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Posts Tagged ‘Federalism’

I’m a big believer in federalism, both as a matter of policy and politics.

So you won’t be surprised that I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

But when you’re trying to convince politicians to give up power and money, it takes a lot repetition. So, to paraphrase what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, here we go again.

I want to emphasize one part of the interview. I’m agnostic on the issue of whether America as a whole needs more infrastructure spending, but I’m sure some parts of the nation could use more roads.

But that doesn’t mean that Washington should be in charge of that spending.

My colleague at Cato, Chris Edwards, is an expert on these issues. Here’s what he recently wrote about the various schemes in DC to fund more transportation spending with higher taxes.

HTF spending on highways and urban transit adds up to $53 billion a year, while the HTF rakes in $39 billion in revenues, mainly from the federal gasoline tax. That leaves a gap of $14 billion. President Obama wants to fill the gap with corporate tax revenues, but that bad idea is dead on arrival in Congress. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has a different idea. His bill, co-sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), would hike the federal gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. …Corker’s position is the opposite of conservative. If Tennessee needs more money for roads, it can raise its own gas tax any time it wants.

And here are some of the numbers that Chris put together showing that highway spending has been rising rather than falling.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason adds more context.

About 27 percent of highway and transit spending currently comes from the federal government, via the HTF, while states kicking in about 38 percent and 35 percent coming from municipalities. The HTF isn’t set to “run dry” in August, as many are reporting, but it did tell states to expect an average 28 percent reduction in aid at that point unless Congress acts. …there’s nothing stopping states from taking this matter into their own hands. Since 2013, seven states have raised fuel levies, reports Reuters… When left a little more to their own devices, it seems states get innovative. They develop localized solutions. They experiment.

Let’s close with one interesting piece of data. The International Institute for Management Development recently published its World Competitiveness Yearbook.

The good news is that the United States maintained its hold on first place. That’s a lot better than we’re doing in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But what’s particularly relevant and fascinating is to see America’s scores in the various sub-components of the Yearbook. The United States may rank only 22 out of 60 nations for government effectiveness, but we beat every nation for infrastructure.

So if we have an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, it certainly doesn’t show up in either the hard data or the business leader opinion survey that generate those rankings.

P.S. Back in 2011, I shared a couple of serious videos about bitcoin.

On a lighter note, here’s “bitcoin girl” encouraging more people to use this private money.

But since I don’t want anyone to accuse me of bias, fans of the Federal Reserve can enjoy this alleged film clip from Ben Bernanke’s childhood.

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More than three years ago, I wrote that the Department of Transportation should be dismantled for the simple reason that we’ll get better roads at lower cost with the federalist approach of returning responsibility to state and local governments.

I echoed those sentiments in this CNBC interview.

Since there’s only an opportunity to exchange soundbites in these interviews, let me elaborate on some of the reasons why transportation should be a state and local responsibility.

1. Washington involvement is a recipe for pork and corruption. Lawmakers in Congress – including Republicans – get on the Transportation Committees precisely because they can buy votes and raise campaign cash by diverting taxpayer money to friends and cronies.

mitchells-first-theorem-of-government2. Washington involvement in transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. As I said in the interview, the federal budget is mostly a scam where endless streams of money are shifted back and forth in leaky buckets. This scam is great for insiders and bad news for taxpayers.

3. Washington involvement necessarily means another layer of costly bureaucracy. And this is not a trivial issues since the Department of Transportation is infamous for overpaid bureaucrats.

4. Washington involvement gives state and local politicians an excuse to duck responsibility for low-quality infrastructure. Why make adult decisions, after all, when you can shift the blame to DC for not providing enough handouts.

While I think I made some decent points in the interview, I should have addressed the assertion that our infrastructure is falling apart. My colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, effectively dealt with this scare tactic in his recent Congressional testimony.

I also should have pointed out that a big chunk of the gas tax is diverted to boondoggle mass transit projects.

Last but not least, I’m disappointed that I failed to connect some very important dots. Gov. Rendell and the CNBC host both fretted that the current system isn’t producing a desirable outcome, but they’re the ones advocating for a continuation of the status quo! Heck, they want even more of the system that they admit doesn’t work.

Sigh.

P.S. While I obviously want to get rid of the Department of Transportation, it’s not at the top of my list for the most wasteful and counterproductive federal bureaucracy.

P.P.S. On a completely separate topic, I can’t resist sharing this Ramirez cartoon.

And since we’re making fun of our Statist-in-Chief, here’s some satire about the award Obama received from Steven Spielberg.

The teleprompters are a nice touch, reminiscent of some very amusing jokes here, here, here, and here.

