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Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

I’m a big fan of Estonia.

According to both the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, it has considerable economic freedom.

It has a low-rate flat tax, meaning that investors, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners aren’t punished for contributing more to the nation’s economic output.

It responded to the 2008 crisis by cutting spending rather than engaging in a Keynesian spending binge (which also led to an exploding cigar for Paul Krugman).

Now I have another reason to like Estonia.

It’s a role model for how to reduce corruption by shrinking the size and scope of government.

First, some background.

Neil Abrams and Professor Steven Fish have a column in the Washington Post about the seemingly intractable problem of boosting the rule of law in developing and transition economies.

Western aid agencies and scholars agree that the rule of law is required before developing countries can reduce poverty and corruption. For decades, they have supported aid programs designed to help developing countries establish law-based states. …In a rule-of-law state, the rules apply even to the rulers, not just the ordinary folks. The rule of law is not the same as democracy. Scores of developing countries have demonstrated that establishing democracy is the easy part. The rule of law is harder to attain. From India and the Philippines to Argentina, democracy coexists with endemic corruption, and elites remain largely exempt from the rules.

They then explain that its well-nigh impossible to create the rule of law in a society that has a big government.

…our research suggests that they have the sequence backward. Before urging governments to adopt the rule of law, they must first advise reformers to take one key step: eliminating the government subsidies that sustain criminal elites and replacing the compromised bureaucrats who patronize them.

Now for the big takeaway from their column: Estonia is the role model for how this can happen.

Our research shows that a few good policies can pave the way for the rule of law. For instance, Estonia’s clean and capable state administration represents a model of post-communist success. But this was not always the case. In 1991, when communism collapsed, Estonia, like other post-Soviet countries, had almost no working institutions and a burgeoning class of economic predators, nor was Estonia economically privileged. In the early post-Soviet years, its income per capita was only 10 to 20 percent higher than that of Russia and Romania and 20 to 30 percent lower than that of Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary. But Estonian leaders acted boldly. …early Estonian governments ended practically all subsidies to state and private enterprises. …in developing countries, state subsidies almost always benefit corrupt elites more than ordinary people. This policy cut off the budding economic criminals who profit from state largesse rather than entrepreneurial aptitude — and made it possible for real entrepreneurs to thrive. Deprived of subsidies, old-guard enterprise directors and crony capitalists could not muster enough political influence to hold governments hostage.

Sadly, other nations are not copying Estonia, in part because the international bureaucracies and national agencies that dispense foreign aid don’t support policies to shrink government in recipient nations.

Unfortunately, Estonia is the exception and not the rule. That’s  not for lack of trying on the part of the West. The United States, the European Union, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the United Nations have spent billions of dollars for the express purpose of helping countries build a rule of law. …But they’re stumbling. The Western effort assumes that the rule of law will flourish only if developing countries receive enough education, guidance, training and money. In fact, a growing body of research throws such optimism into doubt.

In other words, foreign aid – at best – is useless. And it may be harmful by financing a bigger role for recipient governments.

The authors close by emphasizing the need (assuming genuine rule of law is the goal) to prune the bureaucracy and public sector.

Scholars often treat the rule of law as a prerequisite for market-oriented economic policies such as liberalizing prices and trade and eradicating wasteful subsidies. They’re getting it backward. Instead, first eliminate the subsidies and purge the compromised bureaucrats who stand in the rule of law’s way. This is hard to do. It will provoke tremendous resistance from those who profit from the status quo. But it’s far more realistic and effective than simply encouraging countries to adopt the rule of law.

So what are the implications of this analysis for the United States?

Given that America now ranks below Estonia for rule of law, and given that rule of law is gradually eroding in the United States, the obvious lesson is that the public sector in America needs to shrink.

The real challenge, though, is convincing politicians to give up power.

Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School explains in USA Today that a larger government is good for politicians because it creates opportunities for graft.

The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft. That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support.

Glenn notes that there’s an entire school of thought in economics that analyzes this unfortunate tendency of politicians to conspire with interest groups at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

…there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest. …You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve. …the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them.

Having received my Ph.D. from George Mason University, home of the Center for the Study of Public Choice, I echo Glenn’s comments about the value of this theory.

So what’s the moral of the story?

