Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

I’ve learned that it’s more important to pay attention to hard numbers rather than political rhetoric. Republicans, for instance, love to beat their chests about spending restraint, but I never believe them without first checking the numbers. Likewise, Democrats have a reputation as big spenders, but we occasionally get some surprising results when they’re in charge.

President Obama was especially hard to categorize. Republicans automatically assume he was profligate because he started his tenure with a Keynesian spending binge and the Obamacare entitlement. But after a few years in office, some were arguing he was the most frugal president of modern times.

Or, to be more accurate, what I basically discovered is that debt limit fights, sequestration, and government shutdowns were actually very effective. Indeed, the United States enjoyed a de facto spending freeze between 2009 and 2014, leading to the biggest five-year reduction in the burden of federal spending since the end of World War II. And it’s unclear that Obama deserves any of the credit since he was on the wrong side of those battles.

Anyhow, I’ve decided to update the numbers now that we have 8 years of data for Obama’s two terms.

But first, a brief digression on methodology: All the numbers you’re about to see have been adjusted for inflation, so these are apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, all my calculations are designed to show average annual increases. I also made sure that the “stimulus” spending that took place in the 2009 fiscal year was included in Obama’s totals, even though that fiscal year began (on October 1, 2008) while Bush was President.

We’ll start with a look at total outlays. On this basis, Obama is actually the most conservative President since World War II. And Bill Clinton is in second place.

But total outlays doesn’t really capture a President’s track record because interest payments are included, which effectively means they get blamed for all the debt run up by their predecessors.

So if we remove payments for net interest, we get a measure of what is called primary spending (total outlays minus net interest). As you can see, Obama is still in first place and Reagan jumps up to second place.

I would argue that one other major adjustment is needed to make the numbers more accurate.

There have been two major financial bailouts in the past 30 years, the savings & loan bailout in the late 1980s and the TARP bailout at the end of last decade. Those bailouts created big one-time expenses, followed by an influx of money (from asset sales and repaid loans) that actually gets counted as negative spending.

Those bailouts added a big chunk of one-time spending at the end of the Reagan years and at the end of the George W. Bush years, while then producing negative outlays during the early years of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Obama Administration.

So if we take out the one-time effects of those two bailouts (which I categorize as “non-TARP” for reasons of brevity), we get a new ranking.

Reagan is now in first place, followed by Clinton and Obama.

By the way, Lydon Johnson has been in last place regardless of how the numbers are calculated, and George W. Bush has had the second-worst numbers.

For all intents and purposes, the above numbers are how a libertarian would rank the various Presidents since both domestic spending and military spending are part of the calculations.

So let’s close by looking at how a conservative would rank the presidents, which is a simple exercise because all that’s required is to remove military spending. Here are the numbers showing the average inflation-adjusted increase in overall domestic outlays for various Presidents (still excluding the one-time bailouts, of course).

By this measure, Reagan easily is in first place. Though it’s worth noting that three Democrats occupy the next positions (though Obama’s numbers are no longer impressive), while Republicans (along with LBJ) get the worst scores.

The bottom line is that Reaganomics was a comparative success. But should we also conclude that Obama was a fiscal conservative?

I don’t think he deserves credit, but I won’t add anything to what I wrote above. Instead, I’ll simply note that Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has a good analysis of Obama’s fiscal record. Here’s his conclusion.

It is important to recognize that Obama did not stop trying to expand government after 2010. The president’s eight annual budget requests gradually upped their 10-year revenue demands from $1.3 trillion to $3.4 trillion, while proposing an average of $1.0 trillion in new program spending over the next decade. His play, in short, was to gradually trim the budget deficit by chasing large spending increases with even larger tax increases. The Republican Congress stopped him. My assessment: Obama’s most important fiscal legacy was a sin of omission. Despite promising to confront Social Security and Medicare’s unsustainable deficits, the president refused to endorse any plan that would come close to achieving solvency. This surrendered eight crucial years of baby-boomer retirements while costs accelerated. With baby boomers retiring and a national debt projected to exceed $90 trillion within 30 years, this was no small surrender.

