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Archive for the ‘Centralization’ Category

The annual budget for our bloated and sclerotic federal government consumes about $4 trillion of America’s economic output, yet President Trump so far has not proposed to reduce that overall spending burden by even one penny.

A few programs are targeted for cuts, to be sure, but I explained last week, that “taxpayers won’t reap the benefits since those savings will be spent elsewhere, mostly for a bigger Pentagon budget.” More worrisome, I also pointed out that his budget proposal is “silent on the very important issues of tax reform and entitlement reform.”

All things considered, you would think that statists, special interest groups, and other denizens of the D.C. swamp would be happy with Trump’s timid budget.

Not exactly. There’s so much wailing and screaming about “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts, you would think the ghost of Ronald Reagan is haunting Washington.

Much of this whining is kabuki theater and political posturing as various beneficiaries (including the bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, and other insiders) make lots of noise as part of their never-ending campaigns to get ever-larger slices of the budget pie.

And nothing demonstrates the vapidity of this process more than the imbroglio over the Meals on Wheels program. Based on news reports, the immediate assumption is that Trump’s budget is going to starve needy seniors by ending delivery of meals.

Here’s how CNN characterized the proposal.

The preliminary outline for President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget could slash some funding for a program that provides meals for older, impoverished Americans.

“Slash”? That sounds ominous. Sounds like a cut of 40 percent, 50 percent, or 60 percent!

And a flack for Meals on Wheels added her two cents, painting a picture of doom and despair for hungry seniors.

…spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette said, “It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they will not be significantly and negatively impacted if the President’s budget were enacted.”

Oh no, “significantly and negatively impacted” sounds brutal. How many tens of thousands of seniors will starve?

Only near the bottom of the story do we learn that this is all nonsense. All that Trump proposed, as part of his plan to shift some spending from the domestic budget to the defense budget, is to shut down a pork-riddled and scandal-plagued program at the Department of Housing Development. However, because a tiny fraction of community development block grants get used for Meals on Wheels, interest groups and leftist journalists decided to concoct a story about hungry old people.

In reality, the national office (appropriately) gets almost all its money from private donations and almost all the subsidies to the local branches are from a separate program.

About 3% of the budget for Meals on Wheels’ national office comes from government grants (84% comes from individual contributions and grants from corporations and foundations)… The Older Americans Act, as a function of the US Department of Health and Human Services, …covers 35% of the costs for the visits, safety checks and meals that the local agencies dole out to 2.4 million senior citizens, Bertolette said.

In other words, CNN engaged in what is now known as fake news, publishing a story designed to advance an agenda rather than to inform readers.

My colleague Walter Olson wrote a very apt summary for National Review.

The story that Trump’s budget would kill the Meals on Wheels program was too good to check. But it was false. …it wouldn’t have taken long for reporters to find and provide some needed context to the relationship between federal block grant programs, specifically Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and the popular Meals on Wheels program. …From Thursday’s conversation in the press, it was easy to assume that block grant programs — CDBG and similar block grants for community services and social services — are the main source of federal funding for Meals on Wheels. Not so.

And if you want some accurate journalism, the editorial page of Investor’s Business Daily has a superb explanation.

What Trump’s budget does propose is cutting is the corruption-prone Community Development Block Grant program, run out of Housing and Urban Development. Some, but not all, state and local governments use a tiny portion of that grant money, at their own discretion, to “augment funding for Meals on Wheels,” according to the statement. …So what’s really going on? As Meals on Wheels America explained, some Community Development Block Grant money does end up going to some of the local Meals on Wheels programs. But it’s a small amount. HUD’s own website shows that just 1% of CDBG grant money goes to the broad category of “senior services.” And 0.17% goes to “food banks.” …All of this information was easily available to anyone reporting on this story, or anyone commenting on it, which would have prevented the false claims about the Meals on Wheels program from spreading in the first place. But why bother reporting facts when you can make up a story…?

The IBD editorial then shifted to what should be the real lesson from this make-believe controversy

…this fake budget-cutting story ended up revealing how programs like Meals on Wheels can survive without federal help. As soon as the story started to spread, donations began pouring into Meals on Wheels. In two days, the charity got more than $100,000 in donations — 50 times more than they’d normally receive. Clearly, individuals are ready, willing and eager to support this program once they perceive a need. Isn’t this how charity is supposed to work, with people donating their own time, money and resources to causes they feel are important, rather than sitting back and expecting the federal government to do it for them?

At the risk of being flippant, Libertarian Jesus would approve that message.

But to be more serious, IBD raises an important point that deserves some attention. Some Republicans think the appropriate response to CNN‘s demagoguery is to point out that Meals on Wheels gets the overwhelming share of its federal subsidies from the Older Americans Act rather than CDBG.

In reality, the correct lesson is that the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing Meals on Wheels. Or any redistribution program that purports to help people on the state and local level.

