Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Ravenous Beast

When I pine for limited government, I am often met with challenges as to how government spending could reasonably be cut. To me, this kind of question is utterly ridiculous. The opportunities for cutting spending are so plentiful and manifold (and ever increasingly so), that we could pretty much start anywhere. Some of the best places to start would be those that seldom see the light of public scrutiny.

Of course, those posing the challenge as to how spending could be cut are listening to the cries of the ever ravenous beast that government can be, crying about insufficient funds. It’s like my teenage son that has grown a foot in height and doubled his weight in the past couple of years, saying, “I’m hungry.” This occurs with regularity except for when he is asleep. It is a common refrain often heard even within an hour of consuming a large meal.

Consider Utah’s education industrial complex, for example. I know that some will flame me for daring to even mention this highly sacred cow, but please indulge me. Jesse Harris ably discusses this matter in this post. He notes, “Utah's per-pupil spending ranking has been slipping only because other states are intent on spending everyone else under the table.”

Jesse continues, “We've also watched education spending in our state increase 54% in the last decade while the student population only increased 9%. Despite all this, test scores and teacher salaries stay flat. If you try voicing any opposition to keeping the gravy train coming to town, however, teacher's unions will slap you with an anti-education label you couldn't remove with hydrochloric acid.”

And let’s not forget the fact that we’ve poured copious amounts of cash into the system to address the ever present cry that classrooms are overcrowded. But after a decade of chucking cash at these problems, they are as bad as ever. When the legislature asked educrats where they spent the money intended to solve these problems, they were unable to provide an accounting. That hardly inspires confidence that the half billion Dollars the legislature has decided to throw at education this session will be properly managed.

And education isn’t the only culprit. These kinds of problems exist throughout the width and breadth of state and federal government. The CATO Institute’s Chris Edwards noted in the introduction to a 2004 paper about how to cut federal spending that government funds had been scandalously mismanaged by numerous agencies. He says that this is because the expansive government “has simply become too big for [legislative bodies] to oversee.” I wonder, along with Edwards, why our society has increasingly come to see expanding government as the answer to so many issues, given the fact that its track record is so poor.

Edwards asserts, “All [government] spending displaces private spending, but many [government] programs actively damage the economy, cause social ills, despoil the environment, or restrict liberty as well.” He rejects the trend to centralize power and funding that has resulted in “a complex array of 716 grant programs [that] disgorges more than $400 billion annually to state and local governments, which become strangled in federal regulations.” His 2005 book explores ways to properly cut government spending in more detail.

George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux writes in this post that cutting government spending is so difficult because “nearly all programs currently in operation have a kind of political sacredness. They become almost immediately locked-in; each one becomes very difficult to kill.” He says that this looks an awful lot like a form of addiction.

But the government is us. We are doing this to ourselves. Or at least we are allowing it to happen. If we want government to be properly managed, it needs to be reduced to a manageable size. Unfortunately I don’t see many at the state or federal level that are serious about this. Although some give it lip service, actions show that most of our elected officials from both major parties actually believe quite the opposite. And by extension, that means that most of the electorate believes quite the opposite as well.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post.

Some of your harping on Utah's schools goes a little to far but there is no arguing with the basic point that throwing more money at schools never has equaled better education for our kids.

I think more of us should "act locally while thinking globally" in our efforts to limit the governments we are subjected to. Have you ever looked at the minutes from your last county or city council meetings? I did for the first time recently and was shocked at how much money is spent every week by my local elected leaders.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I keep somewhat close tabs on what is going on in my city's council chamber and in my county's commission proceedings. And I can tell you that government growth is well entrenched in these arenas as well.

We have one guy on my city council that is a royal pain in the tail. But he is the only one that stands up and makes the rest of them think coherently about the cash they are spending the the freedoms they are restricting.

Scott Hinrichs said...

And for the record, I don't think I'm harping too strongly on Utah's education bureaucracy. The educrats obviously don't believe that smaller class sizes and well paid teachers are truly important, other than as an advertising slogan. Otherwise they would have used the money the legislature set aside for these problems to actually address them instead of growing management structures and expanding non-essential programs.

y-intercept said...

The February 26th Cato Podcast has a wonderful interview with Neal McCluskey titled "Why Our Kids Fail."

BTW, the increased education spending is about paying our wonderful teachers more (and their faithful sidekicks the school administrators). It is not about improving education.

Progressive Educators are super duper wonderful troopers who deserve more of you money.

That One Guy said...

yes, a great post... thanks... and you're not being too tough on educrats... unfortunately, for us all, this is only one sector where funds are misguided and misused.

