When Generous People Stop Kidding Themselves

Over at Tapped, Ezra Klein is wrestling with my interpretation of the new estimates of poverty and health insurance coverage released yesterday by the Census Bureau. I observed that after the 1996 welfare reforms made federal cash assistance less “generous,” poverty went down. In contrast, federal health care spending grew ever more “generous,” and the number of uninsured went up. I humbly submitted that perhaps Congress should stop being so “generous” with health care.

Klein thinks that’s “crazy,” but he misfires on poverty rates:

  1. He suggests that economic growth of the late 1990s and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit were responsible for the post-1996 reductions in poverty. (The EITC does not directly affect the poverty rate, but it does affect the decision to earn other income that does.) Certainly each played a part. But prior economic booms did not have as dramatic an effect on the poverty rate even when the EITC was present, and scholars like June O’Neill have estimated that welfare reform had larger effects than did the economy. Moreover, although the EITC encourages some people to work more, it reduces work overall by encouraging others – those in the phase-out range – to work less. That might lift some out of poverty, but it traps them and others on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
  2. He notes that poverty has increased every year from 2000 to 2004. True, but he is being selective in order to avoid the larger point that poverty remains lower now than at any point in the 17 years leading up to welfare reform. (Also, FWIW, poverty dropped slightly in 2005.)
  3. He confuses the poverty rate for families (9.9 in 2005) with the overall poverty rate (12.6 percent in 2005).
  4. Finally, he notes that the family poverty rate was lower in 2005 than in 1996. Yet he somehow believes this to be evidence that federal cash assistance does not contribute to poverty.

The political Left has had a really hard time dealing with welfare reform. When Congress pared back cash assistance, the Left assumed that bad things would happen (increased poverty, starvation, etc.). Instead, good things happened. But that evidence doesn’t fit in the Left’s model. They just don’t know where to put it.

Klein is as confused about the health care side of the comparison.

  1. Klein writes: “I don’t know any health care wonks who think medical cost inflation is a product of government spending…” He should get out more. He should start by hanging out with Maryland’s Mark Duggan and Yale’s Fiona Scott Morton, who estimate that prescription drugs are 13 percent more expensive in the private sector thanks to Medicaid. He should read up on crowd-out of private health insurance, which isn’t likely to make private insurance markets any more robust. Many people think that cost-shifting from Medicaid increases the cost of private coverage. Personally, I’d call that crowd-out of another sort, but the effect is the same. Klein should read about how MIT’s Amy Finkelstein speculates that Medicare led to increased medical expenditures in the private sector as well. All of which affects insurance premiums.
  2. Klein dismisses the idea of reforming Medicaid as Congress reformed welfare – by cutting back assistance. But that’s exactly what Congress did when it cut off Medicaid for non-citizen immigrants in 1996. Do I need to tell you what the Left predicted? Do I need to tell you what actually happened? Klein should add to his reading list Harvard’s George Borjas, who found that coverage levels for non-citizen immigrants increased after they were cut from the Medicaid rolls – a result that, Borjas argues, cannot be explained by the robust economy.
  3. Finally, Klein writes that yours truly “[doesn’t] want Big Government to start pummeling the medical-industrial complex.” But as I argue elsewhere, so long as the government controls the money, the medical-industrial complex will never get the beating it deserves because producers will always have a disproportionate influence over political decisions that effect their incomes. We will not discipline the medical-industrial complex until we have patients on the side of restraining spending, and that will not happen until patients own the money that’s being spent. Libertarians would love to pummel the medical-industrial complex. It would be (marginally) easier to do so were Klein to get out of the way.

Klein’s post reminds me of the passage Charles Murray used to close his seminal work Losing Ground:

Most of us want to help. It makes us feel bad to think of neglected children and rat-infested slums, and we are happy to pay for the thought that people who are good at taking care of such things are out there. If the numbers of neglected children and the numbers of rats seem to be going up instead of down, it is understandable that we choose to focus on how much we put into the effort instead of what comes out. The tax checks we write buy us, for relatively little money and no effort at all, a quieted conscience. The more we pay, the more certain we can be that we have done our part, and it is essential that we feel that way regardless of what we accomplish…

To this extent, the barrier to radical reform of social policy is not the pain it would cause the intended beneficiaries of the present system, but the pain it would cause the donors. The real contest about the direction of social policy is not between people who want to cut budgets and people who want to help. When reforms finally do occur, they will happen not because stingy people have won, but because generous people have stopped kidding themselves.