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I’ve been asked whether I’m a hypocrite because I support decentralization while at the same time being critical of state and local governments.

I don’t think there’s any inconsistency in my position. Here’s some of what I wrote last July.

I’m a strong believer in federalism, but not because I think state and local governments are competent. Politicians and interest groups are a toxic combination in all circumstance. But at least people have considerable ability to cross borders if they want to escape greedy and despotic governments at the state and local level. And when the geese with the golden eggs can fly away, this facilitates competition between governments and forces politicians to restrain their appetites.

Maybe I’m just daft (as my leftist friends often claim), but I think that’s a perfectly defensible position.

Anyhow, I feel compelled to give that bit of background because it’s once again time to mock state and local governments.

Here’s an excerpt from the Detroit News that tells you everything you’ll ever need to know about the stupidity of government. The city actually loses money on parking enforcement.

The city is paying $32 to issue and process a $30 parking violation, and it hasn’t adjusted rates since 2001. On top of that, about half of Detroit’s 3,404 parking meters are not operating properly at any given time, says Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling.

Wow, this must be an all-time record. A local government can’t even fleece people competently.

The only thing more shocking is when the government is too incompetent to give away money, which actually happened with one boondoggle in the United Kingdom.

Now let’s travel a few thousand miles and look at another example of how Washington isn’t the only place where government does strange things.

I’ve written many times about the lavish pay and gold-plated benefits of bureaucrats, but cops in Hawaii may have set a new record for fringe benefits. Or maybe this is a new version of friends with fringe benefits, to coin a phrase.

Here are the fun (and PG-13-rated) details in Jacob Sullum’s article in Reason.

Hawaii’s prostitution law includes an exemption for “any member of a police department, a sheriff, or a law enforcement officer acting in the course and scope of duties.” …That’s right: Cops insisted that they must be free not just to receive blowjobs and handjobs from prostitutes but also to engage in vaginal and anal intercourse with them. Evidently the police also need permission to engage in “flagellation or torture by or upon a person as an act of sexual stimulation or gratification” (Hawaii’s definition of “sadomasochistic abuse”). Just in case. Since an entire chamber of the state legislature agreed to this request, the cops must have had a pretty persuasive argument.

Hmmm…makes me wonder if the legislators also added an exemption for themselves. Based on the state’s tax rates, we already know they screw taxpayers for money, so it’s not much of a leap to suspect they’re doing the same thing on a one-on-one basis.

Though, as shown in this cartoon, they’re not used to spending their own money.

All kidding aside, Jacob makes the very sensible point that the real problem is that politicians have enacted laws against a victimless crime.

…the double standard demanded by police highlights the utter absurdity of prostitution laws. Police do not commit murder to catch killers or knock over banks to catch robbers. Yet here they are insisting that they need the leeway to have sex with prostitutes in order to stop people from having sex with prostitutes. Even if cops never take advantage of that freedom, they routinely commit the crime of agreeing to pay for sex, except that in their case it is not treated as a crime. That exemption is considered acceptable only because exchanging money for sex, unlike murder and robbery, does not violate anyone’s rights. But if so, why not broaden the exemption to cover everyone?

I agree. I find the whole business of prostitution very distasteful, just as I feel nothing but disdain for illegal drugs. But prohibition just makes matters worse.

P.S. Since this post looks at both parking meters and prostitution, you’ll be amused by the way the Germans combined those two topics.

P.P.S. I periodically share polling data that strikes me as significant. Most recently, for instance, I noted that crazy left wingers openly admitted they want higher tax rates even if the government doesn’t raise any revenue. That was a depressing result, but I was encouraged to see that a vast majority of Americans view big government as a threat to the nation’s future.

Here are a couple of new polls that caught my attention.

1. I’m rather worried that a new Rasmussen poll found that “for the first time, fewer than half of voters believe tax cuts help the economy.” For what it’s worth, I suspect this is because politicians often gravitate to “tax cuts” that fail to reduce the burden on productive activity. Instead, they make the code more complex by expanding credits, deductions, exemptions, preferences, and exclusions.

If they started pushing for lower marginal tax rates or fundamental tax reform, the polling numbers would probably be better.

2. Let’s now cross the ocean and look at some remarkable Gallup data on the role of government in thwarting small businesses.

Gallup Europe Entrepreneurship

I already knew Greece had stunningly absurd barriers to entrepreneurship (click here for an unbelievable example), so one can only imagine the types of nonsense imposed by Italy’s feckless government.

3. Let’s close with some very good news. It seems that young people are beginning to realize that Ronald Reagan was right (see second video) when he said government is the problem rather than the solution.

