Tag Archives: government

What the Federal Government Does

By James Kwak

Now is as good a time as any to remind people of who provides all those detailed projections of where Hurricane Sandy is going to hit and how strong it’s going to be: the federal government. No matter how you get your weather news—local TV or radio, The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, whatever—hurricane forecast information originally comes from the National Hurricane Center, which is part of the National Weather Service. The raw data come in part from the Hurricane Hunters, the pilots who fly planes into hurricanes, who are part of the Air Force Reserve and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The computer models that predict where hurricanes are going to strike are developed by the NHC.

In August 2011, Simon and I were on vacation with our families in Southern Florida as Hurricane Irene was approaching the East Coast. Simon had the idea of using government weather services as the example to lead off chapter 4 of White House Burning, “What Does the Federal Government Do?” I like this example because almost everyone agrees that the federal government should be engaged in disaster prevention, disaster relief, and even weather forecasting. In 2005, Rick Santorum proposed a bill that would have prevented the National Weather Service from providing weather forecasts to the public—but he insisted that the NWS should gather weather data and provide it to private companies so that they could make money off of it. (AccuWeather is based in Pennsylvania, Satorum’s state, by the way.)

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Small Government or Smallish-Sort-of-Mediumish-Nicer-Better Government

By James Kwak

The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is that it sets the stage for a debate about the role of government in society, between Romney and Ryan as champions of small government and Obama and Biden as supporters of big government. Indeed, that’s the thrust of the lead story in the Wall Street Journal this morning. And it’s pretty clear why Mitt Romney wants to have this debate.

First, the politics: The choice of Ryan should be slightly encouraging to Democrats for one reason—it confirms what the polls and Nate Silver have been saying for months: President Obama is winning, though not by much. One of Romney’s options was to simply run against the incumbent, pointing to the bad economy and making a bland case for himself as some kind of business guru. Apparently that wasn’t working, so he decided to double down on the Tea Party and the idea of radically reforming government—something that he’s been distinctly bad at throughout the election so far.

In the longer term, Democrats should be worried, because Romney and Ryan have the better debating position. Their position is simple and superficially compelling: Government is bad. (Cf. the DMV—it’s state, not federal, and the one in Massachusetts works very well, but whatever; BATF; EPA; IRS; whatever agency your audience happens to dislike. Compare to Apple as if all private sector businesses were like Apple.) Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes.

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When Did The Economist Become Comically Stupid?

By James Kwak

I recently got around to looking at my latest issue of The Economist.  Here’s the cover:

If you can’t make it out, that’s a huge Barack Obama, a small Mitt Romney, and the following caption: “Big government or small? America’s great debate.”

Now, how you could draw a contrast between two men who passed structurally identical health care plans—in which government regulation is used to incent people to buy insurance from private companies—baffled me. The caption, if anything, should have been “Small government or tiny?” So I peeked inside, where things get worse.

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Who’s a Freeloader?

By James Kwak

A year ago, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin published a paper based on their in-depth interviews of Tea Party activists. A longer presentation of their research was published as a book a few months ago, and I was reminded of it by historian Daniel Rodgers’s review in Democracy.*

Rodgers’s review is titled “‘Moocher Class’ Warfare,” picking up on one of their key findings: in general, Tea Party members like Medicare and Social Security, which they think they have earned through their work, but don’t like perceived freeloaders who live off of other peoples’ work. From the paper (p. 33):

The distinction between “workers” and “people who don’t work” is fundamental to Tea Party ideology on the ground. First and foremost, Tea Party activists identify themselves as productive citizens. . . . This self-definition is posed in opposition to nonworkers seen as profiting from government support for whom Tea Party adherents see themselves as footing the bill. . . . Tea Party anger is stoked by perceived redistributions—and the threat of future redistributions—from the deserving to the undeserving. Government programs are not intrinsically objectionable in the minds of Tea Party activists, and certainly not when they go to help them. Rather, government spending is seen as corrupted by creating benefits for people who do not contribute, who take handouts at the expense of hard-working Americans.

Let’s leave aside the self-serving nature of this distinction—I deserve my entitlement programs, but you don’t deserve yours. Does it even make any sense?

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Denial or Principle?

By James Kwak

I wanted to make a belated return to Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on reluctant safety net beneficiaries.  Earlier this week I argued that their framing of an expanding safety net that has spread from the poor to the middle class is wrong, but otherwise the themes they discuss are very important.

Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security.

I don’t think Gulbranson is a hypocrite at all. I don’t think taking a benefit you don’t think should exist makes you a hypocrite, just like I don’t think Warren Buffett should voluntarily pay higher taxes. I think his position is one part magical thinking and one part principle.

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Money

By James Kwak

I was browsing for Christmas presents and came across a brilliant xkcd cartoon, “Money.” (Click on it to zoom in.) It includes all sorts of fun bits like this (this is just a small excerpt; you can buy a poster-size version of the whole thing):

But this was actually my favorite part:

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The Private Insurance Market

By James Kwak

I’m currently in the process of buying long-term care insurance—you know, so my daughter won’t have to take care of me when I’m old. I have a good agent who knows all about the market and has answered every question I’ve had. I understand personal finance, opportunity costs, discount rates, and inflation. I know my way around a spreadsheet (one benefit of my years at McKinsey). But I find it’s still hard to figure out what to do.

A bit of background: Long-term care insurance pays for your stay in a nursing home if you become unable to take care of yourself. Depending on the policy, it may also pay for care you receive at home instead of going into a facility. According to the insurer I’m considering, the median annual cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home in my state is $145,000, and the average stay is something like three years. To put that in perspective, in 2009, the median net worth of families where the head of household was of age 65–74 was $205,000 (including real estate assets).

