A couple of weeks back I posted an admittedly partial list of the disadvantages, dysfunctions, and dangers of theBig Government Mess seemingly wished upon us by so many otherwise reasonable people. A wise addition to that line of thinking is the so-called Munger Test articulated by Michael Munger of Duke University. Here, he applies the test to government involvement in social media content regulation:
“If someone says “The STATE should do X” (in this case, decide what is true and what can be published in a privately-owned space), they need to make a substitution.
Instead of “The STATE” substitute “Donald Trump,” and see if you still belief it. (Or “Nancy Pelosi”, if you want).”
If approached honestly, Munger’s test is sure to make a partisan think twice about having government “do something”, or do anything! In a another tweet, Munger elaborates on the case of Twitter, which is highly topical at the moment:
“In fact, the reporters and media moguls who are calling for the state to hammer Twitter, and censor all those other ‘liars’, naively believe that they have a 1000 Year Reich.
You don’t. 𝙔𝙤𝙪𝙘𝙖𝙣𝙤𝙣𝙡𝙮𝙜𝙞𝙫𝙚𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙎𝙩𝙖𝙩𝙚𝙥𝙤𝙬𝙚𝙧𝙨𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙛𝙖𝙫𝙤𝙧𝙜𝙞𝙫𝙞𝙣𝙜𝙩𝙤𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧𝙬𝙤𝙧𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙢𝙮. Deal with it.”
The second sentence in that last paragraph is an even more concise statement of the general principle behind the Munger Test, which we might dub the “Worst Enemy Test” with no disrespect to Munger. He proposed the test (immodestly named, he admits) in his 2014 article, “Unicorn Governance”, in which he offered a few other examples of its application. The article is subtitled:
“Ever argued public policy with people whose State is in fantasyland?”
The answer for me is yes, almost every time I talk to anyone about public policy! And as Munger says, that’s because:
“Everybody imagines that ‘The STATE’ is smart people who agree with them. Once MY team controls the state, order will be restored to the Force.”
So go ahead! Munger-test all your friends’ favorite policy positions the next time you talk!
But what about the case of “regulating” Twitter or somehow interfering with its approach to content moderation? More on that in my next post.
I’m really grateful to have the midterm elections behind us. Well, except for the runoff Senate race in Georgia, the cockeyed ranked-choice Senate race in Alaska, and a few stray House races that remain unsettled after almost two weeks. I’m tired of campaign ads, including the junk mail and pestering “unknown” callers — undoubtedly campaign reps or polling organizations.
It’s astonishing how much money is donated and spent by political campaigns. This year’s elections saw total campaign spending (all levels) hit $16.7 billion, a record for a mid-term. The recent growth in campaign spending for federal offices has been dramatic, as the chart below shows:
Do you think spending of a few hundred million dollars on a Senate campaign is crazy? Me too, though I don’t advocate for legal limits on campaign spending because, for better or worse, that issue is entangled with free speech rights. Campaigns are zero-sum events, but presumably a big donor thinks a success carries some asymmetric reward…. A success rate of better than 50% across several campaigns probably buys much more…. And donors can throw money at sure political bets that are probably worth a great deal…. Many donors spread their largess across both parties, perhaps as a form of “protection”. But it all seems so distasteful, and it’s surely a source of waste in the aggregate.
My reservations about profligate campaign spending include the fact that it is a symptom of big government. Donors obviously believe they are buying something that government, in one way or another, makes possible for them. The greater the scope of government activity, the more numerous are opportunities for rent seeking — private gains through manipulation of public actors. This is the playground of fascists!
There are people who believe that placing things in the hands of government is an obvious solution to the excesses of “greed”. However, politicians and government employees are every bit as self-interested and “greedy” as actors in the private sector. And they can do much more damage: government actors legally exercise coercive power, they are not subject in any way to external market discipline, and they often lack any form of accountability. They are not compelled to respect consumer sovereignty, and they make correspondingly little contribution to the nation’s productivity and welfare.
Actors in the private sector, on the other hand, face strong incentives to engage in optimizing behavior: they must please customers and strive to improve performance to stay ahead of their competition. That is, unless they are seduced by what power they might have to seek rents through public sector activism.
A people who grant a wide scope of government will always suffer consequences they should expect, but they often proceed in abject ignorance. So here is my rant, a brief rundown on some of the things naive statists should expect to get for their votes. Of course, this is a short list — it could be much longer:
Opportunities for graft as bureaucrats administer the spending of others’ money and manipulate economic activity via central planning.
A ballooning and increasingly complex tax code seemingly designed to benefit attorneys, the accounting profession, and certainly some taxpayers, but at the expense of most taxpayers.
Subsidies granted to producers and technologies that are often either unnecessary or uneconomic (and see here), leading to malinvestment of capital. This is often a consequence of the rent seeking and cronyism that goes hand-in-hand with government dominance and ham-handed central planning.
Redistribution of existing wealth, a zero- or even negative-sum activity from an economic perspective, is prioritized over growth.
Redistribution beyond a reasonable safety net for those unable to work and without resources is a prescription for unnecessary dependency, and it very often constitutes a surreptitious political buy-off.
Budgetary language under which “budget cuts” mean reductions in the growth of spending.
Large categories of spending, known in the U.S. as non-discretionary entitlements, that are essentially off limits to lawmakers within the normal budget appropriations process.
“Fiscal illusion” is exploited by politicians and statists to hide the cost of government expansion.
The strained refrain that too many private activities impose external costs is stretched to the point at which government authorities externalize internalities via coercive taxes, regulation, or legal actions.
Inflation and diminished buying power stoked by monetized deficits, which is a long tradition in financing excessive government.
Malinvestment of private capital created by monetary excess and surplus liquidity.
That malinvestment of private capital creates macroeconomic instability. The poorly deployed capital must be written off and/or reallocated to productive uses at great cost.
Funding for bizarre activities folded into larger budget appropriations, like holograms of dead comedians, hamster fighting experiments, and an IHOP for a DC neighborhood.
A gigantic public sector workforce in whose interest is a large and growing government sector, and who believe that government shutdowns are the end of the world.
Attempts to achieve central control of information available to the public, and the quashing of dissent, even in a world with advanced private information technology. See the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop. This extends to control of scientific narratives to ensure support for certain government programs.
Central funding brings central pursestrings and control. This phenomenon is evident today in local governance, education, and science. This is another way in which big government fosters dependency.
Mission creep as increasing areas of economic activity are redefined as “public” in nature.
I’ve barely scratched the surface! Many of the items above occur under big government precisely because various factions of the public demand responses to perceived problems or “injustices”, despite the broader harms interventions may bring. The press is partly responsible for this tendency, being largely ignorant and lacking the patience for private solutions and market processes. And obviously, those kinds of demands are a reason government gets big to begin with. In the past, I’ve referred to these knee-jerk demands as “do somethingism”, and politicians are usually too eager to play along. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.
I mentioned cronyism several times in the list. The very existence of broad public administration and spending invites the clamoring of obsequious cronies. They come forward to offer their services, do large and small “favors”, make policy suggestions, contribute to lawmakers, and to offer handsomely remunerative post-government employment opportunities. Of course, certaIn private parties also recognize the potential opportunities for market dominance when regulators come calling. We have here a perversion of the healthy economic incentives normally faced by private actors, and these are dynamics that gives rise to a fascist state.
It’s true, of course, that there are areas in which government action is justified, if not necessary. These include pure public goods such as national defense, as well as public safety, law enforcement, and a legal system for prosecuting crimes and adjudicating disputes. So a certain level of state capacity is a good thing. Nevertheless, as the list suggests, even these traditional roles for government are ripe for unhealthy mission creep and ultimately abuse by cronies.