Check out this excerpt from a report by National Journal.

Millennials who may have voted with youthful exuberance in 2008 seem to have grown fatigued with the government’s inability to get things done. In 2009, 42 percent of millennials said government programs are usually inefficient and wasteful, according to Pew data. By 2012, that number had increased to 51 percent. And young people say they’re losing trust in the government to Do the Right Thing. In 2009, 44 percent of millennials said they trust the government to do what’s right all or most of the time. By 2013, that dropped to 29 percent.

Makes me think maybe these youngsters finally figured out that programs like Social Security are empty Ponzi schemes.

By the way, here are the best poll numbers I’ve ever seen.

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Ukraine is in the news and that’s not a good thing.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, to be sure, but it can’t be a positive sign when nations with nuclear weapons start squabbling with each other. And that’s what’s happening now that Russia is supposedly occupying Crimea and perhaps other parts of Ukraine and Western powers are complaining.

I’m going to add my two cents to this issue, but I’m going to approach it from an unusual angle.

Look at this linguistic map of Ukraine. The red parts of the country show where Russian is the primary language and most people presumably are ethnically Russian.

Russian in Ukraine

Now look at these maps (from here, here, here, and here) showing various election results in the country.

Ukraine Election Results

Like I said, I’m not overly literate on foreign policy, but isn’t it obvious that the Ukrainians and the Russians have fundamentally different preferences?

No wonder there’s conflict.

But is there a solution? And one that doesn’t involve Putin annexing – either de facto or de jure – the southern and eastern portions of the nation?

It seems there are two options.

1. Secession - The first possibility is to let the two parts of Ukraine have an amicable (or at least non-violent) divorce. That’s what happened to the former Soviet Union. It’s what happened with Czechoslovakia became Slovakia and the Czech Republic. And it’s what happened (albeit with lots of violence) when Yugoslavia broke up.

For what it’s worth, I’ve already suggested that Belgium should split into two nations because of linguistic and cultural differences. So why not the same in Ukraine?

Heck, Walter Williams has argued that the same thing should happen in America, with the pro-liberty parts of the nation seceding from the statist regions.

2. Decentralization - The second possibility is for Ukraine to copy the Swiss model of radical decentralization. In Switzerland, even though there are French cantons, German cantons, and an Italian canton, the various regions of the country don’t squabble with each other because the central government is relatively powerless.

This approach obviously is more attractive than secession for folks who think that existing national borders should be sacrosanct.

And since this post is motivated by the turmoil in Ukraine, it’s worth pointing out that this also seems to be a logical way of defusing tensions across regions.

I confess I have a policy reason for supporting weaker national governments. Simply stated, there’s very strong evidence that decentralization means more tax competition, and when governments are forced to compete for jobs and investment, the economy is less likely to be burdened with high tax rates and excessive redistribution.

Indeed, we also have very strong evidence that the western world became prosperous precisely because the proliferation of small nations and principalities restrained the natural tendencies of governments to oppress and restrain economic activity.

And since Ukraine (notwithstanding it’s flat tax) has a very statist economic system – ranking only 126th in the Economic Freedom of the World index, maybe a bit of internal competition would trigger some much-needed liberalization.

P.S. If you’re intrigued by the secession idea promoted by Walter Williams, you’ll definitely enjoy this bit of humor about a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. If you think decentralization and federalism is a better option than secession, the good news is that more and more Americans have unfavorable views of Washington.

P.P.P.S. The tiny nation of Liechtenstein is comprised of seven villages and they have an explicit right to secede if they become unhappy with the central government in Vaduz. And even the statist political crowd in the United Kingdom is considering a bit of federalism.

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I’ve posted hundreds of charts over the past several years, including on favorite topics such as tax code corruption and counterproductive government spending.

But arguably the most powerful and compelling chart I’ve ever shared is on the topic of education. Prepared by my Cato colleague, Andrew Coulson, it shows that massive increases in spending and bureaucracy (which accompanied increasing federal involvement and intervention) have had zero impact on educational performance.

Keep that chart in the back of your mind as we consider what George Will has to say about President Obama’s scheme – known as Common Core – to expand federal involvement and intervention.

We have several excerpts, beginning with this passage outlining some of his concerns.

Common Core…is the thin end of an enormous wedge. It is designed to advance in primary and secondary education the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity. …proponents of the Common Core want its nature and purpose to remain as cloudy as possible for as long as possible. Hence they say it is a “state-led,” “voluntary” initiative to merely guide education with “standards” that are neither written nor approved nor mandated by Washington… Proponents talk warily when describing it because a candid characterization would reveal yet another Obama administration indifference to legality.

