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Saturday, July 6, 2013
All of you who have bravely, Paul Revere-like, sounded the alarm about “out-of-control government spending,” you are right! Sort of. (Though your lopsided, lobbyist-influenced spending cuts can hardly be considered sage, so don’t get too cocky.)
An article in the July/August 2013 issue of The Atlantic magazine should be required reading for those who obsess over government spending and those who obsess over the effectiveness of that spending. Authors Peter Orszag, former director of the Congressional Budget Office in the Obama administration, and John Bridgeland, former Bush administration official, make a strong case for incorporating cost-benefit analysis in government spending decisions.
Surprisingly, at least from a good business practices standpoint, these controls have not been present in large measure. An example is illuminating.
You might have thought that state-funded Scared Straight programs (where juvenile delinquents are emphatically warned of harsh prison life by the inmates themselves) would be an effective use of funds. To quote from the article, “It turns out that Scared Straight-style programs are actually pretty effective . . . at increasing criminal behavior.” The increase is about 12 percent.
(Stunned, let us resist mightily the urge to collapse back into our easy chairs, throw up our hands and exclaim, Paul Lynde-like, “Kids today!”). This has prompted the Department of Justice to discourage state government funding of these type programs, so there is already movement in government circles to be mindful of this sort of statistical analysis.
Keep in mind The Atlantic article is not intended to promote the idea that government is irredeemably wasteful and ineffective, but that it can be efficient and effective by incorporating a relatively simple cost-benefit analysis regimen. If a government program works or can be made to work, keep it; if not, let it go and make way for something else.
This business-like approach should be hard for either side to argue against openly. Yea or nay, look for a battle royal behind the scenes with moneyed interests or just plain interests.
While making the case that efficiency is a necessity, Orszag and Bridgeland note that discretionary nondefense spending as a share of the economy is on track to be at the lowest level on record (this for better or, more likely, for worse). In that larger, more telling sense, the often-repeated “out-of-control spending” charge is then a canard, even while the lack of a steady cost-benefit analysis process, this literal lack of control, does our budget no favors.
While the Orszag/Bridgeland approach is not intended to destroy the federal government, this is a bandwagon the tea party could latch onto and give momentum, if it doesn’t hijack it outright. The tea party cares about government spending, right?
A revolution can have many avenues, but usually these avenues are one-way streets headed in the same direction. Historically, revolutionaries have resisted powerful, exploitative political and moneyed interests, made strange-bedfellow alliances in that resistance, rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work, often in obscure, thankless tasks.
The tea party, in a cozy reversal, has let the powerful and moneyed interests off the hook, even shielding them, preferring to gleefully throw wrenches into the gears of the remaining government. (Talk about juvenile delinquents.) Fine. Time to put all that industry to good use.
The breakout hard work of applying cost-benefit analysis to spending and regulation would seem a golden opportunity for the tea party to serve the country — all of the country. On the other hand, if it reverts to form, it could instead be a golden opportunity to indulge in at least 12 percent more mischief.
In putting tea partyers to this task, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Are we feeling lucky?” Well, are we?
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