The overriding issue motivating my voting patterns is the belief in limited government. Both major political parties in the U.S. violate this criterion, or at least carve out exceptions when it suits them. I usually identify the Democrat Party with statism, and there is no question that democrats rely far too heavily on government solutions and intervention in private markets. The GOP, on the other hand, often fails to recognize the statism inherent in it’s own public boondoggles, cronyism, and legislated morality. In the end, the best guide for voting would be a political candidate’s adherence to the constitutional principles of limited government and individual liberty, and whether they seem to understand those principles. Unfortunately, that is often too difficult to discern.
It goes without saying that the legal profession played a huge role in the development and growth of the administrative state. I reviewed some history about that growth in my last post, which dealt primarily with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA. It’s certainly clear that courtrooms have served as venues for many of the steps in creating the federal Leviathan we know too well today. So has a large representation of attorneys in Congress. Environmental law? Tax law? Antitrust? Labor law? Civil Rights? Bank regulation? The examples and sub-examples are numerous, and while all might have laudable dimensions, there is no question that all present lucrative opportunities for attorneys… and for manipulative abuses. The burgeoning domain of administrative law enforced and adjudicated by federal agencies was itself a by-product of growth in the array of economic and social regulation, and it too was abetted by the legal profession. Moreover, it’s not inaccurate to say that the active rent-seeking efforts of private special interests, which undergird the “demand” for public intervention and regulation, are likely as not to have been spearheaded by corporate legal departments.
Ex post losses of various kinds are effective drivers of public intervention. Obviously, trial attorneys seek redress against various harms to clients who come their way, and they manage to stretch monetary damages to absurd levels. Public intervention, however, often takes the form of ex ante risk avoidance, and attorneys frequently take lead roles in agitating for ever-greater precautions against risk. A key characteristic of these measures is that they tend to be zero- and even negative-sum in nature. That is, in this kind of world, it is not atypical for one person’s gain to be less than another’s loss. This dynamic creates a formidable obstacle to economic growth.
“Since the birth of the modern regulatory state, lawyers are no longer primarily the allies of commercial classes, as they were in the early republic, but instead the technocrats and enablers of regulation and redistribution. The more the nation intervenes in economic affairs to regulate and redistribute, the greater slice of compliance costs and transfer payments lawyers can expect to receive. Thus, they cannot be counted on as supporters of property rights or even of a stable rule of law. Their interest lies frequently in dynamic forms of legal transformation and the uncertainty they bring. Far from supporting a sound, established social order, they are likely to seek to undermine it.”
McGinnis highlights the legal profession’s remarkable transition from once-active guardians of personal liberty, property rights, and the rule of law to active agitators for a nation grounded in non-productive rent seeking. The populist penchant for “do-something-ism” in response to every perceived risk, injustice, or grievance plays right into their skill set. And there are vast opportunities for attorneys in regulatory and fiscal matters. Compliance and legal work-arounds are enormously profitable to attorneys, to say nothing of the many forms of litigation. In all cases, one might say, “follow the fees”.
This is not exclusively a pecuniary matter, however. It’s also one of raw political ambition and status. A spectacular and perverse phenomenon has been the legal profession’s agitation for dismantling the rule of law, denying certain rights enumerated in the Constitution (e.g., free speech, gun rights) and insisting upon the enforcement of imagined rights through novel interpretations of the Bill of Rights and its amendments (e.g, guaranteed income, “equity”), even so-called rights and demands involving demonstrable harm to others (reparations, no bail laws, abortion).
Here’s McGinnis on the legal profession’s nearly complete sellout of the original text of the Constitution:
“Under living constitutionalism, lawyers and judges are not simply servants of the law but potentially tribunes of the people, because they can choose to create new rights and discard others. In a legal world without the formal anchoring in text and precedents that characterized the lawyer’s craft of the past, innovation and, indeed, radicalism are prized as sources of power.”
There are other dimensions to the aberrant drift in the interests of the mainstream legal profession. Over 20 years ago, Mark Pulliam discussed some of these issues in “The Lawyer’s War on Law”. In that article, he decried so-called “legal realism”, which elevates prevailing attitudes about social policy and justice over legal formalism and originalism. This philosophy is used to justify what amounts to predation among trial lawyers seeking to smear the defense, especially those who suffer from unpopularity among current elites or the media. Gone is the idea of fighting for what is right under the law; instead the goal is to “win at all costs”. Here is Pulliam on this phenomenon:
“… lawsuits succeed without credible proof of injury or causation–‘junk science’ experts, paid by the hour, provide whatever pretext a jury requires–because of a combination of judge-made liability rules that tilt the playing field in favor of plaintiffs’ gripes, trial judges determined to redistribute wealth, and the brute force of endless dishonest lawsuits that seek unlimited, bankruptcy-threatening damages. Many businesses, having lost faith in courts’ ability or willingness to make rational rulings, routinely pay the equivalent of ransom just to escape the system. Most ominously, the trial lawyers have recently joined forces with state and local governments to loot unpopular industries for political purposes. Litigation is no longer just a way to bilk opponents; it is a political weapon.”
The legal realist school of thought is used as a ready excuse for nearly any form of judicial activism, including nullification of controlling statutes in election procedures, allowing lawyers and judges to run elections.
Pro Bono Subversion
More recently, Pulliam provided another example of a perverse activity sponsored by the legal profession, and in particular large law firms. In “Lawyers Cause Homelessness”, he discusses pro bono litigation and its paradoxical harms. Of course, pro bono work sounds so very good and generous. And, in fact, it can be very nice, as when attorneys offer free legal advice to those who cannot otherwise afford it. However, it is not uncommon to see these efforts used in the service of political activism. Pulliam contends that prestigious law firms use pro bono litigation as an inducement to attract young associates, fresh out of law school and full of the social justice blather taught there. How exciting to be offered a position at an elite firm with the opportunity to work on activist causes!
The case used by Pulliam to illustrate this dynamic is Martin v. Boise, decided by the Ninth Circuit Court in 2018, which he describes thusly:
“Martin v. Boise … declared unconstitutional—as ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ of all things—any city ordinances that prohibit homeless people from sleeping or camping overnight on public property (such as parks, sidewalks, and, in California, beaches) unless the jurisdiction provides enough shelter beds to house every single ‘person experiencing homelessness,’ a burden no city will ever be able to meet. …
With a wave of the activist wand, the Ninth Circuit relieved vagrants of any responsibility to provide their own shelter. Society has this duty, and it must accept the consequences of its failure to provide cradle-to-grave care, no matter how improvident the lifestyle decisions of individual actors. In one fell swoop, in the absence of any relevant Supreme Court precedent, three unelected judges on the Ninth Circuit rendered more than 1,600 municipalities within the court’s jurisdiction powerless to curb urban homeless encampments.”
According to Pulliam, the Washington DC law firm Latham and Watkins dedicated more than 7,000 hours of attorney time to the case:
“Latham … publicly bragged about its ‘major Ninth Circuit victory’ and was honored for it by the Legal Services Corporation’s Board of Directors with a Pro Bono Service Award.”
This is a stark illustration of the depths of activism to which the legal profession has descended. And the case is hardly unique, as Pulliam goes on to illustrate. Despite the literal meaning of the term pro bono, this kind of activity is anything but for “the public good”.