In other words, the relatively good short-run numbers were in spite of Obama. And the long-run numbers were bad – and still are bad – because he chose to let the entitlement problem fester. But he was still better (less worse) than Bush I, Bush II, and Nixon.

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Back in 2013, when I was still doing a “question of the week” column, I suggested that Australian was the best option for those contemplating a new home in the event of some sort of Greek-style fiscal collapse in the United States.

I pointed out that America wasn’t in any immediate danger, though I can understand why some people are interested in the question since our long-run outlook is rather grim.

Anyhow, I picked Australia for several reasons, including its geographic position (no unstable welfare states on the border, which is why I didn’t select Switzerland), its private social security system (unfunded liabilities are small compared to the $44 trillion shortfall in America’s government-run system), and its relatively high level of economic freedom.

I’m not the only person to notice that Australia is a good place to live. A recent Bloomberg column noted that millionaires are moving Down Under.

They’re all going to the land Down Under. Australia is luring increasing numbers of global millionaires, helping make it one of the fastest growing wealthy nations in the world… Over the past decade, total wealth held in Australia has risen by 85 percent compared to 30 percent in the U.S. and 28 percent in the U.K., aided by the fact that Australia has gone 25 years without a recession. As a result, the average Australian is now significantly wealthier than the average American or Briton. …At the end of 2016 individuals held about $192 trillion of wealth worldwide…, with 13.6 million millionaires holding $69 trillion of this. There were 522,000 multi-millionaires, having net assets of $10 million or more.

The number of millionaires moving to Australia is especially impressive when looking at global data.

Here’s a map showing the nations with the most incoming and outgoing rich people (h/t: Steve Hanke). Maybe it’s because there’s no death tax in Australia, but it’s remarkable that a nation with less than one-tenth the population of the United States manages to attract more millionaires.

But not everybody is cheerful about Australia’s economic position.

I’m currently in Brisbane for a couple of speeches. I spoke earlier today about how market-oriented jurisdictions grow much faster over the long run when compared to nations with statist economic policy.

But I don’t want to focus on my remarks (much of which will be old news to regular readers). Instead, let’s look at the some of the information in a speech by Professor Tony Makin of Griffith University.

Two of his slides caught my attention. Let’s start with a depressing look at how Australia has declined in the global competitiveness rankings put together each year by the World Economic Forum.

This is not a good trend.

That being said, I think Economic Freedom of the World is a more accurate measure and it shows that Australia (whether looking at its absolute score or its relative ranking) has suffered only a small decline.

Here’s another chart that is depressing as well. It shows that the per-capita burden of taxes and spending has continuously increased even after adjusting for inflation.

To be fair, the numbers aren’t quite as bad when looking at taxes and spending as a share of gross domestic product.

Nonetheless, the trend isn’t favorable, which is a point I made back in 2014.

None of this changes my view that Australia is still a good choice for emigrating Americans. But it does leave me worried about whether it will still be the top choice in 10 years or 20 years.

For what it’s worth, the main recommendation in my speech was for Australia to adopt a spending cap, similar to the ones that exist in Hong Kong and Switzerland. I also should have suggested sweeping decentralization since the government actually is open to that idea.

P.S. One of the most disappointing things about Australia is that the country’s foreign aid bureaucrats are trying to bribe/coerce Vanuatu’s government into adopting an income tax.

P.P.S. Professor Makin was the author of the report I recently cited about the failure of Australia’s Keynesian spending binge.

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Puerto Rico is getting lots of attention because Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous amount of economic damage.

That leads to an important discussion about the role of government – particularly the federal government – when there is a natural disaster (and a secondary discussion about the silly Keynesian argument that disasters are good for prosperity).

But let’s focus today on a man-made disaster. Puerto Rico is the Greece of America, and it was a fiscal mess well before the hurricane hit. Indeed, there’s already been partial-bailout legislation from Washington.

The Wall Street Journal opined wisely on the topic, starting with the observation that we shouldn’t feel too much sympathy for investors who purchased bonds from the island’s profligate government.

