Tag: special interests

The Defense Lobby, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Bloomberg’s Roxana Tiron reports that Congress is nearing a deal to postpone some of the most contentious provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA) until March 2013, or later. This is good news for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which has been lobbying since late last year to undo at least that portion of the BCA that pertained to the Pentagon’s budget (i.e. that portion that threatens to cut most deeply into its members’ profits).

Although the mechanics of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts are problematic, the scale of the Pentagon build-down would be modest by historical standards. And yet, the mere suggestion that sequestration might actually occur has sent the industry into apoplexy. The AIA’s campaign has included the release of a new report claiming that the BCA cuts could result in over 1 million lost jobs, and warnings that hundreds of thousands of workers would be receiving pink slips just a few days before the November elections.

In short, sequestration is a horror show, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the AIA’s public relations effort is designed to scare the wits out of the audience. “Sequestration,” explains Della Williams, the chief executive of Fort Worth-based Williams-Pyro Inc., “is surgery with a chain saw.”

But just as some people aren’t easily scared by campy slasher flicks, there are still a few people in Washington—especially Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR)—who are cheering for the guy with the chainsaw.

The two sides squared off in separate events last Thursday. At the Bloomberg Government Defense Conference, AIA President Marian Blakey, Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) called for bipartisan compromise on taxes in order to fund further Pentagon spending increases. Judging from the number of times that speakers invoked his name, Norquist posed a greater threat to national security than China or Iran. Levin, in particular, scorned ATR’s famed taxpayers’ pledge, and suggested that it was largely responsible for the impending catastrophe.

Norquist is characteristically unfazed by all this special interest pleading for more money. While Blakey and her congressional friends were attempting to rally the troops and rustle up more money, Norquist was reaffirming his opposition to higher taxes—including the closing of tax loopholes that generate more revenue—at a meeting on Capitol Hill. There is no Pentagon budget escape hatch in ATR’s pledge. If the defense industry wants more, it will have to get it from elsewhere in the budget.

The fight over sequestration, taxes, and the defense budget reveals text book cases of two perennial public policy realities: the politics of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; and the economics of the seen vs. the unseen.

With respect to the first case, the defense industry, broadly defined, benefits disproportionately from Pentagon spending. And that industry can count many interested parties within its coalition. In addition to the defense companies, including the executives and the shareholders, there are also the workers’ at these firms (often represented by a union). Then there are the mayors and local officials who represent communities that are home to defense firms.

Given what is at stake, it is understandable that all of these groups have amped up their lobbying efforts to fend off sequestration. To take just one example, a single F-35 will cost, on average, nearly $125 million ($112.5 million for the aircraft, plus another $22 million for the engine). Prime contractor Lockheed Martin spent $15 million on lobbying in 2011 and is expected to spend even more this year. Such expenses can easily be justified to investors and shareholders if they are seen as protecting the company’s cash cow.

Individual taxpayers, by contrast, have little incentive to organize, and even less incentive to pool their money to fight against the AIA. The cost of the F-35, spread around to every taxpayer, amounts to about a dollar (if we just count the 122 million people who paid federal income taxes). Generally speaking, people do not scrutinize where every tax dollar goes; indeed, payroll tax withholding causes Americans to ignore what they pay in monthly taxes.

A few groups, including Norquist’s ATR, try to offset this imbalance of interests, and they have been reasonably successful. But Norquist’s pledges would be worthless if voters didn’t agree with him. But many do. In this poll (.pdf), for example, half of all respondents were opposed to having their taxes go up in order to pay for higher Pentagon spending.

The AIA’s other line of attack—the claim that substantial cuts in military spending will have a devastating impact on the economy, resulting in a million or more lost jobs—reveals the age-old broken-window fallacy. The AIA wants people to focus on that which is seen—defense workers who are laid off—and to ignore any consideration of how the economy as a whole will be better off if the resources that had previously gone to building planes and rockets are allocated elsewhere in the economy. These transitions are certainly difficult and painful for the individuals and firms involved, but they can be expected, all other factors being equal, to have salutary aggregate effects, especially over the long term. I’ll have more to say on that point later this week, drawing on my previous study of San Diego in the late 1950s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read a succinct explanation of the broken-window fallacy from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. And, if you’re really motivated, consider reading a less succinct, but more colorful, discussion of the phenomenon by Hazlitt’s intellectual forefather, the French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Institute for Justice Exposes the Plague of Occupational Licensing

Today, the Institute for Justice released a 200-page, comprehensive study on occupational licensing in the United States. The report details the plague of occupational licensing that has swept the country over the past 60+ years. According to the study, “In the 1950s, only one in 20 U.S. workers needed the government’s permission to pursue their chosen occupation. Today, that figure stands at almost one in three.”