Who really benefits from the kind of legalistic mayhem we see today? The written words of the Constitution are now said to mean things that are often diametrically opposed to the framers’ intent. The federal government absorbs ever greater shares of the nation’s resources. Private parties use federal power to petition for rents that could never have been gained in private markets. Laws are made by federal agencies who, in turn, internally adjudicate disputes between those very agencies and private parties. Litigation runs rampant in search of deep pockets. And elite law firms are somehow deemed praiseworthy for working to undermine safety, cleanliness, property rights, and the enumerated rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
Who benefits? Perhaps most of all it is the attorneys! The more chaotic, the better! Then again, if you’re at risk of legal trouble, you better damn well consult an attorney. We can’t seem to live without lawyers, but sadly, we can’t live free with them.
The Socialist Party faithful once known as Democrats are pushing a $3.5 trillion piece of legislation they call an “infrastructure” bill. They hope to pass it via budget reconciliation rules with a simple majority in the Senate. The Dems came around to admitting that the bill is not about infrastructure in the sense in which we usually understand the term: physical installations like roads, bridges, sewer systems, power lines, canals, port facilities, and the like. These kinds of investments generally have a salutary impact on the nation’s productivity. Some “traditional” infrastructure, albeit with another hefty wallop of green subsidies, is covered in the $1.2 trillion “other” infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate but not the House. The reconciliation bill, however, addresses “social infrastructure”, which is to say it would authorize a massive expansion in the welfare state.
What Is Infrastructure?
Traditionally, public and private infrastructure are underlying assets that facilitate production or consumption in one way or another, consistent with the prefix “infra”, meaning below or within. For example, a new factory requires physical access by roads and/or rail, as well as sewer service, water, gas and/or electric supply. All of the underlying physical components that enable that factory to operate may be thought of as private infrastructure, which has largely private benefits. Therefore, it is often privately funded, though certainly not always.
Projects having many beneficiaries, such as highways, municipal sewers, water, gas and electrical trunk lines, canals, and ports may be classified as public infrastructure, though they can be provided and funded privately. Pure public infrastructure provides services that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable, but examples are sparse. Nevertheless, the greater the public nature of benefits, the greater the rationale for government involvement in their provision. In practice, a great deal of “public” infrastructure is funded by user fees. In fact, a failure to charge user fees for private benefits often leads to a tragedy of the commons, such as the overuse of free roads, imposing a heavier burden on taxpayers.
The use of the term “infrastructure” to describe forms of public support is not new, but the scope of government interventions to which the term is applied has mushroomed during the Biden Administration. Just about any spending program you can think of is likely to be labeled “infrastructure” by so-called progressives. The locution is borrowed somewhat questionably, seemingly motivated by the underlying structure of political incentives. More bluntly, it sounds good as a sales tactic!
$3.5 Trillion and Chains
Among other questionable items, the so-called budget reconciliation “infrastructure” bill allocates funds toward meeting:
“… the President’s climate change goals of 80% clean electricity and 50% economy-wide carbon emissions by 2030, while advancing environmental justice and American manufacturing. The framework would fund: • Clean Energy Standard • Clean Energy and Vehicle Tax Incentives • Civilian Climate Corps • Climate Smart Agriculture, Wildfire Prevention and Forestry • Federal procurement of clean technologies • Weatherization and Electrification of Buildings • Clean Energy Accelerator”
The resolution would also institute “methane reduction and polluter import fees”. Thus, we must be prepared for a complete reconfiguration of our energy sector toward a portfolio of immature and uneconomic technologies. This amounts to an economic straightjacket.
Next we have a series of generous programs and expansions that would encourage dependence on government:
“• Universal Pre-K for 3 and 4-year old children • High quality and affordable Child Care • [free] Community College, HBCUs and MSIs, and Pell Grants • Paid Family and Medical Leave • Nutrition Assistance • Affordable Housing”
There are more generous provisions on the health care front, which are good for further increasing the federal government’s role in directing, regulating, and funding medical care:
“• new Dental, Vision, and Hearing benefit to Medicare • Home and Community-Based Services expansion • Extend the Affordable Care Act Expansion from the ARP • Close the Medicaid “Coverage Gap” in the States that refused to expand • Reduced patient spending on prescription drugs”
Finally, we have a series of categories intended to “help workers and communities across the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and reverse trends of economic inequality.”
“• Housing Investments • Innovation and R & D Upgrades • American Manufacturing and Supply Chains Funding • LPRs for Immigrants and Border Mangt. • Pro-Worker Incentives and Penalties • Investment in Workers and Communities • Small Business Support
I might suggest that a recovery from the pandemic would be better served by getting the federal government out of everyone’s business. The list includes greater largess and more intrusions by the federal government. The fourth item above, grants of legal permanent residency (LPR) or green cards, would legalize up to 8 million immigrants, allowing them to qualify for a range of federal benefits. It would obviously legitimize otherwise illegal border crossings and prevent any possibility of eventual deportation.
Screwing the Pooch
How many of those measures really sound like infrastructure? This bill goes on for more than 10,000 pages, so the chance that lawmakers will have an opportunity to rationally assess all of its provisions is about nil! And the reconciliation bill doesn’t stop at $3.5T. There are a few budget gimmicks being leveraged that could add as much as $2T of non-infrastructure spending to the package. One cute trick is to add certain provisions affecting revenue or spending years from now in order to cut the bill’s stated price tag.
A number of the bill’s generous giveaways will have negative effects on productive incentives. It’s also clear that some items in the bill will supplement the far Left’s educational agenda, which is seeped in critical theory. And the bill will increase the dominance of the federal government over not only the private sector, but state and local sovereignty as well. This is another stage in the metastasis of the federal bureaucracy and the dependency fostered by the welfare state.
Taxing the Golden Goose
But here’s the really big rub: the whole mess has to be paid for. The flip side of our growing dependency on government is the huge obligation to fund it. Check this out:
“American ‘consumer units,’ as BLS calls them, spent a net total of $17,211.12 on taxes last year while spending only $16,839.89 on food, clothing, healthcare and entertainment combined,”
Democrats continue to dicker over the tax provisions of the bill, but the most recent iteration of their plan is to cover about $2.9 trillion of the cost via tax hikes. Naturally, the major emphasis is on penalizing corporations and “the rich”. The latest plan includes:
increasing the corporate income tax from 21% to 26.8%;
increasing the top tax rate on capital gains from 20% to 25%;
an increase in the tax rate for incomes greater than $400,000 ($450,000 if married filing jointly)
adding a 3% tax surcharge for those with adjusted gross incomes in excess of $5 million;
Higher taxes on tobacco and nicotine products;
halving the estate and gift tax exemption;
limiting deductions for executive compensation;
changes in rules for carried interest and crypto assets.
There are a few offsets, including the promise of tax reductions for individuals earning less than $200,000 and businesses earning less than $400,000. We’ll see about that. Those cuts would expire by 2027, which reduces their “cost” to the government, but it will be controversial when the time comes.
The Dem sell job includes the notion that corporate income belongs to the “rich”, but as I’ve noted before, the burden of the corporate income tax falls largely on corporate workers and consumers. Lower wages and higher prices are almost sure to follow. This would deepen the blade of the Democrats’ political hari-kari, but they pin their hopes on the power of alms. Once bestowed, however, those will be difficult if not impossible to revoke, and the Dems know this all too well.
The assault on the “rich” in the reconciliation bill is both ill-advised and unlikely to yield the levels of revenue projected by Democrats. Like it or not, the wealthy provide the capital for most productive investment. Taxing their returns and their wealth more heavily can only reduce incentive to do so. Those investors will seek out more tax-advantaged uses for their funds. That includes investments in non-productive but federally-subsidized alternatives. Capital gains can often be deferred, of course. These penalties also ensure that more resources will be consumed in compliance and tax-avoidance efforts. The solutions offered by armies of accountants and tax attorneys will tend to direct funds to uses that are suboptimal in terms of growth in economic capacity.