…they knew what they were getting into. Lenders piled into Puerto Rican bonds that paid high yields that are “triple tax-exempt”—they can’t be taxed by federal, state or local governments in the U.S. Yet lenders also knew that the Puerto Rican government was heading toward a debt crisis. The economy has been contracting for a decade, and the commonwealth has $48 billion in unfunded pensions on top of $72 billion in bond debt. Creditors bet that the high yield was worth the political risk, but the music was bound to stop. One lesson of the last decade that creditors don’t want to learn, even after Detroit and Greece, is that sovereign debt to lousy governments is high risk. The abrogation of debt contracts that will now take place is regrettable, but there is a price for betting on politicians.

It would be a nice lesson if investors learned not to trust governments, especially the ones most prone to destructive statist policies.

But that doesn’t address the underlying problem of how to generate growth in Puerto Rico. The answer, needless to say, is free markets and small government.

…the territory will have to grow faster. This is where bankruptcy alone is inadequate. Puerto Rico will have to cut taxes on investment, rationalize welfare programs that deter working, and pare back labor protections that make France look like Hong Kong. If Mr. Rossello won’t do it, then the control board will have to. Puerto Rico will continue to flounder even with reduced debt if labor participation remains stuck at 40% and unemployment is in the double digits.

Unfortunately, the government has been doubling down on bad policy.

Investor’s Business Daily delves deeper into the issue of how big government is strangling prosperity.

The key is to create the correct incentives for the island’s people to encourage — rather than discourage — their policymakers to implement necessary and difficult reforms. This is particularly true with regard to pension reform. …Emphasis should instead be put on the many necessary changes to Puerto Rican labor laws, welfare programs and business and tax regulations which could spur more private sector business and job creation, encourage more people to work, and allow economic growth to resume. …Changes to U.S. laws and regulations discouraging labor force participation in Puerto Rico, such as the high minimum wage and easier eligibility for Social Security disability benefits for Spanish speakers, would also help greatly. And most importantly, Puerto Rico’s lingering pension crisis must be solved, both because of its fiscal significance and because it illustrates the lack of political courage and imagination by the government and the oversight board. …economic activity in Puerto Rico is now so severely depressed by a heavy government presence.

And even the most establishment-leaning Economist noted that government dependency is a major problem.

The island is distinguished by its poverty and joblessness, which are far worse than in any of the 50 states. The territory’s economy, moreover, has fallen further behind the national one over the past three decades. Bad government—not just locally, but also federally—is largely to blame. …Puerto Rico’s annual income per person was around $12,000 in 2004, less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. More than 48% of the island’s people live below the federally defined poverty line.

Why is income so low and why is there so much poverty?

Simply stated, idleness is being heavily subsidized. The welfare state reduces labor supply on the mainland. And the same thing happens in Puerto Rico.

Half the working-age men in Puerto Rico do not work. …Many things have gone wrong. Most important, however, is that the United States government assumed too big a role in the Puerto Rican economy, and its largesse enabled the commonwealth’s government to do the same. …the island’s economy is now lost in a thicket of bad incentives…an oversized welfare state…transfers…make up more than 20% of the island’s personal income. These federal handouts…by Puerto Rican economic standards, they are huge. And the more a man or woman earns through paid work, the more they decrease. …federal disability allowances are much higher than the United States average as a share of wages and pension income. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one in six working-age men in Puerto Rico are claiming disability benefits. …For many people, …the money that can be earned through federal transfers and a little informal work is more than the market wage—and requires much less effort.

In other words, Puerto Rico is just another layer of evidence on the well-established link between government and poverty.

And when people do have jobs, all too often they are employed by a bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy.

Puerto Rico’s bloated government… Around 30% of the territory’s jobs are in the public sector. Among other things, a big and coddled bureaucracy undermines Puerto Rico’s educational achievements…nearly half those on the education department’s payroll are not teachers; quality has fallen because of low accountability and mismanagement. …As he walked through Aguadilla’s town hall recently, Mr Méndez…says, is that “All they want to do is find security only. They have no ambition…Everybody wants to work for the government.” Manuel Reyes, of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, also sees little hope that the government’s role will shrink.

It’s almost as if Puerto Rico is a perfect storm (no pun intended) of bad policy.

