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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

Because of what he’s said on entitlements, infrastructure, child care, and other issues, I’ve been skeptical about Donald Trump.

But if recent headlines are true, I may develop a man crush.

Here’s a story from The Hill.

Donald Trump is ready to take an ax to government spending. Staffers for the Trump transition team have been meeting with career staff at the White House ahead of Friday’s presidential inauguration to outline their plans for shrinking the federal bureaucracy, The Hill has learned. The changes they propose are dramatic. The departments of Commerce and Energy would see major reductions in funding, with programs under their jurisdiction either being eliminated or transferred to other agencies. The departments of Transportation, Justice and State would see significant cuts and program eliminations. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely. Overall, the blueprint being used by Trump’s team would reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years. …At the Department of Justice, the blueprint calls for eliminating the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Violence Against Women Grants and the Legal Services Corporation and for reducing funding for its Civil Rights and its Environment and Natural Resources divisions. At the Department of Energy, it would…eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Under the State Department’s jurisdiction, funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are candidates for elimination.

This warms my heart. It might even send a thrill up my leg, to borrow a phrase from Chris Matthews.

But that’s not all.

The Washington Examiner also has a report that has me salivating.

Making good on a promise to slash government, President-elect Trump has asked his incoming team to pursue spending and staffing cuts. Insiders said that the spending reductions in some departments could go as high as 10 percent and staff cuts to 20 percent, numbers that would rock Washington if he follows through. At least two so-called “landing teams” in Cabinet agencies have relayed the call for cuts as part of their marching orders to shrink the flab in government. …The teams also are looking at staffing cuts over four years through attrition, a hiring freeze and reorganization. The plan is winning cheers in conservative, anti-tax and anti-spending corners in Washington that have long sought massive cuts in the bureaucracy. …Trump is likely to face a wall of opposition from Democrats and federal unions who consider much of the federal workforce on their side.

Sounds great, right?

But before getting too excited, keep in mind that these articles simply refer to options that Trump’s team is preparing. It’s still an open question whether Trump actually embraces these policies.

So my man crush is on hold until I see whether Trump actually decides to do what’s right for the nation.

But if he does, I have some very helpful three-part advice for successful fiscal policy.

  1. The budget is a garden.
  2. Counterproductive agencies, programs, and departments are like weeds in the garden.
  3. Don’t trim weeds, pull them out by the roots.

In other words, don’t cut programs by 10 percent, 20 percent, or even 50 percent. If you do that, it’s like cutting off a weed at ground level. If the root system is still there, it’s just a matter of time before it regrows and begins to suffocate the good plants (i.e., the private sector).

Instead, shut them down. Eliminate them. Raze the buildings. And pour a foot of salt on the ground so nothing can regrow.

Simply stated, it’s very easy to restore a budget cut at some point in the future. But if a part of government is totally wiped out, then special interests have to go through all the effort of recreating that function. And that’s not overly easy given the separation-of-powers system that the Founding Fathers wisely created.

Another advantage of killing off programs and agencies is that voters will see that they were never needed in the first place.

Get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts and people will quickly see that the hysterical claims of its supporters were nonsense.

Shut down the Department of Commerce and, other than cronyists, folks won’t even notice that it’s gone.

Cut off all funding for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the only losers will be the bureaucrats who no longer get to enjoy business-class junkets to Paris.

I’ve already identified several cabinet departments that should be terminated.

  • Get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • Shut down the Department of Agriculture.
  • Eliminate the Department of Transportation.
  • Abolish the Department of Education.
  • Pull the plug on the Department of Energy.
  • Phase out the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Dump the Small Business Administration.

John Stossel also has a bunch of suggestions for Trump’s first week.

…there’s a lot of good Trump and Pence could do their first day, or, let’s be generous, their first week. …Monday: Abolish the Department of Commerce. …Commerce just happens; it doesn’t need a department. Today the Department of Commerce spends $9 billion a year subsidizing companies with political connections, gathering economic data, setting industry standards and doing a bunch of things companies ought to do for themselves. Get rid of it. Tuesday: Abolish the Department of Labor. The Department inserts itself into almost every protracted argument between workers and management. Why should we let government referee every argument? Let workers, bosses, unions and their lawyers fight it out. …The Labor Department also spends about $9 billion gathering information on workers. Top labor-union bosses make six-figure salaries. I’m sure their organizations could spend a little on statistics and workplace studies. Leave the poor, oppressed taxpayer out of it.

