The Columbia Journalism Review has an article suggesting that the government should step in and stop the red ink at the nation's leading newspapers. Declan McCullagh has a great post enumerating all the many reasons that's a bad idea. Here's one of the most important:
Government money tends to come with strings attached. Sure, at first, a handout may seem free. But over time, that tends to change.
Look at the ongoing controversies over the National Endowment for the Arts. In response to controversial photographs (including a provocative retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work) in an NEA-funded exhibit, Congress did two things. It reduced the NEA's budget for the next fiscal year and then slapped a new restriction on the agency, saying that its grants must take "into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."
Mapplethorpe was, of course, a brilliant photographer, and some of his work has inspired my own modest efforts. But the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the NEA funding restrictions as constitutional, concluding that they're perfectly OK "when the government is acting as patron rather than as sovereign."
That patrons can muzzle the recipients of their largesse should be no surprise. Last decade, librarians lobbied Congress to create the E-rate program, which levied taxes on Americans' phone bills to pay for wiring schools to the Internet. It was an unalloyed, billion-dollar political win for the librarians — until Congress decided to force them to filter out porn if they wanted the cash.
They howled, they complained, they sued. They lost. The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the law "is a valid exercise of Congress' spending power."
It's also worth noting that, as Mike Masnick has pointed out repeatedly, news gathering isn't in decline. Only the portion of the news business that involves shipping people reams of ink-stained paper is having trouble. Most other parts of the news business are thriving. Cable and satellite news channels are thriving, news websites are seeing record traffic, and the blogosphere is providing hundreds of thousands of new sources for news and analysis. The trends in journalism are only alarming for people who think that journalism is synonymous with the print edition of the New York Times. Ironically, that attitude seems to be over-represented among the people in charge of educating the next generation of journalists.
We have lost a good friend in the battle for limited government with the passing yesterday of John Berthoud, president of National Taxpayers Union. John was a scholar, a leader in public policy in Washington, and the head of a very important institution that helps Americans understand the huge cost of their government. John was an extremely kind and honorable person, and he will be missed greatly.
In an excellent post, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch notes the advocacy of the Information Technology Association of America in favor of the REAL ID Act, our nation's moribund national ID law.
His title "Conflicts of Interest: . . ." draws out nicely the schism that ITAA's advocacy for REAL ID creates for its membership. They work to serve us when they sell products directly, but work to hurt us when they sell surveillance infrastructure to the government. Helpfully, he also provides links to information about the House and Senate bills to repeal REAL ID.
Asked in the comments how he would characterize himself politically, Arrington replies, "hard core libertarian."
American politicians like to concoct silly ways to waste money and misallocate resources. But European lawmakers always seem to out-do them — perhaps because the Europeans have several centuries of additional experience with government.
A good example is a European Commission-led effort to promote multilingualism. The more substantive point is that the bureaucrats in Brussels are foolishly trying to pretend that English is not the language of international business. But the most amusing part of the EU Observer story is reading that the European Commission has a commissioner for multilingualism:
Europeans should learn more foreign languages and not think that a "lingua franca" — one language used internationally — is enough, EU commissioner for multilingualism Leonard Orban said on Wednesday.
What's next, a commissioner for watching paint dry? A commissioner for shoelace regulation?
I admit I'm committing an ideological sin, but the World Bank has released its 2008 "Doing Business" report, which ranks 178 countries on regulatory impediments to entrepreurship, and it is a first-rate publication. I realize the World Bank should not exist, and I'm quite aware that many of their activities in other areas hinder economic growth, but this report is very helpful in promoting regulatory competition among jurisdictions. I'll atone for my sin by coming up with a reason to criticize the international bureaucracy in the near future, but this EU Observer story shows how Doing Business creates pressure for regulatory liberalization:
Thanks to regulatory reforms, Eastern Europe and Central Asia have surpassed East Asia for ease of doing business, a World Bank report says. The report, called "Doing Business" compares and ranks 178 economies and seven regions on the basis of ten indicators related to business regulations. ...Several of the region's countries have also overtaken some Western European economies. Estonia and Georgia for instance, the region's two top performers, have surpassed most EU members and both hold a spot in the top twenty.
Today, as expected, President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which cuts subsidies to lenders in major federal student loan programs (good) but then directs almost all the savings to Pell Grant increases, interest rate cuts, and loan forgiveness for lendees in public service jobs (all bad). One major reason Bush likely signed the bill is offered in USA Today:
The action allows both the Bush administration and Congress to say they have done something to ease the burden of paying for college, a popular political priority.
Yup. While Bush has for a long time called for Pell Grant increases to help truly low-income students, he said he didn’t like much of the rest of the bill, which simply throws more money at often well-to-do students and graduates. It’s likely he ultimately signed the bill, then, because it's politically popular.
Of course it is: The middle-class-and-above students and families who will largely reap the benefits of this redirection of taxpayer money from lenders to students are a big voting bloc. But not only is that a bad reason to support this legislation – get ready for the tuition increases that will inevitably swallow any new buying power – but signing this bill into law seems to be little more than a continuation of the big-government, big-spending profligacy that’s helped put the GOP in a minority position that seems likely to get even smaller come November 2008.
Interest from an NYT reporter the other day prompted me to update data on federal spending by presidential term. The latest data show that the current President Bush is the biggest spender since Bush I, Ford, Carter, or FDR, depending on which spending category one considers.
The table shows annual average spending growth in real, or inflation-adjusted, dollars. It accounts for the different length of each president's tenure. I have included data for Bush II's first six years (FY2001 to FY2007).
Looking at the rows in the table:
- In overall outlays, Bush II is the biggest spender since Carter.
- In defense, Bush II is the biggest spender since FDR (not shown).
- In total nondefense spending (including entitlements), Bush I and Bush II both have records of big spending.
- In nondefense discretionary spending, Bush II is the biggest spender since Ford.
- Finally, in total noninterest spending, Bush II is again the biggest spender since Ford.
Comparing the first and last rows shows the difference that interest costs make. Bush II has benefited from low interest costs, which have partly offset high program costs in recent years. That has made Bush II's fiscal record look a bit better than it actually is because the low interest costs are mainly thanks to four balanced budgets under Clinton.
But isn't Congress responsible for federal spending? No, Congress shares the responsibility with the White House. Presidents set the overall tone for spending and they hold a powerful veto pen. Bush II's big spending record, as shown in the data, is reflective of the big spending policy agenda set by his administration.