Tag Archives: Ezra Klein

Want Money Out of Politics? Eliminate Government Discrimination

In my work on government-granted privilege, I have repeatedly emphasized the surprising degree of harmony between left and right on this issue. Both abhor the tawdry nexus between corporate power, money, and politics.

(As evidence that I am not the only one who sees such agreement, note that Occupy.com recently reprinted an article highlighting the Mercatus project).

In an article from Friday, progressive blogger Ezra Klein seems to bolster this point:

According to Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, only 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to congressional campaigns. Only 0.05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. Only 0.01 percent — 1 percent of 1 percent — give more than $10,000 in an election cycle. And in the current presidential election, 0.000063 percent of Americans — fewer than 200 of the country’s 310 million residents — have contributed 80 percent of all super-PAC donations.

“This, senators, is corruption,” Lessig said Tuesday, in testimony before the Judiciary Committee. “Not ‘corruption’ in the criminal sense. I am not talking about bribery or quid pro quo influence peddling. It is instead ‘corruption’ in a sense that our Framers would certainly and easily have recognized: They architected a government that in this branch at least was to be, as Federalist 52 puts it, ‘dependent upon the People alone.’ You have evolved a government that is not dependent upon the People alone, but that is also dependent upon the Funders.”

There is much in here with which I agree. Campaign spending begets access. Access begets privilege. And privilege, in my view, “misdirects resources, impedes genuine economic progress, breeds corruption, and undermines the legitimacy of both the government and the private sector.”

The same article, however, also highlights the ways in which progressives and libertarians disagree about money, politics, and power. Klein quotes and quickly dismisses Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro. In his own testimony, Shapiro argues:

To the extent that ‘money in politics’ is a problem, the solution isn’t to try to reduce the money — that’s a utopian goal — but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence. Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people’s lives and you’ll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies.

This, Klein argues, is impractical. Moreover, he says, “between the dismantling of the social safety net and the destruction of our military might, the cure might be worse than the disease.” Instead, Klein’s preferred solution is campaign finance reform, perhaps necessitating a Constitutional Amendment to get around First Amendment concerns.

I’ll admit I favor Shapiro’s solution. If we shrink the size—and more importantly, the scope—of the government, the wealthy and well-connected will have nothing to gain from playing politics. I also happen to think that Klein’s solution—controlling political speech—is, in fact, “worse than the disease.” (I think Madison would agree…he even used similar language). Moreover, I think that there are plenty of programs to shrink or eliminate before we get to cuts that eviscerate the safety net or threaten our security. To pretend otherwise is to “shoot the cocker spaniel.”

But in the interest of finding common ground with my progressive friends, let me suggest a modest compromise: the abolition of favoritism in government policy. In an interview with James Buchanan, F.A. Hayek once remarked:

[The First Amendment] ought to read, ‘Congress shall make no law authorizing government to take any discriminatory measures of coercion.’ I think that would make all the other rights unnecessary.

This quotation appears in the beginning of an excellent—but often overlooked—book by Buchanan and Roger Congleton called Politics by Principle, Not Interest: Toward Nondiscriminatory Democracy.

Buchanan and Congleton brilliantly trace the political and economic consequences of forgoing favoritism. What happens when government adheres to a sort of “generality” principle by which all policies are required to apply to all equally? What if there are no carve-outs in the tax code? No special favors in the appropriation process? Notice that this need not be the sort of libertarian paradise that Shapiro and I favor. Government might still spend a lot of money and it might still tax a great deal. But it would be constrained by the generality principle to tax and spend in a nondiscriminatory way (Buchanan and Congleton make an allowance for a safety net by proposing “a flat rate of tax on all income combined with a set of equal-per-head demogrants,” p. 161).

Generality would require both sides to give up their own pet projects which favor particular segments of society. No more “targeted investments” in particular green technologies. No more tax credits for people who have kids. No more subsidies for farmers. No more favors for manufacturing. No more bailouts of some firms and not others. Under such a constraint, a majority of Congress could elect to subsidize industry A, but it would also have to subsidize industries B-Z.