As summarized by Professor Reynolds, bigger government means more corruption and smaller government means less corruption.

The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite.

Now let’s look at some real-world examples from Washington.

By the way, I’m not writing to specifically condemn Obama and his team, even though I’m quite confident that the Chicago machine produces people who excel at unethical behavior.

Republicans also get their hands dirty by steering undeserved wealth to special interests, as explained here, here, and here.

That being said, most Washington corruption today seems associated with the Democrat Party for the simple reason that Democrats control the bureaucracy.

For instance, here are some of the key points from a New York Times report.

The State Department, under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, created an arrangement for her longtime aide and confidante Huma Abedin to work for private clients as a consultant while serving as a top adviser in the department. Ms. Abedin did not disclose the arrangement — or how much income she earned — on her financial report. It requires officials to make public any significant sources of income.

To be blunt, this stinks to high heaven.

…the picture that emerges from interviews and records suggests a situation where the lines were blurred between Ms. Abedin’s work in the high echelons of one of the government’s most sensitive executive departments and her role as a Clinton family insider. While continuing her work at the State Department, in the latter half of 2012, she also worked for Teneo, a strategic consulting firm, which was founded by Doug Band, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Teneo has advised corporate clients like Coca-Cola and MF Global, the collapsed brokerage firm run by Jon S. Corzine, a former governor of New Jersey.

The Daily Caller also has been doing some first-rate work on the cronyism and corruption inside Washington.

One of their stories, for instance, exposed the left-wing connections of the supposedly “apolitical” bureaucrat at the heart of the IRS scandal.

IRS Exempt Organizations Division director Lois G. Lerner, who has been described as “apolitical” in mainstream press coverage of the IRS scandal, is married to tax attorney Michael R. Miles, a partner at the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.

And why does that matter?

The 400-attorney firm hosted an organizing meeting at its Atlanta office for people interested in helping with voter registration for the Obama re-election campaign. …Lerner personally signed the tax-exemption approval for a shady charity run by Obama’s half-brother, after an inexplicably brief one-month application process.

Time to wrap this up.

I enjoy Mark Steyn for his biting humor, but he makes a very serious and relevant point is his latest column.

A civil “civil service” requires small government. Once government is ensnared in every aspect of life a bureaucracy grows increasingly capricious. The U.S. tax code ought to be an abomination to any free society, but the American people have become reconciled to it because of a complex web of so-called exemptions that massively empower the vast shadow state of the permanent bureaucracy. Under a simple tax system, your income is a legitimate tax issue. Under the IRS, everything is a legitimate tax issue: The books you read, the friends you recommend them to. There are no correct answers, only approved answers.

I made a similar point, arguing that you can’t have a competent government unless it’s a small government.

But as the public sector expands, effective management becomes much harder.

And, as discussed in an interview with John Stossel, you also get corruption, mixed with incompetence and thuggery.

Let’s close by re-issuing my video explaining how big government enables pervasive corruption. It’s never been more timely and appropriate.

P.S. There are some countries with big governments that are not plagued by corruption. The Nordic nations, for instance, rank at or near the top in many economic indications, including high-quality rule of law. Though it’s worth noting that these jurisdictions scored highly in these areas before the burden of government was expanded.

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Over the years, I’ve latched on to several images that do a very good job of capturing the essence of an issue.

Here are some of my favorites.

Now I have a new addition to the list.

Here’s an image Steve Conover shared with me. It comes from his book, Neutering the National Debt, and it’s the perfect way to explain why the Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the class warriors are wrong.

The problem isn’t rich people. It’s looters and moochers, regardless of their income.

What makes this image so helpful is that it’s true. If you look at the “right enemy” part of the image, the rich in the red zone are the cronyists who get Ex-Im subsidies, the Wall Street crowd that fed at the TARP trough, and other well-connected folks (like Warren Buffett) who use government coercion to line their pockets.

What we have is basically the visual that I would have liked to include in my 2011 column that discussed the “good rich” and the “bad rich.” When debating those who are motivated by class warfare, I’m defending the rich in the white zone, but it would be helpful to have a way of distinguishing between the worthy and unworthy people with money.

