Archive for October, 2010

American Schizo

I would like to take this opportunity to pour some cold water on any prospects for lasting reduction in the size of government or sensible budget reform. Here are some tidbits from a recent national poll by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard:

  • “Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare ‘very important.’ They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.”

  • “Nearly six in 10 say they want their congressional representatives to fight for additional government spending in their districts to spur job creation; fewer (39 percent) want their member of Congress to cut spending, even if that means not as many local jobs. This is a turnabout from September 1994, when 53 percent said they wanted their representative to battle against spending and 42 percent were on the other side.”

  • “[H]alf the country thinks the federal government can balance its budget by simply cutting wasteful spending.”

To paraphrase Mencken, Americans are going to get what they want, and they’re going to get it good and hard. The 70 percent coalition wants to be left alone as long as they get their Medicare. I almost feel bad for the politicians who have to pander to this kind of schizophrenia. And if Americans had their way, they’d just get rid of the middleman:

  • “Fifty-six percent of those polled say things would be better if there were a national referendum system enabling all citizens to vote on major national issues. At least on this point, there is rare general agreement among Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

California, here we come. As Tocqueville prophesied, there’s no democratic solution to the problem that emerges once the public discovers that it can vote itself largesse from the public coffers. Add to that the largesse to special interests that voters would oppose if only it was worth their while to care, and you end up with a pretty bleak picture.

If there is a solution within the context of democracy, I think we have to hit rock bottom first, like an obese person who is forced to go on a diet only after a heart attack. Even then there will likely be a relapse. More likely though, we don’t have a heart attack. we just get fatter, and our breath becomes shallower, but we hang on, getting lipo every once in a while, enough to let us stuff our faces a few years more.

Morning Links

Morning Links

Maybe Hispanic voters are American

A new Pew poll being widely reported says that while Hispanics strongly lean Democratic, they are less likely to go to the polls in November than the average registered voter. Here’s how the NYT frames it:

Arizona’s controversial immigration law has prompted denunciations, demonstrations, boycotts and a federal lawsuit. But it may not bring the protest vote many Democrats had hoped would stem a Republican onslaught in races across the country.

That’s because although many voters are disillusioned with the political process, Latino voters are particularly dejected, and many may sit these elections out, according to voters, Latino organizations, and political consultants and candidates. A poll released Tuesday found that though Latinos strongly back Democrats over Republicans, 65 percent to 22 percent, in the Congressional elections just four weeks away, only 51 percent of Latino registered voters say they will absolutely go to the polls, compared to 70 percent of all registered voters.

The Times, the Pew report, and a quick scan of other news articles about the poll look at the results in terms of the immigration issue. The implication is that Hispanics are “particularly dejected” and surprisingly acting against their self-interest. Two things come to mind.

First, if Democrats are disproportionately represented among Hispanics, and if (as is often reported) Democrats are generally unenthusiastic about the coming election, then isn’t it unsurprising that Hispanics would be less likely than the average voter to go to the polls? Maybe someone more technically inclined than me can run the numbers, but it seems to me Hispanics might be acting like every other voter.

Second, the same Pew poll finds that immigration was listed as the fifth most important issue in the minds of Hispanic voters, behind education, jobs, health care, and the federal budget deficit. (A fact that is relegated to a parenthetical in the NYT piece.) That sounds like Hispanic voters are a lot like all American voters–irrational for a host of other reasons.

As a Hispanic, let me tell you: regardless what “Latino organizations” or Democratic candidates say, Hispanic voters are not animated by the immigration issue any more than voters in general. And Hispanics are certainly not single-issue voters. Don’t believe anything to the contrary.

Bonus: In its poll, Pew also asked, “The terms Hispanic and Latino are both used to describe people who are of Hispanic or Latino origin or descent. Do you happen to prefer one of these terms more than the other?” Thirty-three percent preferred Hispanic, 13 percent preferred Latino, and 54 percent indicated no preference. So why does Pew and the NYT insist on using Latino?

This is Congress without gridlock

The Senate yesterday passed a bill (previously passed by the House) that bans loud commercials on television. This has prompted some to ask whether Congress has nothing better to do with its time.

Is this all this Democrats-run senate can do? Turn down the volume when the country is in a recession and jobs are vanishing? Tsk, tsk-time to kick Harry Reid out of his seat!!!