What isn’t funded by new taxes will be borrowed by the federal government or simply printed by the Federal Reserve. Thus, the federal government will not only compete with the private sector for additional resources, but the monetary authority will provide fuel for more inflation.
Fortunately, a few moderate Democrats in both the House and the Senate are balking at the exorbitance of the reconciliation bill. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has said he would like to see a package of no more than $1.5 trillion. That still represents a huge expansion of government, but at least Manchin has offered a whiff of sanity. Equally welcome are threats from radical Democrats like Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Antonia Ocasio-Cortez that a failure to pass the full reconciliation package will mean a loss of their support for the original $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, much of which is wasteful. We should be so lucky! But that’s a lot of pork for politicians to walk away from.
The so-called infrastructure investments in the reconciliation bill represent a range of constraints on economic growth and consumer well being. Increasing the government’s dominance is never a good prescription for productivity, whether due to regulatory and compliance costs, bureaucratization of decision-making, minimizing the role of price signals, pure waste through bad incentives and graft, and public vs. private competition for resources. The destructive tax incentives for funding the bill are an additional layer of constraints on growth. Let’s hope the moderate Democrats hold firm, or even better, that the tantrum-prone radical Democrats are forced to make good on their threats.
As a “practical” libertarian, my primary test for any candidate for public office is whether he or she supports less government dominance over private decisions than the status quo. When it comes to Joe Biden and his pack of ventriloquists, the answer is a resounding NO! That should clinch it, right? Probably, but Donald Trump is more complicated….
I’ve always viewed Trump as a corporatist at heart, one who, as a private businessman, didn’t give a thought to free market integrity when he saw rent-seeking opportunities. Now, as a public servant, his laudable desire to “get things done” can also manifest to the advantage of cronyists, which he probably thinks is no big deal. Unfortunately, that is often the way of government, as the Biden family knows all too well. On balance, however, Trump generally stands against big government, as some of the points below will demonstrate.
Trump’s spoken “stream of consciousness” can be maddening. He tends to be inarticulate in discussing policy issues, but at times I enjoy hearing him wonder aloud about policy; at other times, it sounds like an exercise in self-rationalization. He seldom prevaricates when his mind is made up, however.
Not that Biden is such a great orator. He needs cheat sheets, and his cadence and pitch often sound like a weak, repeating loop. In fairness, however, he manages to break it up a bit with an occasional “C’mon, man!”, or “Here’s the deal.”
I have mixed feelings about Trump’s bumptiousness. For example, his verbal treatment of leftists is usually well-deserved and entertaining. Then there are his jokes and sarcasm, for which one apparently must have an ear. He can amuse me, but then he can grate on me. There are times when he’s far too defensive. He tweets just a bit too much. But he talks like a tough, New York working man, which is basically in his DNA. He keeps an insane schedule, and I believe this is true: nobody works harder.
With that mixed bag, I’ll now get on to policy:
Deregulation: Trump has sought to reduce federal regulation and has succeeded to an impressive extent, eliminating about five old regulations for every new federal rule-making. This ranges from rolling back the EPA’s authority to regulate certain “waters” under the Clean Water Act, to liberalized future mileage standards on car manufacturers, to ending destructive efforts to enforce so-called net neutrality. By minimizing opportunities for over-reach by federal regulators, resources can be conserved and managed more efficiently, paving the way for greater productivity and lower costs.
And now, look! Trump has signed a new executive order making federal workers employees-at-will! Yes, let’s “deconstruct the administrative state”. And another new executive order prohibits critical race theory training both in the federal bureaucracy and by federal contractors. End the ridiculous struggle sessions!
Judicial Appointments: Bravo! Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and over 200 federal judges have been placed on the bench by Trump in a single term. I like constitutional originalism and I believe a “living constitution” is a corrupt judicial philosophy. The founding document is as relevant today as it was at its original drafting and at the time of every amendment. I think Trump understands this.
Corporate Taxes: Trump’s reductions in corporate tax rates have promoted economic growth and higher labor income. In 2017, I noted that labor shares the burden of the corporate income tax, so a reversal of those cuts would be counterproductive for labor and capital.
At the same time, the 2017 tax package was a mixed blessing for many so-called “pass-through” businesses (proprietors, partnerships, and S corporations). It wasn’t exactly a simplification, nor was it uniformly a tax cut.
Individual Income Taxes: Rates were reduced for many taxpayers, but not for all, and taxes were certainly not simplified in a meaningful way. The link in the last paragraph provides a few more details.
I am not a big fan of Trump’s proposed payroll tax cut. Such a temporary move will not be of any direct help to those who are unemployed, and it’s unlikely to stimulate much spending from those who are employed. Moreover, without significant reform, payroll tax cuts will directly accelerate the coming insolvency of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds.
Nonetheless, I believe permanent tax cuts are stimulative to the economy in ways that increased government spending is not: they improve incentives for effort, capital investment, and innovation, thus increasing the nation’s productive capacity. Trump seems to agree.
Upward Mobility: Here’s Joel Kotkin on the gains enjoyed by minorities under the Trump Administration. The credit goes to strong private economic growth, pre-pandemic, as opposed to government aid programs.
Foreign Policy: Peace in the Middle East is shaping up as a real possibility under the Abraham Accords. While the issue of coexisting, sovereign Palestinian and Zionist homelands remains unsettled, it now seems achievable. Progress like this has eluded diplomatic efforts for well over five decades, and Trump deserves a peace prize for getting this far with it.
Iran is a thorn, and the regime is a terrorist actor. I support a tough approach with respect to the ayatollahs, which a Trump has delivered. He’s also pushed for troop withdrawals in various parts of the world. He has moved U.S. troops out of Germany and into Poland, where they represent a greater deterrent to Russian expansionism. Trump has pushed our NATO allies to take responsibility for more of their own defense needs, all to the better. Trump has successfully managed North Korean intransigence, though it is an ongoing problem. We are at odds with the leadership in mainland China, but the regime is adversarial, expansionist, and genocidal, so I believe it’s best to take a tough approach with them. At the UN, some of our international “partners” have successfully manipulated the organization in ways that make continued participation by the U.S. of questionable value. Like me, Trump is no fan of UN governance as it is currently practiced.
Gun Rights: Trump is far more likely to stand for Second Amendment rights than Joe Biden. Especially now, given the riots in many cities and calls to “defund police”, it is vitally important that people have a means of self-defense. See this excellent piece by David E. Bernstein on that point.
National Defense: a pure public good; I’m sympathetic to the argument that much of our “defense capital” has deteriorated. Therefore, Trump’s effort to rebuild was overdue. The improved deterrent value of these assets reduces the chance they will ever have to be used against adversaries. Of course, this investment makes budget balance a much more difficult proposition, but a strong national defense is a priority, as long as we avoid the role of the world’s policeman.
Energy Policy: The Trump Administration has made efforts to encourage U.S. energy independence with a series of deregulatory moves. This has succeeded to the extent the U.S. is now a net energy exporter. At the same time, Trump has sought to eliminate subsidies for wasteful renewable energy projects. Unfortunately, ethanol is still favored by energy policy, which might reflect Trump’s desire to assuage the farm lobby.