The solution is – or should be – obvious. And it’s the same one I suggested for Greece. Allow the government to default on existing debt, but only in exchange for pro-market reforms such as a long-run spending cap, privatization, a freeze on the size and compensation of the island’s bloated bureaucracy, and elimination of destructive regulation.

For all intents and purposes, Puerto Rico should become the Hong Kong of America. The island does have substantial autonomy and local policymakers have demonstrated that they sometimes are willing to do the right thing (they made Puerto Rico a legal tax haven for U.S. citizens). Now it’s time to make a great leap forward.

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Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

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Keynesian economics is like Freddie Krueger, constantly reappearing after logical people assumed it was dead. The fact that various stimulus schemes inevitably fail should be the death knell for the theory, which is basically the “perpetual motion machine” of economics. Indeed, I’ve wondered whether we’ve reached the point where the “debilitating drug” of Keynesianism has “jumped the shark.”

Yet Keynesian economics has “perplexing durability,” probably because the theory tells politicians that their vice of profligacy is actually a virtue.

But there are some economists who genuinely seem to believe that government can artificially boost growth. They claim terrorist attacks and alien attacks can be good for growth if they lead to more spending. They even think natural disasters are good for the economy.

I’m not joking. As reported by CNBC, the President of the New York Federal Reserve actually thinks the economy is stimulated when wealth is destroyed.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma actually will lead to increased economic activity over the long run, New York Fed President William Dudley said in an interview. …”The long-run effect of these disasters unfortunately is it actually lifts economic activity because you have to rebuild all the things that have been damaged by the storms.”

I’m always stunned when sentient adults make this kind of statement.

Should we invite ISIS into the country to blow up some bridges? Should we dynamite new buildings? Should we pray for an earthquake to destroy a big city? Should we have a war, featuring lots of spending and destruction?

All of those things, along with hurricanes and floods, are good for growth according to Keynesian theory.

Jeff Jacoby explains why this is poisonous economic analysis.

Could anything be more absurd? The shattering losses caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and other calamities are grievous misfortunes that obviously leave society poorer. Vast sums of money may be spent afterward to repair and rebuild, but society will still be poorer from the damage caused by the storm or other disaster. Every dollar spent on cleanup and reconstruction is a dollar that could have been spent to enlarge the nation’s reservoir of material assets. Instead, it has to be spent replacing what was lost. …No, hurricanes are not good for the economy. Neither are floods, earthquakes, or massacres. When windows are shattered, all of humanity is left materially worse off. There is no financial “glint of silver lining.” To claim otherwise is delusional.

By the way, I don’t think any Keynesians actually want disasters to happen.

They’re simply making a “silver lining” argument that a bad event will lead to more spending. In their world, what drives the economy is consumption, and it’s the role of government to either consume directly or to give money to people so they will spend it.

In a recent interview, I pointed out that investment and production are the real keys to growth (which is why I prefer GDI over GDP). Increased consumption, I explained, is a result of growth, not the cause of growth.

You’ll notice I also threw in a jab at the state and local tax deduction, a loophole that needs to be abolished as part of tax reform.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

For those who want to do some additional reading on Keynesian economics, I recommend this new study by a couple of professors. Here’s a blurb from the abstract.

…Keynesians assert that even wasteful government spending can be desirable because any spending is better than nothing. This simple Keynesian approach fails to account, however, for several significant sources of cost. In addition to the cost of waste inherent in government spending, financing that spending requires taxation, which entails an excess burden. Furthermore, the employment of even previously idle resources involves opportunity costs.

I’ll close by augmenting theory and academic analysis with some real-world observations. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, hasn’t worked for Japan, didn’t work for Obama, and didn’t work in Australia. Indeed, Keynesians can’t point to a single success story anywhere in the world at any point in history.

Though they always have an excuse. The government should have spent more, they tell us.

P.S. Since their lavish tax-free salaries are dependent on pleasing the governments that finance their budgets, international bureaucrats try to justify Keynesian economics. Here’s some recent economic alchemy from the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. I frequently urge people to watch my video debunking Keynesian economics. Though I admit it’s not nearly as entertaining as the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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There are some core functions of government, even in a libertarian world. The most prominent examples are national defense by the central government and public safety at the state/local level.

