October 2010 Archives

This year there's a lot of political energy being expended in the name of ousting big government incumbents from office. That's treating the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself.

It's tempting to humanize the problem, to say "If we get rid of that problem personality incumbent, the whole situation will clear itself up." It's also false in this case because the entire system that has evolved puts all of the individual incentives for those in charge of spending our money to spend more of it.

Some of those incumbents are real problems. But as much as it would please me to write their political obituaries, they are symptoms, not causes. Furthermore, modifying the system is much more difficult. Easier by orders of magnitude to turn the current Public Rascals of the day out of office and declare the problem solved while the real issue continues to fester. We've been doing this since the election of 1980 at least, and while Ronald Reagan and his administration did a lot of good (mostly on the tax side), even they didn't begin to address the real problem, which is the way our budget is written and the public money is spent.

Furthermore, every time we have succesfully traded in a group of politicians who were bigger problems for another group who were slightly less of an immediate problem, those whose interests are in the status quo have gotten better at defending that status quo: better at making going along with them seem like the politically viable, smart thing to do better at subverting the new people to become just as much of a problem as the old group ever was, better, in short at continuing and enlarging the siphons of money moving from the US Taxpayer into the pockets of those who want it.

Our budgetary process is one huge tragedy of the commons. All of the incentives for individual law-makers are on the side of approving funding for everyone who asks. They say yes to interest group A, they have supporters - at least until the next allocation. They say no, they have people who will work against their defeat forever. Given the narrow political margins on which most elections are decided, having even one or two tiny groups working against you is often the margin of victory or defeat. Nor is it a realistic expectation to expect substantial portions of Congress to voluntarily leave after one or two terms, or ever, and even if they were required to leave after a certain number of terms, this would still be the situation they faced for re-election until they hit their term limits. Frankly, given the ease with which even a small number of Congresspeople can mandate a large amount of spending, term limits are no solution at all to this problem.

Many, if not most, of these interest groups are in favor of worthy, beneficial causes worthy of support. But going back to the original example of cows on a common meadow, producing and having those cows was a good thing, too. Lots of beneficial things come from cows - beef, milk, fertilizer, and future cows being particularly noteworthy. All of these are important and beneficial to the people who keep cows, and the people who buy their products. But there are only so many cows a given piece of land can support, and if more cows are pastured on the land than it can support, not only do the cows fail in the production of the goods for which they are being kept, but the land itself can be ruined to the point where it cannot support as many cows as it originally could - and in some instances, becomes incapable of supporting any cows at all.

The political landscape for the last several decades at least is one that environmentally favors unrestrained spending. It is in each Congressperson's individual interest to support taxing the country as much as they possibly can, and once that limit has been reached, borrowing as much as possible against future tax revenues in order to finance continuing that spending. We have gone forty years straight without once balancing a federal budget.

None of this is news, or rather, none of it should be news. There have been those trying to call attention to this situation since the early 1970s, at least. It's just that the scale of the problems it has caused has finally gotten so large that they can no longer be denied. But a single orgy of suddenly throwing out a few particularly egregious contributors to the problem will not solve the structural problem with the system.

In the aggregate, people will follow the individual incentives. There will likely be a few that do not - individuals in Congress I can name that do not follow this system of political patronage, or at least, do so less than others. But the supply of saints is strictly limited, and one of the great constants of the last 20 Congresses has been that a supermajority of each and every Congress in the last forty years has followed this system, and this constant is not likely to change. So long as the individual incentives are for Congresspeople do do this, they will.

If we are to survive as a country, it is precisely those structural problems favoring spending that we must eradicate. We must enact meaningful, external controls upon the power of Congress to spend. There has to be an overall limit to what Congress is allowed to spend. The point is not to say, "Congress may fund this but not that". That's one of the things we elect them for, one of the things they conduct such costly job interviews (known as "political campaigns") in order to land the job of congresspeople. Furthermore, putting hard limits into law and various Constitution-equivalent documents around the world have a tendency to lock governments into increasingly ridiculous numbers if they are too low, or encourage even faster government growth and over-use of resources if set too high.

The ability of Congress to set healthy overall limits on spending has, however, been proven to be structurally broken. I think that Congress is the only possible arbiter of how to allocate the public funds available, but they do not necessarily need to remain the ultimate arbiter of how much is available. Any effective control is going to require constitutional amendment, making it problematical to get through Congress, but nonetheless necessary if we are to prosper as a nation in the future. The current situation where everybody is apparently entitled to an unlimited money siphon from the wallets of the American taxpayer cannot continue. If the situation continues, we will see more individual Americans leaving for greater economic opportunity elsewhere, following the corporate diaspora that has been taking place for decades for precisely these same reasons. The result? The United States becomes a permanent economic basket case, if not dissolving altogether. This is becoming a possibly imminent concern, as our public obligations are on the verge of overwhelming our ability to pay already.

We need someone or some group that can say "This is the limit of what you can spend" and make it stick. I can make any number of suggestions as to how to solve this problem, and others have been made already.

  • investing an overall spending limit veto in the office of the President
  • investing an overall spending limit veto a newly created office, elected nationally with only the powers needed to enforce such a veto
  • a committee appointed by state legislatures or state governors
  • an emeritus committee of presidential economic advisers
  • Congressional appointment of one or more people
  • Delegating this power to the Supreme Court (or other judicial group)

All of the above suggestions have their problems. I would tend to favor suggestions that cause the people with power to veto the budgetary amount to come from outside the Congressional system, owing nothing to Congress, because it seems obvious to me that allowing Congress to choose those charged with this duty would result in no effective control of the problem.

I would also tend to support investing this power in as few people as possible, for as short a period as possible. It is much easier to hold individuals accountable rather than groups, as evidenced by the fact that Presidents gain a lot of blame or credit for situations they had nothing to do with simply by virtue of being a visible target.

I tend to support making the period in office as short as possible because if they're not doing an acceptable job, they can be gotten rid of relatively easy at the next regular choosing of the office-holder. Ideally, I'd like to see this job to be sort of a one-shot 1 or 2 year stint of public service, followed by a lifetime ban from all future governmental positions, so that it is typically an "elder statesman" sort of person who seeks the job immediately prior to retirement, whether from government service or from the business community.

Notice I am not saying one word about which programs are more worthy than others. That should be an ongoing national debate that varies with the situation, and the situation in the future will always change over time. What I am saying is that there are more worthy causes to support than there are resources to support them with, and if we're throwing an unsustainable amount of resources at dealing with them, the problems will only get worse.

Furthermore, a situation where Congress is limited in the overall amount of what can be spent will far more effectively eliminate waste than any agency audit I'm aware of, as everyone who got less funding than they want will scrutinize what should be cut so they can get more of what they want. Many very smart people have written about how such control mechanisms operate, the two best I'm aware of being The Transparent Society and An Army of Davids. But there's no incentive for people to scrutinize other problems and how money can be more effectively spent and what the priorities for spending really should be as long as there is an apparently unlimited supply of spending, and that is the environment we are currently in.

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2009 is the previous archive.

December 2010 is the next archive.

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