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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

I’m not a huge fan of government bureaucrats.

But not because they’re bad people. Yes, there are repugnant hacks in the civil service like Lois Lerner, but most bureaucrats I’ve met are good people.

My objection is that they work for departments that shouldn’t exist (such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc) and/or they are overcompensated relative to workers in the productive sector of the economy.

From an economic perspective, our nation would be more prosperous if this labor was freed up to generate wealth in the private sector.

But let’s not forget that we also have a giant shadow bureaucracy of people (sometimes referred to as “Beltway Bandits”) who get their income from government, but they’re not officially on the payroll because they work for consultants, contractors, grant recipients, and government-sponsored enterprises.

And this may be an even bigger problem. Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates that there are “five and a half ‘shadow’ government employees for every civil servant on the federal payroll.”

In an interview for Fox Business Network about the EPA-caused environmental disaster in Colorado, I took the opportunity to warn about the pernicious and self-serving role of these beltway bandits.

And I made similar points in this 2014 interview, which focused on how Washington is now the richest region in the country thanks to all the taxpayer money that’s being scooped up by this gilded class.

If you want a disgusting example of how taxpayers are victimized by consultants, contractors, and other beltway bandits, just recall the Obamacare websites that turned out to be complete disasters.

That led to some amusing cartoons about the failure of government-run healthcare, but it also should have resulted in outrage about the government giving fat payments for shoddy work.

And this highlights one of the chief differences between government and the private sector.

Since there’s no bottom-line pressure to be efficient in government, contractors, consultants, and other beltway bandits can stay in business in spite of poor performance. In the private sector, by contrast, both households and businesses will quickly sever relationships with people who don’t deliver good results.

Let’s cross the ocean and look at a story which nicely captures this dichotomy.

Here’s an excerpt from a column in the U.K.-based Telegraph, and it deals with an employee at a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) who exposed fraud. In the private sector, such an employee would be rewarded. But at a GSE, which relies on subsidies and protection from competition, such an employee is treated like a leper.

An employee of France’s national rail operator SNCF has revealed being paid €5,000 (£3,550) per month to do absolutely “nothing” for 12 years, it emerged on Friday. …Charles Simon told French media that his employer, which runs France’s trains including the fast TGVs, took him off his day job in 2003 after he blew the whistle on a case of suspected fraud to the tune of €20 million. Since then he has received €5,000 per month net while staying at home with the status “available” for work.

Wow. If my math is right, that’s more than $66,000 per year for doing nothing. For 12 years!

Though at least Monsieur Simon is complaining about the situation, unlike the Indian bureaucrat who managed to get paid up until last year even though he stopped showing up for work back in 1990. Or the Italian government employee who only worked 15 days over a nine-year period.

P.S. Speaking of Beltway Bandits, that’s the name of my 55+ senior softball team and we just won the ISSA World Championship a couple of hours ago, prevailing 16-10 after falling behind 8-0.

And that was one week after we won the SSUSA Eastern National Championship.

And I also have to give a shout out to the Georgia Bulldogs of the Capital Alumni Network, which just won the championship of that 69-team league, becoming the first team in CAN history to be undefeated in the regular season and post-season tournament.

I’m disappointed I couldn’t be there for the celebration because of my other tournament. If I ever become a dictator, my first order will be that different softball tournaments can’t take place on the same weekend (and my second order will be to abolish my job and 90 percent of the rest of the government).

In any event, Go Dawgs! After winning the CAN tourney in 2012, this year’s dominating performance could signal the start of a dynasty.

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What’s the greatest economic tragedy in modern history?

The obvious answer is communism, which produced tens of millions of needless deaths and untold misery for ordinary people. Just compare living standards in North Korea and South Korea, or Chile and Cuba.

But if there was a second-place prize for the world’s biggest economic failure, Argentina would be a strong contender.

Here’s one fact that tells you everything you need to know. In 1946, when Juan Perón came to power, Argentina was one of the 10-richest nations in the world. Economic policy certainly wasn’t perfect, but government wasn’t overly large are markets generally were allowed to function. Combined with an abundance of natural resources, that enabled considerable prosperity.

But Perón decided to conduct an experiment in statism.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes his economic policy.

Campaigning among workers with promises of land, higher wages, and social security, he won a decisive victory in the 1946 presidential elections. Under Perón, the number of unionized workers expanded as he helped to establish the powerful General Confederation of Labor. Perón turned Argentina into a corporatist country in which powerful organized interest groups negotiated for positions and resources. …The state’s role in the economy increased, reflected in the increase in state-owned property, interventionism (including control of rents and prices) and higher levels of public inversion, mainly financed by the inflationary tax. The expansive macroeconomic policy, which aimed at the redistribution of wealth and the increase of spending to finance populist policies, led to inflation. …Perón erected a system of almost complete protection against imports, largely cutting off Argentina from the international market. In 1947, he announced his first Five-Year Plan based on growth of nationalized industries.