So how do we make sure those functions are handled competently? I’ve argued that we’ll get the best results if the public sector is streamlined and elected officials have more ability to focus on genuine “public goods.”

Not everyone shares my perspective. Fareed Zakaria asserts in today’s Washington Post that hurricanes and wildfires show the need for bigger government. I’m not joking. Here’s how he starts.

…one cannot help but think about the crucial role that government plays in our lives. But while we accept, even celebrate, the role of government in the wake of…disasters, we are largely blind to the need for government to mitigate these kinds of crises in the first place.

I would argue that natural disasters sometimes show competence and courage by state and local first responders (along with private volunteers), but I’m much less sanguine about the role of the federal government, which comes in after the danger is over and starts spreading around money in ways that increase the likelihood of future problems.

But let’s set that aside and consider Zakaria’s broader argument about whether the United States is suffering from inadequate government. I’m not sure what world he’s living in, but he seems to think that America is some sort of libertarian dystopia, with an anemic public sector.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan, much of the United States has embraced an ideological framework claiming that government is the source of our problems. …Reagan argued for a retreat from the vision of an activist state and advocated instead a strictly limited role for government, one dedicated to core functions such as national defense. …Reagan’s worldview…has stayed in place for decades as a rigid ideology, even though we have entered a new age in which America has faced a very different set of challenges, often desperately requiring an activist government.

I wish this was true. I’d be delighted if “Reagan’s worldview” was “in place for decades.”

In reality, government spending is much higher today than it was in the 1980s. Even after adjusting for inflation, the federal budget is twice as big today as it was during the Reagan years (and it’s huge compared to its size for much of America’s history).

Call me crazy, but that’s not my definition of a “strictly limited…government.”

What’s especially amazing is one of the examples Zakaria used to justify more government.

We watched as financial institutions took on more and more risk, with other people’s money, effectively gambling in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose system. Any talk of regulation was seen as socialist. Even after the system blew up, causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the calls soon came to deregulate the financial sector once again.

Does he really not know that the financial services sector has been heavily regulated for decades?

Even more amazing, does he not know that government policies such as Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies and TARP bailouts are what creates the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose environment?

Does he really think a bigger federal government is the way to solve these problem when it was federal intervention that caused the financial crisis?

To be fair, he does raise some issues that are a challenge, such as how to have free trade with countries that use government intervention to distort trade. But he doesn’t offer any suggestions of how to solve such problems while avoiding the risk of 1930s-style tit-for-tat protectionism.

His closing comment basically argues that we need more government because of what is sometimes called creative destruction.

We are living in an age of revolutions, natural and human, that are buffeting individuals and communities. We need government to be more than a passive observer of these trends and forces. It needs to actively shape and manage them. Otherwise, the ordinary individual will be powerless.

I’m tempted to respond that we’ve always had creative destruction. And, yes, it is very disruptive. But it’s also why we’re much richer today that we were in the past.

And it’s very likely that we wouldn’t be nearly as rich today if people like Zakaria had power “to actively shape and manage” the economy in the 1800s and 1900s. Heck, the reason why places such as Greece and Venezuela are such a mess is that politicians did a steroid-fueled version of shaping and managing.

Let’s close by circling back to the issue of how to increase government effectiveness. The European Central Bank produced a very rigorous study back in 2003 that measured public sector performance and public sector efficiency in OECD nations.

What the economists found, unsurprisingly, is that smaller governments did a better job than medium governments. And, needless to say, medium governments did a better job than big governments.

And the ECB came up with equally strong results in a 2006 study that looked at a larger list of countries.

It’s also worth mentioning, given current debates over whether certain activities are better handled in Washington or at the state level, that the International Monetary Fund (yes, even the IMF) found that decentralized systems do a measurably better job in delivering public services.

These studies echo what I wrote, using the Ebola virus as an example, about how smaller government is naturally more competent. And Mark Steyn made the same point, albeit in a more entertaining fashion.