There’s a constitutional argument against federal involvement. There’s a fiscal argument against federal involvement. There’s a diversity argument against federal involvement. And there’s a demographic argument against federal involvement.

But there’s also a common-sense argument against federal involvement. And that gives me an excuse to introduce my Third Theorem of Government. Simply stated, it’s a recipe for waste to launder money through Washington.

P.S. For those interested, here is the First Theorem of Government and here is the Second Theorem of Government.

P.P.S. I started today’s column by noting that Trump hasn’t proposed “even one penny” of lower spending. That’s disappointing, of course, but the news is not all bad. The President has  endorsed the Obamacare reform legislation in the House of Representatives, and while that legislation does not solve the real problem in our nation’s health sector, at least it does lower the burden of taxes and spending.

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The famous French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand supposedly said that a weakness of the Bourbon monarchs was that they learned nothing and forgot nothing.

If so, the genetic descendants of the Bourbons are now in charge of Europe.

But before explaining why, let’s first establish that Europe is in trouble. I’ve made that point (many times) that the continent is in trouble because of statism and demographic change.

What’s far more noteworthy, though, is that even the Europeans are waking up to the fact that the continent faces a very grim future.

For instance, the bureaucrats in Brussels are pessimistic, as reported by the EU Observer.

…the report warns of a longer term risk for the EU economy. “As expectations of low growth ahead affect investment today, there is potential for a vicious circle,” the commission’s director general for economic and financial affairs writes in the report’s foreword. “In short, the projected pace of GDP growth may not be sufficient to prevent the cyclical impact of the crisis from becoming permanent (hysteresis), ” Marco Buti writes.

The people of Europe share that grim assessment.

Pew has some very sobering data on angst across the continent.

Support for European economic integration – the 1957 raison d’etre for creating the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor – is down over last year in five of the eight European Union countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013. Positive views of the European Union are at or near their low point in most EU nations, even among the young, the hope for the EU’s future. The favorability of the EU has fallen from a median of 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013.

Here’s the relevant chart.

Establishment-oriented voices in the United States also agree that the outlook is rather dismal.

Writing in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby offers a grim assessment of Europe’s future.

…since 2008…, the 28 countries in the European Union managed combined growth of just 4 percent. And in the subset consisting of the eurozone minus Germany, output actually fell. …most of the Mediterranean periphery has suffered a lost decade. …The unemployment rate in the euro area stands at 9.8 percent, more than double the U.S. rate. Unemployment among Europe’s youth is even more appalling: In Greece, Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus and Portugal, more than 1 in 4 workers under 25 are jobless.

The bottom line is that there’s widespread consensus that Europe is a mess and that things will probably get worse unless there are big changes.

But the key question, as always, is whether the changes are positive or negative. And this is why I started with a reference to the Bourbon kings. European leaders today also are infamous for learning nothing and forgetting nothing.

Indeed, the proponents of bad policy want to double down on the mistakes of bigger government and more centralization.

The International Monetary Fund (aka, the “Dr. Kevorkian” or “dumpster fire” of the global economy), led by France’s Christine Lagarde, actually is urging a new form of redistribution in Europe.

The International Monetary Fund called on Thursday for the creation of a fund…in the euro zone… Managing Director Christine Lagarde said… “countries would be pooling budgetary resources in a common pot which could be used for projects and certain operations”

Lagarde says the new fund should have strings attached, so that nations could access the loot if they complied with the EU’s budget rules, and also if they use the money for structural reform.

That sounds prudent, but only until you look at the fine print.

The current budget rules are misguided and are more likely to encourage tax hikes rather than spending restraint. And while many European nations need good structural reform, that’s not what the IMF has in mind.

Lagarde told a news conference the new fund could pay for projects related to migration, refugees, security, energy and climate change.

Instead, it appears that this is just a scheme to transfer money from countries such as Germany and Estonia that have restrained spending in recent years.

Germany, Estonia and Luxembourg are the only EU countries that have posted budget surpluses since 2014. Lagarde said the pooling of budgetary resources could put these surpluses to good use.

Sigh.

But the problem goes way beyond an international bureaucracy led by someone from Europe. This is the mentality that is deeply embedded in most European policymakers.

Simply stated, the people who helped create the European mess by pushing for bigger government and more centralization agree that the time if right for…you guessed it…bigger government and more centralization. Here’s an excerpt from a report by the Delors Institute.

…a true economic and monetary union still needs to be built. It will have to be based on significant risk sharing and sovereignty sharing within a coherent and legitimate framework of supranational economic governance. This third building block includes turning the ESM into a fully-fledged European Monetary Fund.

The bureaucrats in Brussels predictably agree that they should get more power, as noted in a story from the EU Observer.