So were these policies successful?

Not exactly. In an article published last year, The Economist wrote about Argentina’s sad decline.

…its standing as one of the world’s most vibrant economies is a distant memory… Its income per head is now 43% of those same 16 rich economies… After the second world war, when the rich world began its slow return to free trade with the negotiation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, Argentina had become a more closed economy—and it kept moving in that direction under Perón. An institution to control foreign trade was created in 1946; an existing policy of import substitution deepened; the share of trade as a percentage of GDP continued to fall. …As the urban, working-class population swelled, so did the constituency susceptible to Perón’s promise to support industry and strengthen workers’ rights. There have been periods of liberalisation since, but interventionism retains its allure.

The bottom line is that Perón was a disaster for his nation. Not only did he sabotage Argentina’s economy, he also apparently undermined the social capital of the country by somehow convincing a big chunk of the population that “Peronism” is an alluring economic philosophy.

Sadly, Pope Francis appears to be one of those people.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the New York Times.

The Economist recently called Francis “the Peronist Pope,” referring to his known sympathies for Argentina’s three-time president, Juan Perón. In the 1940s and ’50s, the populist general upended Argentina’s class structure by championing the country’s downtrodden. …“Neither Marxists nor Capitalists. Peronists!” was the chant of Perón’s supporters. And it was borrowing from the church’s political thinking that enabled Perón to found his “Third Way.” …It comes naturally, then, to Francis, who became a priest in Argentina’s politically engaged church hierarchy, to adopt a populist political tone… He speaks directly to the region’s poor with a fire found in the “liberation theology” that inspired South America’s leftist revolutionaries of the 1970s. …“If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist,” he said in 2010, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Pope Francis’ infatuation with statism is very unfortunate for a couple of reasons.

The obvious reason is that he is in a position of influence and he’s using that power to promote policies that will reduce prosperity. And poor people will be the biggest victims, as I explained in this BBC interview.

But there’s another problem with the Pope’s approach. Being charitable to the poor is supposed to be an act of free will, not the result of government coercion. Yet by making statements that – at the very least – are interpreted as supportive of a bigger welfare state, he’s taking free will out of the equation.

Libertarian Jesus” would not approve.

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Let’s celebrate some good news.

When politicians can be convinced (or pressured) to exercise even a modest bit of spending restraint, it’s remarkably simple to get positive results.

Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship. But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

And “much better fiscal numbers” really are much better.

Here’s a chart I put together showing how the burden of federal spending declined between 2009 and 2014. And this happened for the simple reason that spending was flat and the economy had a bit of growth.

But now let’s look at some bad news.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the big spenders in Washington don’t like fiscal discipline.

They don’t like the modest restraint required by the Budget Control Act and they want to repeal or eviscerate the law. And they’ve already enjoyed some success, replacing spending restraint with tax hikes and budget gimmicks back in 2013.

And now there’s pressure for a similar capitulation this year, led by the Committee (gee, what a shocker) that’s in charge of spending money.

An article in Politico captures some of the internal dynamics.

…what should have been a dream job for House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has instead become an exercise in frustration. Despite his plum position, Rogers finds himself at odds with GOP leadership… He’s calling for his party to raise strict spending caps he says are choking off necessary funding… But Rogers’ calls for a budget deal have fallen flat.

By the way, it’s not the main point of today’s column, but the article also shows why it was so important to eliminate “earmarks.”

Lawmakers no longer can be bribed to support more spending in exchange for pork-barrel projects.

It’s a reminder of the sway lost by the once powerful appropriations panel, in an age when earmarks are outlawed… The committee, once an aspiration for every lawmaker, is struggling to make its voice heard… appropriator Steve Womack (R-Ark.)…cheered Rogers for “pushing our leaders to the extent that he can” toward a budget accord. “Appropriators are in a tough spot … We just don’t have the grease that we formerly possessed.”

Good. I don’t want big spenders to have “grease” that facilitates a bigger burden of government.

But getting rid of earmarks didn’t win the war. Washington is still filled with lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronies, special interests, and other insiders who want more spending.

They want to bust the spending caps so they can line their pockets at the expense of the American people. Which is why maintaining the BCA caps are a critical test of whether Republicans are sincere about controlling Leviathan.

To understand the importance of the spending caps, here’s a chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-wing group that supports bigger government. I won’t vouch for their specific numbers since they have an incentive to exaggerate and overstate the amount of fiscal discipline that’s been imposed, but there’s no question that the big spenders have been handcuffed in recent years.

Now that we’ve reviewed why it’s important to have spending caps, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

There are two reasons why Republicans may sell out. First, as already discussed, some of them are spendaholics. They like bribing voters with other people’s money.