And the same is true for the non-rich. Most of them are good and decent folks earning an honest living and they belong in the white zone. But there are also some non-rich people who rely on government coercion. They could be overpaid government bureaucrats. They could be folks scamming the food stamp program or fraudsters bilking the EITC.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I suspect that more than 50 percent of the folks in Washington belong in the red zone.

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Remember the odious, immoral, and corrupt TARP bailout?

Well, it’s becoming an issue in the 2016 presidential race, with some folks criticizing Donald Trump for siding with Bush and Obama on the issue.

I suppose I could make a snide observation about the absurdity of Trump being perceived as an anti-establishment candidate when he supported a policy that had unanimous support from political insiders.

But I would much rather focus on the policy implications. So when Neil Cavuto asked me to comment on Chris Christie’s rejection of bailouts, I took the opportunity to stress (once again) that it wasn’t a TARP-or-nothing choice and that there was a sensible, non-corrupt, way of dealing with failing financial firms. Simply stated, only bail out depositors and let bondholders and shareholders take the hit.

For the geeks who are reading this, you’ll recognize that the policy I’m advocating is often called the FDIC-resolution approach.

And it’s worth noting that this was used at the beginning of the financial crisis. As I pointed out in the discussion, two of the big financial institution that first got in trouble – WAMU and IndyMac – were liquidated.

But once Bush’s execrable Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, took control of the process, decisions were made to rescue the fat cats as well as the depositors.

The bottom line is that a lot of establishment figures, including GOPers like Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney, argue that TARP was necessary because the financial system needed to be recapitalized.

Yet that’s also what happens with the FDIC-resolution approach. The only real difference is whether financial institutions should be rescued along with depositors.

Well, my view is that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

P.S. The other guest in the interview made a very good point about America becoming “bailout nation.” I fully agree. To the extent that we have private profits and socialized losses, we’ll have bigger and bigger problems with moral hazard. After all, if you’re in Las Vegas and someone else is covering your losses, why not make high-risk/high-reward bets.

P.P.S. If anyone cares, my driveway is finally clear. A special thanks to the family next door. Not only were they smarter than me (as I wrote yesterday, they parked their cars near the end of their driveway), they’re also nicer than me. They came over and helped me finish when they were done!

Actually, I like to think I’d be equally thoughtful. I’ll have to look for a chance to repay their good deed.

By the way, I should add that the father next door works for a social conservative organization, which is one more piece of evidence for my view that so-cons and libertarians should be allies.

Tim Carney explains that natural alliance much better.

P.P.P.S. In hopes of convincing some of my leftist friends, I can’t resist making one final point.

When government gets to pick winners and losers, it’s highly probable that those who get the handouts, bailouts, and subsidies will be rich, powerful, and politically connected. Heck, just think of the Ex-Im Bank.

As noted by my former colleague, Will Wilkinson, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

I realize that statists won’t agree with me that it’s wrong for the federal government to redistribute from rich to poor. But I hope they’ll be on my side in fighting against redistribution from poor to rich!

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Because I don’t like their plans for a value-added tax, some people seem to think that I am politically opposed to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

That’s not true. Both Senators are generally strong proponents of free markets and limited government, so the fact that they have one bad policy position shouldn’t a disqualifying characteristic.

But since I’m a policy wonk (and because I work at a non-profit think tank), it’s not my role to tell people how to vote anyhow. Instead, my niche in life is to analyze policy proposals. And if that means I say something nice about a politician who is normally bad, or something critical of a politician who is normally good, so be it.

In other words, nothing I write is because I want readers to vote for or vote against particular candidates. I write to educate and inform.

With all those caveats out of the way, let’s look at the federal government’s odious handouts for the ethanol industry, a very important issue where Rand Paul and Ted Cruz unambiguously are on the side of the angels.

My colleague Doug Bandow summarizes the issue nicely in a column for Newsweek.