The EU should raise its own taxes and use Brexit as an opportunity to push for the idea, a report by a group of top officials says. …”The Union must mobilise common resources to find common solutions to common problems,” says the document, seen by EUobserver. …The paper also proposes a EU-level corporate income tax that would be combined with a common consolidated corporate tax base… Other proposals include a bank levy, a financial transaction tax, or a European VAT that would top national VATs. …The new budget EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger said that the report was “of great quality”.

And the senior politicians in Brussels are also beating the drum for added centralization.

…divergence creates fragility… Progress must happen…towards a genuine Economic Union…towards a Fiscal Union…need to shift from a system of rules and guidelines for national economic policy-making to a system of further sovereignty sharing within common institutions…some degree of public risk sharing…including a ‘social protection floor’…a shared sense of purpose among all Member States

Wow. I don’t know if I’ve ever read something so wildly wrong. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has sagely observed, it is centralization and harmonization that creates systemic risk.

And all this talk about “common resources” and “public risk sharing” is simply the governmental version of co-signing a loan for the deadbeat family alcoholic.

Yet Europe’s ideologues can’t resist their lemming-like march in the wrong direction.

What makes this especially odd is that there is so much evidence that Europe originally became rich for the opposite reason.

It was decentralization and jurisdictional competition that enabled prosperity.

Matt Ridley, writing for the UK-based Times, drives this point home.

…the leading theory among economic historians for why Europe after 1400 became the wealthiest and most innovative continent is political fragmentation. Precisely because it was not unified, Europe became a laboratory for different ways of governing, enabling the discovery of regimes that allowed free markets and invention to flourish, first in northern Italy and some parts of Germany, then the low countries, then Britain. By contrast, China’s unity under one ruler prevented such experimentation. …Baron Montesquieu…remarked, Europe’s “many medium-sized states” had incubated “a genius for liberty, which makes it very difficult to subjugate each part and to put it under a foreign force other than by laws and by what is useful to its commerce”. …David Hume…mused…Europe is the continent “most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains” and so “the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power”. …the idea has gained almost universal agreement among historians that a disunited Europe, while frequently wracked by war, was also prone to innovation and liberty — thanks to the ability of innovators and skilled craftsmen to cross borders in search of more congenial regimes.

But now Europe has swung completely in the other direction.

The European Commission’s obsession with harmonisation prevents the very pattern of experimentation that encourages innovation. Whereas the states system positively encouraged governments to be moderate in political, religious and fiscal terms or lose their talent, the commission detests jurisdictional competition, in taxes and regulations. The larger the empire, the less brake there is on governmental excess.

Ralph Raico echoes these insights in an article for the Foundation for Economic Education.

In seeking to answer the question why the industrial breakthrough occurred first in western Europe, …what was it that permitted private enterprise to flourish? …Europe’s radical decentralization… In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions. …Instead of experiencing the hegemony of a universal empire, Europe developed into a mosaic of kingdoms, principalities, city-states, ecclesiastical domains, and other political entities. Within this system, it was highly imprudent for any prince to attempt to infringe property rights in the manner customary elsewhere in the world. In constant rivalry with one another, princes found that outright expropriations, confiscatory taxation, and the blocking of trade did not go unpunished. The punishment was to be compelled to witness the relative economic progress of one’s rivals, often through the movement of capital, and capitalists, to neighboring realms. The possibility of “exit,” facilitated by geographical compactness and, especially, by cultural affinity, acted to transform the state into a “constrained predator”.

In other words, the “stationary bandit” couldn’t steal as much and that gave the private sector the breathing room that’s necessary for growth.

But today’s politicians in Europe want to strengthen the ability of governments to seize more money and power.

That strategy may work in the short run, but bailouts, redistribution, easy money, and statism are not a good long-run strategy.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that we conclude with a warning. As reported in a column for the UK-based Telegraph, one of the architects of the euro fears that bailouts are crippling the continent-wide currency.

The European Central Bank is becoming dangerously over-extended and the whole euro project is unworkable in its current form, the founding architect of the monetary union has warned. “One day, the house of cards will collapse,” said Professor Otmar Issing, the ECB’s first chief economist… Prof Issing lambasted the European Commission as a creature of political forces that has given up trying to enforce the rules in any meaningful way. “The moral hazard is overwhelming,” he said. The European Central Bank is on a “slippery slope” and has in his view fatally compromised the system by bailing out bankrupt states in palpable violation of the treaties. “…Market discipline is done away with by ECB interventions. …The no bailout clause is violated every day,” he said… Prof Issing slammed the first Greek rescue in 2010 as little more than a bailout for German and French banks, insisting that it would have been far better to eject Greece from the euro as a salutary lesson for all.

For what it’s worth, I fully agree that Greece should have been cut loose.

But European politicians and bureaucrats, driven by an ideological belief in centralization (and a desire to bail out their big banks), instead decided to undermine the euro by creating a bigger mess in Greece and sending a very bad signal about bailouts to other welfare states.