For the rest of the week, he suggests wiping out the Small Business Administration, the Department of Education, and the Department of Energy, so you can see we’re on the same wavelength.

The bottom line is that President Trump (I didn’t think I’d ever write those words) is in a position to…um, well…make America great again.

But that means pursuing a fiscal policy consistent with America’s founding principles.

I’m not expecting miracles, but it would be nice to see some semi-serious spending restraint when the dust settles. And any good results will be much more durable if they’re based on program terminations instead of haircuts.

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When politicians create programs and announce projects, they routinely lie about the real costs. Their primary goal is to get initial approval for various boondoggles and they figure it will be too late to reverse path once it becomes apparent that something will cost for more than the initial low-ball estimates. Obamacare is a classic (and discouraging) example.

These “cost overruns” are very bad news for taxpayers, of course, but the system works very well for insiders. Bureaucrats get more money. Interest groups get more money. Government contractors get more money. Government consultants get more money. And some of that money gets funneled back to politicians in the form of campaign contributions, so they get more money as well.

This scam is particularly prevalent whenever politicians decide to build infrastructure. And there are lots of local examples in the Washington area.

But it’s definitely not limited to Washington. There are ridiculous examples of cost overruns elsewhere in the world.

And it goes without saying that places controlled by statists often produce the most absurd examples of wasteful boondoggles. Indeed, is there anyone in the world surprised to see this headline from a story in the Los Angeles Times?

Here are some of the details from the report.

A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion. …The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

Over budget and overdue? Gee, who could have predicted that would happen with a government infrastructure project (other than every single person with an IQ above room temperature).

What happens next is unclear. The federal bureaucracy that disburses grants presumably wants to keep the gravy train on the tracks (pun intended), though hopefully Congress will tell California there won’t be any more federal handouts.

The Federal Railroad Administration is tracking the project because it has extended $3.5 billion in two grants to help build the Central Valley segment. …Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said Friday… “Despite past issues with funding this boondoggle, we were repeatedly assured in an August field hearing that construction costs were under control,” he said in a statement. “They continue to reaffirm my belief that this is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.” …About 80% of all bullet train systems incur massive overruns in their construction, according to Bent Flyvbjerg, an infrastructure risk expert at the University of Oxford who has studied such rail projects all over the world.

Unsurprisingly, the various interest groups that are feasting on this boondoggle want it to continue, whether the money comes from federal taxpayers or state taxpayers.

The California system is being built by an independent authority that has never built anything and depends on a large network of consultants and contractors for advice. …Proponents of the project, including many veteran transportation experts, have said that California’s massive economy can handle higher costs for the project — even more than $100 billion — by increasing sales taxes.

For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly care if California voters want to squander their own money and hasten the state’s economic decline.

But I’m very much against the idea that my income should be forcibly redistributed to support this foolish bit of pork. And this is why I’m very nervous about Donald Trump’s infatuation with infrastructure. Though since he hasn’t provided many details, so we don’t know whether he wants a business-as-usual expansion of pork or a much-needed expansion of private-sector involvement. But I’m not optimistic.

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Last year, I shared some remarkable research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development about the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

The economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy looked at data from its member nations (primarily Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim), discovered that the countries with bigger government experienced less growth, and concluded that there would be much more prosperity if those nations merely reduced government modestly.

So you can imagine what sort of numbers that study would have generated if a few jurisdictions with genuinely modest-sized government, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, were part of the data.

But that’s a separate issue. Today’s topic is about a study from another international bureaucracy. The European Central Bank has new research looking at the impact specifically of excessive pay for government bureaucrats. Here are the key findings from the nontechnical summary at the beginning of the paper.

…there are benefits from government wage bill reform that go beyond the objective of fiscal consolidation. …a rationalisation of government wages and employment policies can generate favourable labour market effects in the medium to longer term through competitiveness and efficiency gains. Competitiveness gains materialise through the spillovers effects of public wage moderation on the determination of private sector wages. …An important aspect of the debate on public wage bill restraint concerns how long such policies can be sustained over time. …Additional margins of short-term adjustment include the moderation of still high public-to-private wages gaps, or a possible continuation of the downsizing trend in public employment, depending on the country-specific situation. …Finally, the paper argues that reforms affecting public sector personnel are most effective and have more sustained effects when the measures implemented are of a structural nature… Some examples are…measures to streamline the size and scope of government.