It's so large, one hardly knows where to begin talking intelligently about it.

Being in my particular industry, it makes me mad enough to SPIT when I see one of those plastic signs at the side of the road that says something like, "buy homes with US Grants!!"

Are you KIDDING me?

Education spending is off the charts with no measurable returns, and so is 90% of the rest of state and federal spending. And it seems we can't elect someone who is willing to stand in front of the tank in the public square. But they sure ACT like they are willing, during campaign season.

It comes down to campaign finance, lobby regs, etc., I think. Office holders end up beholden, without even knowing it. (or maybe I'm giving them too much credit there.)

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

So what's the Conservative approach to education? Vouchers? Pay-your-own-way? What are our Republican governor and Republican supermajority in the Legislature not doing? In April of last year, Utah still ranked dead last in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending. Are you proud of that? How is that fact going to help this state attract good jobs? Who is eating at this "gravy train"? Do you know any teachers? Maybe the classrooms are still overcrowded because people in Utah are still having more kids (which make for fat tax deductions) than any other state in the union.

The only way this state can be economically competitive in the future is if it has an educated workforce or a cheap workforce. Take your pick.

Jesse Harris said...

Justin: Do you honestly believe that per-pupil funding is the best way to measure the success of an education system? I certainly hope not. That's like using housing prices to determine which areas are the best to live in. By that rationale, Fremont, CA is looking pretty good.

The problem with attempting to use a metric like per-pupil spending is that it measures nothing. It doesn't measure student performance per dollar spent, it doesn't measure spending as a percentage of state revenue or GSP, it fails to take into account cost of living differences and it gives us no idea how the money is being spent. It's only purpose is to bludgeon legislators into playing this dangerous multi-state game of keeping up with the Joneses.

Instead of obsessing over how much we spend, maybe we should focus on what kind of results we're getting. All of you who bellyache about per-pupil funding had better be ready for a big serving of crow in a few years when, surprise of all surprises, student achievement stays flat. There's a point where additional money beyond the rates of inflation and student growth ends up being a case of diminishing returns. I think we've managed to get well beyond that now.

That One Guy said...

The per-pupil spending metric is useless when the money is given to the multitude of school districts, because the school districts have no oversight or accountability on that money.

The education systems are weak, and need to be overhauled to put responsible leadership at the helm, and put steps in place to attract and retain better quailty individuals at every level of the systems.

They all think they're the only resident authorities on all matters educational, but it's obvious that throwing more money at them isn't the answer. At all.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Ah, yes. Accountability. The bane of the educrats.

I haven't read the final form of all of the education spending bills that the legislature passed, but my understanding is that they fall well short of requiring the kind of accountability that many legislators were spouting off about early in the session.

Why on earth should education be such a sacred cow that we can't even suggest that we should get some kind of return on our 'investment'?

Yes, I do know a number of teachers. Yes, I do want my kids' teachers to be properly compensated. But the educrats don't. They have demonstrated that by their actions. They get money to devote to this issue, and they use it to increase management structures and implement programs that are not essential to training kids to be good and productive citizens. When asked what they did with the money, they give the same kind of "I don't know" answer I get from my kids when they get caught doing something wrong. And then we reward them by giving them more money. This is not a recipe for educational success.

The conservative approach to education? Focus on essentials. Flatten management structures. Scrap non-essentials. Require accountability. Get serious about parental input, but also get input from the community -- you know, the people that will potentially be employing these kids.

That One Guy said...

Overheard at my dinner table this week:

Me: What did you do at school today?
Kid: I fell asleep on my desk during Spanish.
Me: Why did you do that?
Kid: We were watching Jurasic Park in the dark.
Me: (expletive deleted.)

Cameron said...

I loved movie day in school! Not sure what my parents (expletive deleted) thought about it though...

Scott Hinrichs said...

TOG, this almost precisely mirrors a discussion I had with one of my children recently.

y-intercept said...

The percent of per capita income spent on education is probably a better metric for deciding how much a society favors education. Such a metric should include both private and public education.

Metrics really should include both public and private funding along with any amount of time investment that parents, family and volunteers spend on education.

BTW: I don't know where Utah or any state stand on the total amount we value education, but I am quite certain that the on going competition between states on per pupil spending has not improved the quality of education.

Frank Staheli said...

I've often wondered how we'd get rid of so many of the needless government agencies when they've taken on a life of their own, and their minions have developed an entitlement mentality.

I hadn't thought about the fact that Utah's ed spending was behind because other states were being more and more profligate. Interesting point. We should actually be satisfied with ourselves to some degree because we are less wasteful than other states.

I've had nearly identical conversations with my kids as has TOG.