Topic: Government and Politics

New Video Reviews Evidence against Big Government

The burden of government spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama years. Many politicians claim that all this new spending represents necessary “investments” to boost economic growth. But as this new video explains, both cross-country comparisons and empirical analysis suggest government is far too big – not only in Europe, but also in America.

This is the second of a two-part series. The first installment, which focuses on eight theoretical reasons why excessive government undermines growth, can be viewed here.

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.

Public Information and Public Choice

MalamudOne of the high points of last week’s Gov 2.0 Summit was transparency champion Carl Malamud’s speech on the history of public access to government information – ending with a clarion call for  government documents, data, and deliberation to be made more freely available online. The argument is a clear slam-dunk on simple grounds of fairness and democratic accountability. If we’re going to be bound by the decisions made by regulatory agencies and courts, surely at a bare minimum we’re all entitled to know what those decisions are and how they were arrived at. But as many of the participants at the conference stressed, it’s not enough for the data to be available – it’s important that it be free, and in a machine readable form. Here’s one example of why, involving the PACER system for court records:

The fees for bulk legal data are a significant barrier to free enterprise, but an insurmountable barrier for the public interest. Scholars, nonprofit groups, journalists, students, and just plain citizens wishing to analyze the functioning of our courts are shut out. Organizations such as the ACLU and EFF and scholars at law schools have long complained that research across all court filings in the federal judiciary is impossible, because an eight cent per page charge applied to tens of millions of pages makes it prohibitive to identify systematic discrimination, privacy violations, or other structural deficiencies in our courts.

If you’re thinking in terms of individual cases – even those involving hundreds or thousands of pages of documents – eight cents per page might not sound like a very serious barrier. If you’re trying to do a meta-analysis that looks for patterns and trends across the body of cases as a whole, not only is the formal fee going to be prohibitive in the aggregate, but even free access won’t be much help unless the documents are in a format that can be easily read and processed by computers, given the much higher cost of human CPU cycles. That goes double if you want to be able to look for relationships across multiple different types of documents and data sets.

All familiar enough to transparency boosters. Is there a reason proponents of limited government ought to be especially concerned with this, beyond a general fondness for openness? Here’s one reason.  Public choice theorists often point to the problem of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits as a source of bad policy. In brief, a program that inefficiently transfers a million dollars from millions of taxpayers to a few beneficiaries will create a million dollar incentive for the beneficiaries to lobby on its behalf, while no individual taxpayer has much motivation to expend effort on recovering his tiny share of the benefit of axing the program. And political actors have similarly strong incentives to create identifiable constituencies who benefit from such programs and kick back those benefits in the form of either donations or public support. What Malamud and others point out is that one thing those concentrated beneficiaries end up doing is expending resources remaining fairly well informed about what government is doing – what regulations and expenditures are being contemplated – in order to be able to act for or against them in a timely fashion.

Now, as the costs of organizing dispersed people get lower thanks to new technologies, we’re seeing increasing opportunities to form ad hoc coalitions supporting and opposing policy changes with more dispersed costs and benefits – which is good, and works to erode the asymmetry that generates a lot of bad policy. But incumbent constituencies have the advantage of already being organized and able to invest resources in identifying policy changes that implicate their interests. If ten complex regulations are under consideration, and one creates a large benefit to an incumbent constituent while imposing smaller costs on a much larger group of people, it’s a great advantage if the incumbent is aware of the range of options in advance, and can push for their favored option, while the dispersed losers only become cognizant of it when the papers report on the passage of a specific rule and slowly begin teasing out its implications.

Put somewhat more briefly: Technology that lowers organizing costs can radically upset a truly pernicious public choice dynamic, but only if the information necessary to catalyze the formation of a blocking coalition is out there in a form that allows it to be sifted and analyzed by crowdsourced methods first. Transparency matters less when organizing costs are high, because the fight is ultimately going to be decided by a punch up between large, concentrated interest groups for whom the cost of hiring experts to learn about and analyze the implications of potential policy changes is relatively trivial. As transaction costs fall, and there’s potential for spontaneous, self-identifying coalitions to form, those information costs loom much larger. The timely availability – and aggregability – of information about the process of policy formation and its likely consequences then suddenly becomes a key determinant of the power of incumbent constituencies to control policy and extract rents.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Borlaug the Great

the greatNorman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, has died at 95. Ron Bailey calls him “the man who saved more human lives than anyone else in history.” In an as-yet-unpublished letter to the New York Times, Don Boudreaux reflects:

By saving millions of people from starvation, green-revolution father Norman Borlaug arguably has done more for humanity than has any other human being of the past century (“Norman Borlaug, 95, Dies; Led Green Revolution,” Sept. 13). Yet unlike Sen. Kennedy’s, his death will go relatively unnoticed. He’ll certainly not be canonized in the popular mind.

