Where to Cut

President Obama named a “Deficit Commission” headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. They failed to come up with the necessary votes so they forwarded no recommendations to Congress. Since their ideas are likely to be ignored, I feel I will be in good company if I make my own recommendations, which can then also be ignored.

I propose three principles for a time when the government is deeply in debt. First, don’t spend public money when people are willing to spend their own money to do the same thing. Second, realize that results are more important than effort. Third, if you are going to waste time with government busy work, try to interfere as little as possible with people who want to work productively.

The first rule means we should look to privatize where possible. I know many people want subsidies for broadcasting and the arts. But, for speech truly to be free, it should not involve tax money. You are free to spend your money on books, radio, other media and museums any way you want. Producers, editors and gallery directors should not have politicians looking over their shoulders.

But, “he who pays the fiddler calls the tune.” As long as public moneys are spent on NPR, PBS or even the Smithsonian, politicians will be involved. NPR fired Juan Williams the same day they announced a big grant from George Soros. NPR and PBS are logical candidates for privatization. They have had time to build an audience and they can either continue to run on donations or accept advertising.

The Smithsonian recently got into political hot water with an “art work” depicting ants crawling over the figure of Christ on a crucifix. There were also disputes about its presentation of the Enola Gay and the dropping of the first atomic bomb. The Erskine-Bowles commission considered the idea of charging admission to the Smithsonian exhibits. To get the politicians out of a supervisory role, the Smithsonian could be privatized.

When we look at the difference between results and expenditures, the Department of Education comes to mind. The goal of education is to train the next generation so they have the skills to compete in a world economy. It would also be helpful if they understand what it takes to keep a democracy functioning.

It is easy to show concern about an issue by throwing money at it. When the government is facing bankruptcy, a more mature view is needed. Those in the Education Establishment love to use high-tech sounding terms like interfacing and networking. Let me use a simpler computer concept: Inputs and outputs. The issue is not how much we put in (spending) but the quality of the outputs (trained and capable adults).

The Department of Education does everything but teach students. They do studies, generate forms, track statistics and monitor programs. What is worse, every school board in the United States has to hire people whose sole purpose is to deal with all the forms and reporting requirements coming from Washington. 

What good does it do to have an entire department in Washington and people in every school district who spend all their time designing and filling in forms, meeting on, making, interpreting and following government rules and interfacing, networking, dialoguing and doing every other “i-n-g” except teaching?

Governments at all levels are running out of money. Let’s eliminate the Department of Education and free up the people and money to put teachers in the classroom. That is, of course, assuming our real objective has anything to do with helping students learn.

The third principle shows a core problem in modern government. We can create jobs having people dig holes and fill them again. A more sophisticated version of this is to create bureaucracies where people can spend a lot of time and money making and enforcing rules and dealing with paperwork.

When the government is running out of money and people are losing jobs all over the place it is time to look for places where the government is not only directly wasting time and money, but where other productive work is being hampered. The issue here is government regulations which directly kill jobs.

Ben Lieberman has a New York Post article detailing how the Interior Department is blocking oil and gas leases, the  EPA is blocking the construction of power plants needed to drive factories and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is imposing overly strict fishing limits  which are driving people out of the fishing industry.

The President and Congress are negotiating a package to avoid a tax increase with the end of the Bush tax rates and combine this with various forms of stimulus. Stimulus packages, either government spending or tax rebates are not going to solve the unemployment problem if government regulations keep costing jobs.

In the next Congress, it is true that the Republicans control the House, but the Democrats have at least nominal control of the Senate and a Democratic President is in charge of the regulatory agencies. One of the best predictors of Presidential reelection odds is the unemployment rate and the state of the economy a couple of months before the election. If Mr. Obama wants to get reelected, he might want to consider using the government to create jobs instead of destroying them.

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