COVID-19 Response: As I’ve written several times, in the midst of a distracting and fraudulent impeachment attempt, Trump took swift action to halt inbound flights from China. He marshaled resources to obtain PPE, equipment, and extra hospital space in hot spots, and he kick-started the rapid development of vaccines. He followed the advice of his sometimes fickle medical experts early in the pandemic, which was not always a good thing. In general, his policy stance honored federalist principles by allowing lower levels of government to address local pandemic conditions on appropriate terms. If the pandemic has you in economic straits, you probably have your governor or local officials to thank. As for the most recent efforts to pass federal COVID relief, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have insisted on loading up the legislation with non-COVID spending provisions. They have otherwise refused to negotiate pre-election, as if to blame the delay on Trump.
Immigration: My libertarian leanings often put me at odds with nationalists, but I do believe in national sovereignty and the obligation of the federal government to control our borders. Trump is obviously on board with that. My qualms with the border wall are its cost and the availability of cheaper alternatives leveraging technological surveillance. I might differ with Trump in my belief in liberalizing legal immigration. I more strongly differ with his opposition to granting permanent legal residency to so-called Dreamers, individuals who arrived in the U.S. as minors with parents who entered illegally. However, Trump did offer a legal path to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for funding of the border wall, a deal refused by congressional Democrats.
Health Care: No more penalty (tax?) to enforce the individual mandate, and the mandate itself is likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court as beyond legislative intent. Trump also oversaw a liberalization of insurance offerings and competition by authorizing short-term coverage of up to a year and enabling small businesses to pool their employees with others in order to obtain better rates, among other reforms. Trump seems to have deferred work on a full-fledged plan to replace the Affordable Care Act because there’s been little chance of an acceptable deal with congressional Democrats. That’s unfortunate, but I count it as a concession to political reality.
Foreign Trade: I’m generally a free-trader, so I’m not wholeheartedly behind Trump’s approach to trade. However, our trade deals of the past have hardly constituted “free trade” in action, so tough negotiation has its place. It’s also true that foreign governments regularly apply tariffs and subsidize their home industries to place them at a competitive advantage vis-a-vis the U.S. As the COVID pandemic has shown, there are valid national security arguments to be made for protecting domestic industries. But make no mistake: ultimately consumers pay the price of tariffs and quotas on foreign goods. I cut Trump some slack here, but this is an area about which I have concerns.
Executive Action: Barack Obama boasted that he had a pen and a phone, his euphemism for exercising authority over the executive branch within the scope of existing law. Trump is taking full advantage of his authority when he deems it necessary. It’s unfortunate that legislation must be so general as to allow significant leeway for executive-branch interpretation and rule-making. But there are times when the proper boundaries for these executive actions are debatable.
Presidents have increasingly pressed their authority to extremes over the years, and sometimes Trump seems eager to push the limits. Part of this is born out of his frustration with the legislative process, but I’m uncomfortable with the notion of unchecked executive authority.
Of course I’ll vote for Trump! I had greater misgivings about voting for him in 2016, when I couldn’t be sure what we’d get once he took office. After all, his politics had been all over the map over preceding decades. But in many ways I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m much more confident now that he is our best presidential bet for peace, prosperity, and liberty.
Expanding regulation of the private sector is perhaps the most pernicious manifestation of “crowding out”, a euphemism for the displacement of private activity by government activity. The idea that government “crowds out” private action, or that government budget deficits “crowd out” private investment, has been debated for many years: government borrowing competes with private demand to fund investment projects, bidding interest rates and the cost of capital upward, thus reducing business investment, capital intensity, and the economy’s productive capacity. Taxes certainly discourage capital investment as well. That is the traditional fiscal analysis of the problem.
The more fundamental point is that as government competes for resources and absorbs more resources, whether financed by borrowing or taxation, fewer resources remain available for private activity, particularly if government is less price-sensitive than private-sector buyers.
Is It In the Data?
Is crowding out really an issue? Private net fixed investment spending, which represents the dollar value of additions to the physical stock of private capital (and excludes investments that merely replace worn out capital), has declined relative to GDP over many decades, as the first chart below shows. The second chart shows that meanwhile, the share of GDP dedicated to government spending (at all levels) has grown, but with less consistency: it backtracked in the 1990s, rebounded during the early years of the Bush Administration, and jumped significantly during the Great Recession before settling at roughly the highs of the 1980s and early 1990s. The short term fluctuations in both of these series can be described as cyclical, but there is certainly an inverse association in both the short-term fluctuations and the long-term trends in the two charts. That is suggestive but far from dispositive.
Regulatory dislocation is not the mechanism traditionally discussed in the context of crowding out, but it probably exacerbates the phenomenon and changes its complexion. To the extent that growth in government is associated with increased regulation, this form of crowding out discourages private capital formation for wholly different reasons than in the traditional analysis. It also encourages malformation — either non-productive or misallocated capital deployment.
I acknowledge that regulation may be necessary in some areas, and it is reasonable to assert that voters demand regulation of certain activities. However, the regulatory state has assumed such huge proportions that it often seems beyond the reach of higher authorities within the executive branch, not to mention other branches of government. Regulations typically grow well beyond their original legislative mandates, and challenges by parties to regulatory actions are handled in a separate judicial system by administrative law judges employed by the very regulatory agencies under challenge!
Measures of regulation and the regulatory burden have generally increased over the years with few interruptions. As a budgetary matter, regulation itself is costly. Robert Higgs says that not only has regulation been expanding for many years, the growth of government spending and regulation have frequently had common drivers, such as major wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the financial crisis and Great Recession of the 2000s. In all of these cases, the size of government ratcheted upward in tandem with major new regulatory programs, but the regulatory programs never seem to ratchet downward.
While government competes with the private sector for financial capital, its regulatory actions reduce the expected rewards associated with private investment projects. In other words, intrusive regulation may reduce the private demand for financial capital. Assuming there is no change in the taxation of suppliers of financing, we have a “coincidence” between an increase in the demand for capital by government and a decrease in the demand for capital by business owing to regulatory intrusions. The impact on interest rates is ambiguous, but the long-run impact on the economy’s growth is negative, as in the traditional case. In addition, there may be a reallocation of the capital remaining available from more regulated to less regulated firms.
The Costs of Regulation
Regulation imposes all sorts of compliance costs on consumers and businesses, infringing on many erstwhile private areas of decision-making. The Mercatus Center, a think tank on regulatory matters based at George Mason University, issued a 2016 report on “The Cumulative Cost of Regulations“, by Bentley Coffey, Patrick A. McLaughlin, and Pietro Peretto. It concluded in part:
“… the effect of government intervention on economic growth is not simply the sum of static costs associated with individual interventions. Instead, the deterrent effect that intervention can have on knowledge growth and accumulation can induce considerable deceleration to an economy’s growth rate. Our results suggest that regulation has been a considerable drag on economic growth in the United States, on the order of 0.8 percentage points per year. Our counterfactual simulation predicts that the economy would have been about 25 percent larger than it was in 2012 if regulations had been frozen at levels observed in 1980. The difference between observed and counterfactually simulated GDP in 2012 is about $4 trillion, or $13,000 per capita.”
Some forms of regulation entail mandates or incentives for more private investment in specific forms of physical capital. Of course, that’s no consolation if those investments happen to be less productive than projects that would have been chosen freely in the pursuit of profit. This often characterizes mandates for alternative energy sources, for example, and mandated investments in worker safety that deliver negligible reductions in workplace injuries. Some forms of regulation attempt to assure a particular rate of return to the regulated firm, but this may encourage non-productive investment by incenting managers to “gold plate” facilities to capture additional cash flows.