And keep in mind that the fuse is still burning on the European fiscal crisis.

As the old saying goes, this won’t end well.

P.S. While my prognosis for Europe is relatively bleak, there were some hopeful signs in the aforementioned Pew data.

First, Europeans at some level understand that government is simply too big. Indeed, they recognize that economic growth is far more likely to occur if fiscal burdens are reduced rather than increased.

Second, they also realize that the euro, while weakened and flawed, is a better option than restoring national currencies, which would give their governments the power to finance bigger government by printing money.

P.P.S. I can’t resist sharing one final bit of polling data from Pew. I’m amused that every nation sees itself as the most compassionate (though if you look at real data, all European nations lag the USA in real compassion). Meanwhile, the prize for self-doubt (or perhaps self-awareness?) goes to the Italians, who labeled themselves as least trustworthy. The schizophrenia prize goes to the Poles, who simultaneously view the Germans as the most trustworthy and least trustworthy.

Oh, and there’s probably some lesson to be learned from Germany dominating the data for being most trustworthy and least compassionate.

Maybe this poll should be added to my European humor collection.

P.P.P.S. Given the sorry state of Europe, now perhaps skeptics will understand why Brexit was the only good option for Brits.

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The concept of secession (part of a jurisdiction breaking away to become independent) has a bad reputation in the United States because it is linked to the reprehensible institution of slavery.

But, as Walter Williams has explained, secession today may be an effective way of protecting liberty from ever-expanding centralized government.

And I’ve favorably written about secessionist movements in Sardinia, Scotland, and Belgium, largely because the historical data shows that better policy is more likely when there are many jurisdictions competing with each other.

So it was with considerable interest that I saw an article in Fortune about a secessionist movement in California.

“Calexit” didn’t start with Donald Trump, but his victory on Election Day certainly sparked more interest in the idea. A play on “Brexit,” it’s the new name for the prospect of California seceding from the U.S. The movement…seems to have gained steam in the past six months, thanks in part to the U.K.’s recent Brexit vote and Donald Trump being elected president. …The group’s goal is to hold a referendum in 2018 that, if passed, would transition California into its own independent country. …the movement has even grabbed the attention of some potential Silicon Valley bankrollers.

I like this idea, though I’m not sure it’s good for California since the state faces very serious long-run challenges.

Though this is one of the reasons I like secession. As an independent nation, California no longer would have any hope of getting a bailout from Washington, so the politicians in Sacramento might start behaving more responsibly.

And there are examples of secession in the modern world, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic emerging from Czechoslovakia. That was a very tranquil divorce, unlike what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

As is so often the case, we can learn a lot from Switzerland. There is a right of secession, albeit dependent on a nationwide vote of approval. Municipalities also can vote to switch cantons, as happened in 1996 when Vellerat left Bern and became part of Jura. By the way, villages in Liechtenstein have the unilateral right to secede from the rest of the nation (though that seems highly unlikely since it is the second-richest nation in the world).

Notwithstanding these good role models, the secessionist movement in California presumably won’t get very far.

But maybe full-blown secession isn’t necessary. If Californians don’t like what’s happening in Washington (or, for that matter, if Texans aren’t happy with the antics in DC), that should be an argument for genuine and comprehensive federalism.

In other words, get rid of the one-size-fits-all policies emanating from the central government and allow states to decide the size and scope of government.

California can decide to do crazy things (such as regulate babysitters and give bureaucrats too much pay) and Texas can choose to do sane things (such as no income tax), but neither state could dictate policy for the entire nation.

This also happens to be the system envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers.

Think of federalism as a live-and-let-live system. New York doesn’t have to become North Dakota and Illinois doesn’t have to become Alabama. Red states can be red and blue states can be blue. And we can add all the other colors in the rainbow as well. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

And consider how well federalism works in Switzerland, a nation that doesn’t have a single language, culture, or religion.

Now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I even suggested federalism as a solution to the mess in Ukraine.

P.S. If California actually chooses to move forward with secession, the good news is that we already have a template (albeit satirical) for a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting historical footnote. There’s a small part of Germany that is entirely surrounded by Switzerland. This enclave wanted to become part of Switzerland many decades ago, but there was no right of secession notwithstanding overwhelming sentiment for a shift of nationality.

A whopping 96 percent of the inhabitants voted for annexation by Switzerland. The people had spoken loud and clear, but their voices were ignored. As the Swiss were unable to offer Germany any suitable territory in exchange, the deal was off. Büsingen would remain, somewhat reluctantly, German.

Since Germany is a reasonably well-run nation, I guess we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the people of Büsingen (unlike, say, the residents of Menton and Roquebrune in France, who used to be part of a tax haven but now are part of a tax hell).

