Starve the Beast?

  Starve-the-beast proponents make a simple point. Since money sent to Washington (or Sacramento or Albany) will inevitably be wasted, the solution is to send as little money as possible to those places. California has been fertile ground for proponents of the starve-the-beast approach because of the state's unique constitutional provision that permits legislative proposals […]


Starve-the-beast proponents make a simple point. Since money sent to Washington (or Sacramento or Albany) will inevitably be wasted, the solution is to send as little money as possible to those places. California has been fertile ground for proponents of the starve-the-beast approach because of the state's unique constitutional provision that permits legislative proposals to be decided directly by voters.

It's been said that if you want to see where America is headed, you should study California. The state was the first jurisdiction seriously to tackle the problem of air pollution from auto emissions. It led the way in promoting energy-efficient appliances. It was a forerunner in the expansion of rights for women and minorities. It was among the first to confront the issue of secondhand smoke. And it also spawned the anti-tax crusade that has dominated public discourse for the past three decades.

On June 6, 1978, Proposition 13 won the approval of almost 65 percent of Californians who voted in an election with near-record turnout. Officially called the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, the main provision of this measure was to limit California property taxes to 1 percent of a property's assessed valuation, which in turn would be prohibited from rising more than 2 percent in any year.

Debate continues about the specific details of Proposition 13's impact on the state. But no one seriously questions that it significantly dampened what had been a long-run upward trend in tax revenues. Unlike the federal government, state governments are generally not permitted to run persistent budget deficits. There is thus little question that Proposition 13 also prevented much government spending that otherwise would have occurred.

Since at least some of that spending would have been wasteful, the supporters of Proposition 13 can claim, without fear of contradiction, to have eliminated some government waste. But it's a much harder task to persuade neutral observers that Proposition 13 made California a better place to live. All government programs exist because legislators have constituents who favor them. Some of these programs deliver good value for the money. Others are boondoggles. When revenue shortfalls force government to make budget cuts, the best predictor of which programs get the ax is the power of the particular constituents who support them. As Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere clearly demonstrates, however, the mere fact that a group supports a project does not mean that it serves the broader public interest. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that Proposition 13 has also caused many worthwhile programs to be cut.

What's been the net effect? In his 1998 book Paradise Lost, Peter Schrag grappled with that question. Schrag, who had been the editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee for nineteen years, offered a meticulously researched and studiously nonpartisan account of the state's economic and social history during the two decades following passage of Proposition 13 and numerous other ballot initiatives aimed at curbing the scope of government.

The portrait that emerges is of a state dramatically different from the one that had been "both model and magnet" for the nation during the generation immediately following World War II. The California government's fiscal position has continued to deteriorate sharply in the years since Paradise Lost was published, and its overall prosperity relative to other states has fallen spectacularly. In 2009 alone, for example, revenue shortfalls forced the state to make some $20 billion in additional budget cuts. But even the first twenty years of Proposition 13 had left the state a very different place. Thus, Schrag wrote,

California's schools, which, thirty years ago, had been among the most generously funded in the nation, are now in the bottom quarter among the states in virtually every major indicator—in their physical condition, in public funding, in test scores—closer in most of them to Mississippi than to New York or Connecticut or New Jersey. . . . Its once celebrated freeway system is now rated as among the most dilapidated road networks in the country. Many of its public libraries operate on reduced hours, and some have closed altogether. The state's social benefits, once among the nation's most generous, have been cut, and cut again, and then cut again. And what had once been a tuition-free college and university system, while still among the world's great public educational institutions, struggles for funds and charges as much as every other state university system, and in some cases more.

Proponents of Proposition 13 counter that other factors have been important in the state's long-run relative decline. Undoubtedly so. Yet the fact remains that chronic revenue shortfalls have been at the core of the state's problems.

