Topic: Government and Politics

35,000 Earmark Requests — Just 50 Reps to Go

WashingtonWatch.com’s project to collect congressional earmark data continues to make great strides. Over 35,000 earmark requests are in the database, and fewer than 50 representatives remain on the “wanted” list.

It’s not all good news. Even some appropriations committee members published their earmark disclosures as scanned PDFs. That’s transparency in name, but not in spirit. Cato’s December policy forum on government transparency was titled “Just Give Us the Data!”, and scanned PDFs are not data … .

On the WashingtonWatch.com earmarks home page, the earmark requests collected so far are mapped by state and sortable by member of Congress and senator. Visitors can vote and comment on earmark requests, or edit a wiki article about requests, adding personal knowledge about projects they are familiar with.

Federal Pay Continues Rapid Ascent

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its annual data on compensation levels by industry (Tables 6.2D, 6.3D, and 6.6D here). The data show that the pay advantage enjoyed by federal civilian workers over private-sector workers continues to expand.

The George W. Bush years were very lucrative for federal workers. In 2000, the average compensation (wages and benefits) of federal workers was 66 percent higher than the average compensation in the U.S. private sector. The new data show that average federal compensation is now more than double the average in the private sector.

Figure 1 looks at average wages. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal civilian workers was $79,197, which compared to an average $50,028 for the nation’s 108 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). The figure shows that the federal pay advantage (the gap between the lines) is steadily increasing.

Figure 2 shows that the federal advantage is even more pronounced when worker benefits are included. In 2008, federal worker compensation averaged a remarkable $119,982, which was more than double the private sector average of $59,909.

What is going on here? Members of Congress who have large numbers of federal workers in their districts relentlessly push for expanding federal worker compensation. Also, the Bush administration had little interest in fiscal restraint, and it usually got rolled by the federal unions. The result has been an increasingly overpaid elite of government workers, who are insulated from the economic reality of recessions and from the tough competitive climate of the private sector.

It’s time to put a stop to this. Federal wages should be frozen for a period of years, at least until the private-sector economy has recovered and average workers start seeing some wage gains of their own. At the same time, gold-plated federal benefit packages should be scaled back as unaffordable given today’s massive budget deficits. There are many qualitative benefits of government work—such as extremely high job security—so taxpayers should not have to pay for such lavish government pay packages.

Update: I respond to some criticisms of this post here.

Update 2: Compensation data for federal workers vs. other industries here.

Update 3: In September, the government revised the data for private sector workers. On 9/30/09, Figure 1 and the related text were updated to reflect this change.

Steele and the Left-Wing Republicans

One of the most disturbing things about the current health care debate is that some Republicans are positioning themselves as defenders of Big Government Medicare and against efforts to trim the program’s costs.

Yet the taxpayer costs of Medicare are expected to more than double over the next decade (from $425 billion in 2009 to $871 billion in 2019), and the program will consume an increasing share of the nation’s economy for decades to come unless there are serious cuts and reforms. Even the Obama administration talks about “bending the cost curve” to slow the program’s growth.

Yet Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, takes to the Washington Post today to defend Medicare against any cuts, while at the same time criticizing the Democrats as “left-wing ideologues:”

  • “Under the Democrats’ plan, senior citizens will pay a steeper price and will have their treatment options reduced or rationed.”
  • “Republicans want reform that should first, do no harm, especially to our seniors.”
  • “We also believe that any health-care reform should be fully paid for, but not funded on the backs of our nation’s senior citizens.”
  • “First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of ‘health-insurance reform.’”
  • “Reversing course and joining Republicans in support of health care for our nation’s senior citizens is a good place to start.”

Steele uses the mushy statist phrasing “our seniors” repeatedly, as if the government owns this group of people, and that they should have no responsibility for their own lives.

Fiscal conservatives, who have come out in droves to tea party protests and health care meetings this year, are angry at both parties for the government’s massive spending and debt binge in recent years. Mr. Steele has now informed these folks loud and clear that the Republican Party is not interested in restraining government; it is not interested in cutting the program that creates the single biggest threat to taxpayers in coming years. For apparently crass political reasons, Steele defends “our seniors,” but at the expense of massive tax hikes on “our children” if entitlement programs are not cut.