Will then notes that we’ve been sliding down the slippery slope of centralization and Washington control.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the original federal intrusion into this state and local responsibility, said “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” schools’ curriculums. The 1970 General Education Provisions Act stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any” federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials by any” school system. The 1979 law creating the Education Department forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school system.

And Common Core is just the latest example.

…what begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials. Washington already is encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT and ACT tests with the Common Core. By a feedback loop, these tests will beget more curriculum conformity. All of this will take a toll on parental empowerment, and none of this will escape the politicization of learning like that already rampant in higher education.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re aware of other slippery slope examples, such as the tiny income tax in 1913 that has morphed into the internal revenue code monstrosity of today.

Returning to the topic of education, Will warns that the one-size-fits-all approach will undermine the innovation and experimentation needed to figure out how best teach kids.

Even satisfactory national standards must extinguish federalism’s creativity: At any time, it is more likely there will be half a dozen innovative governors than one creative federal education bureaucracy. And the mistakes made by top-down federal reforms are continental mistakes.

I particularly like his warning about “continental” mistakes. You get the same problem with global regulation, by the way.

The bottom line, as Will explains, is that Common Core is yet another example of a failed approach.

What is ludicrous is Common Core proponents disdaining concerns related to this fact: Fifty years of increasing Washington input into K-12 education has coincided with disappointing cognitive outputs from schools. Is it eccentric that it is imprudent to apply to K-12 education the federal touch that has given us HealthCare.gov? …Opposition to the Common Core is surging because Washington, hoping to mollify opponents, is saying, in effect: “If you like your local control of education, you can keep it. Period.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that Cato Institute experts are among the leading opponents of Common Core. Here’s what Andrew Coulson, in a column warning about the negative impact on private schools, has written.

…the Common Core–aligned tests create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time. This would make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to meet the needs of individual children — they will instead have to resort to expecting that all children who happened to be born in the same year progress at the same rate across subjects.

And another Cato scholar, Neil McCluskey, points out that other education experts also think Common Core is a dud.

The Common Core is opposed by scholars at leading think tanks on the right and the left, including the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Brookings Institution and the Cato Institute. My research has shown that there is essentially no meaningful evidence that national standards lead to superior educational outcomes. Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek, an education economist and supporter of standards-based education reform, has reached a similar conclusion, recently writing: “We currently have very different standards across states, and experience from the states provides little support for the argument that simply declaring more clearly what we want children to learn will have much impact.” Hanushek’s conclusion dovetails nicely with Common Core opposition from Tom Loveless, a scholar at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. In 2012, Loveless demonstrated that moving to national standards would have little, if any, positive effect because the performance of states has very little connection to the rigor or quality of their standards, and there is much greater achievement variation within states than among them. In fact, Loveless has been one of the clearest voices saying the Core is not a panacea for America’s education woes, writing: “Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you. The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.”

We started this post with a very powerful chart, so let’s end with another chart.

It’s not as visually compelling, but it shows that the United States already spends more on education than another other nation.

But if you look at the data is this post, you’ll see that American students are lagging behind their counterparts in other developed nations.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to put kids first. Perhaps we should discard the Bush-Obama approach of centralization and spending and instead choose a better path.

In other words, let’s learn from Chile, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

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The welfare state is a nightmare.

Programs such as Medicaid are fiscal catastrophes. The food stamp program is riddled with waste. The EITC is easily defrauded, even sending checks to prisoners. And housing subsidies are a recipe for the worst forms of social engineering.

The entire system should be tossed in the trash.

But what’s the alternative? Some libertarians argue that we should eliminate the dozens of Washington programs and replace them with a government-guaranteed minimum income. I address this issue in an essay for Libertarianism.org.

Some libertarians argue that the state should provide a minimum basic income, mainly because this approach would be preferable to the costly and bureaucratic amalgamation of redistribution programs that currently exist. It’s hard to disagree with the notion that the current system is a failure. The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner has produced a searing indictment of the modern welfare state, pointing out that more than $1 trillion is spent every year on redistribution programs for the ostensible purpose of alleviating economic hardship, yet (or more likely as a result) the poverty rate is at an all-time high. Perhaps one reason poverty remains high is that such programs make leisure more attractive than work, as painstakingly illustrated in a study produced by Tanner and Charles Hughes. Moreover, welfare programs create very high implicit marginal tax rates, making it very difficult for poor people to improve their living standards by engaging in additional productive behavior. It’s almost as if the system was designed to create permanent dependency.