Wow, an international bureaucracy writing about the economic benefits that accrue if policy makers “streamline the size and scope of government.” Be still, my beating heart!

If you’re a policy wonk, you’ll like the fact that the study is filled with lots of interesting data and charts.

…aggregate data show that the euro area government wage differential with respect to the private sector increased from 20% in 2007 to 25% in 2009, and subsequently fell to 23% in 2014.

Here’s the relevant chart. The blue line, which links to the left axis, shows the degree to which bureaucrats are overpaid compared to the private sector. For the past 10 years, the “pay premium” has been in the 20 percent-25 percent range.

This problem of excessive pay for the bureaucracy has been a growing problem.

…general government compensation of employees grew faster than nominal GDP over the whole 2007-2014 crisis period

Though once the “austerity” era began about 2010, there was a bit of reform to bureaucrat compensation (in Europe, “fiscal consolidation” mostly meant higher taxes, but some spending restraint), particularly in nations that were forced to make changes because investors were becoming increasingly reluctant to lend them more money..

Here’s a chart showing bureaucrat pay as a share of GDP, with the blue bar showing the amount of economic output consumed by government workers in 2010 and the yellow dots showing the level in 2014. Some countries increased the relative burden of bureaucrat compensation and others reduced it, but what strikes me as noteworthy is that Germany and the Czech Republic deserve praise for keeping the burden low (honorable mention for Luxembourg and Slovakia) while Denmark stands out for being absurdly extravagant.

For a longer-term perspective, at least with regards to the size of the bureaucracy, here’s a table showing the share of the population getting a paycheck from government. Fascinating data. I especially like the columns on the right, which show that Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom deserve credit for reducing over time the amount of bureaucrats relative to the private sector. The nations that have moved farthest in the wrong direction, by contrast, are Greece (gee, what a surprise), Spain, Portugal, and Finland.

Now let’s get to the meat of the study, which looks at the economic impact of less bureaucracy.

The authors cite some of the existing academic research, much of which focuses on the degree to which excessive pay for the public sector causes economy-wide distortions that make nations less competitive and result in slower growth. Basically, excessive pay for bureaucrats forces private employers to increase pay as well, but in ways that aren’t sustainable based on underlying levels of productivity.

A seminal work Alesina et al. (2002) found that reducing public wage expenditure generates reductions in private wages per employee, which improves competitiveness, increasing profits, investment, and economic growth. …A key argument is that public wage restraint may set in motion a labour market adjustment through the inter-linkages with private wages. …The literature has found robust evidence of significant interrelations between public and private sector wages per employee. A wealth of recent empirical papers provides evidence of a direct causal relationship between these variables. …The empirical literature tends to find that public employment crowds-out private sector employment.

But when fiscal pressures force politicians to cut back on the excessive pay for government employees, this enables the private sector to have pay levels that are consistent with sustainable long-run growth.

The authors share some of their new findings.

…the recent consolidation period has contributed to some competitiveness gains in the euro area, in view of the evidence provided on the partial correction of the public-private wage premium. …Overall, the restraint in public wages directly reduced unit labour cost (ULC) growth in the euro area during the 2010-2014 period. …The existence of distortions in public-private wage gaps…can be particularly harmful for competitiveness given that public sector activities are concentrated in non-tradable sectors, which are less exposed to international competition. …There is evidence that the recent public wage restraint has driven the partial correction of the existing positive public-private wage premium in the euro area.

The authors close by discussing some policy implications.

Well-designed government wages and employment policies and reforms may generate overall economy competitiveness gains and increase the efficiency of the labour market. …public employment adjustments can affect GDP and total economy employment positively if there are large inefficiencies in the government sector… In addition, if a public pay gap exists, the latter positive effect of public wage restraint becomes amplified as labour market inefficiencies are also reduced.

This is helpful research. It’s not often that a government bureaucracy releases a study showing that overpaid bureaucrats hinder overall economic performance.

Though I hasten to add that the study only looked at the macroeconomic effect of excessive pay. As I argue near the end of this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the additional problem is that various bureaucracies are engaging in activities that are economically harmful. In the case of the United States, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and Department of Housing and Urban Development would be just a few examples of agencies where programmatic spending surely is more damaging that bureaucrat compensation.

