Let’s do something strange and use science!

It is an article of faith among those on the political left and in the media (but I repeat myself) that the Republican party has moved significantly to the right in recent years. Depending on who you are talking to and what purpose they have at the moment, the alleged radicalism of the right either began with GWB (Bush shunned the UN on Iraq!) or has actually occurred in reaction to Obama’s rise to power (those insane Tea Partiers, don’t you know). As I have mentioned, I think this alleged movement is largely a myth, and that by any objective measure both the Republican party and the politics of the nation have actually been trending to the left for pretty much nearly a century.

But that discussion got me to thinking just what kind of objective measure might there be for such a thing, and how can we go about measuring it? It is actually quite a difficult question, kind of like objectively defining pornography. What is right and left can mean all kinds of different things, and is ultimately determined relative to the point of view of the determiner himself. To someone like Noam Chomsky, Bill Clinton was probably a rightwing fascist, while to Jonah Goldberg actual fascists were in fact members of the left. So you can see how this might be a problem.

But after thinking about it, the first measure that I came up with was government spending. We can easily see what kind of things the federal government has spent money on throughout history, and so if we can allocate various federal programs as favorites of the political left or right, and see how spending priorities have changed over time, that might give us some clue as to the direction in which the government itself, if not the political parties individually, have been trending.

This site is somewhat useful for this purpose. We can look at government spending broken down into various categories like defense, education, welfare, pensions, and interest, for various years going back all the way to 1792. Further breakdowns are possible as well.

Defense spending has, of course, long been a sacred cow for Republicans. This is not to say that D’s have no interest in defense, but trying to get R’s to agree to defense cuts has been virtually an impossible task. So it seems reasonable to me to categorize defense spending as a right wing priority. How has defense spending fared since, say, 1950 to pick a year somewhat randomly? Well, in 1950 defense spending comprised 54% of the federal budget. By 1970 that had dropped slightly to 48%. By 1990 it had dropped to only half of what it was in 1950, to 27% of the total federal budget. And by 2010 it had dropped further, albeit slightly, to 25%.

Welfare spending, on the other hand, has long been a priority of Democrats. Again, this is not to say that R’s have no interest in supporting welfare spending, but I think it is fair to say that it is a higher priority for the left than the right. So how has spending on welfare programs changed over the last 60 years? In 1950 spending on welfare programs made up 3.6% of all federal spending. By 1970 it had risen to 5.2%. By 1990, it had risen to 8%, and by 2010, it had nearly doubled again to 15%. (Go here for a more detailed view of what constitutes “welfare” on this site.)

So we see that since the middle of the last century, spending on a right-wing sacred cow, defense, has steadily decreased by roughly 50%, while spending on a left-wing sacred cow, welfare, has increased by more than 400%. So is this indicative of a national politics that has moved to the left, or the right? To me the data speaks for itself.

Of course defense and welfare spending are not the only possible spending measures, and spending itself is just one possible measure of political trends. Which gets me to the real point of this post. If we were to attempt to devise a scientific (who doesn’t like science?) and objective analysis of political trends, left or right, in the nation over the last 50 to 100 years, what type of measure would you all suggest?

Explanation Letter

Dear Commerce Team,

This evening, I notified Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank that I am taking a medical leave of absence in order to focus on resolving my health issues that arose over the weekend.

During this time, I will not perform the functions and duties of Commerce Secretary. Therefore, I am transferring these responsibilities to Dr. Blank who will serve as Acting Secretary, effective immediately.

As you know, Dr. Blank has strengthened our Department in this role before. I have every confidence in her.

I know that all of you will work to make this a seamless transition, and I thank you in advance for your continued work to help America’s businesses drive economic growth and job creation at this crucial moment in our nation’s recovery.

Finally, I want to thank all of you personally for your warm thoughts and support.

Sincerely,

John Bryson

_________________________

Footnote: Like Rick Perry and Barack Obama, John Bryson has argued for the termination of the Cabinet post of SecCommerce.

The Wrong Focus?

According to US Postal Service financials, in 2007 the USPS posted a net loss of $5.1 billion. In 2008 it posted a loss of $2.8 billion. In 2009 the loss was $3.8 billion. In 2010 it posted a loss of $8.5 billion. In 2011 it posted a loss of $5 billion. In the most recent quarter this year, it reported a loss of $3.2 billion, bringing this year’s total loss to $6.2 billion.

So let’s add that all up. Since 2007 the USPS has lost a total of $31.4 billion.

Now, a question for the folks of ATiM: Who should the US taxpayer be more concerned about having to support with a taxpayer funded bailout, the US Postal Service or JPM Chase?

Next up…how much have taxpayers piled into Amtrak over the last 5 years?

I Recommend WaPo’s ‘Spring Cleaning’ – 10 articles for conversation starters

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-time-to-toss-the-all-volunteer-military/2012/04/19/gIQAwFV3TT_story.html?sub=AR

I liked Milbanks’ take on the Cabinet –  except for the Big Four, they don’t do anything.  The Departments may be important, but the Cabinet members are mere figureheads, he claims.  He may have exaggerated (what else is new?), but I got the thrust of it.

Big Government vs. Small Government

There’s been a number of excellent posts recently that have touched on this issue of Big Government vs. Small Government, such as Fairlington Blade’s excellent post about his children, Into the Mystery, and the comments on lmsinca’s Columbus Day Open Thread, to cite two examples. I can’t give all the other comments and posts regarding the big government/small government dichotomy the full attention they deserve, but I thought I’d touch on a few things.

To quote Fairlington: “This is one case where I came in general agreement with small government conservatives. Then I saw what effective government could do. It opened my eyes.”He wrote this about Child Find, one of the many programs happening under the IDEA. And IDEA does a lot of important stuff in regards to intervention, special education, education of children with disabilities, and course recovery for remedial students. A lot of the money small, local, rural and urban school systems has to spend on children with disabilities comes from Federal programs, such as IDEA and Title I. I think, by and large, we get a good value for those tax dollars, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Last week, I got into a bit of a tête-à-tête with a few folks over on Plumline about how, opposed to the Britain and presumably all other enlightened nations, America leaves it’s poor and disadvantaged students to rot. I argued that we did not, and cited Title I specifically, although I could have cited IDEA as well. This was insufficient, because we weren’t currently, at a national level, buying all our poor students iPads or Android tablets right now. I think that’s a kind of shifting goal post test we’re always doomed to fail. It would turn out, if the Poor Children Get a Free iPad act was law, and we were buying every disadvantaged student an iPad for home use right now, the French would be buying 32 gigabyte tablets instead of 16 gigabytes, like we were in America, so we’d still be leaving our children to rot. But I digress.

My point is that, by and large, government is always growing. It’s always doing more, if not year over year then certainly decade over decade. And it’s a rare instance where our government does fund or have it’s finger in every area of our lives. We may not do it to the level of the UK, or Greece, or Spain—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given what such over-extension may mean, long term, to their entitlement programs.

There are all sorts of programs and entitlements that are desirable, not all of them are infinitely fundable. Sometimes, what we already have cannot be responsibly funded, much less what we have plus what we additionally want to spend. Decisions have to be made about what gets money, and whether or not we tax more aggressively, or raise user fees, or take other actions to increase revenue that will probably be fine generally (if politically suicidal), but may also be counter-productive (I give you the 1990 luxury tax). While, ideally, we’d arrive at these decisions by rational compromise amongst sober policy wonks, that’s not actually required for checks and balances to work. The “hyper-partisanship” we see in our politics also works.

In the end, I tend to agree with Fairlington Blade. Effective government is a net positive, and, in fact, much more common than some may presume. It is imperfect, and will always be so, and the more problematic those imperfections are, the more a fine-grain sandpaper is not going to sand those imperfections away. That requires a Howitzer or an A-Bomb (hello, Tea Party!). But clearly, the momentum in government is to grow (in generally positive and beneficial ways). That gives us the ADA and the IDEA and Title I and OSHA and the EPA and the DHS and Medicare Part F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O,P.

For the most part, all that the small government types can hope to do (and all that they, in fact, end up doing) is restraining the otherwise unrestrained growth of government. They are barely able to constrain it to a level that promises to maybe be manageable (should a huge pot of money fall from the sky) in the future. They have managed, perhaps, to keep down to a level where our own austerity, if and when it happens, will not be as severe as it otherwise might have been. This is not a tremendous accomplishment for those small government types. It also means that more of the growth of government has been in generally positive and beneficial directions, and hard choices have been made. We may not have a government program to universally cover all or most of the costs associated with cancer, like we do with dialysis. But we have Title I and IDEA. And we may be in a better position to keep funding Child Find because we don’t currently buy every Title I student in the country an iPad.

I’m a fan of calmness. I like sober compromise. But if it takes a lot of shouting and yelling and nuclear options to get to the point where we fund a Title I over No Child Without an iPad, then that’s what it takes. We’ve picked the better of those two noble programs, and perhaps the one best left to the government, over the one best left to private charity and non-profits. That looks like hyper-partisanship. It sounds like hyper-partisanship. It means that IDEA does not have to be scuttled in 5 years due to unavoidable austerity. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

I don’t have time to track it backwards, but the same argument can be made for the tax the rich crowd. That is, they don’t tend to win the revenue argument all that much, so though they may sounds like class warriors, or hyper-partisans, they’re mostly just gate keepers ensuring that our government continues to collect at least some of the money it spends every year. Like the Tea Partiers, the Tax The Richers are engaged in a pitched battle to avoid crippling austerity measures. They really share many common goals, though it might not seem that way, when they’re busy fighting.

I mentioned I’d get back to the net value we get from IDEA, Title I, etc., and I will. First, these are programs that benefit our children—and they really do. In our school system, the Title I schools are well-equipped. The richer schools are more poorly equipped, because the funding isn’t there to buy them new equipment (and we can’t go get in debt to China to make-up the shortfalls in our yearly budget). I think they are consistent with the values of our nation overall (whatever that means) in that we value our children, we value our education, and we believe everybody can make a difference and contribute. But these programs just don’t fund specific classes or buy equipment. They provide an infrastructure to integrate national resources, to diffuse best practices is child identification, special education, remediation and course recovery to disparate school systems all across the country, and create efficiencies (yes, that’s right, efficiencies) that benefit every school system that participates, where there would be tremendous duplication of effort and resources (and random application of best practices) if every system or, worse, every school, tried to manage and administer and fund these programs in isolation.

There is also a great value in that these programs really help kids. And help parents. They help parents take care of and educate their children better than most parents could ever manage in a vacuum, often freeing up the parents to be productive and contributive (thus, recapturing some tax revenue) where they otherwise might not. And they help the kids become more productive and contributive members of society. No, it doesn’t keep all the bad kids out of prison or make every kid with special needs into a future MBA—but it does do those things. These programs do it to a degree where I think it’s a net benefit, financially and practically, to society at large, and at worse it would be a wash—a wash that includes a few less kids in prison, a few less kids in gangs, a few less people murdered, and a few more kids going on to college instead of dropping out in high school. And a few more parents able to hold down jobs, and a few more parents able to raise self-supporting and self-sustaining kids.

Still, I think it’s a mistake to consider effective government programs as purely the result of sober compromise or unanimity in purpose. If a program is worth it, it will probably come back and try again. And try again. And try again. And maybe it’ll get a little better each time, or a little more efficient, or find a way to lower the price tag. It may feel, depending on which side your own, that these people are crazy, and that this is horrible, and these people want children to die and poor people to starve or to chase all the rich people out of the country with confiscatory taxes . . . in my opinion, they are, in fact, checking and balancing. And checking again.

Gridlock and hyper-partisanship? That’s the combustion of fuel and air in the engine of democracy. When you have an agenda, that’s a pain in the ass. But when eventually get the next IDEA or Title I, it will almost certainly be more sustainable. It will be the better choice of the 5 other perfectly good choices that money could have gone to. Will it be perfect? No. But, as Winston Churchill said himself, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”.

I was a big fan of Bush’s broad outline for Social Security Reform (not really privatization), as is probably well-known by most of you. But it didn’t approach ever becoming a reality, as many Republicans and pretty much all Democrats pulled out all the stops to kill it before it had a chance to see a single sunrise. Was this hyper-partisanship? Well, if what the GOP is doing now is hyper-partisanship, I guess so. I think it was just the checks and balances of our system, imperfect though it may be, working exactly as it is supposed to. Not happy about it, but there it is.

One more note about Big Government vs. Small Government. Again, like Fairlington, I like efficient government. I like most government programs that don’t over-regulate and don’t provide perverse incentives for folks to become less or non-productive. I could imagine many more government programs that I would love to see—in an ideal world with infinite revenue. National broadband wireless, for one. I love the Internet. I love GPS. I love the Interstate system. I could go on and on. If we could pay for it, I’d like to see a lot more.

But I think we sometimes focus too much on the process. Small Government isn’t desirable in and of itself, for it’s own sake. Why would it be? Similarly, Big Government is not desirable in and of itself. Just cutting government programs to randomly cut programs serves very little purpose, just as creating government programs randomly would serve no purpose. I support the biggest government we can afford, and I support the smallest government we can get away with. Because it’s not about the process: it’s about what specifically works to accomplish specific goals. And lots of things work better at a national level, with a shared pool of funding, a certain level of centralization. Other things do not.

We shouldn’t be fighting, I don’t think, for smaller government. Or bigger government. In my opinion. But I think it’s better that we fight those proxy battles, via the Tea Party and maybe OWS, than not fight them at all.

Or, in conclusion, everybody’s awesome and I love you all. Smooch!

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