Asheville – Machiavelli, Saul Alinsky, and Rahm Emmanuel all preached the same: Never let a crisis go to waste. COVID, economic devastation from the government’s response, rioting provocateurs, and more rock-bottoms falling out expected for 2021 have forced even limited-government types to look to Big Government solutions for their daily lives. With a 100% Democrat Asheville City Council, one Republican Buncombe County Commissioner, Democrat majorities in the House and Senate, and a Democrat president – will economics, as a tool and not a bunch of cherry-picked statistics to back soothsayers on the public payroll, be replaced with magical thinking about free money from government-knows-best ideologues?
Chad Adams, an analyst who used to work for the John Locke Foundation, was among many to claim, “Democrats are the party of tax and spend, and Republicans are the party of don’t tax and spend anyway.” The national debt, which failed to cross the $20 trillion mark before the close of 2016, passed $27 trillion last October; and the masses continue to demand more stimulus as governors beg for reimbursement. And so, we find ourselves asking if, at this point, it would do any good to turn to the oldie but goodie, The Culture of Spending: Why Congress Lives beyond Our Means, written by James Payne and published in 1991.
Back when the national debt was only $3.6 trillion, Payne suggested the persistent problem of growing, rabid government spending was not being checked because the main cause was misidentified. It was typical for Americans to view politicians as “vote-maximizing entrepreneurs,” when Payne, who interviewed many and their staff members for his book, viewed them more as compassionate, social creatures. The problem was, they were immersed in an unrepresentative subculture of interest groups.
Much has been written about how government programs grow because one person with a serious need is going to be more likely to demand relief than any single person asked to pay a fraction of a penny for that person’s interests – as well as fractions of pennies they could recover for taking time off work to get laughed at in another thousand Congressional hearings. Congressmen don’t see the pennies adding up among their constituents. Instead, they see the lobbyists, each with a good cause and dire need; and they sit through hearings featuring strings of special-interest advocates and administrators with a self-preservation instinct that leans toward highlighting what a great job they’re doing with their programs.
Payne argued there was nothing wrong with human nature causing people to put their time and resources into causes in which they believe and advocate for them, or even to prefer subsets of facts that show they’re doing a good job. The problem was that, unlike in the judicial system, Congress did not give equal time to the data and narratives of opposing viewpoints. The one-sided arguments thus prevailed even in one instance where Payne said there was no way the program had the resources to collect the data is presented, which included wild claims that translated to, for example, each volunteer urban gardener in one municipality, in one season, growing the equivalent of three truckloads of cucumbers sold at retail value.
People need help, but questions not being asked enough are whether the government is the appropriate agent for aid and if current programs are doing more harm than good. To illustrate, Payne took one Congressman’s argument and stripped it of the request for additional funding and expanded programming. The result looked like a bald-faced admission of the program’s failure. While the private sector often outperforms the public, its narratives vanish with Congress’ mass refusal to address opportunity costs.
Payne reminds his readers it is the human condition to fight hunger, seek shelter, and improve one’s lot whether by skill or intellect. To help those who have failed in the effort, government taxes those who are succeeding. The working poor pay taxes by giving up some of their ability to independently feed, clothe, shelter, pay medical bills for, and further education for their families. Their tax dollars, then, pay for these essentials for others, and sometimes themselves. The middle class feels the brunt because the rich have lawyers and accountants to find loopholes.
The author says politicians, in their beltway bubble, don’t see the working poor. They further don’t see the inefficiencies government programs introduce – with not only administrative overhead but the colossal bureaucracy the IRS has become for collecting taxes and keeping records. Some estimates have claimed to fend for one’s family costs half as much as leaving it to the government to do so. Payne argues DC officials view the worker ants who pay their taxes not as fellow beings but more as a two-dimensional, abstract, general fund. Payne also did well to spotlight how government economists multiply to the literal nth degree indirect economic impacts from federal “investments,” leaving private-sector spenders with only a one-to-one ratio for their trade.
Adding insult to injury, beyond buying what people would buy for themselves with overhead; funds from federal anti-poverty programs tend to land more in the hands of the better-off. Sure, there are kickbacks, but federal funds legally support the visual and performing arts, farm subsidies go toward agribusiness and Realtors, and Social Security and Medicare support a population that is statistically “wealthier (and whiter)” than the bulk of those who pay into it. Programs provide a comfortable salary for administrators, contracts trickle-down less efficiently to skilled workers, and multi-million multi-nationals remain well-taken-care-of.
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