The good news is that the ECB study also recognizes the need for structural reform. That’s why there was a reference to the need to “streamline the size and scope of government.”

The bad news is that politicians don’t care about this consensus.

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At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or like Donald Sutherland in Animal House), I’m going to repeat myself for the umpteenth time and state that the United States has a big long-run problem.

To be specific, the burden of government spending will inexorably climb in the absence of big reforms. This isn’t just my speculation. It’s a built-in mathematical result of poorly designed entitlement programs combined with demographic changes.

I wrote about these issues in a column for The Hill.

…there is a big reason to worry about the slowdown in population growth in the U.S. Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

To back up my claim, I then cited grim numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, and also linked to very sobering data about America’s long-run fiscal position from the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Simply stated, the United States will become a failed welfare state if we don’t make changes in the near future.

But I point out that we can save ourselves from that fate. And it’s not complicated. Just make sure government spending grows slower than the private economy, which will only be possible in the long run if lawmakers reform entitlements, particularly Medicare and Medicaid.

…it’s also possible that Washington will get serious about genuine entitlement reform. …if Congress adopted the structural reforms that have been in House budgets in recent years, much of our long-run spending problem would disappear. …the real goal is to make sure that government spending grows slower than the private sector.

That’s the good news.

But here’s the bad news. Based on his campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump isn’t a fan of entitlement reform.

And if he says no, it isn’t going to happen. Writing for National Review, Michael Barone explains that Trump’s opposition is a death knell.

The election of Donald Trump has put the kibosh on…the entitlement reform sought by conservative elites… Trump…has made plain that he’s opposed to significant changes in entitlements… It’s hard to see how Republicans in Congress will go to the trouble of addressing entitlements if their efforts can’t succeed.

As a matter of political prognostication, I agree. Republicans on Capitol Hill are not going to push reform without a receptive White House.

It doesn’t matter that they’re right.

Conservative elites’ concern about entitlements is based on solider numbers… There’s a strong case for making adjustments now… The longer we wait, the more expensive and painful adjustments will be. …Conservative…elites may have superior long-range vision. But they’re not going to get the policies they want for the next four years.

But this doesn’t mean reform is a lost cause.

I explained last month that there are three reasons why Trump might push for good policy even though he said “I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.”

  • First, politicians oftentimes say things they don’t mean (remember Obama’s pledge that people could keep their doctors and their health plans if Obamacare was enacted?).
  • Second, the plans to fix Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t involve any cuts. Instead, reformers are proposing changes that will slow the growth of outlays.
  • Third, if Trump is even slightly serious about pushing through his big tax cut, he’ll need to have some plan to restrain overall spending to make his agenda politically viable.

And maybe Trump has reached the same conclusion. At least to some degree.

Here’s what is being reported by The Hill.

Medicaid has grown in size in recent years, with ObamaCare extending coverage to millions of low-income people who hadn’t qualified before. But Republicans warn of the program’s growing costs and have pushed to provide that money to states in the form of block grants — an idea President-elect Donald Trump endorsed during the campaign. Vice President-elect Mike Pence signaled in an interview with ABC this month that the incoming administration planned to keep Medicare as it is, while looking at ways to change Medicaid. …Block grants would mean limiting federal Medicaid funds to a set amount given to the states, rather than the current federal commitment, which is more open-ended. …Gail Wilensky, who was head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services…argued that…If federal money for the program were fixed, “states would have much greater incentives to use it as efficiently as possible,” she said.

The policy argument for Medicaid reform is very strong.

The real question is whether Trump ultimately decides to expend political capital on a much-needed reform. Because he would need to do some heavy lifting. If GOPers push for block grants, well-heeled medical providers such as hospitals will lobby fiercely to maintain the status quo (after all what’s is waste and fraud to us is money in the bank for them). Trump would have to be willing to push back and make a populist argument for federalism and fiscal responsibility rather than a populist argument for dependency.

I guess we’ll see what happens.

P.S. For what it’s worth, if Trump is going to fix just one entitlement program, Medicaid is a good choice.

P.P.S. In an ideal world, Medicare and Social Security also should be fixed.

P.P.P.S. That being said, if the major fiscal change of a Trump Administration is Medicaid reform, I’ll be relatively happy. I’ve been operating on the assumption (based in part of what he said during the campaign) that Trump is a big-government Republican. Sort of like Bush. I will be very happy if it turns out I was wrong.