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with some additional election-related humor.

Here’s some satire from the twitter account of the fake North Korean News Service.

And here’s another Hitler parody to add to our collection.

And here’s Michelle Obama feeling sad about what’s about to happen.

P.P.P.P.S. We also have some unintentional humor. When Trump prevailed, Paul Krugman couldn’t resist making a prediction of economic doom.

Since markets have since climbed to record highs, Krugman’s forecasting ability may be even worse than all the hacks who predicted Brexit would result in economic calamity for the United Kingdom.

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During the election, Donald Trump promised a big package of infrastructure spending, twice as much new spending as Hillary Clinton was proposing.

During his victory speech the night of the election, he doubled down on this approach, promising that more infrastructure spending would be one his first priorities.

This sounds like bad news for advocates of limited government. And it may turn out to be bad news. Though if you look at what the Trump campaign actually proposed, there’s a lot of wiggle room.

I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration: …American Energy & Infrastructure Act. Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years. It is revenue neutral.

In other words, it’s possible that President-Elect Trump might give us an Obama-style stimulus scheme. Or he may take a radically different approach by removing roadblocks that hinder more private-sector involvement.

And my colleague Chris Edwards points out that the private sector already does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to infrastructure spending.

Hillary Clinton says that “we are dramatically underinvesting” in infrastructure and she promises a large increase in federal spending. Donald Trump is promising to spend twice as much as Clinton. …But more federal spending is the wrong way to go.  …let’s look at some data. There is no hard definition of “infrastructure,” but one broad measure is gross fixed investment in the BEA national accounts. …The first thing to note is that private investment at about $3 trillion was six times larger than combined federal, state, and local government nondefense investment of $472 billion. Private investment in pipelines, broadband, refineries, factories, cell towers, and other items greatly exceeds government investment in schools, highways, prisons, and the like. …if policymakers want to boost infrastructure spending, they should reduce barriers to private investment.

This is very helpful and interesting data. And one of the obvious conclusions is that the types of infrastructure that historically are the responsibility of the private sector (pipelines, cell towers, etc) are handled much more efficiently than those (highways, mass transit, etc) that have been monopolized by governments.

Trump presumably intends his infrastructure plan to focus on the latter type of infrastructure, so let’s consider three simple rules to help guide an effective approach for transportation.

1. More private-sector involvement

A key principle for good infrastructure policy is to harness the efficiency of the private sector.

Why? Because, as Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute argues, governments naturally are inefficient and incompetent at building and managing infrastructure.

Government authorities view maintenance solely as a cost, rather than as an investment that can increase future revenues. As a result, roads remain riddled with potholes, bridges crumble, airports are overcrowded, water is contaminated, and we have classrooms with mold and falling ceilings. Moreover, without a profit motive, repairs are seldom done in a timely manner or at lowest cost. Instead of assets being owned and controlled by people who understand the economics of the industry and have the technical knowledge to operate and repair them efficiently, politicians (the majority of whom appear to be lawyers these days) and bureaucrats control them. This guarantees waste, inefficiency and cronyism, such as the greenlighting of white-elephant projects that are driven by politics rather than economics.

But there is some good news.

Chris Edwards explains that the private sector is taking a larger role.

Before the 20th century, for example, more than 2,000 turnpike companies in America built more than 10,000 miles of toll roads. And up until the mid-20th century, most urban rail and bus services were private. With respect to railroads, the federal government subsidized some of the railroads to the West, but most U.S. rail mileage in the 19th century was in the East, and it was generally unsubsidized. The takeover of private infrastructure by governments here and abroad in the 20th century caused many problems. Fortunately, most governments have reversed course in recent decades and started to hand back infrastructure to the private sector. …Short of full privatization, many countries have partly privatized portions of their infrastructure through public-private partnerships (“PPPs” or “P3s”). PPPs differ from traditional government contracting by shifting various elements of financing, management, maintenance, operations, and project risks to the private sector. …Unfortunately, the United States “has lagged behind Australia and Europe in privatization of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and tunnels,” notes the OECD. More than one fifth of infrastructure spending in Britain and Portugal is now through the PPP process, so this has become a normal way of doing business in some countries. Canada is also a leader in using PPP for major infrastructure projects.

2. Less involvement from Washington

To the extent that government must be involved, another important principle is to let state and local governments handle infrastructure.

That’s what I argued back in 2014.

…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. …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. …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. 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.

For a more detailed explanation, Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard has some devastating analysis in an article for City Journal.