Senator Ted Cruz has broken ranks to criticize farmers’ welfare. …Senator Rand Paul also rejects the conventional wisdom…the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires blending ethanol with gasoline, operates as a huge industry subsidy. Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute figured the requirement cost drivers more than $10 billion since 2007. …Ethanol has only about two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. Given the energy necessary to produce ethanol—fuel tractors, make fertilizer and distill alcohol, for instance—ethanol actually may consume more in fossil fuels than the energy it yields. The ethanol lobby claims using this inferior fuel nevertheless promotes “energy independence.” However, …the price of this energy “insurance” is wildly excessive. …”By creating an artificial energy demand for corn—40 percent of the existing supply goes for ethanol—Uncle Sam also is raising food prices. This obviously makes it harder for poor people to feed themselves, and raises costs for those seeking to help them.” Nor does ethanol welfare yield an environmental benefit, as claimed. In fact, ethanol is bad for the planet. …Ethanol is a bad deal by any standard. Whomever Iowans support for president, King Ethanol deserves a bout of regicide.

Here’s some of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on the topic.

Mr. Cruz does deserve support in Iowa for…his…lonely opposition to the renewable fuel standard that mandates ethanol use and enriches producers in the Hawkeye State. The Senator refused to bow before King Ethanol last year, and he’s mostly held fast even though Iowa is where anti-subsidy Republicans typically go to repent. …the Texan is right that ethanol is one of America’s worst corporate-welfare cases. The mandate flows in higher profits to a handful of ethanol producers and keeps the price of corn artificially high, all other demand being equal. This raises the price of food. Al Gore and the greens once supported ethanol but gave up on it when studies showed it did nothing for the environment because of the energy expended in its production. So for those of you keeping track of this outsider feud on your establishment scorecards, mark ethanol as one for Mr. Cruz. In this case he’s standing on principle.

Not only does it raise the price of food, Washington’s mandate for ethanol use (the “renewable fuels standard”) means higher prices for motorists.

Here are the key findings on the topic from the Congressional Budget Office.

While Senators Cruz and Paul are fighting on the right side, Donald Trump is cravenly bowing to the special interests that want continued ethanol handouts. Jillian Kay Melchior explains for National Review.

One of the most destructive environmental subsidies in the United States has found an enthusiastic supporter in Donald Trump. “The EPA should ensure that biofuel . . . blend levels match the statutory level set by Congress,” he said yesterday in Iowa, adding that he was “there with you 100 percent” on continuing federal support for ethanol. …federal support for ethanol is a bum deal for Americans. Under the 2007 Independence and Security Act, Congress mandated that the United States use 36 billion gallons of biofuels, including corn ethanol and cellulosic biofuel, by 2022. And the federal government not only requires the use of ethanol; it also subsides it. Tax credits between 1978 and 2012 cost the Treasury as much as $40 billion. Moreover, numerous other federal programs, spanning multiple agencies, allot billions of dollars to ethanol in the form of grants, loan guarantees, tax credits, and other subsidies. …Ethanol-intensive fuel blends can wreak havoc on car, lawnmower, and boat engines. In fact, many vehicle manufacturers will no longer offer warranties when ethanol comprises 10 percent or more of fuel; engine erosion simply becomes too common. …perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump likes federal support of ethanol. After all, the real-estate mogul’s business model has historically hinged on using tax abatements and other subsidies to make his building projects profitable. …Trump’s support for ethanol belies his populist Main Street rhetoric. In reality, he’s just another rich, East Coast politician who would prop up special interests at the expense of the taxpayer.

The bottom line is that ethanol handouts are one of the most notoriously corrupt subsidies that are dispensed by Washington.

They also violate my Bleeding-Heart Rule by imposing costs on lower- and middle-income people to reward politically connected fat cats with deep pockets.

Policy makers who oppose ethanol deserve praise, especially when they are willing to say and do the right thing in a state (like Iowa) that has a lot of recipients of this execrable form of corporate welfare.

P.S. I will get really excited if a candidate goes to Iowa and explains that we should get rid of the entire Department of Agriculture.

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I’ve written about how statist policies help the rich and hurt the poor.

And I’ve also pontificated on the destructive and foolish subsidies dispensed by the execrable Department of Agriculture.

Now let’s mix those two issues (though I hasten to add that this isn’t like math…two negatives don’t make a positive.

Here’s an infographic from the American Enterprise Institute showing how farm programs are a (yet another) perverse example of poor-to-rich redistribution.

I particularly like the part about 42 cents of administrative cost to give away 90 cents of other people’s money.

Actually, let me rephrase. I’m horrified and upset that we have this horrible system, so I only “like” that part of the infographic in the sense that it’s an effective way of showing the inefficiency, venality, and stupidity of government redistribution programs.