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What could be more fun than to spend the day before Christmas reading about fiscal policy?

I realize there are probably endless ways to answer that question, particularly since normal people are probably more concerned about the rumor that the feds are going to arrest Santa Claus.

But America’s fiscal future is very grim, so hopefully some of you will be interested in some relevant new research on spending caps.

My buddy Sven Larson has a scholarly article about deficits and the Swiss Debt Brake that has just been published by the Journal of Governance and Regulation.

The first half of his article is a review of the academic debate on whether deficits are good (the Keynesians) or bad (the austerity crowd). This literature review is necessary for that sort of article, though I think it’s a distraction because deficits are merely a symptom. The real problem is excessive government.

Sven then gets to the meat of his article, which considers whether the Swiss Debt Brake (which imposes a cap on annual spending increases) is a better approach because it isn’t focused on annual budget deficits (which are susceptible to big swings because income tax revenues can dramatically increase or decline based on the economy’s performance).

…the Swiss Debt Brake…focuses primarily on the non-cyclical, i.e., structural part of the deficit in Switzerland (Geier 2011). By focusing on the long-term debt outlook rather than the short-term or annual ebbs and flows, the debt brake allows the economy to move through a business cycle without disruptive fiscal-policy incursions. …Since it was introduced in 2003 it appears to have worked as intended. Beljean and Geier (2013) present evidence suggesting that the brake has ended a long period of sustained government deficits.

Sven then cites my Wall Street Journal column on the Debt Brake, which is nice, and he then shares some new evidence about the economic benefits of the Swiss spending cap.

The Swiss economy grew faster in the first decade after the brake went into effect than in the decade immediately preceding its enactment.

And, in his conclusion, he speculates that the United States could reap similar economic benefits with a spending cap.

Should Congress manage to pass and comply with an adapted version of the Swiss debt brake, it is reasonable to expect…stronger economic growth. As an indication of the potential macroeconomic gains, a real growth rate of three percent as opposed to two percent over a period of ten years would add more than $2.3 trillion in annual economic activity to the U.S. GDP.

The degree of additional growth that would be triggered by a spending cap is an open question, of course, but if we could get even half of that additional growth, it would be a boon for American living standards.

Let’s now shift to an article with a much more hostile view of spending caps.

I wrote very recently about the adoption of a spending cap in Brazil. This new system will limit government spending so that it can’t grow faster than inflation. Sounds very reasonable to me, but Zeeshan Aleem has a Vox column that is apoplectic about the supposed horrible consequences.

Americans worried that Donald Trump will try to shred the nation’s social welfare programs can take some grim comfort by looking south: No matter what Republicans do, it will pale in comparison with the changes that are about to ravage Brazil. On Thursday, a new constitutional amendment goes into effect in Brazil that effectively freezes federal government spending for two decades. Since the spending cap can only increase by the rate of inflation in the previous year, that means that spending on government programs like education, health care, pensions, infrastructure, and defense will, in real terms, remain paused at 2016 levels until the year 2037.

Since the burden of government spending in Brazil has been rising far faster than the growth of the private sector (thus violating fiscal policy’s Golden Rule), I view the spending cap as a long-overdue correction.

Interesting, Aleem admits that the policy is being welcomed by financial markets.

As far as inspiring faith from investors, the amendment appears to be working. Brazil’s currency and stocks rose during December in part because of the passage of the measure.

But the author is upset that there won’t be as much redistribution spending.

…the spending cap…places the burden of reining in government spending entirely on beneficiaries of government spending — all Brazilians, but especially the poor and the vulnerable.

Instead, Aleem wants big tax increases.

…the amendment does a great deal to limit the expenditure of government funds, it doesn’t do anything to directly address how to generate them directly: taxes. “The major cause of our fiscal crisis is falling revenues,” Carvalho says… Carvalho says taking an ax to spending is coming at the expense of discussing “taxing the very rich, who do not pay very much in taxes, or eliminating tax cuts that have been given to big corporations.”

Wow, methinks Professor Carvalho and I don’t quite see things the same way.

I would point out that falling revenues in a deep recession is not a surprise. But that’s an argument for policies that boost growth, not for big tax hikes.

Especially since the long-run fiscal problem in Brazil is a growing burden of government spending.

And it’s worth noting that overall impact of the spending cap, even after 10 years, will be to bring the size of the public sector back to where it was in about 2008.