Regulations may, of course, benefit the regulated in certain ways, such as burdening weaker competitors. If this makes the economy less competitive by driving weak firms out of existence, surviving firms may have less incentive to invest in their physical capital. But far worse is the incentive created by the regulatory state to invest in political and administrative influence. That’s the thrust of an essay by Wayne Brough in Real Clear Markets: “Political Entrepreneurs Are Crowding Out the Entrepreneurs“. The possibility of garnering regulations favorable to a firm reinforces the destructive focus on zero-sum outcomes, as I’ve gone to pains to point out on this blog.
Crowding out takes still other forms: the growth of the welfare state and regulatory burdens tend to displace private institutions traditionally seeking to improve the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. It also disrupts incentives to work and to seek help through those private aid organizations. That is a subject addressed by James Whitford in “Crowding Out Compassion“.
Just Stop It!
President Trump has made some progress in slowing the regulatory trend. One example of the Administration’s efforts is the two-year-old Trump executive order demanding that two regulatory rules be eliminated for each new rule. Thus far, many of the discarded regulations had become obsolete for one reason or another, so this is a clean-up long overdue. Other inventive efforts at reform include moving certain agency offices out of the Washington DC area to locales more central to their “constituencies”, which inevitably would mean attrition from the ranks of agency employees and with any luck, less rule-making. The judicial branch may also play a role in defanging the bureaucracy, like this case involving the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, tariffs represent taxation of consumers and firms who use foreign goods as inputs, so Trump’s actions on the regulatory front aren’t all positive.
The traditional macroeconomic view of crowding out involves competition for funds between government and private borrowers, higher borrowing costs, and reduced private investment in productive capital. The phenomenon can be couched more broadly in terms of competition for a wide variety of goods and services, including labor, leaving less available for private production and consumption. The growth of the regulatory state provides another piece of the crowding-out puzzle. Regulation imposes significant costs on private parties, including small businesses that can ill-afford compliance. The web of rules and reporting requirements can destroy the return on private capital investment. To the extent that regulation reduces the demand for financing, interest rates might not come under much upward pressure, as the traditional view would hold. But either way, it’s bad news, especially when the regulatory state seems increasingly unaccountable to the normal checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution.
Productive effort seldom goes unrewarded, but all too often rewards are directed to nonproductive activities and secured in ways that are outright takings of resources and rights from others. These are zero-sum propositions at best, as the rewards come only at equivalent or greater costs to others. Gains from zero-sum activities are often purely consumptive in nature and tend to foster more destructive behavior. A clear-cut example is outright thievery, but there are many cases in which, by matters of degree, the perpetrators are not even dimly aware that their gains bring harm to others.
Sadly, our society has undergone a transition to a state in which everyone collects ongoing streams of zero-sum rewards, which are, by definition, at someone else’s (and often our own) expense. The turbulence caused by this unnecessary and avoidable mix of costs and rewards is all too real for consumers and businesses, but again, they don’t always fully grasp its dysfunctional nature.
The Way To Positive Sums
Of course, there are winners and losers in almost any area of economic life. Even when two individuals engage in mutually beneficial exchange, an otherwise win-win situation, other traders might regret missing out on the deal. Pleasing buyers more effectively than one’s competitors might force those rivals to turn to other pursuits. That’s all for the best from a social point of view, unless they can come up with an even better idea to win back customers. In this way, things can keep getting better and better for everyone, even for the one-time losers who are free to compete in trades to which they are better suited. Winners, then, are defined by their success in creating value for others. These are the productive winners. But again, material success doesn’t always come so honorably.
Bobbing For Booty?
Purely “consumptive” or zero-sum winners might be simple crooks who are able to avoid apprehension, or perhaps they are dishonest business-people who sell goods with hidden defects or inferior workmanship. There are many degrees here: a talented salesperson with shoddy merchandise might compromise on price. A clever product manager might reduce the size of a package slightly without reducing price.
A simple gamble is zero-sum in a purely monetary sense, but both gamblers do it for enjoyment, so there are psychic gains involved. A successful gambler might be a zero-sum winner in a monetary sense, but luck usually runs out on honest players. A cheater qualifies as a zero-sum winner. Conversely, it’s not correct to say that casinos are strictly zero-sum winners, though the odds are always stacked in favor of the house and everyone knows it. Casino patrons enjoy the experience, including other amusements available in casinos, so they are often happy customers despite their losses. They are engaging in mutually beneficial exchange.
Private Affairs Made Public
A short-hand description encompassing much of our zero-sum havoc is “the public trough”. Many zero-sum rewards have arisen out of legislative battles, court cases, and regulatory actions restricting private decision-making and encroaching on private property rights. The unremitting tendency is for expansion of these kinds of actions. Where there are zero-sum winners at the public trough, or an opportunity to expand the trough itself, there are always more covetous seekers of zero-sum winnings, otherwise known as rent seekers. They are reliable promoters of “do-something-ism” relative to the outrage du jour through more legislation, lawsuits, and regulatory filings. The tragic thing about rent seeking is that the process itself consumes resources and undermines private incentives, thereby transforming zero-sum outcomes into wasteful, negative-sum outcomes.
Winners At the Trough
There are many kinds of zero-sum winners at the public trough. The winning and losing often occur separately and asynchronously, connected only by an enabling authority who sets rules and funds winners from proceeds taken from losers. For this reason, it is easy for citizens to lose track of the “zero-sumness” of the many benefits they receive. After all, the government can deliver things for “free”, right? And the connection between one’s obligations, losses, and the gains reaped by others is not always obvious.
All of the following involve some degree of zero-sum activity, and all attract rent seekers:
Public aid in exchange for no contribution to output, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
Subsidies for politically-favored technologies that are otherwise uneconomic, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
Farm subsidies when too much is produced and the output is not highly valued, leading to an overallocation of resources to agricultural activity and rents for farmers funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
Complex regulatory and tax rules generate income for compliance advisors such as attorneys, accountants, and consultants. Those are rents, pure and simple, paid for by parties who must comply under penalty of law.
Regulatory advantage conferred upon firms sufficiently large or dominant to afford compliance. That penalizes smaller competitors and undermines their market position. The additional profit large firms may earn as a consequence is a rent, funded by zero-sum losing consumers and weaker competitors.
The award of government contracts is often as much political as it is economic. Such a process is not subject to the market discipline imposed on private contracts, so there is ample opportunity for rents via cost-padding and graft, again funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
More generally, government purchases of any kind are subject to weak market discipline, like any buyer spending someone else’s money. Thus, government has a tendency to pay prices not supported by economic value, offering rents to suppliers, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
The tax deduction afforded to employer-provided health care is a targeted subsidy that leads employees to over-insure. More fundamentally, these employees and their employers are zero-sum winners. It also creates profits for health insurers and drives up health care costs. The zero-sum spoils are to the detriment of other taxpayers and participants in the individual insurance market.
Drug prohibition drives up black market profits, creating zero-sum winnings at the expense and safety of users.
Social Security creates zero-sum winnings for those who will not or cannot save. But this is a mixed bag to the extent that some people are unable to save privately: their ability to do so is largely usurped via payroll taxes, both on them and on their employer. The many zero-sum losers would otherwise have no difficulty earning better returns on private investments.
There are many other examples. And almost everyone ends up on one side or the other of many different zero-sum outcomes. Show me a government action and I’ll show you zero-sum winners and losers. This is not to say there are no welfare gains associated with government action. Public aid, for example, is intended as social insurance and surely has some value in mitigating the risks of personal economic calamity. Nonetheless, the overextension and poor incentives of aid programs create a significant zero-sum component. Likewise, government spending on public goods creates social benefits, but government is insufficiently incented to economize, creating a zero-sum win for contractors and losses for taxpayers.