Fifty years ago, in Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman warned against the dangers of professional licensing. At that time, Friedman quoted a previous study on licensure by Walter Gellhorn:

By 1952 more than 80 separate occupations exclusive of ‘owner-businesses,’ like restaurants and taxicab companies, had been licensed by state law; and in addition to the state laws there are municipal ordinances in abundance, not to mention the federal statutes that require the licensing of such diverse occupations as radio operators and stockyard commission agents. As long ago as 1938 a single state,North Carolina, had extended its law to 60 occupations. One may not be surprised to learn that pharmacists, accountants, and dentists have been reached by state law as have sanitarians and psychologists, assayers and architects, veterinarians and librarians. But with what joy of discovery does one learn about the licensing of threshing machine operators and dealers in scrap tobacco? What of egg graders and guide dog trainers, pest controllers and yacht salesmen, tree surgeons and well diggers, tile layers and potato growers? And what of the hypertrichologists who are licensed in Connecticut, where they remove excessive and unsightly hair with the solemnity appropriate to their high sounding title?

The Institute for Justice’s study found that licensing has only become more wide-spread and more absurd. But an increase in licensure is expected when interest groups are allowed to capture government and violate our economic liberties. Public choice theory predicts a growth in licensing if the anti-competitive interests of trades are not checked by constitutional rights. As Friedman observed,

In the absence of any general arrangements to offset the pressure of special interests, producer groups will invariably have a much stronger influence on legislative action and the power that be than will the diverse, widely spread consumer interest. Indeed from this point of view, the puzzle is not why we have so many silly licensure laws, but why we don’t have far more.

There are significant real-world effects to these laws. In a world of nine percent unemployment, barriers to work should be the last thing we want, particularly if those barriers do not make us safer or better off. The study found that the average license forces would-be workers to pay an average of $209 in fees, take one exam, and complete nine months of training. In the four places in which they are licensed (three states and DC), interior designers have the highest barriers to entry, apparently to save us from shag carpeting and misuses of the Pottery Barn. In the face of such requirements, particularly the months of training, it’s easy to see how someone can be discouraged from even looking for a job.

In addition, out-of-control licensing has other, more human costs, such as the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey, who were prohibited from building caskets in their monastery unless they obtained a funeral director license. The Institute for Justice won that case. Here’s hoping the new study gives IJ’s attorneys the data they may need to defeat other unconstitutional licensing regimes.

Below is the video announcing the study:

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

With Friends Like Sen. Sessions, Free Trade Is in Trouble

According to a story in Politico today, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has been whipping his Republican colleagues to vote in favor of the China currency legislation that appears to be headed for passage in the Senate. (My Cato colleague Dan Ikenson has explained  why raising tariffs on imports from China would be a mistake.)

The Politico story says that Sessions is “traditionally a proponent of free trade,” but his actual voting record indicates otherwise. According to the trade vote data base we maintain on the home page of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at Cato, Sen. Sessions has voted in favor of lower trade barriers on a bare majority (26 out of 49) of the significant trade votes we’ve recorded.

Since 1997, Sen. Sessions has voted in favor of protectionist farm bills (2002, 2007, 2008), banning safety-certified Mexican trucks from U.S. roads (2007), country-of-origin labeling (2003), the WTO-illegal Byrd amendment (2003, 2005), the original Schumer-Graham bill to impose a 27.5 percent tariff against imports from China (2005), sugar import quotas (1999, 2000, 2001), and steel import quotas (1999)

Meanwhile, he’s voted against the Morocco free-trade agreement (2004), trade promotion authority (1998, 2002), and normal trade relations with Vietnam (2001) and China (1997, 1999).

And to top it all off, it was Sen. Sessions who single-handedly scuttled renewal last year of the Generalized System of Preferences, the long-standing program that had allowed certain imports from poor countries to enter the United States duty free. As my Cato colleague Sallie James has chronicled (here and here), the good senator refused to allow the program to be renewed because of a dispute affecting a small number of his constituents who are employed making sleeping bags.