Long term care is not covered by Medicare, except for a short period after each acute event. It is covered by Medicaid, but to be eligible for coverage you have to exhaust all of your assets. Despite that onerous requirement, Medicaid currently covers 40 percent of all spending on long-term care. (2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook, p. 39.) The Affordable Care Act of 2010 included what is known as the CLASS Act, which would have allowed anyone to buy long-term care insurance, with an average benefit of $75 per day, for a monthly premium of $123. The CLASS Act, however, has been suspended because the administration could not certify that it would be deficit-neutral over the long term. So the bottom line is: until you use up all your money, you’re on your own.

Still, shouldn’t you be able to buy protection in the private insurance market? The short answer is: not really.

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The Size-of-Government Fallacy

By James Kwak

You hear all the time that the government must get smaller. John Boehner said it the day after the elections: “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.” Barack Obama agreed in part earlier this week: “We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner, more effective, more efficient, and give taxpayers a greater bang for their buck.” And a large majority of Americans agree in the abstract (while simultaneously opposing any significant spending cuts).

Conservatives like to point to high levels of federal spending—23.8 percent of GDP last year—as evidence that government is too big. But the idea that there is one thing called “government”—and that you can measure it by looking at total spending—makes no sense. Worse yet, it can lead to fundamentally misguided policy decisions.

That’s the opening of a column I wrote for The Atlantic’s online business section. I’m trying out writing an occasional column for them. Today’s is about the idea that the total volume of government outlays or receipts can tell you anything worth knowing about the size of government — and the damage that is being done by people who fetishize the total spending number.

What’s a Big Government?

By James Kwak

One thing that all parties seem to be able to agree on is that big government is bad. It was President Clinton, after all, who said, “The era of big government is over.” And the current Republican budget-slashing wave seems motivated by the idea that our government is too big.

But what is the size of government, anyway?* When a typical anti-government person thinks of government, she probably has in mind the EPA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the “jack-booted government thugs” at the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, OSHA, and all those government agencies that prevent businesses and individuals from getting on with their lives. The idea here is that government intervention in the free market makes the economy less efficient and therefore reduces aggregate societal welfare.

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Good Government vs. Less Government

Or: Why the Heritage Freedom Index is a Damned Statistical Lie

This guest post was contributed by StatsGuy, a frequent commenter and occasional guest on this blog. It shows how quickly the headline interpretation of statistical measures breaks down once you start peeking under the covers.

Recently, a controversy raged in the blogosphere about whether neo-liberalism has been a bane or a boon for the world economy. The argument is rather coarse, in that it fails to distinguish between the various elements of neo-liberalism, or moderate deregulation vs. extreme deregulation. But if we take the argument at face value, one of the major claims of neoliberals is that countries in the world which are more neoliberal are more successful (because they are more neoliberal). I disagree.

My disagreement is not with the raw correlation between the Heritage Index and Per Capita GDP. A number is a number. My disagreement is with the composition of the index itself, and interpreting this correlation as causation between neo-liberalism and ‘good things.’

My primary contention below is that many of these measures used in the composite Heritage Index have nothing to do with less government, and a lot more to do with good government. It is these measures of good government that correlate to economic growth and drive the overall correlation between the “Freedom Index” and positive outcomes. Secondarily, I will argue that many of the other items in the index (like investment freedom) are not causes of growth, but rather outcomes of growth.

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The Role of Government

By James Kwak

Last week Simon gave a talk sponsored by Larry Lessig’s center at Harvard. Afterward there was a dinner and then another question-and-answer session. Jedediah Purdy (another person to write a book while at Yale  Law School; he is now a professor at Duke’s law school) asked a question that I have rephrased as follows (the words are mine, not Purdy’s; I may have also distorted his original question so much that it is also mine):

“You’ve criticized the government for withdrawing from the economic and particularly financial sphere and allowing private sector actors to do whatever they wanted. Do you think the government should simply act so as to correct the imperfections in free markets? Or do you see a positive role for government in determining what kind of an economy we should have?”

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Obama, the Light Touch?

Edmund L. Andrews and David E. Sanger have an article in The New York Times today that is sure to infuriate some people, including me. Here’s one excerpt:

“Far from eagerly micromanaging the companies the government owns, Mr. Obama and his economic team have often labored mightily to avoid exercising control even when government money was the only thing keeping some companies afloat.

“A few weeks ago, there were anguished grimaces inside the Treasury Department as the new chief executive of A.I.G., Robert H. Benmosche, whose roughly $9 million pay package is 22 times greater than Mr. Obama’s, ridiculed officials in Washington — his majority shareholders — as ‘crazies.’

“Causing even more unease to policymakers, Mr. Benmosche insisted that A.I.G. — one of the worst offenders in the risk-taking that sent the nation over the edge last year — would not rush to sell its businesses at fire-sale prices, despite pressure from Fed and Treasury officials, who are desperate to have the insurer repay its $180 billion government bailout.

“But in the end, according to one senior official, ‘no one called him and told him to shut up,’ and no one has pulled rank and told him to sell assets as soon as possible to repay the loans.

“A similar hands-off decision was made about the auto companies. Shortly after General Motors and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, some members of the administration’s auto task force argued that the group should not go out of business until it was confident that a new management team in Detroit had a handle on what needed to be done.

“But Mr. Summers strongly rejected that approach, and the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, agreed.

“‘The argument was that if the president said he wasn’t elected to run G.M., then we couldn’t hire a new board and then try to run any aspect of it,’ one participant in the discussions said. The auto task force took off for summer vacation in July, and it never returned.”

The political argument for this position makes sense. Basically, Obama and his administration are afraid of being charged with “socialism” or “big government,” so they are doing what they can to defuse this charge. (Not that that will help given the way political rhetoric is thrown around these days.)

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