And don’t forget that if it’s bad to redistribute from rich to poor, it’s downright evil and despicable to redistribute from poor to rich.

P.S. On a different topic, I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts from a story out of Missouri.

Lobbyists who have sex with a Missouri lawmaker or a member of a lawmaker’s staff would have to disclose it to the Missouri Ethics Commission under a bill introduced Wednesday in the Missouri House. …sexual relations would have to be included on monthly lobbyist gift disclosure forms.

And you thought this cartoon was merely satirical.

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What were the most noteworthy events from 2015?

Regarding bad news, there’s unfortunately a lot of competition. But if I’m forced to pick the very worst developments, here’s my list.

Resuscitation of the Export-Import Bank – I did a premature victory dance last year when I celebrated the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s authority.  I should have known that corrupt cronyism was hard to extinguish. Sure enough, Republicans and Democrats conspired to re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank and transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to politically connected corporations.

Expansion of IMF authority – I also did a premature victory dance in 2014 when I lauded the fact that Congress did not approve increased bailout authority for the International Monetary Fund. Sadly, as part of the year-end spending agreement, Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s authority so it could continue to push for higher taxes around the world.

Busting the spending caps (again) – When I wrote last August that maintaining the spending caps was a key test of GOP integrity, I should have known that they would get a failing grade. Sure enough, Republicans deliberately fumbled the ball at the goal line and agreed to higher spending. Again.

Supreme Court ignores law to bail out Obamacare (again) – Back in 2012, the Supreme Court had a chance to rule whether Obamacare was an impermissible expansion of the power of the federal government. In a truly odious decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ignored the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and decided we could be coerced to buy health insurance. Last year, he did it again, this time by bailing out a key part of Obamacare by deciding to arbitrarily ignore the wording of the law.

Business-as-usual transportation bill – The desire of Congress to fund pork-barrel transportation projects is at least somewhat constrained by the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax. There was an opportunity for reform in 2015 because proposed spending was much higher than the trajectory of gas tax revenue, but rather than even engage in a discussion of good policy options, politicians merely bickered over what combination of tax hikes and budget gimmicks they could put together to keep the pork projects flowing.

Creeping support on the right for the value-added tax – When I wrote early last year that the 2016 election might create an opportunity for tax reform, I was being hopeful that we might get something close to a simple and fair flat tax. Yet probably the biggest news so far in this election cycle is that a couple of candidates who presumably favor small government – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – have proposed to impose a value-added tax without fully repealing the income tax.

There’s very little good news to celebrate. Here’s my tragically sparse list, and you’ll notice that my list of victories is heavy on style and light on substance. But let’s take what we can get.

Semi-decent Republican budgets – The budget resolution produced by Congress technically doesn’t embrace specific policies, but the it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the House and Senate approved numbers that – at least conceptually – are based on genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Support for spending caps – Notwithstanding the fact that GOP politicians won’t even abide by the limited spending caps that already exist, I’m somewhat encouraged by the growing consensus for comprehensive spending caps akin to the ones in place in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Heck, even international bureaucracies now agree spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

Good election results from the Wolverine State – It was great to see Michigan voters reject a gas tax increase that was supported by the political elite.

More companies escaping the IRS – I heartily applaud when companies figure out how to re-domicile in jurisdictions with better tax law to escape America’s high corporate tax rate and self-destructive worldwide tax system. And I’m glad these “inversions” continue to take place even though the Obama Administration is trying to stop them.

A glimmer of reality at the New York Times – I realize I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel in my search for good news, but the fact that the New York Times published a column acknowledging that feminist economic policies backfire against women hopefully is a sign that sensible thinking is possible in the establishment media.

Gun control flopping – It’s great to see that the left has totally failed in its effort to undermine 2nd Amendment rights.

Limits on asset forfeiture – The final bit of good news from 2015 was the just-before-Christmas announcement by the Obama Administration that the odious practice of asset forfeiture would be modestly curtailed.

I would offer predictions for 2016, but since my big prediction from last year that we would have gridlock was sadly inaccurate, I think I’ll avoid making a fool of myself this year.

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Two years ago, I wrote that Washington’s parasite class was having a very merry Christmas.