The most pressing problem with federal infrastructure spending is that it is hard to keep it from going to the wrong places. We seem to have spent more in the places that already had short commutes and less in the places with the most need. Federal transportation spending follows highway-apportionment formulas that have long favored places with lots of land but not so many people. …Low-density areas are remarkably well-endowed with senators per capita, of course, and they unsurprisingly get a disproportionate share of spending from any nationwide program. Redirecting tax dollars across jurisdictions is rarely fair—and it isn’t right, either, that poorer, lower-density regions should subsidize New York’s subway and airports. Washington’s involvement also distorts infrastructure planning by favoring pet projects. The Recovery Act set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail, for instance, despite the fact that such projects would never be appropriate for most of moderate-density America. California was lured down the high-speed hole with Washington support… Detroit’s infamous People Mover Monorail would never have been built without federal aid. Alaska’s $400 million Gravina Island bridge to nowhere was a particularly notorious example of how Congress abuses transportation investment. As the Office of Management and Budget noted, during the Bush years, highway funding was “not based on need or performance and has been heavily earmarked.”

3. Sensible cost-benefit analysis

Our third principle is that infrastructure should only be built if it makes sense. In other words, do the benefits exceed the costs?

In the private sector, the profit motive automatically generates that type of calculation.

With government, that effort becomes much more challenging.

Professor Michael Boskin at Stanford explains the problem in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

…a huge pot of additional money earmarked for infrastructure, on top of the recently passed $305 billion five-year highway bill, is sure to unleash a mad scramble in Congress to secure funds for the home turf. The logrolling and pork will get ugly without far tighter cost-benefit tests and oversight. …Most federal infrastructure spending is done by sending funds to state and local governments. For highway programs, the ratio is usually 80% federal, 20% state and local. But that means every local district has an incentive to press the federal authorities to fund projects with poor national returns. We all remember Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.” In other words, if a local government is putting up only 20% of the funds, it needs the benefits to its own citizens to be only 21% of the total national cost. Yet every state and every locality has potential infrastructure needs that it would like the rest of the country to pay for. That leads to the misallocation of federal funds and infrastructure projects that benefit the few at the cost of the many. …taxpayers generally don’t notice all the fiscal cross-hauling, sending their money to Washington to be sent back in leaky buckets to local jurisdictions. Since we all reside in a state and locality, it’s an inefficient negative sum game with complex cross-subsidies. If these local projects are so good, why aren’t citizens willing to finance the projects locally?

And don’t forget government infrastructure always is more expensive – sometimes far more expensive – than politicians first promise. Chris Edwards has the details.

Federal infrastructure projects often suffer from large cost overruns. Highway projects, energy projects, airport projects, and air traffic control projects have ended up costing far more than promised. When both federal and state governments are involved in infrastructure, it reduces accountability. That was one of the problems with the federally backed Big Dig highway project in Boston, which exploded in cost to five times the original estimate. U.S. and foreign studies have found that privately financed infrastructure projects are less likely to have cost overruns.

The challenge, of course, is getting governments to produce honest cost-benefit analysis. Bureaucrats respond to the people who control their jobs and control their pay. So if politicians want to squander more money, it’s quite likely that bureaucrats will concoct the numbers needed to justify the expansion of government.

To cite a high-profile example, I caught the IMF making up numbers to justify infrastructure boondoggles, even though that politically driven analysis contradicted the work of the bureaucracy’s professional economists.

Let’s finish with two additional points.

First, advocates of more infrastructure spending act like there’s some national crisis.

But if this is true, why does the United States get relatively high scores from the World Economic Forum?

Second, let’s consider the example of Japan. That nation has been stuck in a multi-decade period of stagnation, with very little expectation of an economic turnaround. But if infrastructure spending was some sort of elixir, that economy should be booming.

…a look at ailing Japan, which has spent over $6.3 trillion since 1981 on truly impressive bridges and bullet trains, suggests infrastructure isn’t always a cure for economic woes.

The bottom line is that Donald Trump should not follow the business-as-usual approach of simply dumping more money into a system that almost always produces poor results.

P.S. Whoever does the “Redpanels” cartoons is very clever. I’ve already shared ones on the minimum wage, universal basic income, and Keynesian economics. Now, here’s one on federal infrastructure.

P.P.S. I wrote two years ago about the guy in England who built a private road to help drivers avoid lengthy delays caused by poor government planning. We have an even more…um…interesting example from Russia of how the private sector can take over when the government founders.

Gangs smuggling goods into Russia have secretly repaired a road on the Belarussian border in order to boost business, the TASS news agency reported Monday. Smugglers have transformed the gravel track in the Smolensk region in order to help their heavy goods vehicles traveling on the route, said Alexander Laznenko from the Smolensk region border agency. The criminal groups have widened and raised the road and added additional turning points, he said. The road, which connects Moscow to the Belarussian capital of Minsk, is known to be used by smugglers wishing to avoid official customs posts.

This is like a libertarian fantasy. The private sector builds a road to help entrepreneurs avoid trade taxes. What’s not to love? And unlike the libertarian sex fantasy or my 1992 debate fantasy, it’s actually true!