Come to Washington and Do Well

What’s the best business to be in these days? Steel? Automobiles? Maybe not any more. Maybe these days it’s software, or finance. Maybe. But judging from this lead story in this morning’s Washington Post

The three most prosperous large counties in the United States are in the Washington suburbs, according to census figures released yesterday, which show that the region has the second-highest income and the least poverty of any major metropolitan area in the country.

Rapidly growing Loudoun County has emerged as the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation, with its households last year having a median income of more than $98,000. It is followed by Fairfax and Howard counties, with Montgomery County not far behind.

– it would seem that government is the boom industry of the early 21st century. That’s the point Chris Edwards made in a Tax & Budget Bulletin (pdf) three months ago: that compensation of federal employees was almost twice compensation in the private sector. Then three months later, things changed, as things have a way of doing. Chris was forced to admit that the government’s latest figures showed that federal compensation was no longer almost twice private-sector compensation: it was exactly twice as much. “Average compensation for the 1.8 million federal civilian workers in 2005 was $106,579 – exactly twice the average compensation paid in the U.S. private sector: $53,289.”

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,

Don’t let ‘em make software and sell people trucks,

Make ‘em be bureaucrats and fed’rals and such.

Scandal in Public Broadcasting

The big scandal in public (or actually government) broadcasting is that the taxpayers are forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the propagation of unremittingly liberal views on politics and policy. As I said in my testimony to the Senate last year, I agree with some of the liberal attitudes of NPR and PBS, but I don’t think taxpayers should be forced to subsidize my views or those of anyone else.

The second biggest scandal is that when Republicans get control of the federal government, they don’t relieve the taxpayers of that burden. Maybe it’s because they know the old advice, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Or who have their own nationwide broadcast networks. But it’s unbelievable to me that Republicans appropriate money every year for two networks that could be called ARN, the Anti-Republican Network.

The third biggest scandal is that instead of just privatizing PBS and NPR, Republicans appoint public broadcasting officials who go in like a bull in a china shop and try to force a bunch of liberal journalists to include conservative shows and perspectives. The government shouldn’t be telling journalists how and what to report. Instead, it should just free them to report as they choose, with money from investors and customers rather than taxpayers.

And I guess the fourth biggest scandal is the one making headlines today: that the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (which oversees the federal government’s international broadcasting), who used to be chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is alleged to have improperly used his office. In a State Department report made public by three Democratic members of Congress, Tomlinson is accused of putting a friend on the BBG payroll – something that never happens elsewhere in the federal government – and using office resources to support his personal horse-racing operation, which I suppose goes beyond the March Madness pools conducted in every federal office.

Maybe when conservatives get tired of being hit over the head by tax-funded broadcast networks, and liberals get tired of conservatives trying to meddle in the networks’ reporting, they could both agree to privatize PBS and NPR, freeing them from political intervention and freeing the taxpayers from being coerced to support what Thomas Jefferson called “the propagation of opinions which [they] disbelieve.”

In Defense of Gridlock

Over at National Review’s blog, Ramesh Ponnuru wonders why it seems that divided government – aka, gridlock – tends to lead to slower growth in the federal budget.

I mount a defense of gridlock in my new book, Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government. In chapter 8, to be precise. The numbers that Ramesh cites in his post come from a review of my book by Phil Kerpen on the NR website.

By way of jumping into the discussion Ramesh has started, let me clarify a few things first.

In my book I only analyze the real per capita growth rates of government spending in the years 1965 through 2005. I think this is a more useful timeframe for comparison than Ramesh’s seventy-six-year timeframe simply because the post-Great Society welfare state looks vastly different than what existed before. I was mainly curious to see if the correlation holds up within a timeframe that yields more consistency in terms of the entitlement programs being funded in the federal budget.

The methodology I used was modeled after that of Cato chairman William Niskanen and Cato senior fellow Peter VanDoren in the paper they presented to the Public Choice Society meeting in May of 2004. My data falls into the same realm of statistical significance, too. (Incidentally, their analysis goes back to 1949.)

Now on to the fun.