But I wasn’t mocking welfare recipients, many of whom actually deserve sympathy for getting trapped in the web of government dependency.

Instead, I was referring to the unearned wealth being accumulated by Washington’s gilded class of bureaucrats, cronyists, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, and other insiders.

To cite a truly horrifying statistic, the redistribution of money from America to Washington has made it the nation’s richest metropolitan region.

And it’s getting worse.

Let’s look at what Tim Carney just wrote in the Washington Examiner about Christmas on K Street.

It’s that magical season when Republicans and Democrats come together to look after the needs of corporate America, K Street lobbyists, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. …The highway measure is a huge win for industry while a loss for good governance. Far worse, however, is the…provision reviving the defunct Export-Import Bank, a corporate-welfare agency…K Street lobbied incessantly to revive Ex-Im, backed by President Obama, Hillary Clinton and nearly every Democratic lawmaker. …As a corporate cherry on top, the bill repeals a recent minor cut in federal crop insurance subsidies, a program that benefits financial firms… Congressional leaders are currently negotiating another year-end legislative package, the notorious annual tax extenders bill. …the bill will extend (at least for a short-time) green-energy subsidies: The Production Tax Credit for wind and the Investment Tax Credit for solar. …Almost all of them are crucial for some special interest and the revolving-door lobbyists they employ.

Tim points out that the feeding frenzy is bipartisan, which some people think is a measure of good policy.

Like me, though, Tim isn’t impressed when the Evil Party and the Stupid Party both conspire to produce bad policy.

As this legislation — the highway bill, the energy bill, the tax extenders, plus the omnibus spending bill—pass through both houses, expect hosannas to the “bipartisanship” and “compromise” involved. …there’s one common theme here: Corporate lobbyists win in almost every case.

But catering to the interests of K Street lobbyists is probably not a good strategy for Republicans.

Republican leaders are probably confused about why all their accomplishments and imminent accomplishments, including the highway bill, tax extenders and appropriations, haven’t dragged Congress’s approval out of the gutter—after all, everyone they talk to thinks Congress is doing a bang-up job.

Now let’s look at what Kevin Williamson recently wrote for National Review. His article is primarily about corruption in Chicago, but his observations apply just as well to how Washington operates.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Al Gore, and the rest of that sorry lot aren’t trying to get rich — they’re already rich, some of them wildly rich. They are building a patronage society. And building a patronage society costs a lot of money… The horrifying fact is that Barack Obama can make you a rich man — if you’re the right kind of man. If you operate a politically connected business, the government can direct the better part of $1 billion straight into your coffers… At the other end of the spectrum, a federal tormenter can be the end of your enterprise: Ask those Tea Party groups illegally targeted by Barack Obama’s IRS. Ask a voting-reform advocate who was targeted by the ATF in spite of not being in any business related to A, T, or F.

But it’s not just a case of undeserved goodies getting steered to political cronies.

Yes, that’s a problem, but the economic concern is that this type of economic model misallocates resources and leads to stagnation.

The Clintons’ game isn’t enjoying the $100 million in their checking account — it’s making use of the $44 trillion in American-owned assets as if they owned them themselves. Barack Obama doesn’t want a garage full of Rolls Royces — he wants a world in which Rolls Royce has to ask his permission before building a car or selling one.

In effect, a nation slowly but surely becomes Greece as more and more people either rely on benefits or have jobs in the bloated bureaucracies that dispense goodies.

…you cannot build a patronage society on patrons alone: You need clients. And that’s where the ever-growing public sector comes in. …There is effectively no one working at your local DMV, public school, police station, or IRS office who could earn even 80 percent of his government compensation in a private-sector job. …the really nefarious dependency agenda isn’t focused on the people who cash welfare checks, but on the people who write them, the vast bureaucracies of overpaid functionaries… Get enough of those and you have effective control over the entire economy — Chávez-style socialism without the nasty business of formal expropriation.

By the way, it’s not just libertarian types who worry about bloated government and cronyism.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent column by Robert Samuelson that succinctly captures an inherent problem with government. Writing about the reasons for diminishing productivity growth, he cites the work of Mancur Olson.