P.S. My all-time favorite example of the disconnect between big government and competent government is Belgium, where the public sector consumes more than 50 percent of the economy’s output, yet a bureaucrat said it was hard to fight terrorism “due to the small size of the Belgian government.”

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I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

So I was very excited to see this new video about infrastructure from Johan Norberg.

Very well put. As Johan says (channeling Bastiat), we should remember that jobs are destroyed when money is taken out of the private sector to build infrastructure.

So it behooves us to make sure that any new project isn’t a boondoggle and instead will increase the economy’s productive capacity.

Which is why we should strive for decentralization and shrink Washignton’s footprint. If a state or local government is paying for its own projects, presumably it’ll have a greater incentive to avoid wasteful pork. When the federal government pays, by contrast, that’s a recipe for waste.

Veronique de Rugy explains the issue in a column for Reason. She starts with some economic analysis.

Economists have long recognized that roads, bridges, airports, and canals are the conduits through which goods are exchanged, and as such, infrastructure can play a productive role in economic growth. But not all infrastructure spending is equal. Ample literature shows, in fact, that it’s a particularly bad vehicle for stimulus and does not, in practice, boost short-term jobs or economic growth. …Publicly funded infrastructure projects often aren’t good investments in the long term, either. Most spending orchestrated by the federal government suffers from terrible incentives that lead to malinvestment—resources wasted in inefficient ways and on low-priority efforts. Projects get approved for political reasons and are either totally unnecessary or harmed by cost overruns and corruption.

And she concludes by arguing for market forces rather than federal involvement.

[Trump] should put an end to the whole idea that infrastructure should be centrally planned, taxpayer-funded, and the responsibility of the federal (as opposed to state or local) government. The current system obliterates the discipline that comes from knowing a project needs to pay for itself to survive. User fees should become our preferred option for funding infrastructure. That change kills two birds with one stone: It lessens the need for massive federal expenditures, and it gives the private sector an incentive to spend money on crucial but not exactly sexy maintenance tasks. …If Trump wants the United States to have “world-class” infrastructure, the surest way is through market-based reforms that increase competition while reducing subsidies and regulations. Embrace real privatization, not federally directed private investments.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Tracy Miller similarly argues that decentralization is the best approach.

Highways as well as public transportation are currently funded with money from the federal Highway Trust Fund, and by state and local governments. …Money from the fund has strings attached that raise costs and limit state and local governments’ ability to choose which projects have priority. These strings include prevailing wage laws, which require contractors receiving federal money to pay unionized wages even if they could attract qualified workers willing to work for less. High-profile projects chosen by politically powerful congressmen can easily take priority over projects that would generate greater benefits for their constituents. From an administrative standpoint, it would not be very difficult to reduce or eliminate the federal government’s role in highway and transit funding. Instead of gas taxes going to the federal government before being returned to the states, as is presently the case, each state could collect all taxes on fuel sold within its borders and decide how best to spend it. This would make it possible to downsize the U.S. Department of Transportation, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

He explains why reform will lead to better – and cheaper – transportation.

Local governments – with greater awareness of the local needs of metropolitan areas, small towns or rural areas – can do a better job of funding and managing roads, highways and public transportation that serve primarily local residents. State governments or private firms, meanwhile, can best manage interstate and other major highways that cater mostly to long-distance travelers, especially if they could cover expenses with user fees. …Many drivers object to the idea of paying tolls for the use of currently “free” interstate highways, whether they are managed by private firms or state governments. But highways aren’t free – the costs are hidden within our fuel taxes. If mileage-based user fees are applied to all highways and set at the correct levels, they can become a much more efficient (and ultimately cheaper) replacement for fuel taxes.

Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard summarizes the issue nicely in an article for CNBC.

Our current system of federal funding for transportation means that taxpayers in New York fund highways in Montana and drivers in Utah pay for New York’s airports. If President Trump wants to seriously improve American infrastructure spending, he should champion a new federalism for transportation, in which infrastructure is funded by states, localities and especially the users themselves. …The best decisions are made when decision-makers bear the costs and reap the benefits. When companies invest, they agonize about whether future customers will pay enough to cover the production costs. …Having lived through Boston’s Big Dig, I am well aware of how the promise of federal funding skews local decision-making. Local leaders stop asking themselves whether the benefits cover the costs because it’s somebody else’s nickel. …Detroit would have never built its absurd People Mover Monorail without federal encouragement and funding.