Entrepreneurship for Good

At last week’s Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Stockholm, Deirdre McCloskey argued that it was important for society to affirm entrepreneurship.  How right she is.

The economic benefits of the new technologies and processes constantly created by people with new economic ideas is obvious.  But the social benefits of such inventions also are enormous.

Consider James C. Marsters, who helped end the isolation of the deaf around the world.  The Wall Street Journal reported on his death:

As an orthodontist, a licensed pilot and a sometime-professional magician, James C. Marsters mastered fields challenging for anyone, even more so for a profoundly deaf person such as himself.

His greatest feat was to conjure the text telephone, or TTY, which for the first time gave deaf people independent access to the telephone via teletype machines. It was the first in a string of technologies that help deaf people communicate.

Mr. Marsters, who died July 28 at 85 years old, defied the isolation many deaf people of his generation experienced. He willed himself into the mainstream long before there were technologies and programs to help deaf people do so.

People like Marsters exemplify how the market encourages people to do good while doing well.  Markets are not perfect, nor are the entrepreneurs who drive them.  But then, human beings are not perfect.  However, human liberty – in the form of economic freedom in this context – is the best environment in which to foster a society that is both prosperous and good.

Why Government Rationing Ain’t a Good Deal

When government is paying the medical bill, it inevitably has to “ration” care.  Choices obviously have to be made by whoever is paying, but there’s good reason not to leave government with the dominant decision-making power, as in Great Britain.

There’s no need to demonize British care.  All one has to do is point out how government fiscal objectives so often run against good patient treatment.  And how most people have no exit to a better alternative.

Consider this rather amazing story from the Daily Telegraph:

Doctors have launched a campaign on behalf of a war hero who has been told he must go blind in one eye before he can receive NHS treatment and accused Gordon Brown of “incompetence” in managing the health service.

More than 120 doctors have sent £5 cheques to Downing Street, made out to the Prime Minister, in the hope of shaming him into helping former RAF bomber Jack Tagg. The 88-year-old was recently diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in Britain, which affects an estimated 500,000 people.

Mr Tagg has the treatable, but most aggressive “wet” form of the disease, which can lead to the loss of central vision in as little as two months.

But he has been told that the NHS will only fund the injections which could save his sight, after he has lost the vision in one eye.

… “They told me there were three choices: let nature take its course and go blind, try to seek funding, or pay for immediate treatment. Time is of the essence, so we opted to pay up and fight for funding.

“This is happening to literally millions of people. It’s appalling and something has got to be done about it.”

The American medical system needs reform.   But that should be accomplished by promoting patient-directed care, with individuals and families, rather than government, deciding how best to use scarce resources when it comes to medical treatment.

Cash for Clunkers: Dumbest Program Ever?

As the Cash for Clunkers program begins to wind down, I nominate it as the dumbest government program ever. Here is what the program will have accomplished:

  • A few billion dollars worth of wealth was destroyed. About 750,000 cars, many of which could have provided consumer value for many years, were thrown in the trash. Suppose each clunker was worth $3,000 at a guess, that would mean that the government destroyed $2.25 billion of value.
  • Low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.
  • Taxpayers were ripped off $3 billion. The government took my money to give to people who will buy new cars that are much nicer than mine! 
  • The federal bureaucracy has added 1,100 people to handle all the clunker administration. Again, taxpayers are the losers.
  • The environment was not helped. See here and here.
  • The auto industry received a short-term “sugar high” at the expense of lower future sales when the program is over. The program apparently boosted sales by about 750,000 cars this year, but that probably means that sales over the next few years will be about 750,000 lower. The program probably further damaged the longer-term prospects of auto dealers and automakers by diverting their attention from market fundamentals in the scramble for federal cash.   

Farm subsidies are unjust. Trade restrictions are counter-productive. Energy regulations have done great damage. Housing policies helped cause the financial crisis. But for pure dumbness, Cash for Clunkers takes the cake.