Olson revolutionized thinking about the political power of interest groups. …conventional wisdom held that large groups were more powerful than small groups in pursuing their self-interest — say, a government subsidy, tax preference or a protective tariff. …Just the opposite, Olson said in his 1965 book “The Logic of Collective Action.” With so many people in the large group, the benefits of collective action were often spread so thinly that no individual had much of an incentive to become politically active. The tendency was to “let George do it,” but George had no incentive either. By contrast, the members of smaller groups often could see the benefits of their collective action directly. They were motivated to organize and to pursue their self-interest aggressively.

Samuelson continues, elaborating on Olson’s insight about concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.

Here’s an example: A company and its workers lobby for import protection, which saves jobs and raises prices and profits. But consumers — who pay the higher prices — don’t create a counter-lobby, because it’s too much trouble and the higher prices are diluted among many individual consumers. Gains are concentrated, losses dispersed. This was Olson’s great insight, and it had broad implications, he said. In a 1982 book, “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” he argued that the proliferation of special-interest concessions could reduce a society’s economic growth. “An increase in the payoffs from lobbying . . . as compared with the payoffs from production, means more resources are devoted to politics and cartel activity and fewer resources are devoted to production,” he wrote.

The last part of the excerpt is crucial.

When we get to the point when businesses are focused on harvesting favors from Washington (such as bailouts, export subsidies, special tax preferences, etc), that is a very depressing indication of a cronyist economy rather than a capitalist economy. Of being Argentina rather than Hong Kong.

If you’re not already sufficiently depressed, my colleague Chris Edwards has a very good description of the lawmaking process. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts as a teaser.

In a romantic view of democracy, legislators act with the interests of the general public in mind. They grapple with policy issues, work toward a broad consensus, and pass legislation that has strong support. To ensure that funds are spent wisely, they frequently reevaluate existing programs and prune the low-value and harmful ones. They put citizens first and carefully limit their actions to those allowable under the U.S. Constitution. The problem with this “public interest theory of government” is that it has little real-world explanatory power. …we can better understand congressional actions by looking at incentives.

And when you look at how the process really works, you learn it is dominated by “rent seeking,” which is academic jargon for interest groups obtaining undeserved benefits via government coercion.

Members…seek federal benefits for their states because most of the costs will fall on other states. This is a major factor causing federal failure. The structure of Congress leads members to support programs that benefit their states but that are losers for the nation as a whole. …There is no built-in check—no invisible hand, as in markets—to guide members to make value-added decisions… Special-interest groups dominate policy discussions. Most witnesses to congressional hearings favor the programs being examined, and they focus on program benefits, not the costs. Most visitors to member offices on Capitol Hill are there to plead for special benefits. …Washington is teaming with lobbyists seeking special benefits—subsidies, regulations, trade protections—that come at the expense of the general public. …rent seeking is a two-way street. Jonathan Rauch of Brookings noted, “In the public’s mind, the standard model of lobbying in Washington involves special interests buying influence, in a sort of legalized bribery. In fact, the process more often involves politicians shaking down special interests.”

If you’ve read this far, you probably want to go take a shower and wash away the stench of Washington corruption.

But there’s one tiny glimmer of hope. If we can somehow figure out how to shrink the size and scope of government, we can reduce the problem. That’s the message of this video.

While we know the solution, our real challenge is that we can only shrink government by convincing politicians to change policy. Yet asking politicians to reduce government is like asking burglars to be in favor of armed homeowners.

And based on everything I wrote above, we know politicians generally have bad incentives.

But it’s not hopeless. While I certainly enjoy mocking politicians, they’re not totally immoral or even amoral people. Many of them do understand there’s a problem. Indeed, I would argue that recent votes for entitlement reform are an example of genuine patriotism – i.e., doing the right thing for the country.

So is there a potential solution?

Maybe. Let’s use an analogy from Greek mythology. Many politicians generally can’t resist the siren song of a go-along-to-get-along approach. But like Ulysses facing temptation from sirens, they recognize that this is a recipe for a bad outcome. So they realize that some sort of self-imposed constraint is desirable. And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful that we can get them to impose binding spending caps.

We know there are successful reforms by looking at the evidence. And we know there is growing support from fiscal experts. And we even see that normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF acknowledge that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

So if Ulysses can bind himself to the mast and resist the sirens, perhaps we can convince politicians to tie their own hands with a Swiss-style spending cap.

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