The second reason the GOP may capitulate is that the President and congressional Democrats may force a “government shutdown” fight.

To be more specific, the annual spending (or “appropriations”) bills are supposed to be completed by October 1, which is the start of the new fiscal year.

If President Obama uses his veto pen, which is what most observers expect, there will be a shutdown. And even though previous shutdowns have yielded positive policy changes, Republicans are afraid that they will suffer political blowback.

Given that they won a landslide election in 2014 after the 2013 shutdown (and also prevailed after the 1995 shutdown fight), this skittishness is a bit of a mystery, but the conventional wisdom is that GOPers will capitulate to Obama and agree to a deal that busts the spending caps.

Which would be very unfortunate for the cause of good fiscal policy.

On the issue of big government and spending discipline, I recently appeared on John Stossel’s show, along with my colleague Chris Edwards, while participating in FreedomFest. Here’s what we said about the importance of shrinking Washington to promote freedom and prosperity.

P.S. In this video, Chris and I pontificate at greater length on fiscal policy issues.

P.P.S. While I’m critical of the politicians on the Appropriations Committee, I don’t think they’re necessarily any worse than other lawmakers. As I explained last month when analyzing the bad behavior of politicians who are on the committees that deal with transportation, the system creates a perverse incentive structure to expand government.

P.P.P.S. Here’s some government shutdown humor. And some more at the bottom of this post.

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For both policy reasons and narcissism, I wish the most popular item ever posted on International Liberty was Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

But that guide to sensible fiscal policy isn’t even in the top 70.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsInstead, my most-read post is a set of cartoons showing how the welfare state inevitably metastasizes as more and more people are lured into the wagon of government dependency.

I suspect these cartoons are popular because they succinctly capture and express a concern that is instinctively felt by many people.

But instinct isn’t the same as evidence.

So I’ve shared various estimates of America’s growing dependency problem, though I’ve also warned that these numbers don’t necessarily tell the full story.

Given my dissatisfaction with the current estimates, I was very interested to see a new attempt to measure the degree to which nations are undermined by ever-expanding redistribution. Writing for the Mises Institute and using Greece as an example, Justin Murray analyzes the dependency problem.

…without understanding how Greece got into this problem in the first place and identifying the root cause of an over-indebted society, any plan or solution has a high probability of failure. …Greece, being a nation with a high tax rate on production and a high subsidy rate on public assistance, will generate a population that finds greater preference toward public assistance and away from productive labor.

Mr. Murray puts together a new statistic called “implied public reliance,” which is designed to measure how many strangers each worker is supporting.

…we must identify a nation’s currently employed population. Next, all public sector employees are removed to obtain an adjusted productive workforce. …this productive population is divided into the nation’s total population to identify the total number of individuals a worker is expected to support in his country. …the average household size is subtracted from this result to get the final number of individuals that an individual must support that are not part of their own voluntary household. In other words, how many total strangers is this individual providing for? …Greece…is currently expecting each employed person to support 6.1 other people above and beyond their own families.

And here’s a chart from his article, showing the IPR measures for 18 countries.

I’m not surprised that Greece has the worst IPR number, and it’s also no surprise that nations such as Italy and France do poorly.

Though I am surprised that Canada scores so highly. And Denmark’s decent performance doesn’t make sense considering the data I shared a few months ago.

Mr. Murray then looks at this data from a different perspective.

To demonstrate how difficult it is to change these systems within a democratic society, we just have to look at the percentage of the population that is reliant on public subsidy.

And here are those numbers.

Wow. It’s hard to be optimistic after looking at these shocking numbers.

Moreover, I suspect we’ll remain pessimistic even if Mr. Murray’s initial numbers are revised as he refines his methodology.

And here’s the most depressing part of the analysis.

The numbers imply that 67 percent of the population of Greece is wholly reliant on the Greek government to provide their incomes. With such a commanding supermajority, changing this system with the democratic process is impossible as the 67 percent have strong incentives to continue to vote for the other 33 percent — and also foreign entities — to cover their living expenses.

From a public policy perspective, here’s the real challenge: How do you convince voters to back away from the public trough?

In my humble opinion, the only possible solution is to reject any and all bailouts and force Greece to balance its budget overnight. With luck, that may be such a sobering experience that the Greek people might learn that a society based on mooching and looting doesn’t work.

Not that I’m optimistic. Which is why I’ve been worried for more than five years that we’ll eventually see a loss of democracy in some European nations.

P.S. The second-most viewed post of all time is a parable about buying beer, which is actually a lesson about the dangers of so-called progressive taxation. And the third-most viewed post is a parable about applying socialist principles in a classroom, which is a lesson about the dangers about the dangers of redistribution.

P.P.S. On the topic of dependency, here’s what nursery tales would look like if they were written by statists.

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In the past, I’ve identified the world’s most misleading headlines and I’ve also identified the world’s least surprising headline.

