Posts tagged ‘pork’

The Sequester if Falling, The Sequester is Falling

I cannot believe the sky-is-falling panic around the sequester.  It is all so much BS.  The sequester represents a trivial percentage reduction in spending down to levels we have not seen for, like, 2 years or so.  But apparently everyone is getting into the act claiming the world will end if we cut a couple of percent from the growth rate of government spending.  As an illustration, this is the over-wrought absurd email I just recieved:

If implemented, the US Navy directed cancellation of ship repair and maintenance due to lack of an approved Defense budget and sequestration will have a drastic impact on the commercial ship repair industry across the nation.   The more than 150,000 expert ship repair professionals that have been cultivated across the nation cannot be easily replaced by a new workforce.    In addition, many of our yards nationwide do both defense and commercial work.  The Navy cancellations would severely undermine their ability to continue operating in a high quality, efficient  manner.

The Virginia Ship Repair Association urges you to learn more and voice your concern. We have provided templates for mailing  letters to your members of Congress, as well as contact lists to make phone calls. Please join us in this effort to preserve our maritime interests, protect our shipyards and secure the future of our workforce.

US Shipyards among the great pork-barrel spending stories in this country's history.  Show me a shipyard with lots of defense business (e.g. Ingalls in Pascagoula) and I will show you a Senator from that state who wielded immense power on Congressional defense committees.

Answer: Zero

Here is the question:  In estimating the number of net jobs created by the stimulus package, how many jobs did the Administration assume were lost when hundreds of billions of dollars were pulled out of private hands and distributed by public authorities?

And the answer to that question is just one reason the analysis is absurd.  I have seen a lot of good critiques about accounting in the jobs numbers.  But the biggest single problem is that it is assumed that the trillion dollars Obama has pulled out of private capital markets (via deficit spending) wasn't really doing anything productive, so that redirecting it into pork-barrel programs chosen by Congress based on their campaign donor lists and run by government bureaucrats would use the money much better.

Anyone believe this?  So why have I not seen a single reporter ask the question, "But how many jobs were lost from where these funds were taken?"  Just because they are invisible or hard to count does not mean they don't exist.

I Hate to Repeat Myself, But...

Remember this -- a climate bill will have impact on CO2 emissions in direct proportion to how much it raises fossil-fuel-related energy prices.  When supporters of the bill say things like "it won't raise prices very much" they are in effect declaring "this bill will not solve the intended problem."

Below is a map of some of the climate actions being proposed.  As portrayed here, the current cap-and-trade bill is perhaps the worst of all choices, realizing limited gains (as demonstrated by programs in Europe and their supporters own estimates) combined with high costs.  The program is expensive to administer and much of the higher costs to consumers end up as subsidies to large corporations and green pork.

climate-actions

The combination plan of a large carbon tax offset by payroll tax reductions was discussed here.

100 Worst Stimulus Projects

This should really get your blood boiling, from Tom Coburn's office (pdf).  I am still perusing it, but two of my favorites already:

  • $1.445 million for an Oklahoma water project, where stimulus-required procurement and other rules subsequently increased the cost of the project by $1.94 million.  So the local folks lost a net of $500,000 by taking our money.  Serves the right.
  • $800,000 for a backup runway for the now famous airport to nowhere, also known as the John Murtha airport in Johnstown.  This is critical, because if they were to lose their current runway, all three flights a day and 20 daily passengers (I am not kidding) might have to find an alternative airport.  This brings the total airport subsidy to $15,411 per annual passenger.
  • A California skate park will get a $620,000 "facelift."  Plans to refurbish the skate park in Long Beach, California, had stalled for months as local funds put towards higher priority park projects. With $620,000 in federal stimulus funding available to upgrade the skate park, the city council decided to move forward. Daniel Johnson, a skater, said, "If most of us weren't skating right now, we'd be doing some bad stuff."  Because nothing says "gateway activity to adult productivity and preparation for the job market" like a skateboard park.

The Most Money Every Spent With The Least Scrutiny

We will be posting on the stimulus bill for months and years, because it will take that long to figure out what was in it.  Congressman who voted for it may never know what they actually voted for.  Veronique de Rugy takes a first swing at it:

Total spending amounts to $792 billion, with $570 billion in direct spending and $212 billion in tax provisions. These numbers don't include the massive amount of interest that will accrue on the increased debt. If we include that, the total amount comes to $1.14 trillion.

Supporters of the package describe the legislation as transportation and infrastructure investment, the idea being to use new spending to put America back to work while at the same time fixing decrepit infrastructure. However, only 17 percent of the discretionary spending in this package is for infrastructure items. More worrisome still, the final version lacks any mechanism to ensure that spending will be targeted toward infrastructure projects with high economic returns

De Rugy actually overestimates the infrastructure spending, because she looks at the spending over 10 years.  Since the stimulative effect of infrastructure spending in this recession is, at most, limited to 2009-2010 spending, and since the infrastructure spending is more back-end loaded, the percentage is much lower in the first 2 years -- something like 6-7% as I calculated here (I will go back through the CBO reports with an update when I get a chance, but Kevin Drum links them here, hilariously saying they "scored well."

