Tag Archives: Michael Greve

The Problem with States’ Rights

This week, Eileen Norcross hosted a fiscal federalism symposium, bringing together scholars of various disciplines to discuss some of the challenges that our system of federalism faces today. Part of the discussion centered around Michael Greve’s new book The Upside-Down Constitution.

One of his key points is a reminder of the reason federalists believed that states’ rights are important. We shouldn’t care about states’ rights for the sake of states’ rights — states are merely groups of residents. Rather, we should care about people’s rights, and how these can be better protected in a federalist system than under a centralized government. This distinction sometimes gets lost when people advocate states’ rights rather than states’ enumerated powers. The problem with advocating states’ rights is that this nuance paves the way for states to collude rather than to compete.

A clear example of this collusion happened in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Because setting a drinking age does not fall under the federal government’s enumerated powers, when Congress wanted to change the rules in this area, it had to bargain using tax dollars. States that kept a drinking age in place below 21 would have lost 10-percent of their federal highway funding dollars.

While this may sound like the federal government is coercing the states, it’s key to remember that the goal of federalism is individuals’ rights. With the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the states and federal government colluded to bring an end to competition in policy. This Act made state policy in this area the same, taking away Americans’ opportunity to choose to live in states with lower drinking ages.

When multiple levels of government pay for a given service, such as roads, many opportunities arise for this type of collusion, leading to the growth of government and the erosion of competition between governments. A competitive federalism means both that governments have incentives to provide the policy environments that their residents want and that people will have greater variety of policy climates to choose from. If the drinking age is an important issue to a family, competitive federalism could provide them with the option of living in a city or state with a higher or lower minimum age.

In the coming year, we hope to pursue research exploring what institutions limit competition within American federalism and what institutions prevent collusion between the federal, state, and local jurisdictions.

 

Michael Greve on American federalism and pensions

In a recent series of blog posts (h/t Arnold Kling), Michael Greve of AEI discusses the parallels between current American federalism and the trajectory that Argentina followed last century. Essentially, decades of “cooperative federalism” and trillions in transfer payments from the federal government to the states has put us on the course of ruin. This long-running arrangement has set the stage for the $4.5 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities owed to public workers, Obamacare, and ultimately an Argentinian future.

States rely on federal spending to implement the federal government’s policy agenda – most notably in the Medicaid program. Greve makes a provocative comparison: Medicaid is a “fiscal pact” similar to the arrangements between Argentina’s federal and state governments.

Federal transfers come with fiscal illusion. There is the incentive to overspend on the state level. And indeed we have seen the greatest growth in government on the state and local level since the post World War II period.

When states end up in trouble they can reasonably expect a bailout from the feds (ARRA is not the first bailout, nor is it likely to be the last). But what happens when both parties are broke?  Might pension liabilities accruing in the states be filled in with a soft bailout (e.g. an education spending package which can be applied to pay for benefits).  Alternatively, we might see an Argentinian-inspired solution: roll the pension obligations of troubled states into a federal corporation. In Argentina’s experience the federal pension corporation found itself with obligations several times larger than projected leading to a devaluation of the payout to retirees.

This is just one potential scenario. But, Greve’s main point is well taken. For reformers (of all ideological persuasions) who insist block grants will restore federalism‘s balance of power and fiscal discipline, think again. “Devolution” was much talked about in the 1990s as a means of restoring federalism but as implemented, it did nothing of the sort. The transfers keep coming just in different forms. Greve’s (Buchanan-based analysis) concludes it is not that cooperative federalism is broken, it has never been tried. 

The Failed State of Illinois

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting graph showing the divergent yield paths of debt issued by the states of Illinois and Pennsylvania (I’d reproduce it here but for fear of IP infringement).

The entire $2.8 trillion municipal bond market has been in decline for the last month and a half. As investors have grown increasingly skeptical of governments’ abilities to pay back their debts, they have been demanding higher yields (or, to think of it another way, they are only willing to buy bonds if they are priced at lower levels).

But as the Journal reports, investors seem to be increasingly differentiating between those states that are in bad fiscal shape and those that are in really bad fiscal shape.

Consider, for example, Pennsylvania. Thought to be in middling fiscal condition, that state pays 0.2 percentage points above what the broader market pays when it borrows. But compare this with Illinois. That famously fiscally-irresponsible state must now pay 1.9 percentage points more than what the broader market pays (a year ago, they paid less than 1 percentage point above the market). Of course, this is exactly the sort of dynamic that has done-in so many other governments: irresponsible spending makes lenders charge higher yields, adding to the cost of borrowing and further bloating the budget.

According to Northwestern University Professor Josh Rauh, Illinois’s pension system will be among one of the first to run dry.

This helps explain why, last June, Illinois’s debt surpassed that of California to become the most expensive in the nation to insure. It is now more expensive to insure Illinois’s debt than it is to insure Iraq’s debt!

At an event last week, AEI’s Michael Greve quipped:

Illinois is not a failing state. Iraq is a failing state; Illinois is a failed state.