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Back in 2012, I wrote a detailed article explaining that Europe became rich in part because Europe didn’t exist.

The geographic landmass of Europe existed, of course, but the continent was characterized by massive political fragmentation. And this absence of centralized authority, many scholars concluded, meant lots of inter-government rivalry, a process that gave the private economy room to prosper.

Europe benefited from decentralization and jurisdictional competition. More specifically, governments were forced to adopt better policies because labor and capital had significant ability to cross borders in search of less oppression. …the intellectual history of this issue is enormous, and the common theme is that big, centralized states hinder development. …sovereignty should be celebrated. Not because national governments are good, but because competition between governments is the best protector of liberty and civilization. …promotion of better tax policy is just the tip of the iceberg.

I mention this because I’m currently in Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands that is (in)famous for hosting the meeting that led to the creation of the European Union.

But today, it is the European Students for Liberty meeting in Maastricht, in this case for a regional conference on “The Future of Europe.”

I’m here to give a speech on “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe,” but that’s a topic for another day. Instead, I want to highlight Clemens Schneider’s speech on “Patchwork Continent – A History of Federalism in Europe.”

Clemens is with the Prometheus Institute, a German think tank, and he discussed how federalism was critical to Europe’s development.

What made his presentation especially fascinating is that he suggested that 1356 was a very important year in the history of Europe.

Clemens based his claim on two historical events that advanced the principles of decentralization and federalism.

First, he cited the “Golden Bull” of 1356. What’s that, you ask? Wikipedia gives us the details about this remarkable development in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Golden Bull of 1356 was a decree issued by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg and Metz (Diet of Metz (1356/57)) headed by the Emperor Charles IV which fixed, for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. It was named the Golden Bull for the golden seal it carried. …the Bull cemented a number of privileges for the Electors, confirming their elevated role in the Empire. It is therefore also a milestone in the establishment of largely independent states in the Empire, a process to be concluded only centuries later, notably with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

In other words, what was important about the Golden Bull is that signified that the Holy Roman Empire no longer was an Empire. Instead, independent (and competing) principalities became the defining feature of European polity.

Second, he cited the creation of the Hanseatic League in the same year. Once again, Wikipedia has a good description.

The Hanseatic League…was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. It dominated Baltic maritime trade (c. 1400–1800) along the coast of Northern Europe. …The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid. Despite this, the organization was not a state… Much of the drive for this co-operation came from the fragmented nature of existing territorial government, which failed to provide security for trade. Over the next 50 years the Hansa itself emerged with formal agreements for confederation and co-operation covering the west and east trade routes. The principal city and linchpin remained Lübeck; with the first general Diet of the Hansa held there in 1356, the Hanseatic League acquired an official structure.

I’m not sure whether it would be accurate to say this is an example of private governance, but the Hanseatic League definitely was an example of voluntary cooperation among sovereign cities wanting peaceful trade.

Schneider basically argued in favor of this “confederalist” approach and cited Switzerland and the United States as positive examples (at least during their early years).

All of which is quite consistent with my view that centralization is the enemy of liberty. We need to make governments compete with each other. And when that happens, we’re more likely to get good policy.

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What an amazing vote. The people of the United Kingdom defied the supposed experts, rejected a fear-based campaign by advocates of the status quo, and declared their independence from the European Union.

Here are some takeaway thoughts on this startling development.

1. The UK has voted to leave a sinking ship. Because of unfavorable demographics and a dirigiste economic model, the European Union has a very grim future.

2. Brexit is a vote against centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization. It also is a victory for more growth, though the amount of additional long-run growth will depend on whether the UK government seizes the opportunity for lower taxes, less red tape, and a smaller burden of government.

3. President Obama once again fired blanks. Whether it was his failed attempt early in his presidency to get the Olympic Games in Chicago or his feckless attempt in his final year to get Britons to remain in the EU, Obama has a remarkably dismal track record. Maybe I can get him to endorse the Boston Red Sox, thus ensuring the Yankees make it to the World Series?

4. Speaking of feckless foreign leaders, but I can’t resist the temptation to point out that the Canadian Prime Minister’s reaction to Brexit wins a prize for vapidity. It would be amusing to see Trudeau somehow justify this absurd statement, though I suspect he’ll be too busy expanding government and squandering twenty-five years of bipartisan progress in Canada. Potential mea culpa…I can’t find proof that Trudeau actually made this statement. Even with the excuse that I wrote this column at 3:00 AM, I should have known better than to believe something I saw on Twitter (though I still think he’s vapid).

5. Nigel Farage and UKIP have voted themselves out of a job. A common joke in Washington is that government bureaucracies never solve problems for which they were created because that would eliminate their excuse for existing. After all, what would “poverty pimps” do if there weren’t poor people trapped in government dependency? Well, Brexit almost surely means doom for Farage and UKIP, yet they put country above personal interest. Congratulations to them, though I’ll miss Farage’s acerbic speeches.