Not Zero Sum
While zero-sum winners collect economic rents, the existence of economic rents does not imply a zero-sum winning. For example, members of the so-called rentier class collect passive investment income. Those investments represent a supply of current resources to other parties hoping to transform them into a greater supply of future resources. That’s productive, and so the gains enjoyed by rentiers are not zero-sum winnings, but payments for the use of transformational capital.
Economic profits are those exceeding the owner’s opportunity cost, and they too are called rents. They should not necessarily be classified as zero-sum gains, however. Only sometimes. Successful innovators and first movers often earn economic profits as a reward for their efforts, as do alert entrepreneurs deploying their resources where they are most demanded. This “positive-sumness” applies to monopolists with a hot product just as surely as it applies to a firm facing nascent competition. But economic profits gained through political connections, outright graft, and government-enabled monopoly are zero-sum, enabled by non-market, authoritarian forces. Members of the political class tend to share in these zero-sum gains, and there are many losers.
Unfortunately, zero-sum thinking is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, despite our transition to a higher plane of social cooperation via markets. Even in those markets, certain outcomes might seem zero-sum in the moment. Witness the widespread denigration of the profit motive, which produces efficient outcomes in the long-run. As noted above, over time, the biggest winners tend to be those capable of creating the most value.
If you ask school children today how to get rich, many will say “win the lottery” without hesitation. I know, I know, government-sponsored lotteries are a relatively new phenomenon, and some of the lottery proceeds may benefit schools or other public programs, but the idea that a game of chance is so indelibly ingrained in the minds of children is a manifestation of the psychology of zero-sum success.
The Tangled Mess
So we have the zero-sum winners: successful gamblers, thieves, and rent seekers. The latter root deeply for gains made possible by government intervention in private affairs, actions that always leave room for enduring rents. They always lobby fiercely for new public interventions that might confer private advantages. And then we have the hapless public, stumbling through a series of zero-sum gains and losses made possible by the Leviathan they know and obey. They should look in the mirror, because every law and every program they have allowed their political leaders to hatch, reliably sold as good and just, creates more zero-sum activity to the detriment of long-term economic welfare. Roll it back!
The federal government’s contribution to funding the Special Olympics (SO) illustrates the widespread view of government as a limitless font of subsidies for appealing causes. People were up in arms over the elimination of $17.6 million dollars in federal grants for the SO in President Trump’s budget proposal. Granted, that’s a pittance as budget items go. Later, Trump promised to restore the funding. That is, of course, in addition to the millions in federal tax subsidies already granted on private gifts to the SO. As Nick Gillespie explains, SO funding is like so many other things people want from government that government has no business doing. Why, exactly, should the federal government, or any level of government, fund the SO? It is a wonderful program, but it simply does not have the character of a public good, nor is it a safety net issue.
The SO certainly benefits the athletes and families that take part, but those benefits are strictly private. Perhaps the larger population of disabled individuals takes inspiration from watching the SO, along with good-hearted people everywhere. Most everyone is happy to know that the SO happen, but those are no more public benefits than the good vibes you get from viewing an inspirational film or theatrical production. For that matter, sports fans and patriots are inspired by great efforts on the part of the U.S. Olympic team, but the federal government does not fund the U.S. Olympic Committee. It’s therefore absurd to assert that the public bears an obligation to pay for the most athletic of disabled individuals to have opportunities to compete and win medals just like Olympic athletes.
Gillespie explains a little about the history and funding of the SO:
“Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, meaning that deductions to it are tax deductible. According to its 2017 financials (the most-recent available on the web), the organization had total revenues of about $149 million, including $15.5 million in federal grants. It’s not a stretch to assume that if federal funding disappears, the resulting outcry would lead to record donations.”
And again, let’s not forget that corporate gifts to the SO are tax deductible up to certain limits. Gillespie also quotes Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos:
“There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Families with disabled children have extraordinary needs. It’s probably better to think of federal support for those needs as a safety net issue, a form of social insurance. There are several federal programs that provide funds to support low-income families with disabled kids. And while the cut to SO funding was in the budget originally submitted by Secretary DeVos, Gillespie notes that the DOE’s budget “allocates over $32 billion for ‘high-need students,’ which includes intellectually disabled students.”
DeVos was widely criticized for her budget, but as Gillespie says, she sets a fine example for anyone in a position to help rein in the growth of federal spending and ultimately the federal budget deficit. Given the DOE’s track record of poor programmatic guidance (Common Core), counter-productive school disciplinary mandates, and it’s complete lack of impact on educational outcomes after 40 years of existence and many billions of dollars spent, the continued existence of the DOE is difficult to rationalize.
Once a program appears in the federal budget, no matter how inappropriate as a public priority, and no matter how ineffective, its constituency will always defend its funding with rabid enthusiasm. That defense is multiplied by a chorus of statists in the media and elsewhere who, in their benevolent intentions for the taxes paid by others, can be counted upon to call out the “cruelty” of any proposed cuts, or even mere cuts in a program’s projected growth. The Special Olympics episode, and the DOE, are cases in point.
Contrary to the cartoon above, it’s not back up and running, though tax withholding and the impacts of regulatory rules continue unabated, and almost assuredly surveillance as well. After all (!), the federal government shutdown affects only “nonessential” activities of the federal government. Federal workers who are furloughed will receive back pay when the partial shutdown ends, but for now, federal spending is down roughly 25%.
The very real inconveniences for furloughed workers are regrettable. TSA employees continue to work while their paychecks are deferred indefinitely, though rates of absenteeism are high. So, we have slowdowns in security lines at airports, a lack of services at national parks (at least those not managed by private firms collecting revenue from visitors on-site), and a variety of other disruptions. For the time being, however, the lives of most Americans are largely unaffected. Except for the news coverage, my life hasn’t changed in any way, though I haven’t traveled during the shutdown.
Unfounded rumors about the shutdown have been rampant. For instance, I’ve heard that Social Security checks and weather forecasts would be suspended. Nancy Pelosi said the Secret Service would be unable to protect the President at the State of the Union address in the House chamber, a statement which the Department of Homeland Security promptly refuted. Many of the federal agencies with the highest shares of furloughed employees are regulators whose services are arguably counter-productive.
The White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) estimates that each additional week of the shutdown will reduce first quarter GDP growth by 0.13%. That means the interruption would take about 0.5% off first quarter growth if it lasts through January (say, from an annual rate of 2.5% to 2.0%). To the extent that people view the shutdown as temporary, and most do, the so-called “multiplier effects” of the shutdown should be relatively minor.
GDP is intended to measure of the value of the economy’s physical output. It is calculated in two independent ways based on 1) all income earned, and 2) the total of all spending on final (not intermediate) goods and services. Most components of final spending are well defined by the values assigned to goods and services traded in markets. Likewise, most incomes are based on the value assigned by labor markets to a given productive effort. Government “output”, however, is rather suspect as a component of spending because it is generally not subject to a market test of value. On the income side of the ledger, do government workers produce actual outputs? Some do, of course, but those outputs cannot be measured except by assigning a value based on what the workers are paid, and the payer is spending other peoples’ money! It’s not too speculative to suggest that the government’s output is a fraction of its spending. If that’s the case, the actual reduction in output caused by the shutdown is much smaller than the measured reduction in GDP. Therefore, the CEA’s estimates are a fiction.
To put an even finer point on it, many nonessential functions absorb resources while contributing very little to the nation’s wealth. Adam Brandon and John Tamny assert that private economic growth gives us the luxury of a large government sector, not the other way around. Government absorbs resources when it spends, but only by virtue of the taxes it imposes on private activity that is otherwise more highly productive. In the long run, as Brandon and Tamny argue, a smaller government (given a permanent shutdown of certain functions) might well yield greater economic output, not less.