Today, I’m going to share the world’s most disappointing headline.

When I first saw this story in USA Today, I thought it was time to celebrate.

Wow, I thought, what a great outcome. I’ve always wanted a restoration of federalism, but I never thought this is how it would occur.

So I decided to read the story to find out what’s causing DC’s well-deserved disappearance.

Alas, none of those reasons apply for the simple reason that the headline is an absurd exaggeration.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but Washington isn’t really going away. Here’s what’s actually in the story.

…new research from the U.S. Geological Surveyand the University of Vermont shows that the land in the district — where the Lincoln Memorial was built on silt dredged from the Potomac River — is expected to fall 6 inches or more during the next 100 years.

Sigh, how disappointing.

In other words, we’re going to have to rely on old-fashioned methods if we really want to cut Washington down to size. Since it’s not going to disappear on its own, we’ll need tax reform, deregulation, and program terminations if we want to solve the problem.

And one fringe benefit of this approach, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal, is that a smaller government means fewer lobbyists and special interest groups.

Businesses have no choice but to lobby a government that can cripple them with a single new regulation. …The real problem is the opportunities for corruption and special dealing that a too-large government provides. Every new regulation or twist of the tax code is an opening for some powerful Member to assist the powerful. But the solution is to reduce the size and scope of the regulatory state and to reform the tax code.

Amen. I’ve been arguing for years that big government means big corruption. I even narrated a video making that point.

But I think I said it best in this CNBC interview when I equated big government to a dumpster in an alley.

So we may not be able to sink Washington, but we can make it less of an unseemly nuisance by reducing the size and scope of the federal government.

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One of the reasons I repeatedly compare market-oriented countries with statist nations is to show that even minor differences in growth, if sustained over time, can have enormous impact on living standards for ordinary people.

And that’s why we should be very worried that America’s economy is sputtering. During the 138 years between 1870 and 2008,  our economy expanded by an average of about 3 percent per year, but now it seems like 2 percent growth is the “new normal.”

That may not sound like a big difference, but it takes more than 35 years to double economic output if an economy grows 2 percent annually.

With 3 percent yearly growth, by contrast, GDP doubles in less than 25 years.

The Wall Street Journal understands that we should be worried about the recent slowdown. Citing new research from the Joint Economic Committee, the WSJ opines on the high cost of Obamanomics.

…the American economy has become a slow-growth machine. That’s the story underscored by the annual government revisions in historical GDP that accompanied the second-quarter report. The news, which most Americans have long felt in slow-growing wages, is that the worst expansion in 70 years has been even weaker than we thought. …Since the recession ended in June 2009, the economy has grown at an annual rate of about 2.1%. That’s 0.6-percentage points worse than even during the much-maligned George W. Bush expansion.

And it’s far below the economic performance America enjoyed during the more market-friendly policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The WSJ compares Obama’s six-year “expansion” with the growth of the economy after six years of expansion in the 1980s and 1990s.

Real GDP growth averaged 4.6% in the first six years of the Reagan expansion, and more than 3.6% a year in the first six years of the George H.W. Bush-Bill Clinton expansion… Had the current expansion been as robust as the average expansion since 1960, GDP would be some $1.89 trillion larger today, according to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.

Wow, nearly $1.9 trillion in foregone economic output.

No wonder median household income is lower than when Obama took office.

And no wonder employee compensation has been stagnant.

So why is the economy so moribund?

There’s no great mystery about why growth has been so slow. The natural dynamism of the U.S. economy has been swamped by waves of bad policies. Unprecedented new regulation has hamstrung finance, health care, the coal and power industries, for-profit education, and so much more. …Higher taxes—their anticipation and then the reality in 2013—slowed risk-taking and investment. Profits fell in the first quarter of 2013 thanks to the tax cliff, and growth for 2013 was a mere 1.5% after the latest revisions.

Amen. I’ve made this same point, over and over and over again.

Simply stated, prosperity and big government are not very compatible.

Now let’s close with a bit of optimism. Yes, the aggregate burden of government has increased in the United States in recent years. But we’re nonetheless the 12th-freest economy in the world. based on a comprehensive analysis of fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and the rule of law.

Sure, that’s down from being the 7th-freest economy in 2008 and the 3rd-freest economy in 2001, yet we’re still ahead of Japan (#23), Sweden (#32), France (#58), Greece (#84), and China (#115).

And while the overall size and scope of government has increased in the past six years, we’ve actually enjoyed a small bit of progress in terms of reducing government spending relative to the economy’s productive sector.

So while I sometimes sound like a Cassandra about what’s been happening and where we’re heading, the good news is that we still have time to reverse course.

Our most pressing need is genuine entitlement reform, and there’s a non-trivial chance that may happen in 2017. So no need to abandon ship quite yet.

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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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