Let’s close by reviewing an article by Charles Blahous of the Mercatus Center. Chuck starts by noting that we have a spending problem. More specifically, the burden of government is expanding faster than the private economy.

…to say we have a problem with deficits and debt is an oversimplification. What we have instead is an overspending problem, and the federal debt is essentially a symptom of that problem. …federal spending has grown and will grow (under current projections) faster than our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The solution, he explains, is a procedural version of a spending cap.

To solve this, future federal budgets in which spending grows as a percentage of GDP from one year to the next should require a congressional supermajority (e.g., three-fifths or two-thirds) to pass. Only if spending in the budget does not rise as a percentage of GDP from one year to the next could it be passed with a simple majority.

Chuck explains why there should be a limit on spending increases.

…we cannot permanently continue to allow federal spending to grow faster than America’s production. …as government spending growth exceeds GDP growth, we all lose more control over our economic lives. As individuals we will have less of a say over the disposition of each dollar we earn, because the government will claim a perpetually-growing share.

And higher taxes are never a solution to a spending problem.

…this problem cannot be solved by raising taxes. Raising taxes…does not avoid the necessity of keeping spending from rising faster than our productive output. Raising taxes may even have the downside of deferring the necessary solutions on the spending side.

The last sentence in that abstract is key. I’ve written about why – in theory – I could accept some tax increases in order to obtain some permanent spending reforms. In the real world of Washington, however, politicians will never adopt meaningful spending restraint if there’s even the slightest rumor that higher taxes may be an option.

He concludes that current budget rules need to be updated.

…budget rules apply no procedural barriers to continuing unsustainable spending growth rates, while legislative points of order protect baseline fiscal practices in which both federal spending and revenues grow faster than the economy’s ability to keep pace.

I certainly agree, though it would be nice to see something much stronger than just changes in congressional procedures.

Perhaps something akin to the constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland?

Now that would be a nice Christmas present for American taxpayers.

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With Christmas approaching, people are putting together their lists for Santa Claus.

I’m not sure I’ll find any of these things under my tree, but here’s what I want.

In the joyous spirit of the season, now let’s add to this collection by targeting the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The is the agency that put veterans on secret waiting lists, leading to needless and tragic deaths. And then the bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses (nice work if you can get it!).

And the shoddy treatment of America’s former warriors continues. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Daily Caller.

…almost 600 veterans who received dental care may have been infected with HIV or hepatitis. …the VA is notifying 592 veterans who had dental procedures from a particular dental provider… If any veterans test positive for HIV or hepatitis, they can receive free treatment.

Gee, that’s a great deal. You may get a life-altering illness, but the bureaucracy that enabled the illness will give you additional treatments.

Oh, and you’ll be glad to know that the VA dentist who potentially exposed the veterans is continuing to draw a government paycheck.

Instead of being fired, that dentist has been reassigned to an administrative role, despite potentially exposing almost 600 veterans to HIV or hepatitis.

Like I said, nice work if you can get it.

The VA’s penchant for secrecy wasn’t limited to waiting lists. The bureaucracy also has tried to cover up poor performance at dozens of local medical facilities.

Stars and Stripes has revealed the unseemly details.

A veterans group has blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs over leaked internal documents showing dozens of medical facilities performing at below-average levels. USA Today obtained the documents and published them Wednesday, revealing the secret system. The VA had previously refused to make the ratings public, claiming the system is for internal use only. It rates each of the VA’s medical centers on a scale of one to five, with one being the worst. …The worst performing centers are in Dallas and El Paso, Texas, and in Nashville, Memphis and Murfreesboro, Tenn. The documents also show that some medical centers have not improved despite scandals and scrutiny from Congress. The Phoenix VA still sits at a one-star rating despite a 2014 scandal revealing veterans died while waiting for care and that staff manipulated wait-time data there and at other VA hospitals across the country.

You’ll be happy to learn, however, that there were some consequences for the Phoenix division.

In response the malfeasance, neglect, and mistreatment of veterans, the leaders of the VA in Washington decided to punish the local bureaucracy by…well, take a wild guess.

The VA announced last October it plans to allocate $28 million to the Phoenix center in addition to its annual budget.

While these scandals are maddening, they are a distraction from the bigger problem. Simply stated, the core structure of the VA is misguided and the entire bureaucracy should be shut down.

