Shutdowns and Earmarks

     Americans are being threatened with an imminent shutdown of the federal government, as funding for government operations runs out in a scant 48 hours. It is unknown who exactly is doing the threatening but those people need to be reminded not to threaten something that to many others does not sound that frightening at all.

     What exactly happens if the federal government shuts down ? Clearly, essential personnel (military, FBI, earmark coordinator) will remain at work even without pay, anticipating that their compensation will surely come eventually. Non-essential personnel will…well, if they are non-essential, one wonders why they are on the payroll to being with. Can anyone seriously suggest that the average American will notice if EPA shuts down for a few weeks, or the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Education forever ? On the contrary, closing down Congress indefinitely might be the simplest way to reduce the deficit; you can’t spend if the spenders are locked out. The TSA staff, voyeurs and fondlers with government imprimatur – will have to get their jollies elsewhere. Israel can rest securely knowing that the State Department is not hatching new schemes for its dismemberment. And I believe that Americans can be trusted to behave properly in national parks and museums, even without supervisory personnel. The federal government does much today that it is not constitutionally authorized to do, at least as the Founding Fathers envisioned this government of limited and specifically enumerated powers, and much that its overtaxed and overburdened citizens can easily live without. One who threatens a government “closure” might be playing into the hands of the Tea Party; it just doesn’t sound so bad.

     Of course, it likely won’t happen, sad to say, because most of the “government” today consists of union employees who want to be paid (i.e., overpaid) for their jobs. These bureaucrats – by the hundreds of thousands – earn almost twice as much as their peers do in the private sector, and have no reasonable metric by which to measure their productivity or necessity. The government can’t shut down, because too many other citizens will learn how bloated and superfluous are most government functionaries, and how ten such workers can easily be replaced by one or two. It is worthwhile to recall President Reagan’s threat (soon, carried out) to fire and replace striking air traffic controllers, and the predictions of gloom and doom in the skies if that ever came to pass. It did come to pass, and they were supplanted by others quite handily. The skies above remained serene. A government shutdown ? We should try it. If we don’t like it, we can always beg them to come back. In any event, people’s daily lives are more affected by local and state government decisions than by what the federal government does.

     We might not miss them as much as they think we will. The sorry spectacle unfolding before Congress these days – trying to ram through unread, expensive and potentially dangerous bills before a holiday deadline – smacks of college students suddenly awakening from a binge and realizing that finals are just days away. START treaty, assuming it is serious ? Where has this been hidden for months that it must be voted on in a day or two without debate, because of its importance ? Tax policy, the budget – what are these people being paid for if not to raise revenue and appropriate money for the common good in an equitable and intelligent way ? And this too – a $1.1 trillion dollar omnibus spending bill – has to be force-fed to an angry public that has tired of Congressional shenanigans ?

     Nothing irks the American public today more than “earmarks” – the grant of federal dollars to projects favored by particular congressmen. Even though it is not a lot of money in relative terms – this time, $6 billion out of more than $1 trillion – the practice smacks of both abuse and corruption. Some Congressmen are quick to say that people hate all earmarks, except those from which they benefit, and that is partly true. Too many people today dine at the federal trough and want to keep the money flowing to them. But there is a broader objection to this practice, and a relatively simple formula that can be applied to distinguish what is wasteful from what is warranted.

     We have traveled light years from when James Madison (after all, Father of the Constitution) stated in 1794 on the floor of the House, in response to a Congressional appropriation of $15,000 for relief of French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo to Baltimore and Philadelphia, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents…T]he government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” These days, anything and everything is fair game for the Congressional handout, and Congressmen who distribute money as if it were theirs to give, and to people who presume that it is theirs to take.

    Here’s the formula, so simple one wonders why it has never been embraced: Congress should appropriate funds for things that have some federal interest, and nothing for things that do not.

Interstate highways and bridges have a federal nexus; the re-paving of Kinderkamack Road (the main road running through River Edge, Emerson and Westwood, New Jersey, and proud beneficiary of “stimulus” funds) does not. The latter is a state obligation; let the states sell bonds to pay for road repair.  Museums and statues, foundations in memory of Bart Stupak’s son and John Murtha himself, have no discernible federal interest (those are local and personal matters, respectively), and nor does most of the idiosyncratic research funded by the federal government that serves as subsidies to universities.

    Some projects fall into gray areas. A port in South Carolina ? That could have some federal interest, but it depends on necessity, availability of other options, and other factors. The next generation of GE aircraft engines ? I can see why that is a federal interest, and the fact that money is targeted to a specific state should be no impediment if there is a federal need served by the project. Those are the items that should be debated: which projects have value to the nation as a whole and which projects have limited or parochial interest. The former should be paid for by the feds, the latter by state funds or private donations. That NPR still receives a nickel from our tax dollars is a macabre joke.

     And it should not be government’s responsibility to find or create employment but rather to create economic conditions – through its tax and monetary policy – that encourage employment and growth in the private sector. Certainly, government has the capacity to guarantee full employment. I think it was the great economist Milton Friedman who said that if you really want full employment, government can hire half the people to dig holes and the other half to fill those holes, and voila (!), full employment. Indeed, but no productivity. Yet, too often, government employment programs seem to partake of just that paradigm.

