discretion, which means that such spending is actually … discretionary.  Calling such spending “mandatory” is therefore a lie that serves only to conceal the choices Congress has made.

The U.S. government, its officers, and its agents should describe federal spending as either “automatic” or “appropriated.”  There is no such thing as mandatory federal spending.

Update: I stand corrected.

Three Cheers for Whoopi

It’s no fun when the IRS take a big bite out of your paycheck. But it’s even worse when the taxman makes you pay additional layers of tax on the same income. And the ultimate outrage is when the government imposes another layer of tax just because you die. Plenty of economists have complained that the death tax is a punitive form of double taxation that penalizes capital formation, but Whoopi Goldberg probably did more to advance the cause of death tax repeal when she pointed out the moral injustice of the current system during a recent episode of ABC’s The View.

Senate Farm Bill By the End of the Week?

The Senate re-commenced debating the farm bill on Friday, after Democrats and Republicans struck an agreement over the amendments process (see my earlier blog entry here). Senate leaders are hoping that they can get a bill passed by the holiday recess, and on to conference early in the new year.

Although President Bush has threatened to veto the bill that emerged from the Senate Agriculture Committee (the bill being debated now), as well as the House Farm Bill passed in July, powerful members of Congress don’t seem too rattled. According to a recent article, Colin Peterson (chair of the House Agriculture Committee) is fairly confident that he and President Bush can get together, just the two of them nice and cozy, and come to an agreement. The money quote:

…if we can get all of these other people out of this thing and just sit down and say, ‘Look, for the betterment of the country, hopefully we can work this out.’ That’s my plan.

By “all these other people”, Mr Peterson presumably means you and I, and anyone else who is unhappy with the current state of agriculture policy in America. So sit tight, everybody, and wait for the check (currently $288 billion worth).

George Will on the NCLB

George Will writes about proposals from Reps. Pete Hoekstra and Scott Garrett that “would enable states to push Washington toward where it once was and where it belongs regarding K through 12 education: Out.” Both Hoekstra and Garrett (pdf) have spoken at recent Cato forums on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Will offers a pithy if depressing prediction:

No Child Left Behind, supposedly an antidote to the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” has instead spawned lowered standards. The law will eventually be reauthorized because doubling down on losing bets is what Washington does.

Cato scholars have been pointing to the problems with NCLB for a long time. Back in 2001 Sheldon Richman and Darcy Olsen warned that getting the federal government involved wasn’t the way to improve accountability in schools. Larry Uzzell pointed out that the law not only intruded the federal government into matters best left to the states, but its actual effect would be to lower educational standards, just the opposite of what President Bush and his allies promised. Neal McCluskey and Andrew Coulson “find that No Child Left Behind has been ineffective in achieving its intended goals, has had negative unintended consequences, is incompatible with policies that do work, is at the mercy of a political process that can only worsen its prospects, and is based on premises that are fundamentally flawed.”

Homeschooler Wins Heisman

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is the first sophomore to win the Heisman trophy as the nation’s outstanding college football player. Since 1935 every previous winner had been a junior or senior. He’s also surely the first homeschooled athlete to win the award. In the past decade or so we’ve gotten used to homeschoolers winning spelling bees and geography bees and science fairs. But who ever heard of a homeschooler winning a top athletic prize? Well, now we have.

Tebow benefited from a Florida law that allowed homeschooled students to play on public school athletic teams. Some states bar students who don’t attend a particular school from participating in extra-curricular activities. No doubt fans of the University of Florida Gators are glad that their state was so open to letting homeschoolers develop their athletic skills.

He sounds like a fine young man–born in the Philippines, where his parents were Christian missionaries and where he often spends summers preaching and doing charity work. And even more startling, he says he’ll return to the University of Florida for two more years rather than taking the big bucks from the NFL now.

Isabel Lyman wrote about homeschooling in a Cato study here. Of course, some people, like Russell Shaw at HuffingtonPost, don’t like homeschooling. They want to require that all parents turn their children over to the all-knowing, all-wise, efficient, effective, politically correct government schools. And they’re appalled at the idea that parents, not the state, should assume primary responsibility for the upbringing of the children they bring into the world. Shaw is afraid that Christian parents will teach their children creationism and other anti-scientific ideas. (Presumably not the parents whose homeschooled children are winning science fairs.) I wonder if he’d feel differently if he knew that homeschooling families are politically and culturally diverse; as Lyman writes, “There are two historical strains of homeschooling, a religious-right thread inspired by author Raymond Moore and a countercultural-left thread inspired by John Holt.” Or does he just think that, left or right, all children need to get the same thoughts drilled into their heads from the same textbooks?

Media Bias

There’s an interesting new blog called The Monkey Cage written by three political scientists at the George Washington University.  Any blog that takes its motto from H.L. Mencken deserves a look from libertarians, even if the authors are not libertarians (I have no idea whether they are or not).

The blog has only been up for a few days, but it already has some interesting posts on voter ID, campaign finance, and negative advertising in campaigns. The authors don’t follow the conventional wisdom on those issues. For example, they praise the work of Cato visiting research fellow John Mueller on the bias in threat assessments of terrorism. (You can find the short version of Mueller’s work here).

One of the group, John Sides, has a concise and interesting post on media bias.

His claim that newspapers are in the business of confirming the prior beliefs of their readers seems accurate, and yet it confirms the original concern (or, at least, a legitimate concern) about liberal bias: responding to readers or viewers leads to a biased or distorted account of reality.

Is there a market for unbiased reporting? You would think so, but perhaps not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. We may just dump media messages, bias and all, into the marketplace of ideas and trust that something like an unbiased political result will come out the other end.

Reading Sides, some might wonder: Why not relieve the media of market pressure as a way of dealing with bias? That prompts another question: Are NPR and the CPB free of political bias in their reporting and analysis?

The post also prompted the following thought: I have worked on the campaign finance issue for many years now and I have never talked to a reporter from major media who doubted any part, much less the whole, of the reform case. Political scientists have not found that campaign contributions have much effect on members of Congress (see the earlier link). But that has not affected the prior beliefs of reporters . One raw assertion of corruption by Fred Wertheimer outweighes a hundred careful studies of the influence of money on politics. That might suggest that how monolithic liberalism is in the media depends on the issue. But still, do reporters favor reform because they are liberal or because they get to write “Look, corruption!” a couple times a week? Or do they favor reform because it tends to suppress accounts of reality and messages that compete with the product offered by their employers? In other words, do they support regulations that confer directly nonproductive deadweight rents on their employers?

Finally, Sides does not discuss the Milyo-Groseclose study of media bias. Maybe he will in future posts.