The proposal has an intuitive moral appeal. Government, after all, is constituted to promote the general welfare of the entire population, not the specific welfare of certain segments of society. But as Buchanan and Congleton show, it also has economic appeal. For under a generality rule, “no participant has an incentive to invest resources in efforts to secure differential or discriminatory advantage at the expense of others in the collective enterprise.” (p. 44). And that can make the difference between a society that prospers and one that stagnates.

We all—right, left, libertarian, and progressive—seem to agree that something is wrong when wealthy individuals donate to politicians and politicians hand out privileges to these donors. Klein and Lessig think the answer is to regulate donations. Shapiro and I think the answer is to limit the scope of government.

We can continue to talk past one another while the nation slips deeper and deeper into the grips of the pathology of privilege. Or, we can roll up our sleeves and think of alternative solution that might be acceptable to both the left and the right. How about the abolition of favoritism in government policy?

Real Spending Per Person: White House vs. Paul Ryan

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending plan has been released. Both sides are going to characterize it as a $6.2 trillion dollar cut in federal spending. Of course, in Washington a “cut” is rarely a cut. Usually, when politicians speak of cuts, they mean cuts in reference to what some other politician wants to spend. In this case, the chairman actually wants 2021 spending to be about $1 trillion greater than 2011 spending. But since the President wants 2021 spending to be nearly $2 trillion greater and since the annual differences between the two plans add up to about $6.2 trillion over ten years, Ryan’s plan will be called a cut.

But what about inflation? And what about population growth?

Since inflation erodes the value of dollars over time and since population growth spreads those dollars over an ever-expanding group of people, some will argue that we must increase spending just to maintain the same level of government services.

I would note that in the non-political world, we expect technological improvements and efficiency gains to make things cheaper over time (witness computing power, smart phones, and plasma TVs–all of which have gotten cheaper in real terms over time). But let us make the reasonable assumption that government is incapable of efficiency gains. In this case, we should examine “real, per capita spending.” That is, after controlling for inflation and population growth, how much more or less will the federal government be spending per man, woman, and child?

The chart below shows real per capita spending under the President’s plan (red) and under the Congressman’s plan (blue). By 2020 (I don’t have inflation projections out to 2021), the president wants to spend $1,012 more per person in real terms. In contrast, the Chairman wants to spend $470 less per person. To put this another way, the President would increase real per capita spending by about 8% while the Chairman would decrease it by about 4%.

Just about everyone agrees that fiscal calamity awaits inaction. And numerous studies suggest that spending cuts are far more effective at addressing fiscal problems than revenue increases. In this context, is a 4% cut in spending really–as Ezra Klein characterizes it–“completely, almost gleefully, unacceptable“?

Why This Isn’t A Time to Worry that Government Is Spending Too Little

Last week, Ezra Klein wrote that state budget shortfalls constituted a massive “anti-stimulus” which might overwhelm the Federal Stimulus (implying the need for further federal spending). I responded with a post arguing that, while Klein’s story is plausible, the numbers just don’t add up. The massive increase in federal spending in the last few years has more-than made up for any decreases in state spending.

This, in turn, prompted an interesting response from Harry Moroz over at Huffington Post. Mr. Moroz writes:

Obama’s efforts to counteract the economic downturn…accounted for only 34 percent ($205 billion) of increased spending in 2009. The rest of the increases have little to do with stimulating the economy….A comparison of federal spending and aggregate state spending is irrelevant. Comparing federal stimulus spending and state spending cuts is only appropriate and useful because both are responses to the economic downturn.

In other words, Mr. Moroz would prefer that we not look at overall spending increases because most of these increases were not intended to be stimulative. (I trust that Mr. Moroz will correct me if I am mischaracterizing his assertion.)

I agree with Mr. Moroz’s point that most of the spending increases were not stimulative (that’s kinda the problem). But the much-ballyhooed Keynesian model—on which proponents of increased government spending hang their intellectual hats—makes no allowance for intentions. Instead, they assert that all government spending, no matter what it is spent on, is stimulative. Here is Lord Keynes on the subject:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again…there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

For his part, President Obama made a similar claim in February of 2009:

Then you get the argument ‘well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.’ What do you think a stimulus is? That’s the whole point. No, seriously. That’s the point.

And though Mr. Moroz would not like to count President Bush’s $700 billion TARP bill either, the fact remains that that president, too, thought he was stimulating the economy.