Unfortunately, even this seems to wildly underestimate the true cost of the bill.  In creating the bill, Congress increased the general operating funds for zillions of departments and programs  (remember, 80+% of the spending is departmental budget increases, not infrastructure construction).  However, they show these increasing disappearing after a couple of years.  We all know that Democrats consider removing an increase to be "a massive cut" so we can assume that at some point, these budget increases will be extended for eternity.  If one makes this more realistic assumption, then the cost of the stimulus bill is over $3 trillion!  [update:  Carpe Diem demonstrates this with a nice set of graphs]

My other project I am working on is to look at some of the "shovel ready" projects on the mayor's list here  (warning!  600 page pdf!!) in the Phoenix area.  My incoming hypothesis is that any project on here either:

  1. Is not shovel ready, as it takes years to get a project through planning, procurement, and environmental permitting, but once anyone in DC finds that out, they won't take back the money, -OR-
  2. Is something that the local residents, who will enjoy the benefit, refused to fund, raising the question as to why the rest of us should fund it.

I won't spill the beans yet, but here are a few tastes from the Phoenix area:

  • A major upgrade to the water system of the town of Paradise Valley, a small community embedded in Phoenix which is, by a fairly good margin, the single wealthiest zip code in the state.
  • A lot of solar.  Solar is a particularly good choice for this list because 1)  Obama has a hard-on for it, so he is unlikely to question it  2)  Solar's problem is high capital cost vs. the amount of electricity produced, but if someone else is paying the capital cost....

Peering Into the Details of The Stimulus Bill

The CBO is out with its scoring of the stimulus bill (pdf).  Kevin Drum seems to think it refutes my statement that it would be impossible to have any kind of real infrastructure impact in the next 1-2 years.  Drum says:

Specifically, they estimate that in the spending portion of the bill, $477 billion out of $604 billion would be disbursed either this fiscal year or in the next two fiscal years. That's 79% of the total.

I guess opinions can vary on this, but that strikes me as pretty good. What's more, most of the spending that comes in FY2012 or later is either for projects that simply take more than two years to complete (highways, school repairs) or infrastructure improvements that have long-term paybacks (renewable energy programs). There are a few other items in the out years that are more arguable, but they add up to a pretty small portion of the bill.

This is correct on its face.  But here is the issue, and what drives me crazy about politicians and their enablers like Drum.  This is being sold as an infrastructure bill.  And even by Drum's admission, all the infrastructure spending is in the out years, well beyond any reasonable time frame for the recession.

Picking through the report, the "spending"  (I object to calling tax cuts "spending") in the next two years, the recession window, is mainly in these categories ( I get slightly different numbers than Drum)

  • Tax cuts of $223.2 billion (lost revenue + outlays)
  • Transfer payments $202.2 billion
    • Unemployment & Child Support:  $42.2 billion
    • Health Insurance Assistance:  $36.6 billion (lost revenue + outlays)
    • Medicaid: $76.9 billion
    • Food Assistance:  $10.8 billion
    • Health and Human Services (unspecified):  $14.9 billion
    • Employment and job training:  $2.9 billion
    • School/College loans:  $14.7 billion
    • Housing assistance:  $3.2 billion
  • State government "stabilization":  $31.4 billion
  • Defense:  $6.2 billion
  • Other: $62.5 billion
    • Increase in department budgets  $28.4 billion (estimated, may be low)
    • Real infrastructure spending (mainly schools, federal buildings, highways, and other transit)  $26.7 billion (at most!)
    • Green energy / energy programs  $7.4 billion (at most!)

So do you see my point. The reason so much of this infrastructure bill can be spent in the next two years is that there is no infrastructure in it, at least in the first two years!  42% of the deficit impact in 2009/2010 is tax cuts, another 44% is in transfer payments to individuals and state governments.  1% is defense.  At least 5% seems to be just pumping up a number of budgets with no infrastructure impact (such as at Homeland Security).  And at most 6% is infrastructure and green energy.  I say at most because it is unclear if this stuff is really incremental, and much of this budget may be for planners and government departments rather than actual facilities on the ground.

So don't call this an infrastructure bill.  This is a tax cut and welfare bill, at least in 2010 and 2011.   I guess I can understand a rush to do things like the welfare pieces, but that would argue for splitting the bill, into an emergency transfer payment appropriation and a infrastructure appropriation that can be studied and debated in more depth.

But that is never going to happen, because what we see is a unique kind of political synergy.  The bundling of these two very difference spending streams gives yields two political advantages:

  1. The infrastructure piece, despite being less than 10% of the bill, allows politicians to call this "investment" and "green energy" and "infrastructure" which sell better with sections of the public than "welfare" and "transfer payments."  The minority infrastructure pieces allow Congress and Obama to call the bill new and forward looking, rather than the imitation of 1970s legislation that it really is.
  2. The emergency pieces of the bill allow politicians to stuff numerous bureaucracy increases and pork spending into the bill that would not stand up to scrutiny.  Despite the fact that much of this spending will not occur for years, they can keep saying "rush, emergency, hurry" to deflect scrutiny and criticism.

Update: The National Review has a lot more detail here.

Paging JM Keynes

I don't think I need to even bother expressing to my regular readers my utter disdain for this kind of trough-feeding:

Overall, the article notes "the mayors of all 641 cities [represented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors] are asking for $96.6 billion in federal funds for 15,221 municipal projects." Whole bit here.

Here is my question for supporters of this bailout garbage as an economic stimulus.  I understand that in Keynesian economics, government spending has a multiplier effect that causes it give a bigger boost to the economy than private spending  (I don't agree, but I understand that people believe this and understand the faulty assumptions that get them to this conclusion).

But under what economic theory are we operating now that says that having the federal government borrow or raise taxes to spend on municipal projects has a greater stimulus effect than having local governments do it?  None, of course.   What is happening is that a bunch of munipal government weenies are going to Obama and saying "we don't have the credibility, support, and or cajones to raise taxes.  You seem to be hot now, can you do it for us?"

Obama and Ethanol

I think a lot of economists are of two minds about Obama.  When they look at his economics team, they are impressed with the talent and depth.  America could do worse than have economic policy guided by this team.  But when Obama opens his mouth to express his own opinions on trade or economics or finance, I get really nervous.  I keep wondering who will guide economic and energy policy -- his smart staff, or the Obama his smart staff keeps trying to hide. 

Ethanol is just one more example:

Robert Bryce, the author of Gusher of Lies, one of the best books on
global energy issues you will ever read, is also a co-editor of Energy
Tribune, a leading monthly. In the October edition, he takes aim at
ethanol calling it a scam and "pure, unadulterated lunacy."

Bryce
writes, "Barack Obama doesn't want to talk about corn ethanol. And it's
no wonder. In early August, his campaign Web site purged several
sections of his energy plan that talked about corn ethanol.

"Before
the purge, Obama was touting corn ethanol as a pivotal element in his
push for "˜energy independence.' His site declared that Obama "˜will
require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be included in the
fuel supply by 2022 and will increase that to at least 60 billion
gallons of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol by 2030."

By
August, however, Obama had come up with a new set of talking points on
energy and "All mentions of corn ethanol were removed," wrote Bryce.
"The word "˜ethanol' only appears once."

Do not be fooled. Obama
is a major proponent of ethanol. Bryce reports that, "In January 2007,
Obama and two other senators, Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa and
Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, introduced legislation called the
"˜American Fuels Act of 2007.' It aimed at promoting the use of ethanol
and provided mandates for the use of more biodiesel."

Obama's
national campaign co-chair is Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority
leader and longtime ethanol booster. Daschle serves on the boards of
three key ethanol companies. Obama represents Illinois, a state that
trails only Iowa and Nebraska in ethanol production capacity.

Ethanol is one of those political IQ tests.  It makes such bad energy and environmental policy, but such good pork, that support for it is a great bellweather for what is driving a politician.

Those Short-Term, Quarterly Focused Corporations

Everyone has heard the knock on corporations -- they are supposedly short-term focused and incapable of making investments that don't pump up the current quarter.  We hear this in particular from government officials, right before they try to sell some egregious bit of pork-spending that is supposedly for "investment" in things these awful corporate guys won't invest in.

But of course the entire existence of the oil industry is proof-positive that this knock on large corporations can't be universally true, or else the oil industry would have gone out of business for lack of reserves some time in the late 19th century.  The oil industry routinely makes huge investments that take 10 years or more to even start to pay out (e.g. Alaska pipeline, shale oil, deep Gulf).  One major reason that supplies are currently tight is that most of the world's oil reserves are held by state companies (like Pemex) that are incapable of making the long-term investments their fields needs because there is so much pressure on the government to divert the oil profits into social programs rather than into renewing the reserve base.

And now look who is singing the same tune as Hugo Chavez and the other oil producing kleptocrats - Barack Obama:

"Opening our coastlines to offshore drilling would take at least a
decade to produce any oil at all, and the effect on gasoline prices
would be negligible at best since America only has 3 percent of the
world's oil," Obama said in a statement that did not explicitly
distinguish between oil and gas drilling."

Of course, offshore drilling was approved 10 years ago, but was vetoed by Bill Clinton.  I don't believe for a second that this is his real reason for opposing drilling (in fact, I believe him to be in the pocket of radical environmentalists and perfectly happy to demagogue oil companies for high prices rather than take responsibility for past government action).  However, if we take him at his word, this is an absolutely unbelievable lack of long-term focus from a man people like to call "visionary."

Where? In Freaking Eloy?

JD Tuccille has a roundup on the state boondoggle that won't die, the proposed 3/4 of a Billion dollar state subsidy for an amusement park. 

Now, this seems like an awful lot for an amusement park, particularly considering that the Arizona desert has been the death of many theme parks.  The reason is that no one wants to be outside for extended periods of time in June-Sept in the Phoenix or Tucson areas.  Because it is freaking hot.  The average daily forecasts is generally for 108-112F for these summer months.  But theme parks live and die in the summer, when kids are out of school.  Even though they have milder weather and a large population base at Magic Mountain in LA, they still only open for weekends and holidays during the non-summer months.  My guess, from running a similar seasonal business, Magic Mountain loses money most of the year and make 100%+ of their profit in the summer.

So spending $750 million of taxpayer money on a theme park in the Arizona heat would be a bad idea if located in Phoenix.  But what happens when we put it in Eloy, Arizona?  Eloy is just as hot, but is in the middle of nowhere, as shown below at the point of the "A" balloon.

Eloy

People will come here, from where?  Tucson folks in the summer will want to go someplace even hotter than Tucson?  Phoenix folks will want to drive 2 hours to spend their time in the hot sun, when the same distance north puts them in the cool mountains?  And here is beautiful downtown Eloy, brimming with wealth enough to repay over a billion dollars of principal and interest.

Eloy2_2

This project is absolutely guanteed to fail, leaving the bill with taxpayers.  I mean, seriously.  Never have I seen such a lock.  I wish there was a way to short this.

This is only the most eggregious of a laundry list of proposed government pork being pushed under the banner of "job creation" at a time when the state budget is over a billion dollars in deficit.

Bankrupcy of the Modern Transit Model

The Anti-planner observes:

Over the past 25 years, the population of the Pittsburgh urban area
has remained fixed at about 1.8 million people. Driving, however, has
increased by almost 50 percent.

During this period, Pittsburgh has spent hundreds of millions of
dollars upgrading light-rail lines, building exclusive busways, and "”
in the latest project "” building a $435 million transit tunnel under the Allegheny River. Despite (or because of) this investment, transit ridership has dropped by more than 25 percent.

Although the numbers vary slightly from place to place, Pittsburgh's
story is pretty typical of transit everywhere. Sure, some cities have
seen ridership gains, but subsidies to transit are huge and transit
does not make a notable (meaning 5 percent or more) contribution to
personal mobility in any urban area except New York (where it is 10
percent).

He has a good summary of what's wrong and what might work instead.  I appreciated this observation in particular:

Why do we put up with this? The answer, of course, is that transit is
pork. "For most transit agencies in the United States, if they were to
write a mission statement that is reflective of what they do, they
would indicate that they exist for the purpose of serving their
employees and vendors," not transit riders, notes Cox.

Prices vs. Government Action

Very often on this blog I criticize some ill-conceived government intervention as being bloated and/or ineffective and ill-conceived.  A great example is corn-ethanol, where the government has spent billions and caused consumers to spend additional billions in higher food and gas prices, all for a technology that does nothing to reduce oil consumption or CO2 output.

Too often, I criticize these programs for being stupid and ill-conceived, which they are.  But what I don't take the time to also point out is the necessarily narrow focus of these government actions.  No matter how hard Congress works to stuff energy and farm bills with every micro-managing pork barrel project their campaign donors could wish for, Congress still only has the bandwidth to affect a tiny fraction of a percent of what a single change in market prices can achieve.  Prices have absolutely stunning power of communication.  When gas prices go up, every single citizen likely reassesses his/her behavior and spending in a myriad of ways.  Thousands of entrepreneurs sit at their desk staring at the walls, trying to dream up business opportunities that these new prices may signal.  And thousands of energy producers, from the tiniest to the largest, rethink their investment plans and priorities. 

I Told You Arizona Was Conflicted

A couple of posts ago I said that Arizona could be very libertarian, and then could be just the opposite on the next day.  I showed the libertarian side in that post, here is the other:

The state Senate voted 17-11, with two senators not voting, to allow a
rock-and-roll theme park proposed between Phoenix and Tucson to issue
$750 million in revenue bonds to help build the project....

Revenue bonds are repaid with income from the funded projects. The park would tax visitors to repay the bonds.

To issue the bonds, the developers must come up with $100 million of their own financing.

Oh my god, three quarters of a billion dollars of public financing for a theme park?  And we give the theme park operator taxation authority?  And the developer has to come up with less than 1/8 the total cost from private sources?  Yuk.  Just for scale  (I know the spending sources are apples and oranges), $750 million is more than 2.5 times the total of the federal earmarks that go to Alaska, the #1 porkbarrel state.  So here we are patting ourselves on the back for being Congressional pork-free, and then our state Senate does something like this.  Sigh.

This Is What You Like To See: AZ Last in Pork-Barrel Cash

Arizona can be a weird place, politically.  Sometimes it can be among the most libertarian, part of the Goldwater legacy, and sometimes it can be absurdly statist, for example in the huge popular support our individual-rights-abusing Sheriff Arpaio enjoys.  But this is certainly good to see:

Arizona has some powerful lawmakers in Washington, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

But when it comes to pork-barrel spending, otherwise known as earmarks, the state isn't very powerful. In fact, it ranks last.

That's mostly because three of the state's 10 lawmakers in Washington,
McCain and House Republicans Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, refuse to ask
for any federal money
for local projects. Another Arizona Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl, strictly
limits his earmark requests. They all say the earmark process wastes
taxpayer money and desperately needs reform. But other Arizona
lawmakers counter that their colleagues' stance hurts the state.

rizona, one of the fastest growing states in the nation, will receive
$18.70 per capita in federal earmarks this fiscal year. By comparison,
Alaska, with roughly a 10th of Arizona's population, is set to receive
$506.34 per capita, the highest in the nation, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that tracks earmarks.

Alaska receives about three times as much as Arizona in actual dollars,
$346 million to $119 million. That means Arizona gets less money for
water projects, bridge repairs, road construction and rural clinics.

Good for us.  While I have my problems with McCain, Shadegg and Flake are two of my favorite people in Congress. 

The article, since it comes from the Republic, of course fails to really explain the issues well.  It tries to get the reader confused into thinking that zero earmarks means zero government spending in the state:

"When you have reformers and purists, you end up not getting a
reasonable share of money coming out, which hurts the state," said
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and
Presidential Studies at American University. "When you're holier than
thou, you don't get much of the money."

This is, of course, silly.  Having no earmarks merely means that the huge amounts of money the Feds spend are doled out by existing statute and by the bureaucracy, rather than the whim of individual Congress persons trying to pay back favors to large donors.

update:  see the bad half of AZ here.

Stranger than Fiction -- Eliot Spitzer and Prostitutes

My novel BMOC included an incompetent and power-abusing Senator who managed to remain a darling of the press as long as he focused his attention on pork-barrel spending and using government power to help and hurt his friends and enemies.  However, the press finally turned on him when it became known he was involved with prostitutes.  The fairly cynical (if not realistic) moral was that it was fine to abuse government power, just don't get caught in a sex scandal.

Well, it seems that we will get to test that notion in real life.  Apparently, NY governor Eliot Spitzer has been dallying with prostitutes.  Now, I couldn't really care less about his purchase of sex -- I have argued many times for legalization of prostitution.  But it will be an interesting test of my book's cynical hypothesis, since to date the press has been in love with Spitzer despite (even because of) his abusive practices as AG and governor.  The radio news a few minutes ago actually said "Mr. Spitzer, who to date has had a squeaky clean reputation..."  Huh?  Only if you read the fawning PR work done for him by the NY Times in the past.

Update: Here is the passage from the book.  Sound familiar?

Taking a deep
breath, Givens said, "Senator, there is a reason that this one is not going
away. I will spell it out: S-E-X. The press doesn't give a shit about a few billion dollars of waste. No one tunes in to the evening news if the
teaser is "˜Government pays too much for a bridge, news at eleven.' The Today Show doesn't interview the
contractors benefiting from a useless bridge."

"However, everybody and his dog will tune in if
the teaser is "˜Your tax dollars are funding call girls, film at eleven'. Jesus, do you really think the CBS Evening
News is going to turn down a chance to put hookers on the evening news? Not just tonight but day after day? Just watch "“ Dan Rather will be interviewing
hookers and Chris Mathews will be interviewing hookers and for God's sakes
Barbara Walters will probably have a weepy interview with a hooker."....

"You guys in the Senate can get away with a lot,
as long as long as a) you don't get caught or b) the scandal is so boring or
complex that it won't sell newspapers. Hell, I saw a poll the other day that a substantial percentage of
Americans to this day don't understand or even believe what Richard Nixon did
was wrong. But if you polled those same
people, every freaking one of them would say that they knew and believed that
Bill Clinton got [had sex with] an intern.

Update #2: Disclosure -- I did not like Spitzer, even at Princeton.  This, however, was not uncommon.  In fact, Spitzer managed to inspire a jihad in response to his governance of the student council there.

Update #3:  ROFL!  I got this email from a reader:

I eagerly await your
comments on the latest imbroglio involving your favorite Princeton
classmate.  Please don't take the high road.

It seems I may not be the only person who does not care for Mr. Spitzer.

Update #4:  I hope the girls paid sales taxes on their transactions and have all their payroll taxes in order.  Certainly Mr. Spitzer has established the principle that illegal businesses still owe taxes.

That seems to be the axiom in New York these days, where Gov. Eliot L.
Spitzer (D), struggling to close a $4.4 billion budget gap, has
proposed making drug dealers pay tax on their stashes of illegal drugs.
The new tax would apply to cocaine, heroin and marijuana, and could be
paid with pre-bought "tax stamps" affixed to the bags of dope.

Update #5:  Libertarians like myself will point out that this is all between consenting adults.  Of course, that did not stop Eliot Spitzer from trying to prosecute Dick Grasso for a pay package that was approved by consenting (and quite sophisticated) adults.

Update #6: It is being reported that Spitzer will resign.  QED folks.  Spitzer uses the state police to spy on political rivals and the press continues to call him a squeaky clean reformer.  But pay for sex with a consenting adult, and your gone. 

Update #7:  Tom Kirkendal has been all over Spitzer for years.  He writes:

But I hope that the most important lesson that
Spitzer's political career teaches us is not lost amidst the glare of a
tawdry sex scandal. As with Rudy Giuliani
before him, Spitzer rose to political power through the misuse of the
state's overwhelming prosecutorial power to regulate business
interests. In so doing, Spitzer manipulated an all-too-accommodating
mainstream media, which never misses an opportunity to take down an
easy target such as a wealthy businessperson. Spitzer is now learning
that the same media dynamic applies to powerful politicians, as well. 

However, as noted earlier here,
where was the mainstream media's scrutiny when Spitzer was destroying
wealth, jobs and careers while threatening to go Arthur Andersen on
American Insurance Group and other companies? Where was the healthy
skepticism of the unrestrained use of the state's prosecutorial power
to regulate business where business had no available regulatory
procedure with which to contest Spitzer's actions?

Update on the State of the World

The sun rises in the east, politicians love pork, and my bracket sucks, again. 

The current bracket challenge leaders are as follows:

Bracket Rank Points Correct Games Upset Risk % Possible Games
Michael Lindsey 1 100 47 18.6 50
Lincoln Beachey 2 98 48 16.3 49
Rob Nieweg 3 97 49 14.1 51
Jeff Haught 4 96 44 27.0 47
Thomas Roeschlein 5 93 47 11.7 50
Bob Woodfield 6 93 44 11.3 46
Zak Barron 7 93 43 18.8 46
Joe Sandusky 8 90 47 13.5 50
Darren Munford 9 90 45 15.1 47
skunk 10 89 46 7.8 49
Coleen Eicher 11 88 47 8.9 50
Richard Pitchford 12 88 46 11.7 49
eagles dare 13 86 42 21.6 45

I have run the 8 different remaining scenarios, and here are your possible winners:

  • Rob Nieweg (2 different possibilities)
  • Skunk
  • Jeff Haught
  • Thomas Roeschlein
  • Eagles Dare (all the way from 13th)
  • Michael Lindsey (2 different possibilities, basically he needs the #2 seeds to reach the finals)

Earmark Reform

President Bush today, among other proposals, advocated earmark reform in a WSJ Op-Ed piece.  Great, though I would have thought his adult supervision on this issue with the Republican Congress last year would have been more effective.  Also, I would like to turn his attention to a novel Constitutional device called a "veto" that he already has at his command to handle pork-laden bills.

Dave Barry on 2006

Dave Barry has his end of year review up:

As the campaign lumbers to the finish line, the Republicans desperately
hope that the voters will not notice that they "” once the party of
small government "” have turned into the party of war-bungling,
corruption-tolerating, pork-spewing power-lusting toads, while the
Democrats desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they
are still, basically, the Democrats.

Repeat After Me ... Its Not Just One Party

Kevin Drum opines:

What happens when you combine "fast track" procurement, minimal
oversight, pork-based contracting, and a comprehensive lack of
responsibility for results? Well, you get the Bush administration, of
course. More specifically, you get the Coast Guard's disastrous
Deepwater program. Nadezhda runs through the grim details.

This is perhaps the single greatest fallacy that props up big government.  Specifically, the notion that corruption, inefficiency, and stupidity are failures in government related to certain individuals.  The implication is that if only "our party" was in control, big government would be great.  Except that both parties have had their chances in alternating fashion for 70 years (what I would call the era of really big government) and government has been a mess regardless of who has been in control. 

People like Hayek and Friedman have written who books about it, so I want try to elucidate the whole theory, except to summarize that the nature of incentives in government, particularly the big sacrifice-one-group-for-another government we have today, will ALWAYS lead to massive failures.  Period.

I wrote over a year ago that statism always comes back to bite its creators, because no matter how beautiful the machinery of government control, you can never control for the human beings who get behind the levers.  At that time I pointed to three fallacies, of which the third is particularly relevant to this post:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you
    are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values,
    etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the
    Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may
    feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
    technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
    idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
    technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
    take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
    another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

X-Ray Vision

So, since I have been too serious in my posting of late, and since I am too busy getting a proposal out the door to do any real critical thinking, here is Scott Adams on why having X-Ray vision would be a bad thing:

I think the worst super power you could have would be x-ray vision.
Take a look around you right now and ask yourself how many people would
look better without clothes. Not many. And if you could see inside
them, that would be even uglier, but not in every case. You've heard
the saying "She's beautiful on the inside." I think what that means is
that her appendix is more attractive than her face.

The best part about x-ray vision is that you would no longer have to
ask pregnant women if they know the genders of their babies. You could
just look right into the womb with your x-ray eyes and, in all
likelihood, mutate the baby's genetic code. Good times.

If everyone had x-ray eyes, you would hear sentences that you've never before heard, such as:

"Let's take a break. As you can see, my bladder is pretty much topped off."

"Is that the pulled pork sandwich you had for lunch? How was it?"

"Clear the room! Monty "˜s about to launch a zeppelin!"

"I see your baby is a boy. And wow. He's going to be popular."

And last, "You're looking at the umbilical cord, moron."

Free Market Does Not Mean Pro-Business

I hate the term "pro-business."  In my mind, it helps to define what is wrong with the political choices we are presented with in this country.  All of us in civics class were taught the statist "heads I win, tails you lose" political spectrum from left to right.  On this spectrum, everyone is in favor of government intervention and the sacrifice of one group of people to another.  The only thing that varies across the scale is who is the beneficiary of the plunder and the targeted areas of intervention.  For years, most of the politicians who have called themselves "pro-business" were not free market capitalists -- they spent much of their time in office sending their businessman-buddies slices of pork, zoning variations, special permission to trash other people's property (e.g. via pollution) etc.

Beyond the fact that we small government libertarians and anarcho-capitalists are given no spot on the civics class political spectrum, I have always been frustrated at being lumped together with "pro-business" politicians, and have been asked to defend (which I won't and can't) various subsidies and corporate welfare.  An example of my attacks on this type of corporate welfare crap are here and here.

So, without further comment, I present this great except from an article by Gary North of the Mises Institute:

The idea that businessmen are strong defenders of the free
enterprise system is one which is believed only by those who have never
studied the history of private enterprise in the Western, industrial
nations. What businessmen are paid to worry about is profit. The
problem for the survival of a market economy arises when the voters
permit or encourage the expansion of government power to such an extent
that private businesses can gain short-term profits through the
intervention into the competitive market by state officials. Offer the
typical businessman the opportunity to escape the constant pressures of
market competition, and few of them are able to withstand the
temptation. In fact, they are rewarded for taking the step of calling
in the civil government.

The government's officials approve, but more to the point, from the
point of view of the businessman's understanding of his role,
shareholders and new investors also approve, since the favored
enterprise is initially blessed with increased earnings per share. The
business leader has his decision confirmed by the crucial standards of
reference in the market, namely, rising profits and rising share prices
on the stock market. No one pays the entrepreneur to be ideologically
pure. Almost everyone pays him to turn a profit.

This being the case, those within the government possess an
extremely potent device for expanding political power. By a
comprehensive program of direct political intervention into the market,
government officials can steadily reduce the opposition of businessmen
to the transformation of the market into a bureaucratic, regulated, and
even centrally-directed organization. Bureaucracy replaces
entrepreneurship as the principal form of economic planning.
Bureaucrats can use the time-honored pair of motivational approaches:
the carrot and the stick. The carrot is by far the most effective
device when dealing with profit-seeking businessmen.

Those individual enterprises that are expected to benefit from some
new government program have every short-run financial incentive to
promote the intervention, while those whose interests are likely to be
affected adversely "” rival firms, foreign enterprises, and especially
consumers "” find it expensive to organize their opposition, since the
adverse effects are either not recognized as stemming from the
particular government program, or else the potential opponents are
scattered over too wide an area to be organized inexpensively. The
efforts of the potential short-run beneficiaries are concentrated and
immediately profitable; the efforts of the potential losers are
dispersed and usually ineffective.

AZ and Small Government

One of the good things about living in AZ is that it is the home of several of the unfortunately dwindling number of Republicans who consistently cast votes for lower taxes and smaller government. 

Recently Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, who I have given props to in a number of columns on this blog, sponsored a series of 19 bills aimed at cleaning up the appropriations process and making it harder for Congress to slip earmarks through the appropriations process, at least without having gone explicitly on the record as having done so. 

The Club for Growth has a scorecard of how each Congressman voted on these bills.  In each case, a 'YES' vote is a vote against pork and a vote to clean up the Congressional appropriations process. 

My Congressman, John Shadegg, who is another reliable small government low tax voter, came through with 19 of 19 'Yes' votes.  Way to go Congressman!

No Surprise Here

Marginal Revolution links to a list of the most corrupt states, measured by the number of government corruption convictions per capita.  I bet you can come pretty close to the top three without even looking.  Here they are:

  1. Alaska.  For all those who want to believe that pork is unrelated to corruption, look no further than the king of pork itself, Alaska, which also turns out to be the king of government corruption.  Kudos to Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, who is about the only one brave enough in that lost and floundering body to connect the dots between Abramoff, cash-filled tuperware, corruption and pork.
  2. Mississippi.  Who would have ever thought the state best known for being the #1 home of jackpot torts and the home state of the Senator who claims to be above the law would be a hotbed of corruption? 
  3. Louisiana.  Probably the only surprise on the list, since one would expect the home state of Huey Long to be in first rather than third.  Heck, in 1991 the state got to choose between a wanna-be Nazi Klansman and a serially corrupt felon for Governor.  And God only knows where the money that should have been spent on building levees actually went.

Separation of Powers

The separation of powers concept, so fundamental in our Constitution to checking government power grabs, seems to be on life support.  The reason I say this is that for separation of powers to work, each branch of the government has to, you know, actually monitor and try to check power grabs in other branches.   What I see today are three branches that have kind of reached some sort of peace treaty, agreeing to let the others run amok as long as it is allowed to do so itself.  To support this hypothesis, I make the following observations:

  • The executive branch continues to try to accumulate power, adding "indefinite detentions without trial" and "warrantless searches" to its arsenal, justifying nearly anything with the blanket argument that "the world is different post 9/11."  The Supreme Court has generally proved itself unwilling to do anything about it, which should be all the more the case in the future since both Bush appointees seem very comfortable with accretions of executive power.  Even the opposition party, though willing to make verbal assaults, seems unwilling to take any real measures.
  • Congress seems perfectly willing to spend their time wallowing in pork and dreaming up new earmarks to satisfy prominent donors.  The current budgeting process is a fiasco, and the executive branch seems unwilling to exercise any adult supervision, including an incredible record of zero vetos is nearly 6 years.  Congress has shied away from working on any issues of any seriousness (e.g. Social Security) which is perhaps good for us, since their only attempt to fix runaway spending in Medicare resulted in them adding an expensive and ridiculously complex drug benefit.  Congress and the President conspired to pass the egregious McCain-Feingold speech limit bill, which effectively helps protect the job of Congressional incumbents and protects them from 3rd party criticism when approaching an election.
  • With Congress unwilling to address any legislative issues of substance, the judiciary seems perfectly happy to take their place, creating new law in hundreds of areas.  And Congress seems willing to let them.  It can only be dangerous for a Congressperson to deal with hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion - its much better to let the judiciary do it for you.  Often Congressman can get the outcomes they want, without actually having to create a legislative record on the issue that might come up in a campaign.

The whole situation depresses me just writing about it.

Challenging Every Earmark

Senator Coburn, now with John McCain in partnership, are going to challenge every single earmark in the Senate:

In short, Senators McCain and Coburn announced their
commitment to challenge each and every earmark on the floor of the
Senate. In addition to challenging each and every pork project,
Senators Coburn and McCain will also oppose the inclusion in conference
reports of any earmarks that did not pass either the House or Senate.

As
stated in the letter, the practice of inserting earmarks into
conference reports at the last minute "stifles debate and empowers
well-heeled lobbyists at the expense of those who cannot afford access
to power. Decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent should not be
made in the dark, behind closed doors."

Good.  And with McCain's backing, it may work.  I say this because, for a variety of reasons, McCain has somehow become the "instant moral authority" of the Senate, bringing instant legitimacy and media attention to any issue he jumps on.  I am not sure, for example, that the egregious Campaign Finance Reform Act would have passed without his imprimatur.

Apparently, the defense de jour by pork-loving Senators is to make the claim that "well, earmarks are trivial compared to non-discretionary spending so let's focus on those larger buckets of cost." 

A couple of thoughts.  First, if the Senate can't control spending on bridges serving 50 people, they are never going to do it on Social Security.  Second, this is very disingenuous, since Congress has had years to address these other issues, and all they have done is increase (via the disastrous drug benefit) the costs of these programmed expenses rather than reduce them.  They gave up mid-stream, for example, on doing anything with Social Security.  Third, now is the time to strike while public attention is focused on these practices.  In particular, the current lobbying scandals put special focus on earmarking, since discretionary spending is order of magnitudes more susceptible to political corruption than are the programmed expenses.