Like too many of his fellow senators, Sen. Sessions supports our freedom to trade only as long as it does not affect any noisy special interests in his own state.

Topics:

Lobbying Wolves on the Prowl

The other day I noted that the budget cuts agreed to last week contained lots of familiar faces. Many of the agencies and programs getting a trim were also cut in 1995 in a rescissions package put together by Gingrich Republicans. In the fifteen intervening years, federal spending exploded across the board, which means that an occasional trim job doesn’t accomplish much if the goal is to limit government.

The reason why is that if the scope of government activities isn’t curtailed, the cuts will be short-lived. As long as the agencies and their programs remain, special interests won’t stop agitating Congress to continue, or more likely, increase, funding.

A recent article in The Hill reports that lobbyists are already hard at work:

Groups that advocate for everything from more foreign aid to bolstering the nation’s transportation system saw several of their favorite government programs suffer deep spending cuts in the fiscal year 2011 budget deal.

With millions of dollars now axed from what they consider key federal initiatives, groups are planning to redouble their efforts and lobby to restore as much funding as possible in next year’s budget.

(Note to reporter: A lot of adjectives could be used to describe the spending cuts. “Deep” is not one of them.)

A fellow who lobbies for foreign aid argues that cutting it won’t balance the budget and that “We need to be planting the seeds for future economic prosperity around the world.” It’s true that even eliminating foreign aid wouldn’t balance the budget, but every little bit helps. But what’s striking is his arrogant pronouncement that “we” (taxpayers) need to be forced by the federal government to send our money abroad for the causes he fancies.

A lobbyist with the National League of Cities is relieved that the GOP didn’t get the small cut in local handouts that were originally proposed, but is nonetheless concerned about the “anti-spending climate in Washington”:

‘We’re talking about staff layoffs at the city level. Cities are also going to have completely reorganize their budgets mid-year and prioritize some things out.’

‘In this environment, the numbers from fiscal year 2011 might be the new baseline but our message isn’t going to change,’ Wallace said. ‘We’re focusing on those local programs that create jobs and spur economic growth.’

Cities prioritizing spending? Heaven forbid. Suck more money out of the private sector in order to save bureaucratic deadweight in local government? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for economic growth to me. (See here for more on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local governments.)

Then there are the transportation lobbyists. These folks would probably argue that a giant escalator to nowhere would be a wise use of taxpayer money:

Dean’s group is lamenting spending cuts made to the high-speed rail program, transit security grants as well as funding for “fixed guideway” projects, which include commuter trains, cable cars and ferryboats among other public transit systems.

For the fans of The Simpsons who didn’t catch the escalator reference, see this link for my feelings on government-funded rail projects. (Fans and non-fans should check out these essays on urban transit subsidies and high-speed rail.)

In Washington, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets greased. Lobbyists for government programs exist to make sure that Congress hears their wheel squeaking. Yes, the deck is stacked against those who are forced to foot the bill, but if taxpayers want federal agencies and their programs to get more than a trimming every fifteen years or so, now is the time to make a lot more noise.

Senator Reid’s Gamble

My colleague Dan Mitchell has already written about the tax deal reached between President Obama and congressional Republicans.  But there might be something in the package for people wishing to play poker freely online.

Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is apparently circulating draft legislation to overturn the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which blocked financial institutions from processing transactions with online gambling companies.  I would characterize that as a good move overall, apart from three quibbles. First, the draft legislation would – you guessed it –place a tax on the wagers (you didn’t think you’d get your freedom back without conditions, did you?). Second, the bill applies only to poker, and continues to prohibit “Internet gambling” more broadly. And third, the fine-print sounds problematic from a trade policy (and trade law) point of view:

…Mr. Reid’s office is considering language that would allow only existing casinos, horse tracks and slot-machine makers to operate online poker websites for the first two years after the bill passes, which could limit the ability of other companies to enter the market.

Carving out this fast-growing market for established gambling service providers sets off my protectionist alert. The cosy little cartel wouldn’t just exclude domestic potential competitors; I wrote a short paper a few years ago on how the UIGEA got the United States into hot water with the World Trade Organization, and the same arguments apply today. The United States still – despite vague, and so far empty, talk about changing its commitments with WTO members – has an obligation under the General Agreement on Trade in Services to open its market to online gaming operators abroad.