Two of my colleagues, Michael Cannon and Chris Preble, explained the problem in a column for the New York Times.

Even when the department works exactly as intended, it helps inflict great harm on veterans, active-duty military personnel and civilians. Here’s how. Veterans’ health and disability benefits are some of the largest costs involved in any military conflict, but they are delayed costs, typically reaching their peak 40 or 50 years after the conflict ends. …when Congress debates whether to authorize and fund military action, it can act as if those costs don’t exist. But concealing those costs makes military conflicts appear less burdensome and therefore increases their likelihood. It’s as if Congress deliberately structured veterans’ benefits to make it easier to start wars. …The scandal isn’t at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The scandal is the Department of Veterans Affairs.

They proposed an idea which would lead to honest budgeting and make the Department of Veterans Affairs superfluous.

We propose a system of veterans’ benefits that would be funded by Congress in advance. It would allow veterans to purchase life, disability and health insurance from private insurers. Those policies would cover losses related to their term of service, and would pay benefits when they left active duty through the remainder of their lives. To cover the cost, military personnel would receive additional pay sufficient to purchase a statutorily defined package of benefits at actuarially fair rates. …Insurers and providers would be more responsive because veterans could fire them — something they cannot do to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans’ insurance premiums would also reveal, and enable recruits and active-duty personnel to compare, the risks posed by various military jobs and career paths. Most important, under this system, when a military conflict increases the risk to life and limb, insurers would adjust veterans’ insurance premiums upward, and Congress would have to increase military pay immediately to enable military personnel to cover those added costs.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review takes a different approach, but reaches the same conclusion.

He starts by pointing out more bad behavior by the VA.

There is only one guaranteed way to get fired from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Falsifying records won’t do it. Prescribing obsolete drugs won’t do it. Cutting all manner of corners on health and safety is, at worst, going to get you a reprimand. No, the only sure-fire way to get canned at the VA is to report any of these matters to authorities who might do something about it. …“Our concern is really about the pattern that we’re seeing, where whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing are facing trumped-up punishment, but the employees who put veterans’ health at risk are going unpunished,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner recently told National Public Radio.

And he then says the only real solution is to eliminate the bureaucracy.

The real fix is to get rid of the VA entirely. The United States has an absolute obligation to do right by veterans. It does not have an absolute obligation to run a lousy, wasteful, unaccountable, corrupt, and inefficient bureaucracy out of Washington. …Imagine that the federal government simply gave all of the VA hospitals to the states they’re in. Instead of the VA budget, Congress just cut checks to states to spend on their veterans. You’d still have problems, of course. But what you would also have are local elected officials — city councilmen, state legislators, mayors, governors, etc. — whom voters could hold directly accountable. …this process would allow everyone to learn from both mistakes and successes in a way that a centralized bureaucracy cannot or will not. Personally, I’d rather see the money spent on veterans go straight to the veterans themselves, in the form of cash payments or vouchers to be used for health care in the private sector.

Amen.

National defense is a legitimate function of the federal government, so that means fairly compensating the people who give service to the country. Especially if they suffer wounds that require short-run or long-run care.

But as both my colleagues and Jonah Goldberg have explained, none of that means we need a cumbersome and blundering (and sometimes venal) bureaucracy.

Donald Trump shouldn’t be figuring out who to pick to head the VA, he should be putting together a plan to get rid of it.

To conclude, I found a nice chart that shows when various departments were created, which I have helpfully augmented by crossing out the ones that I’ve explained should be abolished. As you can see, there is still some low-hanging fruit to go after.

By the way, the White House website says the Small Business Administration has “the status of Cabinet-rank,” whatever that means. I guess it’s sort of like a participation trophy for the SBA.

In any event, I’ve also explained why that useless bureaucracy should be wiped out.

And I guess it’s good news that the Postal Service is no longer part of the cabinet, though that’s secondary to the more important issue of getting the government out of the business of delivering mail.

P.S. The VA also is capable of wasting money in ways that don’t involve premature deaths for veterans, so it’s a full-service bureaucracy!

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While I have great fondness for some of the visuals I’ve created over the years (especially “two wagons” and “apple harvesting“), I confess that none of my creations have ever been as clear and convincing as the iconic graph on education spending and education outcomes created by the late Andrew Coulson.

I can’t imagine anyone looking at his chart and not immediately realizing that you don’t get better results by pouring more money into the government’s education monopoly.