He elaborates on some of the implications for different types of infrastructure.

If new automotive infrastructure is meant to be self-financing, then the decision to build is a straightforward business investment and there is little need for large-scale federal funding. …The beneficiaries of metro systems are the businesses and commuters within a state. They could be funded with local property or sales taxes. My favorite metro funding model is in Hong Kong, where the city’s private mass transit system funds itself by building high-rises atop new train stops. …More federal funding for dysfunctional airports just perpetuates the status quo. They would be far healthier if they were split apart from the larger agency and allowed to operate, compete and charge higher landing fees, either as independent self-funding public airports, as in the U.K., or as private entities.

Amen. I’m not surprised to see Hong Kong as a role model. And I’ve already written about the U.K.’s success with privatization.

Speaking of privatization, a column in the Wall Street Journal points out that this is the way to improve airports in America.

Why do American passengers pay so much to get so little? Because their airports, by global standards, are terribly managed. Cities from London to Buenos Aires have sold or leased their airports to private companies. To make a profit, these firms must hold down costs while enticing customers with lots of flights, competitive fares and appealing terminals. The firm that manages London’s Heathrow, currently eighth in the international ranking, was so intent on attracting passengers that it built a nonstop express train to the city’s center. It’s also seeking to add another runway, as is the rival firm running Gatwick Airport. American airports are typically run by politicians in conjunction with the dominant airlines, which help finance the terminals in return for long-term leases on gates and facilities. The airlines use their control to keep out competitors; the politicians use their share of the revenue to reward unionized airport workers. No one puts the passenger first.

The author cites the San Juan airport as an example of what can happen under privatization.

If you want to see how much better American airports could be, take a plane to Puerto Rico. Until four years ago, the main airport in San Juan was run, and neglected, by an unwieldy bureaucracy, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. The terminal was a confusing jumble of dim corridors. On rainy days, the ceilings leaked; on hot days, the air conditioning faltered. The stores were tacky and the restaurants greasy spoons, often rented at bargain rates to politicians’ friends or relatives. …Airlines switched operations to other Caribbean hubs. In 2013 the Ports Authority leased the airport for 40 years to Aerostar, a partnership operating airports in Cancún and other Mexican cities. The new managers agreed to make capital improvements, reduce landing fees and pay the Ports Authority $1.2 billion—half up-front. The result, three years later, is an airport nobody would call Third World. The redesigned concourses are sleek and airy, and revenue from new retail and restaurants has doubled. …Airlines no longer control the gates, but they’re reaping other benefits. “We’re paying lower fees for a much better airport,” says Michael Luciano, who runs Delta’s operations in San Juan. “Almost every area has been renovated. You go into any restroom, and it’s bright and clean—things like that are really important to our customers.” Passenger volume has been growing 4% annually, well above the industry average.

I can personally vouch for this. Because of all my travel in the Caribbean, I’ve used the San Juan airport extensively over the years, including just last week for the Liberty International conference.

The difference between today’s airport and the dump that used to exist is like the difference between night and day.

By the way, let’s also dismiss the notion that there’s some sort of infrastructure crisis.

I’ve already shared data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which shows that the United States actually ranks relatively high compared to other nations.

And I’ve also shared solid numbers making the same point from Chris Edwards, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. Michael Sargent of the Heritage Foundation has a tweet that nicely shows that there isn’t a crisis.

Oh, and let’s also consider the example of Japan, which thought infrastructure spending was some sort of economic elixir. That didn’t work so well, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. economy isn’t growing at merely 2% because of potholes or airports… The prime illustration is Japan, which since the 1980s has tried to build its way out of stagnation. The country now boasts perhaps the world’s most spectacular suspension bridges, maglev trains, elevated highways and man-made islands, but the cost was trillions of yen of debt (now 230% of GDP) and no better growth. Nor could a monorail save Detroit. Projects make economic sense only to the extent they clear rigorous cost-benefit tests.