Politico has more about the groups supporting this move, suggesting (as are many Republicans opposed to internet gambling) that Reid has seen religion on online poker in direct response to the campaign contributions he received from gambling interests. I’m not so much interested in that angle –politicians responding to special interests is hardly news – as I am in the substance of what the legislation is proposing. And if the following reporting from Politico is accurate, the substance is troubling enough :

The National Indian Gaming Association is opposing Reid’s effort to insert the online poker language in any tax cut bill, said an official with the group, Jason Giles. He asserted it gives an advantage to Las Vegas-based gambling operators while discriminating against tribal operators.

“It is drafted to create an initial regulatory monopoly for Nevada and New Jersey for the first several years of the bill, which gives Las Vegas operators time to capture the market,” he said.

A gambling industry insider familiar with Reid’s efforts said Republican-leaning Vegas casino moguls Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, while generally supportive of Reid’s legislation, take issue with provisions that could allow companies that previously operated in violation of online gambling laws to cash in.

The UIGEA is/was a nightmare for online operators to work around, partly because it never really defined “unlawful internet gambling.” Therefore, I am not sure how one would determine unambiguously whether a company “operated in violation of online gambling laws”.  The UIGEA referred to transactions processors rather than gambling companies. And in any case, a few European operators (PartyGaming most famously) withdrew from the U.S. market at the time the UIGEA passed, just to be safe, and yet have continued to face prosecution.  The European firms are at the cutting edge of online gaming services. Of course Messrs. Wynn and Adelson would want them out of the picture, but legislators should resist their attempts.

While Reid’s proposal may be an improvement on the status quo, it falls far short of restoring the full freedom of consenting adults to use their money, time, and online access in a manner of their choosing. It also is a long way from allowing a competitive, open market in gaming services to thrive. We should see this as a step in the right direction, but not the end game.

Policymakers Needn’t Fear Spending Cuts

A recent study by economists Alberto Alesina, Dorian Carloni, and Giampaolo Leece looked at 19 OECD countries from 1975 to 2008 and found no evidence that “governments which quickly reduce budget deficits are systematically voted out office.” Therefore, the authors conclude that governments can “decisively” reduce deficits and be returned to office by voters.

A particularly interesting finding is that only 20 percent of the governments that reduced deficits by cutting spending were subsequently voted out of office. In contrast, 56 percent of governments that reduced deficits by increased taxes were given the boot.

The findings are good news for the large group of incoming members of Congress who promised to cut spending during the campaign.

The authors ask, “If it is the case that certain types of fiscal adjustments are not necessarily costly in terms of lost output or lost votes, why are they often delayed and politicians reluctant to implement them?”

One possible reason they suggest makes the most sense:

Certain constituencies may be able to block adjustments to continue receiving rents from government spending because they have enough political energy (time, organization, money). This is sometimes referred to as an issue of diffuse benefits and concentrated costs. For example, in some cases strikes of public-sector employees may create serious disruptions. Pensioners lobbies may be able to persuade politicians not to touch their pension systems even when future generations will suffer the costs of delayed reforms. Lobbyists for certain protected sectors use campaign contributions for continued protection.

Policymakers in Washington are surrounded by doting staffers, political operatives, and persistent lobbyists representing countless special interests. The result is an endless stream of feedback telling policymakers to SPEND! Or, as is currently more likely the case, DON’T CUT! Many politicians learn to enjoy the warm feelings (and campaign support) that come with delivering the taxpayer goods to particular interests, while those who would actually like to cut spending don’t make any friends.

The media often doesn’t help matters.

Consider how many journalists tend to portray the subject of spending cuts. They describe proposed cuts as “draconian” and modest trims as “slashing” spending. Instead of considering the cost to taxpayers of a program or the possible alternatives to government programs, journalists just think of cuts as “painful.”

One way to puncture a hole in the Beltway spending echo-chamber would be for congressional committees to spend more time listening to witnesses who don’t want more government spending. In a Cato Policy Analysis, former Yale professor James Payne surveyed 14 congressional committee hearings. He found that “in those 14 hearings, 1,014 witnesses appeared to argue in favor of programs and only 7 spoke against them, an imbalance of 145 to 1.”

There’s a lot of talk coming from House Republicans about “changing the culture” in the appropriations committee and elsewhere. A good start would be for the committees to start hearing more from the “diffuse” taxpayers footing the bill, and less from the concentrated beneficiaries. Perhaps then more policymakers will come to realize that pushing spending cuts isn’t so scary after all.