That’s a reader comment on the story from USA Today. (I would point out to the commenter that it was a unanimous Senate that passed the bill.) There are many more like it. See these great comments at The Hill.

To me the real surprise would have been if the Senate hadn’t passed the bill this Congress.

From a Senator’s perspective, what’s not to love about this? The broadcasters pick up the tab for complying with the law, and the politicians get the credit. Credit for what? Doing exactly what their constituents want. The average American watches almost 5 hours of television a day, up 20 percent from 10 years ago. People who don’t write or comment on blogs likely think a ban is a great idea. I mean, loud commercials are pretty terrible after all.

Here’s what I’m trying to figure out, though. Consumers Union endorsed the bill and testified on its behalf, so they’re the Baptists in this story. Who are the bootleggers?

Why taxpayer receipts aren’t a good idea

Everyone is all aflutter over the idea from Third Way that people should get receipts for their federal income and FICA taxes that itemize them by program. It’s a neat gimmick, but at the end of the day, it’s just that: a gimmick. And it’s somewhat surprising to see so many bloggers who are normally skeptical of government gimmicks think that this one is somehow different.

People, of course, already know how much they pay in taxes, though the standard (and plausible) libertarian line is that, because we don’t write annual checks to the Gummint, we don’t really grasp the cost. It’s like the cost of regulation, which is high and real, but we don’t feel the pain of having money sucked out of our bank accounts. But stipulate for the moment that people understand, at least on some level, what they pay in taxes.

The idea of these receipts is to let people find out not just what their they’re putting into the system but what they’re getting out of it. And that’s a great idea — it would be fantastic if people understood exactly what their tax money was going to. But these receipts won’t do this, and here’s why.

  • The receipts will be gamed. The way that you amalgamate or disaggregate programs will have a massive impact on perceptions, and there’s no clear logic for how this should be done. On the Third Way prototype, the Iraq and Afghan wars are clumped together. Why? To make them appear higher. There’s no rhyme or reason, no inherent way, to display costs. If the government put out these receipts, these decisions will be made politically. (Democrats will disaggregate social spending, Republicans will disaggregate military spending.) And if they’re done by third-party groups, expect them to reflect the values of those groups.
  • The receipts list outputs, not outcomes. There’s no sense of what’s achieved here, what the final product is. When I get a restaurant bill, they bill me by the item, not the ingredient. The outcome is I get a hamburger. What is the outcome of health research or the DEA? Taxpayer receipts won’t give any meaningful sense of what social goals are achieved, thus giving taxpayers no sense of the benefits and costs of their tax dollars.
  • The receipts will lead to “earmarked” (and hence non-itemized) revenue streams. When I lived in Iowa, they had signs up in the interstate rest stops telling you that vending machine money went to support programs for the blind. Most states’ lotteries go to education. But money is fungible, and dedicating revenue streams to particular projects is just an accounting gimmick (think: “lockbox”). So if Amtrak wants to get off the tax receipt, all they have to do is lobby to get their funding from, say, the federal gasoline tax. And presto! It’s off the income tax/FICA receipt. Unpopular programs will make this standard operating procedure, so that educating children and feeding puppies will be the only things left on the receipts.
  • The receipts perpetuate budgetary lies. The federal budget and its supporting premises are already chock full of gimmicks, as my friend and colleague Veronique de Rugy has shown. Receipts do nothing to change this. All they do is take one multi-trillion dollar snow job and divide it by your tax bill. If you’re serious about getting accurate data into the hands of voters, start by getting an honest assessment of public long-term liabilities.
  • And finally, and most damningly: What of the fact that about half of American households don’t pay income taxes? What will their receipts show? That everything from incarceration to student aid is a freebie? It seems to me the last thing we should be encouraging is further divorcing the costs and benefits of programs. For half of America, then, receipts won’t give them a better sense of how their taxes are being spent. It will just remind them that they can vote for more spending because they don’t have to pick up the tab.

In the end, all these taxpayer receipts would do is lead to more budget shenanigans and a murkier citizen understanding of how the federal government spends its money and why. Sure, it’s a nifty gimmick. But it’s no more serious a plan for getting a handle on spending than a grammatically and intellectually inchoate call for slightly cutting a small fraction of the federal budget.