And if you want to know the infrastructure that is least likely to pass a cost-benefit test, just look at mass transit.

A good place to start is the Wall Street Journal‘s recent editorial on a subway line in New York City.

New York City opened a new subway line—about a century after the project was proposed and merely decades after ground-breaking in 1972…by far the most expensive train track in the history of the world. The story is an example of what not to do… This first phase of the new line—amounting to 1.6 miles in a single neighborhood, with three new stations and a renovated stop—cost some $4.451 billion. …The next leg of the Second Avenue subway, which would extend the train 29 blocks north into Harlem starting in 2020, is projected to cost an astonishing $6 billion, and that is surely an underestimate.

Gabriel Roth, writing for the Washington Examiner, has the right idea.

…abolish the subsidies. The federal government forces road users to spend some $10 billion a year on non-road assets of little or no benefit to them. Those payments are not only wasteful in themselves; they also encourage states and local governments to squander money on mass transit, whose costs users are not prepared to cover — not even the operating costs. If local communities consider such expenditures important, they should pay for them themselves.

By the way, just to show my libertarian bona fides, I think decentralization is just part of the answer. In my fantasy world, the private sector plays a bigger role.

And the good news, as I wrote back in 2014, is that my fantasy is reality in some instances.

Here’s another example from Hawaii.

Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free. …The state Department of Land and Natural Resources had estimated that the damage would cost $4 million to fix, money the agency doesn’t have, according to a news release from department Chairwoman Laura Thielen. …So Slack, other business owners and residents made the decision not to sit on their hands and wait for state money that many expected would never come. Instead, they pulled together machinery and manpower and hit the ground running March 23. And after only eight days, all of the repairs were done, Pleas said. It was a shockingly quick fix to a problem that may have taken much longer if they waited for state money to funnel in. “We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part,” Slack said. “Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.” …”We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic, something that took us eight days would have taken them years,” said Troy Martin of Martin Steel, who donated machinery and steel for the repairs. “So we got together — the community — and we got it done.”

Reminds me of the guy who built some stairs at a park for $550 because the Toronto government was taking too long and planned to spend $65,000 to do the same thing.

And here’s another case study from Portland.

Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is a community collaboration of skilled workers who volunteer their services to fix the damaged roads around Portland, Oregon. Citing concerns about governmental bureaucracy, the current political climate, a lack of funds and a seeming lack of care, the members of PARC decided to take things into their own very capable hands.

I have no idea whether these people are libertarian-minded anarcho-capitalists or deeply confused left-wing nihilist anarchists, but kudos to them for steeping up and doing a job cheaply and efficiently. The very opposite of what we expect from government.

P.S. Since Nazis are in the news and since I’m writing about infrastructure, here are some blurbs from an academic study on how Germany’s National Socialists used autobahn outlays to generate political support.

The idea that political support can effectively be bought has a long lineage – from the days of the Roman emperors to modern democracies, `bread and circus’ have been used to boost the popularity of politicians. A large literature in economics argues more generally that political support can be ‘bought’. …In this paper, we analyze the political benefits of building the worldʹs first nationwide highway network in Germany after 1933 – one of the canonical cases of government infrastructure investment. We show that building the Autobahn was highly effective in reducing opposition to the Hitler regime. …What accounts for the Autobahn’s success in winning “hearts and minds”? We discuss the economic and transport benefits. In the aggregate, these have been shown to be minimal (Ritschl 1998; Vahrenkamp 2010). …we argue that the motorways…increased support because they could be exploited by propaganda as powerful symbols of competent, energetic government. …Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can indeed create electoral support for a nascent dictatorship – it can win the “hearts and minds” of the populace. In the case of Germany, direct economic benefits of pork‐barrel spending in affected districts may have played a role.

Seems that politicians, whether motivated by evil or run-of-the-mill ambition, love spending other people’s money to build political support. Is it any wonder that we hold them in such low esteem?

P.P.S. Fans of “public choice” doubtlessly will be amused by the IMF’s 2014 flip-flop on infrastructure.

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