In other words, it seems that nothing could be worse than the current system. And if you want more evidence, here’s a very powerful video on the failure of the modern welfare state.

But what about the idea of trashing what we have today and instead offering everyone some sort of basic income? As I noted in my essay, there are “…some very iconic libertarian figures who support at least some version of their approach, including Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Charles Murray.”

I agree, but only sort of. I like the idea of radical reform, but I think there’s a better road to Rome. It’s called federalism.

The bottom line for advocates is that anything would be better than the current system, so why not try something new? They’re right, but there’s actually a better way of approaching the issue. Why not take all income-redistribution programs, put them into a single block grant, and then transfer the money – and responsibility – to state governments?

Here’s my argument for decentralization and federalism.

In an ideal world, the block grant would gradually diminish so that states would be responsible for both the collection and disbursement of all monies related to welfare. But that’s a secondary issue. The main benefit of this federalist approach is that you stop the Washington-driven expansion of the welfare state and you trigger the creation of 50 separate experiments on how best to provide a safety net. Some states might choose a basic income. Others might retain something very similar to the current system. Others might try a workfare-based approach, while some could dream up new ideas that wouldn’t stand a chance in a one-size-fits-all system run out of Washington, DC. And as states adopted different systems, they could learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t work. And since it’s easier to influence decisions that are closer to home, taxpayers at the state level almost certainly would have more ability to impact what happens with their money.

And here’s the bottom line on why a federalist approach is the libertarian solution to the welfare state.

It also will satisfy the libertarian desire to get Washington out of the business of income distribution, while presumably producing a system that actually does a better job of helping the less fortunate escape government dependency. In other words, all the advantages of the basic income plan without the potential system-wide downsides.

By the way, I explain in the article that the 1996 welfare reform legislation was a test case for the decentralization model. The analogy isn’t perfect, I admit, but there’s a very strong case to be made that replacing the federal welfare entitlement with a block grant was good for taxpayers and good for the poor…and that it shows why states do a better job of dealing with redistribution than Washington.

Last but not least, I’m just a policy wonk, but I think the federalism strategy also has political appeal. As just noted, it worked with welfare reform. And I suspect a lot of non-libertarians and non-conservatives will intuitively understand that you’ll get better results if you allow diversity and experimentation at the state level.

P.S. There would be some bad news if we decentralized the welfare state. It could mean an end to the Moocher Hall of Fame.

P.P.S. Replacing the welfare state with a (hopefully shrinking) block grant only addresses the problem of “means-tested” programs. If you also want to solve the problem of old-age entitlements, that requires Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

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It’s a challenge to be a libertarian in Washington because you have to swim against the tide.

The vast majority of people in town are looking for excuses to spend money and amass power, and a small band of us are trying to convince them that the federal government should be limited in size and scope.

It may seem like a hopeless task.

*Libertarians argue against big expensive entitlement programs like Medicaid, explaining that it’s not a proper function of the federal government.

*Libertarians argue against stupid little publicity stunts like steroid hearings, explaining that it’s not a proper function of the federal government.

*Libertarians argue against emotional gestures such as disaster relief, explaining that it’s not a proper function of the federal government.

*Libertarians argue against the entire Department of Transportation, explaining that it’s not a proper function of the federal government.

I could provide more examples, but you get the idea. It seems as if libertarians are stuck with a Sisyphean task, urging “no” in a town filled with people who want to say “yes.”

But I don’t think our work is hopeless. I’ve already shared many reasons to be hopeful, and we now have some new polling data that should make us more optimistic. According to the folks at Pew, Americans have very low opinions of the federal government.

Here are the key details from a Washington Post story about the poll.

…28 percent of the public views the federal government favorably, down five points from a year ago and also the lowest percentage ever in a Pew survey on the topic. The lowly rating for Washington compares to 63 percent of people holding a favorable opinion of their local governments and 57 percent expressing a favorable view of their state governments. Even among Democrats, who tend to show more support for government, the numbers have dipped on the federal side. Fewer than half of Democrats– 41 percent– said they hold a favorable opinion of the federal government, representing a 10-point drop from the previous year.

These numbers should be very good news for anyone who wants to push a “federalism” agenda. And Gallup also has found considerable – and growing – hostility to the federal government.

In other words, the American people are on our side. Or, to be more precise, they broadly realize that Washington has too much power and money.

Our job is to translate that sentiment into public policy.

By the way, Switzerland has the strongest system of federalism, and it is doing very well by world standards. Canada also has a decentralized system that has produced some very good policy in recent years.

P.S. For those who care about the Constitution, it’s worth noting that America’s Founding fathers explicitly limited the powers of the central government.

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