Eileen writes about the fascinating debate in Arlington, Virginia, over how the County should be structured. Under the current “at-large” system, each of the five County Board members is elected by the entire County. But a petition is underway to change that. Under the new proposal, the County would be divided into separate districts or “wards,” each with a council member representing it.
That got me thinking: what are the likely consequences of such a change? At least theoretically, one would expect a ward-organized government to be a bigger government. The reason is that ward representatives can vote to concentrate benefits on their particular districts, and diffuse the costs over the entire County. Public choice economists usually consider such schemes to be inefficient because they permit marginal costs to exceed marginal benefits.
As one might guess, someone has studied this. A 1997 study by Lawrence Southwick of the State University of New York at Buffalo found that, indeed, ward governments were bigger governments. He gathered data from 1,254 cities and controlled for other factors that might affect government size such as the demographic characteristics of the residents and the size of the population. He found that, compared to ward-cities, at-large cities average 11.1 percent lower total expenditures, 14.8 percent lower per-capita taxes, and 53.3 percent lower per-capita debt levels.
The current system, it seems, tends to favor a limited government. This is somewhat ironic because the party whose platform explicitly endorses limited government is apparently one of the groups backing the change.
Alan Blinder has a thought-provoking article on Greece in the Wall Street Journal (with more Greek metaphors than Jason had Argonauts). His central claim is that governments should take their cues from St. Augustine, who asked God to make him chaste, but not yet. Because of the recession, the argument goes, we ought to run deficits as the “oracle” Keynes counseled.
But once things turn around, we should concentrate on balancing the books. The general strategy is: Run deficits in times of famine and surpluses in times of feast. This type of argument is quite popular now and was repeated ad infinitum at a gathering of left-of-center thinkers I attended last summer. It has also become a common argument for those who advocate tax increases rather than spending cuts to deal with state budget crunches.
Even if we conceded the Keynesian point that deficit spending is what the doctor ordered, and there are many who are not prepared to do so, what shall we make of the Keynesians’ view of politics? From my perspective, politicians simply don’t behave as the Keynesian model predicts. In the 74 years since Keynes wrote his General Theory, the U.S. has been in a recession just 17 percent of the time. Still, during those years, the Federal Government ran deficits 84 percent of the time. As Buchanan and Wagner argued several decades ago in Democracy in Deficit:
Keynesian economics has turned the politicians loose; it has destroyed the effective constraint on politicians’ ordinary appetites. Armed with the Keynesian message, politicians can spend and spend without the apparent necessity to tax.
Thankfully, at the state level, the politicians are not turned fully loose. This is because every state but Vermont has a balanced budget requirement. If, however, the new norm is for states to turn to the Federal Government for bailouts during a downturn, these balanced budget requirements will become increasinly meaningless. It is my guess that, like their federal counterparts, state politicians will fail to behave as the Keynesian model predicts.
The invaluable Stateline.org ponders the question: Why don’t we see filibusters in state senates as we do in the US Senate? There are a couple of reasons:
The answer is right in the [New Jersey] Assembly’s rulebook. Along with the three-fourths requirement to shut off debate, there’s a separate provision allowing members to suspend any rule they don’t like with a simple majority vote. The three-fourths barrier to avoid a filibuster, in other words, can be rendered meaningless whenever the majority wants.
New Jersey is in line with most states, where filibusters by the minority party — or even the threat of them — are nowhere near as common as they are in Washington, D.C. Only a small number of states require more than a simple majority of lawmakers to shut off debate, and even in states where the rules would seem to allow filibusters to happen, they rarely do.
Filibusters are rare because chamber rules or local traditions prevent them. So do tight legislative calendars. Marshall notes that Vermont lawmakers work part-time and are not paid very much, and there’s little appetite for staying in the capital any longer than necessary, which frequent filibusters would require them to do.