Divided government – gridlock – is the norm, not the exception, in American politics over the past 40 years. The only completely united government scenarios existed during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. It is obviously true that Democratic united government is more common than Republican united government.

So why might divided government be more conducive to restrained spending? For starters, defense spending varies widely over the past 40 years, but the correlation between wars and united government is quite consistent. American participation in every war involving more than a few days of ground combat was initiated by a united government. You could argue that this is mere coincidence. Or you could argue that united government creates an environment where there is less resistance from Congress when a president wants to exercise his powers as commander-in-chief. The burden of proof is on those who suggest this is simply happenstance.

A president and Congress could certainly offset defense budget increases with cuts in the non-defense budget. Indeed, you often see this in periods of gridlock. The converse is also true: Decreases in defense spending tend to coincide with increases in non-defense budgets under gridlock.

In the periods of united government, however, those sorts of trade-offs disappear. Instead, united government spawns large increases in across-the-board spending on everything. That’s exactly what we saw during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush.

Why this occurs might best be described by the nature of Washington politics. The one thing you can usually count on in DC is partisanship. When Republicans are the beleaguered minority—or a congressional majority fighting a big-spending White House—they are in their element. Big Government is the clear enemy. But once they find themselves in control of it, they are less willing to rein it in.

We can see this by comparing how a GOP Congress treated the proposed non-defense budgets of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Remember that once the president’s budget reaches Capitol Hill every year, Congress either increases or cuts the spending request. During the years of divided government under Clinton, the Republican Congress managed to cut Clinton’s domestic spending requests by an average of $9 billion each year between fiscal 1996 and 2001.

Contrast that with the budget outcomes under President Bush—specifically the years in which Congress was held entirely by Republicans. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, Congress passed, and Bush refused to veto, non-defense budgets that were an average of $16 billion more than the president proposed each year.

The rules of partisanship imply that a Big Government scheme proposed by a Republican president is more likely to be accepted by a Republican Congress than if it were proposed by a Democrat. That’s exactly what happened with the Medicare drug benefit. It seems quite likely such a drug benefit would not have passed if it were proposed by, say, President Al Gore or President Hillary Clinton. And if the Medicare expansion did get traction in Congress, Republican leaders would probably have been more interested in slowing it down or tacking on substantial reforms instead of abandoning the reform elements in the hope of speeding its passage as they did in 2003.

All the gridlock combinations that have persisted for longer than two years produce average (real per capita) budget growth rates that are half that of the united government average. This includes Republican presidents facing Democratic congresses – like Reagan, Nixon, and Ford – as well as a Democratic president like Clinton combined with a GOP congressional majority in both houses.

It seems to me the main question now becomes this: Even if someone doesn’t believe we would be better off with gridlock, is it still reasonable to believe – based on the historical evidence – that we’d be worse off?

Middle Class Squeeze?

New Census Bureau numbers released today on income, poverty and health coverage in 2005 are bound to fuel charges that the poor are getting poorer while the middle class continues to be squeezed. See what 25 years of tax cuts for the rich, globalization, and declining union membership have caused? But a look at the numbers inside the report tells a different story.

If we define the middle class as households earning between $35,000 and $75,000 a year, the middle class in America remains a huge demographic group. According to the Census report, Table A-1, the middle class made up 33.3 percent of U.S. households in 2005. That share is indeed somewhat smaller than in 1980, when 38.2 percent of households earned between $35,000 and $75,000 a year in real (inflation-adjusted) 2005 dollars.

Aha, so the middle class really is shrinking if not exactly disappearing, the alarmists might respond. But the Census numbers also show that over the past 25 years, the share of U.S. households earning less than $35,000 a year has also shrunk, from 44.5 percent in 1980 to 38.4 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of households earning more than $75,000 a year has jumped from 17.4 percent to 28.3 percent.

In other words, if the middle class in America has shrunk, it is only because so many formerly middle-class households have moved to the upper-income brackets, while a significant number of households previously in the lower brackets have moved up to the middle class and beyond.

The solid economic growth of the past two decades has indeed lifted all kinds of household boats. By the most basic measure of real household income, a broad swathe of Americans are better off than they were 25 years ago—thanks to growth fueled in good measure by lower marginal tax rates, expanding trade, and a more flexible domestic economy.