      Americans object to higher taxes – and taxes as they are – because they do not see a positive return on their “investment.” Indispensable federal projects – primarily defense and security – can easily be funded from existing revenues. Most other expenditures historically, were never a federal responsibility, and are still not spent efficiently. The government’s War on Poverty ($3 trillion worth) has been a colossal failure, guaranteeing multi-generational poverty and dependency.  The big-ticket, budget-busting items, now deeply engrained in the American way of life – such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and now also pension payments to federal employees – are arguably unconstitutional encroachments of government into the lives of its citizens (FDR admitted as much about Social Security, which he foresaw in 1935 would eventually be a gigantic Ponzi scheme). They are nothing less than the re-distribution of wealth – forcibly taking money from some and giving it to others, without cause or justification – itself a form of slavery.   “To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph Milligan, April 6, 1816). The “death tax” is just a particularly gruesome example: people whose income was already taxed are taxed a second time on those same assets when they shed their mortal coil and seek to bequeath their estates to their heirs.

     To which can be added Benjamin Franklin’s bon mot, an apt description of politics today: “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” The frustration level and the distrust of Americans for their government are intensifying daily because those “entitlements” cannot be repealed and are here to stay. But the average American would do better financially setting aside that money for his own retirement, as it becomes increasingly unlikely that 20-30 years from now funds will be sufficient to pay beneficiaries, or that dollar will have a value commensurate with what the payers into the system intended.

     For some, taxes are never high enough. There is always more to spend, more re-distribution to execute and more equitability to engender. To them – all liberal Democrats – I offer the following challenge: pay it ! I have never understood why those who clamor for higher taxes don’t just pay it themselves. There is no law preventing anyone from giving gifts to the Treasury. Those who are apoplectic because the tax rates on high earners might remain at 36% and not be raised to 39.6% are certainly welcome to pay 39.6%. They might even want to splurge and pay 40%, or even 70% (the highest tax bracket when Ronald Reagan became President) of their income. They will be blessed for doing so, and feel altruistic and superior to boot. Whatever usefulness they perceive in paying higher taxes can be freely obtained if they just pay it without being ordered to do so.

     They can, and they should. I’d rather not, at least until I can be reasonably assured that my hard-earned money is being spent sensibly and meaningfully. Until then, a government shutdown might be the only vehicle to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, … promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

 I trust that rings a bell.

7 responses to “Shutdowns and Earmarks

  1. “President Pruzansky” has a nice ring to it…

  2. You’re very kind… I think !

  3. Rabbi,
    There is much in your column with which I would respectfully disagree. However, one point that is factually incorrect is that the country did fine without the fired air traffic controllers. This is a common myth of right wing theoreticians. In fact, there were a great many problems that came about because of inexperienced controllers, and over the following twenty years many of the fired controllers were quietly rehired. There have been numerous academic studies to this effect, and can easily be fund by googling the issue. No doubt the studies were funded by grants from earmarks 🙂

  4. I realize that such studies can be be published but that does not make them accurate, only polemical. Just check the rate of controller error that caused crashes before and after the firings, and the results are clear. The fact that some were rehired underscores their intelligence in seeking to regain their jobs outside the union framework but does not discredit the argument that the breaking of the air traffic controllers union was a watershed moment in the Reagan administration, even according to those who are not right-wing theoreticians.

  5. Everyone agrees that firing the air traffic controllers was a watershed moment for Reagan, because he stood up to a public sector union performing a vital and highly specialized task and broke the union. This has nothing to do with making government smaller

    There is no reason to believe Reagan thought there were too many air traffic controllers (that “ten such workers can easily be replaced by one or two”) and in fact, he fired them because he declared their strike to be “a peril to national safety” and the FAA claimed at the time of the strike that they would return staffing level to normal in two years. The poststrike evidence, namely that many of the fired controllers were rehired, and the total number of controllers quickly returned to prestrike levels also does not support the idea that Reagan’s move had anything to do with making government smaller.

    Furthermore, the employees who were intelligent enough to seek to regain their jobs without unions, are also now largely unionized either by the successor union or by AFSCME. Draw your own conclusions about what that means for their intelligence.

  6. Also, “FDR admitted as much about Social Security, which he foresaw in 1935 would eventually be a gigantic Ponzi scheme.” I don’t doubt that something like this happened, but a source to what FDR actually said (considering that the things that make Social Security unstable, namely the postwar baby boom, the contraction in family size after that, and the rapid increase in life expectancy were by no means obvious in 1935) would be informative.

    And the Franklin quote cannot be sourced to anything Franklin said, and is probably a paraphrase of Lord Woodhouselee, an 18th Century British Lord and Monarchist, explaining why democracy is literally impossible. I’m fairly certain that very few tea partiers would agree with that assessment.

  7. Re FDR – see “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Shlaes. I didn’t think I was writing a term paper.