6. The IMF and OECD disgracefully took part in “Project Fear” by concocting hysterical predictions of economic damage if the U.K. decided to get off the sinking ship of the European Union. To the extent there is some short-term economic instability over the next few days or weeks, those reckless international bureaucracies deserve much of the blame.

7. As part of his failed effort to influence the referendum, President Obama rejected the notion of quickly inking a free-trade agreement with the UK. Now that Brexit has been approved, hopefully the President will have the maturity and judgement to change his mind. Not only should the UK be first in line, but this should be the opportunity to launch the Global Free Trade Association that my former Heritage Foundation colleagues promoted last decade. Unfettered trade among jurisdictions with relatively high levels of economic freedom, such as the US, UK, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, Chile, etc, would be a great way of quickly capturing some of the benefits made possible by Brexit.

8. David Cameron should copy California Governor Jerry Brown. Not for anything recent, but for what he did in 1978 when voters approved an anti-tax referendum known as Proposition 13. Brown naturally opposed the referendum, but he completely reversed himself after the referendum was approved. By embracing the initiative, even if only belatedly, he helped his state and himself. That would be the smart approach for Cameron, though there’s a distinct danger that he could do great harm to himself, his party, and his country by trying to negotiate a deal to somehow keep the UK in the EU.

9. Last but not least, I’m very happy to be wrong about the outcome. I originally expected that “Project Fear” would be successful and that Britons would choose the devil they know over the one they don’t know. Well, I’m delighted that Elizabeth Hurley and I helped convince Britons to vote the right way. We obviously make a good team.

Joking aside, the real credit belongs to all UK freedom fighters, even the disaffected Labour Party voters who voted the right way for wrong reasons.

I’m particularly proud of the good work of my friends Allister Heath of the Telegraph, Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, Dan Hannan of the European Parliament, and Matthew Elliott of Vote Leave. I imagine Margaret Thatcher is smiling down on them today.

Now it’s on to the second stage of this campaign and convincing California to declare independence from the United States!

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Remember the cluster-you-know-what in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina? Corrupt and incompetent politicians in both the city and at the state level acted passively, assuming that Uncle Sam somehow should be responsible for dealing with the storm.

And we’ve seen similar behavior from other state and local politicians before, during, and after other natural disasters.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that the federal government shouldn’t have any responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. All that does it create a wasteful layer of bureaucracy, while also inculcating a sense of learned helplessness on the part of state and local officials who should be responsible for dealing with storms and other local crises.

In other words, the answer is federalism. State and local governments should be solely responsible for state and local issues.

But not just because of some abstract principle. There’s a very strong practical argument that you get more sensible decisions when the public sector is limited (as Mark Steyn humorously explained) and there is clear responsibility and accountability at various levels of government.

And this is why the biggest lesson from the scandal of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is that local politicians and bureaucrats should not be able to shift the blame either to the state or federal government. Which was my main point in this interview.

To be sure, it is outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats knew about the problem and didn’t make it public, so I surely don’t object to officials in Lansing and Washington getting fired.

But I do object to the political finger pointing, with Democrats trying to blame the Republican Governor and Republicans trying to blame the Democratic President.

Nope, the problem is an incompetent local government that failed to fulfill a core responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, opining that the mess in Flint is a failure of government.

…the real Flint story is a cascade of government failure, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

More specifically (and as I noted in the interview), we have a local government that became a fiefdom for a self-serving bureaucracy that was more concerned with its privileged status than in providing core government services.

…after decades of misrule: More than 40% of residents live in poverty; the population has fallen by half since the 1960s to about 100,000. Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

And the WSJ editorial also castigated the state and federal bureaucrats that wrote memos rather than warning citizens.

MDEQ and the EPA were chatting about Flint’s system as early as February. MDEQ said it wanted to test the water more before deciding on corrosion controls, though it isn’t clear that federal law allows this. …the region’s top EPA official, political appointee Susan Hedman, responded… “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.” She also noted over email that it’s “a preliminary draft” and it’d be “premature to draw any conclusions.” The EPA did not notify the public.

The lesson is that adding state and federal bureaucracy impedes effective and competent local government.

The broader lesson is that ladling on layers of bureaucracy doesn’t result in better oversight and safety. It sometimes lets agencies shirk responsibility for the basic public services like clean water that government is responsible for providing.

Here’s the bottom line.

Federalism is about getting better government by creating clear lines of responsibility and accountability in an environment that allows state and local governments to learn from each other on best practices.

The current system blurs responsibility and accountability, by contrast, while also imposing needless expense and bureaucracy. And we get Katrina and Flint with this dysfunctional approach.

So whether it’s Medicaid, education, transportation, welfare, or disasters, involvement from Washington makes things worse rather than better.

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