Seen and Not Seen

The Washington Post Magazine had a detailed profile of the daily activities of freshman House member Joe Courtney (D-CT).

We learn that he spends much of his time raising campaign money, even though the next election is still 17 months ago.

More interesting is how a single business in his district, Electric Boat Corp., seems to dominate his time on Capitol Hill. He meets with the company, he lobbies Democratic Party bosses on the firm’s behalf, and he makes sure to ask questions in congressional hearings related to the company.

Electric Boat makes vessels for the Pentagon and employs 6,000 in Courtney’s Connecticut district. That’s a lot of people, but there at 680,000 people in Courtney’s congressional district — what about all their interests? Does Courtney put any effort, for example, into keeping taxes low for the benefit of all the other thousands of businesses in his district?

The article reminded me of Frederic Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” Unfortunately, most politicians focus only on the immediate, most simple, and most visible effects of government action, and don’t have the imagination or capacity for abstract thought to recognize the unseen but much larger effects of big government.

How do we fix this bias?

The United Kingdom Now Has a Bigger Government than Germany

The Financial Times reports that the German Finance Ministry has produced a study showing that the burden of government spending in Germany is on track to fall below the level in the United Kingdom. Indeed, if OECD data is reliable, the UK became a bigger welfare state this year.

This is mostly a poor reflection on British PMs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who have presided over an explosion in the size of the state sector. But German politicians deserve a small pat on the back for imposing at least a modest bit of discipline on the growth of government spending:

Public spending in Germany, as a percentage of total economic output, has fallen sharply in the past three years and is fast approaching British levels, according to a finance ministry study. The report, obtained by the Financial Times, shows state expenditures reached 45.6 per cent of gross domestic product last year, compared with 44.1 per cent in the UK, which is generally thought of as a low-tax, low-spending economy.

…Instead of focusing on the fiscal deficit — the difference between state expenditures and revenues — the report concentrates solely on spending. The [German] spending-to-GDP ratio fell from 47.1 to 45.6 per cent between 2004 and 2006, making Germany the fourth-smallest spender in the eurozone. The same ratio rose from 42.7 to 44.1 in the UK over the same period.

…”Good progress has been made in the recent past, mainly in cutting public sector headcounts,” said Winfried Fuest, economist at the business-funded IW economic institute. But he expressed worries about government being tempted “to spend more now that the economy is doing better”.

Friday News Roundup

Friday News Roundup: 

  • Prosecutors are still fighting to keep Genarlow Wilson behind bars. His case is now going to the Georgia Supreme Court. Previous coverage here.
  • There are a handful of prisoners that would actually prefer to stay imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. They would rather stay than be deported to a country like Libya where they may face torture and execution. Curiously, U.S. officials can’t seem to accomodate the handful of guys who wish to remain at Gitmo.
  • An appeals court rejects former attorney general John Ashcroft’s bid for legal immunity in a case involving the abuse of detainees in U.S. prisons. Government lawyers continue to fight the lawsuit on other grounds. Previous coverage here.
  • The FBI has discovered more wrongdoing with respect to its use of National Security Letters. This might be another case of “telling the truth slowly,” a technique that the Clintons perfected and that others like to emulate. Previous coverage here.
  • The FBI director, Robert Mueller, likes to use an expensive anti-terrorism plane to give speeches around the country. Congress must share the blame for this sort of thing. As I pointed out in this paper, if Congress throws billions into the federal bureaucracy to “fight terrorism,” don’t be surprised if the definitions of “terrorism” and “homeland security” get stretched and twisted.
  • Last, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faces more scrutiny for his shifting explanations regarding his conduct in office. In an attempt to deflect attention away from himself, Gonzales keeps traveling around the country to give away federal largesse on various crime-fighting initiatives. He says he’s not paying attention to the investigations and the no-confidence vote this week in the Senate, but no one really believes him. Gonzales needs to follow Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz into retirement.

Looking forward to next week.

The Mikulski Principle

Politicians are circling around hedge funds like vultures. They want to raise taxes on hedge funds, maybe by treating their capital gains as normal income. Why? Because hedge funds are mysterious — do you know what they really do? — and they have a lot of money. Make billion-dollar profits, get headlines, attract taxers — it’s as certain as ants at a picnic.

There are whole books on the correct theory of taxation. I’ve always assumed that Democratic members of Congress operate on the theory most clearly enunciated in 1990 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.):

Let’s go and get it from those who’ve got it.

There are many theories of taxation, such as Haig-Simons, the Tiebout model, and the Ramsay Principle. But I’d bet that the Mikulski Principle explains actual taxation best.

You Mean It Could Get Worse?

The House Agriculture Committee yesterday released its preliminary discussion draft of the commodity section of the Farm Bill (the section that deals with the subsidy programs). But the changes proposed by Rep. Colin Peterson (D, Minn.), House Agriculture Committee chairman, are precisely the wrong sort of changes needed to avoid legal challenges to its farm programs and inject life into the Doha round of global trade talks.

Chairman Peterson has suggested increasing most of the price-linked subsidies, and paying for the increase out of the money currently allocated for direct subsidies that farmers receive regardless of production or market prices.

When farmers are paid according to the amount they produce, this encourages overproduction and depresses world market prices. That infuriates our trade partners, and we can expect more of the type of legal challenge to U.S. farm programs as the cotton case (more here) and the new case against U.S. farm subsidies brought by Canada (background here).

While paying farmers “money for nothing” may be fiscally irresponsible, it is less market distorting than the types of subsidies that Chairman Peterson is proposing to increase. It makes no sense to increase the types of payments that are causing legal trouble. And if commodity prices fall from the current historic highs, then these subsidies would have a necessarily higher budgetary impact than the current setup.

My colleage Dan Griswold and I have proposed bribing farmers to let us scrap the whole thing altogether.