Read this interesting essay for a discussion of the wasted, even counterproductive, utilization of human resources in government:
“They do nothing that warrants punishment and nothing of external value. That is their workday: errands for the sake of errands — administering, refining, following and collaborating on process. ‘Process is your friend’ is what delusional civil servants tell themselves. Even senior officials must gain approval from every rank across their department, other agencies and work units for basic administrative chores.
Process is what we serve, process keeps us safe, process is our core value. It takes a lot of people to maintain the process. Process provides jobs. In fact, there are process experts and certified process managers who protect the process. Then there are the 5 percent with moxie (career managers).
Again, many and perhaps most Americans view the shutdown itself with a certain degree of cynicism. In “America’s shutdown indifference“, Matthew Walther recalls this entertaining aspect of the last shutdown under President Obama:
“…of barriers being erected around various D.C.-area landmarks, including open-air war memorials. To this day I cannot think of any good reason for this save sheer caprice. If the idea was that 550-foot obelisks made of granite simply could not be meaningfully serviced during those lean two weeks in 2013, then who was responsible for putting up the rent-a-fence barricades around them? Civic-minded volunteers? The U.S. Marine Corps? Barack Obama himself? It was beautifully cynical, and I congratulate whoever came up with it.”
Both sides of the aisle play politics at the expense of the federal workforce. I certainly don’t wish to denigrate all federal workers. They perform varied functions and many are hard-working individuals. But still, it’s hard to feel very sorry for them given that they out-earn their private sector counterparts at almost every education level. Again, here’s Walther:
“Government employees, at both the state and federal level, are among the only workers in the United States who continue to be represented by powerful unions, despite the fact that by definition they’re not bargaining against capital but against their fellow citizens.”
I haven’t even mentioned the debate over open borders and the proposed wall, but that’s not my purpose here. All parties to that debate seem to think the shutdown is unlikely to harm their side politically. That’s either because the shutdown isn’t perceived as very impactful, or the “other” side can be blamed. One theory making the rounds is that the shutdown is part of a larger plan to institute permanent Reductions in Force (RIFs) at federal agencies, which are permissible after a furlough of 30 days or more (by January 19th). The argument plausibly suggests that some federal agencies might operate more effectively once the bureaucracy is pruned back via furloughs and/or RIFs. That’s especially true if “deep-state” sabotage of efforts to roll-back regulations are as common as the author asserts. Is the shutdown therefore a trap for unsuspecting congressional Democrats? Who knows, but to my way of thinking, government RIFs might even be worth the trouble of building a wall!
Building a big government is thought to be a luxury that prosperous nations can afford, but such efforts have a systematically negative effect on their ability to generate income, much as eating the seed corn delivers a farmer to poverty. Daniel J. Mitchell puts it bluntly in a piece entitled “Rich Nations That Enact Big Government Don’t Remain Rich“. This is nowhere more obvious than in Argentina and Venezuela, two nations that were prosperous 50 years ago and are now economically feeble, or in Venezuela’s case, imploding. Government, in the final analysis, extracts resources from the private economy, often contributing negatively to productivity. Yet the idea that government is a tonic for economic growth persists, and it persists even in the face of weakness induced by excessive government.
Government statistics on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) exaggerate the contribution of government to income in at least a couple of ways. To understand why, it’s necessary to distinguish between spending aggregates and income aggregates, which add up to the same total GDP. The former include consumption, investment, and government spending. Income aggregates are the other side of the GDP “coin”: payments made to factors of production, which represent GDP as a measure of output value.
A dissociation between these alternative views of GDP with respect to government’s contribution is that government payments count as spending and income regardless of the recipient’s contribution to output. Even if nothing is accomplished, nothing is produced, it is measured as income and spending and it is an increment to GDP. Payments to dig holes and refill them contribute to GDP as long as the government does the “job”. By contrast, if a worker in the private sector is paid but produces nothing of value, the firm’s owners suffer a loss of income corresponding to the worker’s pay, and GDP is unchanged! So increased factor payments by government cause an implicit bias in the measurement of output.
A second government bias implicit in GDP statistics is that public spending and government labor payments are often not subjected to a “market test” of value. The activity is “mandated”, so there is no correspondence to a willingness to pay or real value. Public employee unions exaggerate these distortions. There are generally no competitors for government provision of services, few incentives for efficiency, and often little discipline in government procurement processes. So the pricing of government transactions tends to be inflated. And yet when the government gets ripped off by overcharges or cronyist kickbacks, the excess payments contribute positively to GDP. In contrast, when a private firm gets ripped off, its income is correspondingly reduced and the transaction generally will not contribute to GDP.
It takes taxes to fund government, either immediate or deferred, and the taxes are either explicit or implicit in the form of eroded purchasing power. This creates negative incentives that retard private investment incentives, work incentives, and thereby private economic growth. Redistributional efforts retard work incentives as well because welfare–state beneficiaries often face high marginal tax rates on earned income.
Does big government represent a good investment for the wealth of a prosperous nation? In view of the above, one can hardly trust official statistics in rendering a judgement on that question. But despite these distortions, big government and measured economic growth are still negatively correlated. Mitchell provides more detailed analysis of government and economic growth at Heritage, including a set of references to academic papers on the topic.
One important way that government may contribute to economic growth is through the provision of physical infrastructure, which theoretically improves efficiency in private production. However, public infrastructure spending is subject to the same upward cost pressures discussed above, it is often tied to bumbling industrial policy efforts, its utilization by the public is usually mis-priced, and governments are congenitally inept at operating facilities efficiently. It is not clear that private developers could be counted upon to fill the void without some form of partnership with government, however, which has its own pitfalls. There are certainly reforms that could make private and public infrastructure investment and operation more viable, such as eliminating regulatory roadblocks to the installation of new facilities.
Another area in which government may generate a positive economic return is public investment in education, but that return is far from guaranteed. The success of public education investment depends on a wide range of cultural, political, and economic factors. For example, Cuba has the third largest proportion of government education spending to GDP, but the country’s ability to profit from that investment is severely crimped by its totalitarian economic and political system. I have been a frequent critic of public education in general, and I am not persuaded that education is truly a public good, despite some degree of spillover benefit. And while education may be a worthwhile national priority in many circumstances, it is not clear that government should necessarily fund education, let alone “run” education. Public education spending certainly doesn’t automatically translate to effective education outcomes, and it does not guarantee economic growth.
There is great exaggeration regarding the success of certain nations that have allowed government to absorb a large share of resources. That includes many of the European states, for which average incomes are roughly comparable to the Mississippi Delta. Only Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland have income levels that are respectable relative to the U.S., and Norway relies heavily on oil extraction. Attributing economic power to government in the Nordic countries is especially misleading because the strength of those economies has always stemmed from their fundamentally capitalist underpinnings. Sweden built its wealth on capitalism, but it has cannibalized that strength over several decades with a burgeoning welfare state and high taxes. It only recently has begun attempting to reverse course.
Economic progress is unlikely to be achieved by “investing” in a larger public sector. Instead, encouraging private activity via positive incentives and minimal regulatory interference is a better route to success. The measured economic benefits of government spending are illusory to a significant degree. Even those activities thought to be the most productive avenues for government involvement, like investment in infrastructure and education, are plagued by cost inflation and incompetent execution. Finally, cross-country empirical evidence confirms that a more dominant public sector is associated with lower income growth. And yet there will always be a faction subscribing to the infantile, “free-lunch” belief that big government can deliver growth, and deliver it in excess of the predictable damage it inflicts on the private economy.
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun