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It’s unfortunate that Senator Tom Coburn is retiring. He hasn’t been perfect, but nobody can question is commitment to limited government. He’s been a rare voice in Washington against wasteful spending.

And he’s going out with a bang, having just released the 2014 edition of the Wastebook.

It’s a grisly collection of boondoggles and pork-barrel spending, highlights (though lowlights might be a better term) of which can be seen in this video.

The good news is that the American people increasingly recognize that Washington is a cesspool of waste, fraud, and abuse.

A Gallup Poll from last month, for instance, finds that folks are quite aware that a huge chunk of the federal budget is squandered.

There are two interesting takeaways from this polling data.

First, it’s good to see that there’s been a steady increase in the perception of waste in Washington. That shows people are paying more attention over time. In other words, more and more Americans recognize that the public sector is a sleazy racket for the benefit of bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, cronies, interest groups, and other insiders.

Second, it’s also worth noting that there’s less waste at the state level and even less waste at the local level. These are just perceptions, to be sure, but I suspect people are right. Money is less likely to be squandered when people have a greater opportunity to see how it’s being spent. Which is why federalism is good policy and good politics.

Now let me add my two cents. Government waste doesn’t just occur when money goes to silly projects. From an economic perspective, money is wasted whenever there is a misallocation of potentially productive resources.

And that’s a pretty accurate description of most of the federal budget. Not just discretionary programs, but also entitlement programs.

Here’s my video providing the theoretical arguments against excessive government spending.

And here’s the companion video that reviews the evidence showing that big government undermines prosperity.

And if you want another video, but one that shows horrific government waste presented in an amusing manner, click here.

And if you instead want to get heartburn by reading about disgusting examples of waste, click here, here, or here.

It’s time for an updated version of the U.S. vs U.K. government stupidity contest.

This ongoing series has featured amazing feats of inane government, including the world’s most pointless road markings, photo-ID requirements for drain cleaner purchases, and a government so incompetent that it couldn’t give money away.

Today’s contest, though, is going to focus on examples of wimpiness from both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s an excerpt from a story out of the United Kingdom. Apparently, one neurotic mother thinks her son is some sort of incompetent misfit.

OMG, he’s going to become a serial killer!!

A mother was left horrified after her 10-year-old son returned form Tesco’s supermarket with a pumpkin carving kit which included a sharp serrated blade. Natalie Greaves from Sheffield in South Yorkshire described her reaction to Shay returning home with the one pound kit: ‘I went berserk when he came home with it. ‘I couldn’t believe that he could pick that sort of thing up as a child – there should have been an age restriction on it.’

“Horrified”? “Beserk”? You must be kidding. If there’s someone in that family who shouldn’t be allowed around sharp objects, it’s the mother.

It’s almost enough to make me think the kid would be better off in foster care, notwithstanding my libertarian instincts that even bad homes are oftentimes better than state control.

But I also wonder what this says about the entire nation. Back in 2012, I shared some laughably pathetic examples of anti-gun political correctness from the United Kingdom and wondered how such inane behavior could exist in a country that “once ruled half the world.”

Needless to say, this story doesn’t reflect well on our cousins across the ocean.

But Americans are in no position to make fun of others since there are plenty of examples of brain-dead political correctness in the United States.

After all, you don’t want to throw stones if you live in a glass house. And when it comes to absurd anti-gun hysteria, government schools make Americans look like infantile idiots.

Here are parts of a story from a local news outlet in Alabama.

A Mobile mother is not happy about a controversial Mobile County School contract her daughter signed without her consent. The contract promises that her daughter will not kill or injure herself and others. …She said E R Dickson school officials crossed the line when they had her daughter sign a Mobile County Public Safety Contract without her being present.

This sounds serious. Are we talking about a 16-yr old gang member? A 17-yr old with psychiatric issues? A 15-yr old with a history of violence.

Ummm…not exactly.

The student, a 5-yr old girl named Elizabeth, was playing like a normal kid. Here are some of the details.

School officials told Rebecca they had to send Elizabeth home after an incident in class.  “They told me she drew something that resembled a gun,” said Rebecca. “According to them she pointed a crayon at another student and said, ‘pew pew,” said Rebecca. She said her child was given a questionnaire to evaluate her for suicidal thoughts. “[They] Asked her if she was depressed now,” said Rebecca. Without her permission, Rebecca said her child was given the Mobile County Public School Safety Contract to sign stating she wouldn’t kill herself or others. “While I was in the lobby waiting they had my 5-year-old sign a contract about suicide and homicide,” said Rebecca. …Rebecca is pushing to have the incident removed from her child’s record. She said school officials have requested Elizabeth see a psychiatrist.

As I’ve argued before, in cases like this it’s the school bureaucrats who need counseling.

So which nation wins the prize for the worst example of P.C. wimpiness?

I’m ashamed to say that the United States probably deserves that dubious honor. After all, the story from the U.K. involves one weird parent while the U.S. story involves a deliberate decision by an arm of government.

Though I will point out that it’s not just one screwy parent in the United Kingdom. Wimpiness appears to be pervasive.

The mum-of-three checked online and found similar carving kits with restrictions allowing only people over-18 to buy it. A Tesco spokesperson responded to this mother’s anger… ‘We were concerned by this incident and acted immediately to ensure all pumpkin carving knives will trigger an age restriction till prompt.’

So maybe the U.K. story belongs in the U.K. vs. U.S. private sector political correctness contest.

P.S. Let’s shift to a different topic. I recently wrote that the jihad against tobacco at the U.N.’s World Health Organization was a classic (and tragic) case of resources being diverted from something that genuinely matters, such as fighting deadly infectious disease.

A column in the Wall Street Journal makes the same point, only it identifies the silly crusade against sugar as the main example of mission creep.

The WHO’s record of handling epidemics over 30 years reveals a health system that is getting worse, not better. On at least four occasions the U.N. organization has failed to deal with major outbreaks of communicable disease. …The list of internal problems that cause the WHO to fumble when faced with an epidemic is no secret. …an array of disparate programs within the WHO—such as the current crusade against processed sugar and sugar beverages—have diverted time, attention and money from higher priorities, such as tracking and responding to epidemic diseases.

And the Washington Examiner has opined on the same issue.

Years of dramatically overstaffed city agencies, over-generous retirement promises to public employee unions, and white-elephant development projects had left the city unable to police its streets, keep street lamps on, maintain parks, or provide other basic government services, no matter how much the city government raised taxes. The lesson of Detroit is one that governments everywhere can learn: In a world with finite resources, governments that try to do too much end up neglecting even the essential. Detroit’s case is a microcosm of what Americans are now experiencing nationwide in several different areas — the evident inability of public health officials to manage the Ebola scare competently is just one of them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that instructed a mildly symptomatic patient with known exposure to Ebola to board a commercial flight this week, spends millions annually on bonuses for top employees, bicycle paths, farmers markets, and other luxuries. …Even if they enjoy using the money the nation has for disease control and vaccine research to fund instead research on origami condoms and to appease politically active bicyclists, public health bureaucrats might do better in the future putting their massive budgets toward basic preparedness for precisely the kind of emergency the CDC was created to address.

The link between small government and effective government is something Calvin Coolidge understood. Needless to say, that’s not the attitude of the current occupant of the White House, which is why this bit of humor is worth sharing.

I think the unintentional video on Obama’s new Ebola Czar is even funnier, but whoever put this together gets high marks for cleverness.

In my writings on the Laffer Curve, I probably sound like a broken record because I keep warning that a nation should never be at the revenue-maximizing point.

That’s because there’s lots of good research showing that there are ever-increasing costs to the economy as tax rates approach that level.

So the question that policy makers should ask themselves is whether they’re willing to impose $10 or $20 of damage to the private sector in order to collect $1 of additional revenue.

New we have further evidence. Let’s take a look at a new study by economists from Spain, Arizona, and California. Here’s the issue they decided to study.

As top earners account for a disproportionate share of tax revenues and face the highest marginal tax rates, such proposals lead to a natural tradeoff regarding tax revenue. On the one hand, increases in tax revenue are potentially non-trivial given the income generated by high-income households. On the other hand, the implementation of such proposals would increase marginal tax rates precisely where they are at their highest levels, and thus where the individual responses are expected to be larger. Therefore, revenue increases might not materialise.

And here’s what they found.

…the increase in overall tax collections – including tax collections at the local and state level and from corporate income taxes – is much smaller: 1.6%. Figure 2 shows why. As τ increases there is a substantial decline in labour supply, the capital stock, and aggregate output across steady states. Aggregate output, for example, declines by almost 12% when τ = 0.13. Hence, the government collects taxes from a smaller economy… The message from these findings is clear. There is not much available revenue from revenue-maximising shifts in the burden of taxation towards high earners…and that these changes have non-trivial implications for economic aggregates.

The key takeaways from that passage are the findings about “a smaller economy” and the fact that there are “non-trivial implications for economic aggregates.”

That means less prosperity.

And the authors even acknowledge that the damage to the productive sector is presumably larger than what they found in this research.

…it is important to reflect on the absence of features in our model that would make our conclusions even stronger. First, we have abstracted away from human capital decisions that would be negatively affected by increasing progressivity. Since investments in individual skills are not invariant to changes in tax progressivity, larger effects on output and effective labour supply – relative to a case with exogenous skills – are to be expected. Second, we have not modelled individual entrepreneurship decisions and their interplay with the tax system. Finally, we have not modelled a bequest motive, or considered a dynastic framework more broadly. In these circumstances, it is natural to conjecture that the sensitivity of asset accumulation decisions to changes in progressivity would be larger than in a life-cycle economy. Hence, even smaller effects on revenues would follow.

Richard Rahn’s latest column in the Washington Times also looks at this issue, reviewing the work of James Mirrlees, an economist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1996.

Back in 1971, a Scottish economist by the name of James A. Mirrlees wrote a groundbreaking paper, in which he attempted to answer the question of what an optimum income-tax regime would look like… Mr. Mirrlees had been an adviser to the British Labor Party, which supported the high tax rates in effect at that time. He did a careful analysis of the variation of people’s skills and the effect tax rates had on their incentives to earn. Much to his surprise, he found the optimum tax rate on high earners was about 20 percent… In his 1971 paper, Mr. Mirrlees concluded, “I must confess that I had expected the rigorous analysis of income taxation in the utilitarian manner to provide an argument for high tax rates. It has not done so.”

In other words, tax rates above 20 percent ultimately are self-defeating – even if you’re a statist and you want to maximize the size of the welfare state.

And there’s plenty of data from around the world on specific case studies that show the negative impact of class-warfare taxation, including research from the United States, Denmark, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.

And here’s Part II of my video series on the Laffer Curve, which provides additional evidence.

P.S. If you want some good data showing why Krugman and other class warriors are wrong about tax rates, Alan Reynolds did a very good job of skewering their analysis.

P.P.S. The right tax rate is the one that finances the legitimate functions of government, and not one penny more.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re discussing the Laffer Curve and class-warfare taxation, it’s appropriate to share this very encouraging survey of economists. They were asked whether they agreed with the fundamental premise of Thomas Piketty’s work on inequality and taxation.

Wow. This is about as close as you can get to unanimous rejection as you can get.

By the way, even if 2-3 percent of economists are right, that still doesn’t justify Piketty’s policy prescriptions.

P.P.P.P.S. In addition to writing about taxation, Richard is the creator of the famous Rahn Curve.

I wrote last year about the remarkable acknowledgement by Bono that free markets were the best way to lift people out of poverty. The leader of the U2 band and long-time anti-poverty activist specifically stated that, “capitalism has been the most effective ideology we have known in taking people out of extreme poverty.”

As the old saying goes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Too many politicians and interest groups want us to believe that foreign aid and bigger government are the answer, but nations that have jumped from poverty to prosperity invariably have followed a path of free markets and small government.

But today’s topic isn’t foreign aid.

Instead, I want to come to Bono’s aid. He recently defended his home country’s favorable corporate tax regime. Here are some excerpts from a report earlier this month in the Irish Times.

U2 singer Bono has said Ireland’s tax regime, used to attract multinational companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google to Irish shores, has brought Ireland “the only prosperity we’ve known”. Speaking in an interview in today’s Observer newspaper, Bono said Ireland’s tax policy had given the country “more hospitals and firemen and teachers”. “We are a tiny country, we don’t have scale, and our version of scale is to be innovative and to be clever, and tax competitiveness has brought our country the only prosperity we’re known,” he said. …“As a person who’s spent nearly 30 years fighting to get people out of poverty, it was somewhat humbling to realise that commerce played a bigger job than development,” said Bono. “I’d say that’s my biggest transformation in 10 years: understanding the power of commerce to make or break lives, and that it cannot be given into as the dominating force in our lives.”

So why does Bono need defending?

Because bosses from the leading Irish labor union apparently think he said something very bad. Here are some excerpts from a story published by the U.K-based Guardian.

Unite, which represents 100,000 workers on the island of Ireland, launched a blistering attack on the U2 singer for remarks…defending the 12.5% tax rate on corporations enjoyed by multinational companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. …Unite pointed out that one in four Irish people have to endure social deprivation, according the state’s own official Central Statistics Office. Mike Taft, Unite’s researcher and an economist, told the Guardian: “The one in four who suffer deprivation as well as the tens of thousands of others having to put up with six years of austerity will regard Bono’s remarks with total derision, it is the only word anyone could use to describe what he has said. “…for six years we have seen public services smashed apart due to austerity cuts, and here we have Bono talking about low corporation tax bringing us prosperity.”

I have three reactions.

First, I wonder whether the union is comprised mostly of private-sector workers or government bureaucrats. This may be relevant because I hope that private-sector union workers at least have a vague understanding that their jobs are tied to the overall prosperity of the economy. But if Unite is dominated by government bureaucrats, then it’s no surprise that it favors class-warfare policies that would cripple the private sector.

Second, the union bosses are right that Ireland has been suffering in the past six years, but they apparently don’t realize that the nation’s economy stumbled because government was getting bigger and intervening too much.

Third, maybe it’s true that “one in four” in Ireland currently suffer from “deprivation,” but that number has to be far smaller than it was thirty years ago. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita economic output in Ireland. As you can see, per-capita GDP has jumped from $15,000 to more than $37,500. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

I gave some details back in 2011 when I had the opportunity to criticize another Irish leftist who was blithely ignorant of Ireland’s big improvements in living standards once it entered into its pro-market reform phase.

I don’t know how the folks at Unite define progress, but I assume it’s good news that the Irish people now have more car, more phones, more doctors, more central heating, and fewer infant deaths.

Last but not least, none of this should be interpreted as approval of Ireland’s current government or overall Irish policy. There’s too much cronyism in Ireland and the overall fiscal burden (other than the corporate income tax) is onerous.

I’m simply saying that Bono is right. Pro-growth corporate tax policy has made a big – and positive – difference for Ireland. The folks at Unite should learn a lesson from the former President of Brazil, who was a leftist but at least understood that you need people in the private sector producing if you want anything to redistribute.

P.S. Bono isn’t the only rock star who understands economics.  Gene Simmons, the lead singer for Kiss, stated that “Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to human beings. The welfare state sounds wonderful but it doesn’t work.”

P.P.S. Irish politicians may understand the importance of keeping a low corporate tax rate, but they certainly aren’t philosophically consistent when it comes to other taxes.

P.P.P.S. Some statists have tried to blame Ireland’s recent woes on the low corporate tax rate. More sober analysis shows that imprudent spending hikes and misguided bailouts deserve the blame (Ireland’s spending is particularly unfortunate since the nation’s period of prosperity began with spending restraint in the late 1980s).

I’ve written extensively about gun control, but mostly because of practical and moral objections to the notion that government should have the power to disarm law-abiding people.

But I hadn’t realized that some of the earliest gun control initiatives were designed to oppress blacks.

As Dave Kopel explains in Reason, the white power structure in many post-Civil War states was very anxious to disarm former slaves.

After the Civil War, the defeated Southern states aimed to preserve slavery in fact if not in law. The states enacted Black Codes which barred the black freedmen from exercising basic civil rights, including the right to bear arms. Mississippi’s provision was typical: No freedman “shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition.” …The Klansmen, unlike the freedmen, had horses, and thus the tactical advantages of mobility. In a few months, the Klan triumph was complete. One freedman recalled that the night riders, after reasserting white control, “took the weapons from might near all the colored people in the neighborhood.” …Sometimes militias consisting of freedmen or Unionists were able to resist the Klan or other white forces. In places like the South Carolina back-country, where the blacks were a numerical majority, the black militias kept white terrorists at bay for long periods. …In areas where the black militias lost and the Klan or other white groups took control, “almost universally the first thing done was to disarm the negroes and leave them defenseless,” wrote Albion Tourgeé in his 1880 book The Invisible Empire. …As Jim Crow intensified, other Southern states enacted gun registration and handgun permit laws. Registration came to Mississippi (1906), Georgia (1913), and North Carolina (1917). Handgun permits were passed in North Carolina (1917), Missouri (1919), and Arkansas (1923). As one Florida judge explained, the licensing laws were “passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers… [and] never intended to be applied to the white population.”

With this historical knowledge, this poster now makes a lot of sense.

It quotes the infamous Dred Scott decision, which also was predicated on the state-sanctioned oppression of African-Americans.

While I wasn’t aware of the racist history of gun control, I did have some familiarity with the fact that totalitarian governments traditionally have wanted to disarm citizens.

I wrote, for instance, about gun control initiatives by the Venezuelan dictatorship.

And this superb poster from Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership is the 4th-most viewed post in the history of my blog.

So this image is in that tradition.

Now let me make an important point.

I don’t think advocates of gun control in the United States are racists or fascists. I assume that 99 percent of them are guilty instead of being naive.

Which is why I’m always delighted to share admissions from honest leftists that gun control simply doesn’t make sense.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, a French economist (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms) was awarded the Nobel Prize about a week ago.

He’s apparently considered to be on the left of the philosophical spectrum, yet it’s worthwhile that even he thinks there’s too much statism in his home nation.

Hours after he won the economics Nobel Prize, Tirole said he felt “sad” the French economy was experiencing difficulties despite having “a lot of assets”. “We haven’t succeeded in France to undertake the labour market reforms that are similar to those in Germany, Scandinavia and so on,” he said in telephone interview from the French city of Toulouse, where he teaches. France is plagued by record unemployment and Tirole described the French job market as “catastrophic” earlier on Monday, arguing that the excessive protection for employees had frozen the country’s job market. “We haven’t succeeded also in downsizing the state, which is an issue because we have a social model that I approve of – I’m very much in favour of this social model – but it won’t be sustainable if the state is too big,” he added. Tirole remarked that northern European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, had proven you could keep a welfare social model with smaller government. In contrast, he said France’s “big state” threatened its social policies because there will not be “enough money to pay for it in the long run”.

He’s exactly right. I’m a libertarian, so I don’t want the government involved in areas such as housing, healthcare and income redistribution.

But even if you favor larger government, there’s a giant difference between having the public sector consume 57 percent of economic output (as in France) or a more reasonable amount, such as what’s found in Canada or Australia (as Professor Tirole mentioned).

By the way, I made the same point as Tirole when I spoke last year in Paris. I asked my audience whether they thought they got better and/or more services than the citizens of Switzerland, where the burden of government spending is far less onerous.

The International Monetary Fund isn’t my least-favorite international bureaucracy. That special honor belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, largely because of its efforts to undermine tax competition and protect the interests of the political class (it also tried to have me arrested, but I don’t hold that against them).

But the IMF deserves its share of disdain. It’s the Doctor Kevorkian of global economic policy, regularly advocating higher taxes and easy money even though that’s never been a recipe for national prosperity.

And it turns out that the IMF also is schizophrenic. The international bureaucracy’s latest big idea, garnering an entire chapter in the October World Economic Outlook, is that governments should spend more on infrastructure.

Barack Obama’s former chief economist supports the IMF scheme. Here some of what he wrote for the Washington Post.

…the IMF advocates substantially increased public infrastructure investment, and not just in the United States but in much of the world. It further asserts that under circumstances of high unemployment, like those prevailing in much of the industrialized world, the stimulative impact will be greater if this investment is paid for by borrowing… Why does the IMF reach these conclusions? …the infrastructure investment actually makes it possible to reduce burdens on future generations. …the IMF finds that a dollar of investment increases output by nearly $3. …in a time of economic shortfall and inadequate public investment, there is a free lunch to be had — a way that government can strengthen the economy and its own financial position.

Wow, That’s a rather aggressive claim. Governments spend $1 and the economy grows by $3.

Is Summers being accurate? What does the IMF study actually say?

It makes two big points.

The first point, which is reflected in the Summers oped, is that infrastructure spending can boost growth.

The study finds that increased public infrastructure investment raises output in the short term by boosting demand and in the long term by raising the economy’s productive capacity. In a sample of advanced economies, an increase of 1 percentage point of GDP in investment spending raises the level of output by about 0.4 percent in the same year and by 1.5 percent four years after the increase… In addition, the boost to GDP a country gets from increasing public infrastructure investment offsets the rise in debt, so that the public debt-to-GDP ratio does not rise… In other words, public infrastructure investment could pay for itself if done correctly.

But Summers neglected to give much attention to the caveats in the IMF study.

…the report cautions against just increasing infrastructure investment on any project. …The output effects are also bigger in countries with a high degree of public investment efficiency, where additional public investment spending is not wasted and is allocated to projects with high rates of return. …a key priority in economies with relatively low efficiency of public investment should be to raise the quality of infrastructure investment by improving the public investment process through, among others, better project appraisal, selection, execution, and rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps the most important caveat, though, is that the study uses a “novel empirical strategy” to generate its results. That should raise a few alarm bells.

So is this why the IMF is schizophrenic?

Nope. Not even close.

If you want evidence of IMF schizophrenia, compare what you read above with the results from a study released by the IMF in August.

And this study focused on low-income countries, where you might expect to find the best results when looking at the impact of infrastructure spending.

So what did the author find?

On average the evidence shows only a weak positive association between investment spending and growth and only in the same year, as lagged impacts are not significant. Furthermore, there is little evidence of long term positive impacts. …The fact that the positive association is largely instantaneous argues for the importance of either reverse causality, as capital spending tends to be cut in slumps and increased in booms… In fact a slump in growth rather than a boom has followed many public capital drives of the past. Case studies indicate that public investment drives tend eventually to be financed by borrowing and have been plagued by poor analytics at the time investment projects were chosen, incentive problems and interest-group-infested investment choices. These observations suggest that the current public investment drives will be more likely to succeed if governments do not behave as in the past.

Wow. Not only is the short-run effect a mirage based on causality, but the long-run impact is negative.

But the real clincher is the conclusion that “public investment” is productive only “if governments do not behave as in the past.”

In other words, we have to assume that politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats will suddenly stop acting like politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats.

Yeah, good luck with that.

But it’s not just a cranky libertarian like me who thinks it is foolish to expect good behavior from government.

Charles Lane, an editorial writer who focuses on economic issues for the left-leaning Washington Post, is similarly skeptical.

Writing about the IMF’s October pro-infrastructure study, he thinks it relies on sketchy assumptions.

The story is told of three professors — a chemist, a physicist and an economist — who find themselves shipwrecked with a large supply of canned food but no way to open the cans. The chemist proposes a solvent made from native plant oils. The physicist suggests climbing a tree to just the right height, then dropping the cans on some rocks below. “Guys, you’re making this too hard,” the economist interjects. “Assume we have a can opener.” Keep that old chestnut in mind as you evaluate the International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendation… A careful reading of the IMF report, however, reveals that this happy scenario hinges on at least two big “ifs.”

The first “if” deals with the Keynesian argument that government spending “stimulates” growth, which I don’t think merits serious consideration.

But feel free to click here, here, here, and here if you want to learn more about that issues.

So let’s instead focus on the second “if.”

The second, and more crucial, “if” is the IMF report’s acknowledgment that stimulative effects of infrastructure investment vary according to the efficiency with which borrowed dollars are spent: “If the efficiency of the public investment process is relatively low — so that project selection and execution are poor and only a fraction of the amount invested is converted into productive public capital stock — increased public investment leads to more limited long-term output gains.” That’s a huge caveat. Long-term costs and benefits of major infrastructure projects are devilishly difficult to measure precisely and always have been. …Today we have “bridges to nowhere,” as well as major projects plagued by cost overruns and delays all over the world — and not necessarily in places you think of as corrupt. Germany’s still unfinished Berlin Brandenburg airport is five years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, to name one example. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Said Business School studied 258 major projects in 20 nations over 70 years and found average cost overruns of 44.7 percent for rail, 33.8 percent for bridges and tunnels and 20.4 percent for roads.

Amen. Governments are notorious for cost overruns and boondoggle spending.

It happens in the United States and it happens overseas.

It’s an inherent part of government, as Lane acknowledges.

In short, an essential condition for the IMF concept’s success — optimally efficient investment — is both difficult to define and, to the extent it can be defined, highly unrealistic. As Flyvbjerg explains, cost overruns and delays are normal, not exceptional, because of perverse incentives — specifically, project promoters have an interest in overstating benefits and understating risks. The better they can make the project look on paper, the more likely their plans are to get approved; yet, once approved, economic and logistical realities kick in, and costs start to mount. Flyvbjerg calls this tendency “survival of the unfittest.” …Governments that invest in infrastructure on the assumption it will pay for itself may find out that they’ve gone a bridge too far.

Or bridge to nowhere, for those who remember the infamous GOP earmark from last decade that would have spent millions of dollars to connect a sparsely inhabited Alaska island with the mainland – even though it already had a very satisfactory ferry service.

Let’s close with two observations.

First, why did the IMF flip-flop in such a short period of time? It does seem bizarre for a bureaucracy to publish an anti-infrastructure spending study in August and then put out a pro-infrastructure spending study two months later.

I don’t know the inside story on this schizophrenic behavior, but I assume that the August study was the result of a long-standing research project by one of the IMF’s professional economists (the IMF publishes dozens of such studies every year). By contrast, I’m guessing the October study was pushed by the political bosses at the IMF, who in turn were responding to pressure from member governments that wanted some sort of justification for more boondoggle spending.

In other words, the first study was apolitical and the second study wasn’t.

Not that this is unusual. I suspect many of the economists working at international bureaucracies are very competent. So when they’re allowed to do honest research, they produce results that pour cold water on big government. Indeed, that even happens at the OECD.

But when the political appointees get involved, they put their thumbs on the scale in order to generate results that will please the governments that underwrite their budgets.

My second observation is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the IMF’s theoretical assertions in the August study. Infrastructure spending can be useful and productive.

It’s an empirical question to decide whether a new road will be a net plus or a net minus. Or a new airport runway. Or subway system. Or port facilities.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we’re far more likely to get the right answers to these empirical questions if infrastructure spending is handled by state and local governments. Or even the private sector.

Years ago, I shared a very funny poster that suggests that more government is hardly ever the right answer to any question.

Yet in Washington, the standard response to any screwup by government is to make government even bigger. Sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with the Ebola crisis. The bureaucracies that have received tens of billions of dollars over the years to preclude a crisis are now expecting to get rewarded with more cash.

Governor Jindal of Louisiana debunks the notion that more money for the bureaucracy is some sort of elixir. Here’s some of what he wrote for Politico.

In a paid speech last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to link spending restraints enacted by Congress—and signed into law by President Obama—to the fight against Ebola. Secretary Clinton claimed that the spending reductions mandated under sequestration “are really beginning to hurt,” citing the fight against Ebola: “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is another example on the response to Ebola—they’re working heroically, but they don’t have the resources they used to have.” …In recent years, the CDC has received significant amounts of funding. Unfortunately, however, many of those funds have been diverted away from programs that can fight infectious diseases, and toward programs far afield from the CDC’s original purpose. Consider the Prevention and Public Health Fund, a new series of annual mandatory appropriations created by Obamacare. Over the past five years, the CDC has received just under $3 billion in transfers from the fund. Yet only 6 percent—$180 million—of that $3 billion went toward building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. …While protecting Americans from infectious diseases received only $180 million from the Prevention Fund, the community transformation grant program received nearly three times as much money—$517.3 million over the same five-year period. …Our Constitution states that the federal government “shall protect each of [the States] against Invasion”—a statement that should apply as much to infectious disease as to foreign powers. So when that same government prioritizes funding for jungle gyms and bike paths over steps to protect our nation from possible pandemics, citizens have every right to question the decisions that got us to this point.

What Governor Jindal is describing is the standard mix of incompetence and mission creep that you get with government.

Bureaucracies fail to achieve their stated goals, but also divert lots of resources to new areas.

After all, that’s a great way of justifying more staff and more money.

Especially since they can then argue that they need those additional resources because they never addressed the problems that they were supposed to solve in the first place!

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Free Beacon, starting with some whining from the head bureaucrat at the National Institutes of Health, who wants us to be believe that supposed budget cuts have prevented a vaccine for Ebola.

“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” said NIH Director Francis Collins, blaming budget cuts for his agency’s failure to develop a vaccine for the deadly virus.

Yet take a look at how the NIH has been squandering money.

However, the Washington Free Beacon has uncovered $39,643,352 worth of NIH studies within the past several years that have gone to questionable research. For instance, the agency has spent $2,873,440 trying to figure out why lesbians are obese, and $466,642 on why fat girls have a tough time getting dates. Another $2,075,611 was spent encouraging old people to join choirs. Millions have gone to “text message interventions,” including a study where researchers sent texts to drunks at the bar to try to get them to stop drinking. The project received an additional grant this year, for a total of $674,590. …The NIH’s research on obesity has led to spending $2,101,064 on wearable insoles and buttons that can track a person’s weight, and $374,670 to put on fruit and vegetable puppet shows for preschoolers. A restaurant intervention to develop new children’s menus cost $275,227, and the NIH spent $430,608 for mother-daughter dancing outreach to fight obesity. …Millions went to develop “origami condoms,” in male, female, and anal versions. The inventor Danny Resnic, who received $2,466,482 from the NIH, has been accused of massive fraud for using grant money for full-body plastic surgery in Costa Rica and parties at the Playboy mansion.

Origami condoms?!? I’m almost tempted to do a web search to see what that even means, particularly since there are male, female, and anal versions.

But even without searching online, I know that origami condoms have nothing to do with stopping Ebola.

The Centers for Disease Control also have a long track record of wasting money. Here are some odious details from a Townhall column.

So now the federal health bureaucrats in charge of controlling diseases and pandemics want more money to do their jobs.

Gee, what a surprise.

Maybe if they hadn’t been so busy squandering their massive government subsidies on everything buttheir core mission, we taxpayers might actually feel a twinge of sympathy. At $7 billion, the Centers for Disease Control 2014 budget is nearly 200 percent bigger now than it was in 2000. …Yet, while Ebola and enterovirus D68 wreak havoc on our health system, the CDC has been busying itself with an ever-widening array of non-disease control campaigns, like these recent crusades: Mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. …Video games and TV violence. …Playground equipment. …”Social norming” in the schools. …After every public health disaster, CDC bureaucrats play the money card while expanding their regulatory and research reach into anti-gun screeds, anti-smoking propaganda, anti-bullying lessons, gender inequity studies and unlimited behavior modification programs that treat individual vices — personal lifestyle choices — as germs to be eradicated. …In 2000, the agency essentially lied to Congress about how it spent up to $7.5 million earmarked each year since 1993 for research on the deadly hantavirus. …The diversions were impossible to trace because of shoddy CDC bookkeeping practices. The CDC also misspent $22.7 million appropriated for chronic fatigue syndrome and was investigated in 2001 for squandering $13 million on hepatitis C research.

By the way, you may be wondering why we have both the National Institutes of Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control.

Is this just typical bureaucratic duplication?

No, it’s typical bureaucratic triplication, because we also have the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

And as Mollie Hemingway explains in The Federalist, this additional layer of bureaucracy has been MIA on Ebola, perhaps because the head bureaucrats diverted funds to a political crony.

…nobody has even discussed the fact that the federal government not ten years ago created and funded a brand new office in the Health and Human Services Department specifically to coordinate preparation for and response to public health threats like Ebola. The woman who heads that office, and reports directly to the HHS secretary, has been mysteriously invisible from the public handling of this threat. And she’s still on the job even though three years ago she was embroiled in a huge scandal of funneling a major stream of funding to a company with ties to a Democratic donor—and away from a company that was developing a treatment now being used on Ebola patients.

Here are some additional details.

…one of HHS’ eight assistant secretaries is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, whose job it is to “lead the nation in preventing, responding to and recovering from the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters, ranging from hurricanes to bioterrorism.” …“Lurie’s job is to plan for the unthinkable. A global flu pandemic? She has a plan. A bioterror attack? She’s on it. Massive earthquake? Yep. Her responsibilities as assistant secretary span public health, global health, and homeland security.” …you might be wondering why the person in charge of all this is a name you’re not familiar with. …why has the top official for public health threats been sidelined in the midst of the Ebola crisis?

Perhaps because of the scandal.

You can—and should—read all about it in the Los Angeles Times‘ excellent front-page expose from November 2011, headlined: “Cost, need questioned in $433-million smallpox drug deal: A company controlled by a longtime political donor gets a no-bid contract to supply an experimental remedy for a threat that may not exist.”…The donor is billionaire Ron Perelman, who was controlling shareholder of Siga. He’s a huge Democratic donor… The award was controversial from almost every angle—including disputes about need, efficacy, and extremely high costs.

So what’s the bottom line?

The Progressive belief that a powerful government can stop all calamity is misguided. In the last 10 years we passed multiple pieces of legislation to create funding streams, offices, and management authorities precisely for this moment. That we have nothing to show for it is not good reason to put even more faith in government without learning anything from our repeated mistakes.

And that’s the most important lesson, though a secondary lesson is that big government means big corruption.

Big government is incompetent government.

Writing for The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson puts everything in context, explaining that big, bureaucratic states don’t do a good job.

The government’s response to the outbreak has exposed the weakness of the modern administrative state in general, and the incompetence of the White House in particular. …The second nurse to contract Ebola, Amber Vinson, traveled from Cleveland to Dallas on a commercial flight Monday and checked herself into the hospital Tuesday with Ebola symptoms. She called the CDC before she boarded the flight and reported she had a temperature of 99.5—yet CDC officials didn’t stop her from boarding the plane. …Thus continues a pattern of crippling naiveté and ineptitude from the White House on…the Ebola outbreak. On the press call, Frieden explained that you can’t get Ebola from sitting on a bus next to someone who’s infected, but if you have Ebola then don’t use public transportation because you might infect someone. …whether it’s funding or regulation, it’s becoming clear that government “everywhere putting its hands to new undertakings” isn’t working out all that well. …In a hundred years, when Americans read about the U.S. Ebola outbreak of 2014 and antiquated government agencies like the FDA that hampered the development of a vaccine, they’ll laugh at us. …Likewise, future Americans will probably scoff at us for thinking our FDA, in its current form, was somehow necessary or helpful, or for how the Department of Health and Human Services could spend almost a trillion dollars a year and yet fail to prevent or adequately respond to the Ebola outbreak.

And if you want a humorous look at the link between bloated government and incompetent government, Mark Steyn nails it.

Since we’ve shifted to humor, somebody on Twitter suggested that this guy is probably in line to become Obama’s new Ebola Czar.

Last but not least, here’s the icing on the cake.

I mentioned above that we have bureaucratic triplication thanks to NIH, CDC, and HHS. And I joked that the guy in the Holiday Inn might become the President’s new Czar, creating bureaucratic quadruplication (if that’s even a word).

Well, that joke has now become reality. The Washington Examiner is reporting that Obama has named an Ebola Czar. But the guy in the video will be sad to know he didn’t make the cut.

President Obama has chosen Ron Klain, former chief of staff for two Democratic vice presidents, as his Ebola czar, the White House said Friday. …In choosing Klain, Obama is selecting a D.C. insider and veteran of numerous political battles to spearhead a campaign with major implications on his own legacy and how Democrats fare in the November midterms.

Great. I’m sure a lobbyist and former political operative will have just the skills we need to solve this crisis.

I’m going out on a limb and predicting that he’ll say the solution is more money and bigger government. And we know how that turns out.

Yup, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s government man to the rescue!

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