The real question is: Intentions aside, does government spending actually stimulate the economy? Over the long run (when Lord Keynes said we were all dead) the answer is almost certainly “no.”

Using international data, a number of peer-reviewed studies have examined the relationship between government size, somehow measured, and economic growth. Here is a sample: Barro (1991 and 1989); Folster and Henrekson (2001); Romero-Ávila and Strauch (2008); Afonso and Furceri (2008); Chobanov and Mladenova (2009); Roy (2009); and Bergh and Karlsson (2010). Each of these studies finds a strong, statistically significant, negative relationship between the size of government and economic growth.

What about the short run? Here again the evidence seems weak at best. Consider new research by Harvard’s Robert Barro and Charles Redlick. They find that for every dollar the government spends on the military (read: takes out of the private economy), the economy gains just 40 to 70 cents. Spending a dollar to obtain 40 to 70 cents does not a good deal make. Or consider another study by Harvard’s Laruen Cohen, Joshua Coval and Christopher Malloy. They rely on the fact that the federal government tends to spend more money in districts whose congressional members are chairs of powerful committees than in districts whose members are just rank-and-file. They find that firms actually cut capital expenditures by 15 percent following the ascendency of a congressman to the chairmanship. Moreover, firms seem to scale back employment and experience declines in sales.

It seems to me that by just about any measure, we are currently conducting a large-scale experiment in massive government spending. Moreover, I believe the results of previous experiments predict that this one will lead to slower growth and less economic opportunity. This is not the time to worry that perhaps we have spent too little.

I may be missing a nuance in Mr. Moroz’s argument. I hope he will disabuse me of my errors with a reply.

What Spending Contraction?

Eileen has a great response to Ezra Klein’s piece on the “anti-stimulus.” Klein writes that “[state] budget shortfalls are the equivalent of a massive anti-stimulus, which some experts believe has overwhelmed the $787 billion stimulus passed by the federal government in 2009.” Have state budget cuts really overwhelmed federal budget expansions?

The National Governors Association, in conjunction with the National Association of State Budget Officers, recently released their “Fiscal Survey of States. In it, they show that, indeed, aggregate state general fund expenditures declined by 4.3% in 2009 and 6.8% in 2010. Assuming fiscal stimulus actually works (and that is not a point that should be readily conceded), it is plausible that these huge declines would be enough to offset any increases in spending by the federal government. But the fact is they come nowhere close to offsetting the Federal Government’s massive spending spree.

If you pop over to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget website, you can see what the Federal Government has been up to. At the same time that aggregate state spending was falling by 4.3% and 6.8%, federal spending was increasing by a whopping 17.9% (2009) and 5.8% (2010). This, combined with the fact that the Federal Government spends trillions while states spend hundreds of billions (in the aggregate), means that the state spending contraction comes nowhere close to offsetting the federal spending increase.

In the chart below, I combine the data from NGA/NASBO with the data from the White House Office of Management and Budget. You judge for yourself. Does this look like a massive fiscal contraction to you?

The Real “Anti-Stimulus” – The Nation’s Growing Debts

The Washington Post reports how municipal governments in the U.S. are under great strain: state and local governments have doubled their debt loads in the past decade to $2.4 trillion. Factor in state (excluding local) unfunded pension liabilities for another $1 trillion (a figure that is likely closer to $3 trillion).

The future is debt-laden and the question is how will state and local governments respond. Trade-offs will have to be made between money for current services, bond payments, and pension benefits. Taxes will be raised and it’s likely that states will seek more bailouts from a debt-saturated federal government.

It’s hard to see how more federal spending (i.e. debt)  is the way to stimulate cash-strapped states. Yet, that’s the argument made by Ezra Klein in this Sunday’s Post.

Before issuing debt to cover debt it might be worth asking what have state and local governments been doing with all the economic development/infrastructure debt they’ve issued these past years?

Harrisburg issued debt for an incinerator that was supposed to make money. Now called a financial ”fiasco,” the incinerator threatens to sink the city’s budget. Steven Malanga discusses the debts incurred by what should be a profit-making enterprise — the 40 year old New Jersey Meadowlands, as well as the long-running “redevelopment debt” odyssey of California.

There is no magic in debt-financed infrastructure and economic-development, only a deferred tax bill to pay for the government’s gambles.