Alas, in our world, melodramatic loud-mouths thunder to and fro in the foreground, doing little of any value while stealing most of the credit for civilization. Meanwhile, in the background, millions upon millions of decent, creative people work diligently at their specialties - welding, waiting tables, performing orthopedic surgery, designing shopping malls, researching plant genetics - each contributing to the prosperity of the rest. Some contributions are larger than others (as Dr. Borlaug’s certainly was), but even a contribution as colossal as his is quickly taken for granted, any notice of it submerged beneath the self-congratulation, swagger, and bellicosity of the politicians who pretend to be prosperity’s source. How wrong.

In 1992 the late Senator Kennedy said, “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America.” I wrote a few years later that he was “conveniently forgetting the market process that has brought us such changes as the train, the skyscraper, the automobile, the personal computer, and charitable or self-help endeavors from settlement houses to Alcoholics Anonymous to Comic Relief.”

Some day a history book will describe Bill Clinton as “a scandal-ridden president in the age of Bill Gates.” Or maybe “in the age of the Green Revolution.” Either way, the biggest changes in our lives – certainly the biggest improvements – will have come from scientists, inventors, and businesses, not from politicians.

But that’s not the way journalists and historians see it. Just think of the people who have gone down in history as “the Great”: Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Frederick the Great, Peter the Great – despots and warmongers. Just once it would be nice to see the actual benefactors of humanity designated as “the Great”: Galileo the Great, Gutenberg the Great, Samuel Morse the Great, Alan Turing the Great.

So just for tonight, drink a toast to one of the great benefactors of the poorest people in the world, Borlaug the Great.

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t ‘Change Everything’

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day.  We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however.  Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project?  “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God, why in the world would anyone want that?  Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision. 

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy.  Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.” 

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines… ”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives.  “Private consumption!”  “Restaurant lines!”  The horror!  The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.”  Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny. 

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”  As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!”  A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”   

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing.  And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side.  What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war. 

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years — to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion.  The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that ”the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.”  And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in D.C. 

On the anniversary of 9/11, what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.”  In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad.  Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting in restaurant lines, visiting our ”great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear — with our patriotism undiminished for all that.  And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans.   In other words,  post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America.  That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

New Senate Agriculture Committee Head Received Farm Subsidies

In his blog post yesterday — appropriately entitled “Congressional Conflict of Interest“ — my colleague Chris Edwards questioned the selection of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) to head the Senate Agriculture Committee:

Lincoln has been “a tireless advocate for the Arkansas rice industry’ and a ‘champion for agriculture.” You can see what 20 or so other agriculture lobby groups say about Lincoln here. These are very laudatory remarks, but what about the taxpayers? What do taxpayers think about her support for the $20 billion or so in annual giveaways to farmers?

I wonder what taxpayers think about the fact that Senator Lincoln and her family have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm subsidies?

From a 2007 USA Today article:

Members of Congress must report sources of income totaling more than $200, but most get payments through partnerships or other entities, so it can be difficult to learn which ones receive the subsidies. Recipients are searchable by name on www.ewg.org, but, for example, payments to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., are listed under her maiden name, Lambert, at a Virginia address near Washington.  Records show Lincoln and her family members collected $715,000 from 1995-2005, the most recent year complete data are available. She said she personally received less than $10,000 a year, and the subsidies ended in 2005 when her land was sold.

Let’s say I force a stranger under threat of imprisonment or violence to part with part of his or her paycheck, and proceed to give that money to a friend.  I would rightly be labeled a thief or worse.  Suppose I not only gave the money to my friend, but kept a cut for me and my family.  That would be even worse.

But when politicians do it we call them “public servants”?