But the edu-crat lobby acts as if evidence doesn’t matter. At the national level, the state level, and the local level, the drumbeat is the same: Give us more money if you care about kids.

So let’s build on Coulson’s chart to show why teachers’ unions and other special interests are wrong.

Gerard Robinson of the American Enterprise Institute and Professor Benjamin Scafidi from Kennesaw State University take a close look at this issue.

…education is important to the economic and social well-being of our nation, which is why it is the No. 1 line item in 41 state budgets. …Schools need extra money to help struggling students, or so goes the long-standing thinking of traditional education reformers who believe a lack of resources – teachers, counselors, social workers, technology, books, school supplies – is the problem. …a look back at the progress we’ve made under reformers’ traditional response to fixing low-performing schools – simply showering them with more money – makes it clear that this approach has been a costly failure.

And when the authors say it’s been a “costly failure,” they’re not exaggerating.

Since World War II, inflation-adjusted spending per student in American public schools has increased by 663 percent. Where did all of that money go? One place it went was to hire more personnel. Between 1950 and 2009, American public schools experienced a 96 percent increase in student population. During that time, public schools increased their staff by 386 percent – four times the increase in students. The number of teachers increased by 252 percent, over 2.5 times the increase in students. The number of administrators and other staff increased by over seven times the increase in students. …This staffing surge still exists today. From 1992 to 2014 – the most recent year of available data – American public schools saw a 19 percent increase in their student population and a staffing increase of 36 percent. This decades-long staffing surge in American public schools has been tremendously expensive for taxpayers, yet it has not led to significant changes in student achievement. For example, public school national math scores have been flat (and national reading scores declined slightly) for 17-year-olds since 1992.

By the way, the failure of government schools doesn’t affect everyone equally.

Parents with economic resources (such as high-profile politicians) can either send their kids to private schools or move to communities where government schools still maintain some standards.

But for lower-income households, their options are very limited.

Minorities disproportionately suffer, as explained by Juan Williams in the Wall Street Journal.

While 40% of white Americans age 25-29 held bachelor’s degrees in 2013, that distinction belonged to only 15% of Hispanics, and 20% of blacks. …The root of this problem: Millions of black and Hispanic students in U.S. schools simply aren’t taught to read well enough to flourish academically.  …according to a March report by Child Trends, based on 2015 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 21% of Hispanic fourth-grade students were deemed “proficient” in reading. This is bad news. A fourth-grader’s reading level is a key indicator of whether he or she will graduate from high school. The situation is worse for African-Americans: A mere 18% were considered “proficient” in reading by fourth grade.

But Juan points out that the problems aren’t confined to minority communities. The United States has a national education problem.

The problem isn’t limited to minority students. Only 46% of white fourth-graders—and 35% of fourth-graders of all races—were judged “proficient” in reading in 2015. In general, American students are outperformed by students abroad. According to the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, a series of math, science and reading tests given to 15-year-olds around the world, the U.S. placed 17th among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in reading.

This is very grim news, especially when you consider that the United States spends more on education – on a per-pupil basis – than any other country.

Here’s a table confirming Juan’s argument. It lacks the simple clarity of Andrew Coulson’s graph, but if you look at these numbers, it’s difficult to reach any conclusion other than we spend a lot in America and get very mediocre results.

Juan concludes his column with a plea for diversity, innovation, and competition.

For black and Hispanic students falling behind at an early age, their best hope is for every state, no matter its minority-student poverty rate, to take full responsibility for all students who aren’t making the grade—and get those students help now. That means adopting an attitude of urgency when it comes to saving a child’s education. Specifically, it requires cities and states to push past any union rules that protect underperforming schools and bad teachers. Urgency also means increasing options for parents, from magnet to charter schools. Embracing competition among schools is essential to heading off complacency based on a few positive signs. American K-12 education is in trouble, especially for minority children, and its continuing neglect is a scandal.

He’s right, but he should focus his ire on his leftist friends and colleagues. They’re the ones (including the NAACP!) standing in the proverbial schoolhouse door and blocking the right kind of education reform.

P.S. This is a depressing post, so let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that education spending has been reduced.

P.P.P.S. Shifting to a different topic, another great visual (which also happens to be the most popular item I’ve ever shared on International Liberty) is the simple image properly defining the enemies of liberty and progress.

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