Antigovernment activists insist that the best way to deal with revenue shortfalls is to eliminate wasteful government spending. Who, other than the direct beneficiaries of a wasteful program, could possibly object? The difficult question is how to eliminate wasteful spending without inflicting even more costly collateral damage. Experience suggests that the starve-the-beast strategy is not the answer.

Starve-the-beast proponents might be likened to a doctor who treats a patient suffering from intestinal parasites by ordering him to stop eating. The patient's food intake, he explains, is the very lifeblood of the parasites. Cut that off, and they will eventually die. Well, yes. But the patient himself may die first, or be seriously damaged in the process. That's why the approved strategies for attacking parasites all take a much more targeted approach. They attempt to inflict damage on the parasites directly, while minimizing collateral damage to their host.

It's instructive to push the parasite-host analogy a step further, by noting that no complex organism is ever completely free of parasites. Yes, the organism benefits from reducing its parasite load, and that's why natural selection has always favored organisms with effective immune systems. But natural selection has always favored the most effective parasites, too. The battle against parasites entails costs as well as benefits. The rule of thumb for how to wage such battles is the same as that for battles in other domains: use the most cost-effective weapons first, and use them to attack the most dangerous parasites. But eventually a point comes at which the cost of the next weapon exceeds the costs imposed by the most dangerous remaining parasite. Beyond that point, additional parasite reduction actually leaves the organism worse off.

The same logic applies to the problem of waste in government. The best way to reduce it is surely to reach first for the most cost-effective weapons at our disposal and deploy them against the most important causes of waste directly. To do that, of course, we must ask why waste exists in the first place. Often the answer is that politicians support wasteful programs because of demands from important campaign donors. A good place for opponents of waste to focus might thus be on legislation that could reduce legislators' dependence on large campaign contributions. (Small donations pose a less serious threat because the individuals who make them are in no position to extract major concessions from legislators.) The cost of enforcing stricter campaign finance laws would be relatively low, and such laws would be likely to curb some of the most important sources of government waste. But the U.S. Supreme Court has shown little inclination to support stricter campaign finance laws in recent years. On the contrary, its controversial ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case appears to signal the court's intention to roll back even long-standing limits on corporate campaign contributions.

Unless the court reconsiders, opponents of government waste will have to continue working their way down the list of alternative strategies. One lesson of the Bridge to Nowhere episode, for example, was that boondoggles are less likely to survive politically when more voters learn about them. The information revolution has greatly reduced the cost of putting information in front of voters, so we might make some progress there. But the same revolution has also caused explosive growth in the total amount of information that bombards us each day. Thus it may be just as hard as ever to draw voters' attention to any particular wasteful program.

In short, attacking government waste is a project that will be with us forever. Going forward, new technologies and better institutional design may facilitate significant progress, but they will never eliminate waste entirely.

Government may be imperfect, but there are no countries without one. The territory of any such country would have long since been invaded and claimed by some other country with a government and an army. So our challenge is to come up with the best government possible.

Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit group, conducts periodic surveys to assess the quality of the world's governments. The organization publishes a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), based on its definition of corruption as "the abuse of public office for private gain." Its surveys ask respondents to report "the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among a country's public officials and politicians." Some countries, such as Myanmar and Somalia, are perennially near the bottom of Transparency International's CPI. It's no accident that they and other persistently low scorers on that index—which include Afghanistan, Haiti, Tonga, and Uzbekistan—are among the poorest nations on the planet.

Government may be imperfect, but there are no countries without one. Our challenge is to come up with the best government possible.Notwithstanding the rhetoric of antigovernment crusaders, there seem to be some governments that are relatively free from corruption and do at least a reasonable job of responding to their citizens' demands for public goods and services. In a three-way tie for the least corrupt government on Transparency International's 2007 list were Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand. Singapore, Sweden, Iceland, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and Norway rounded out that year's top ten in that order. Here, too, it's surely no accident that most of these countries are among the richest on the planet.

The causality undoubtedly runs in both directions. Having a more honest and effective government helps support activities that raise per-capita income. And being richer generally makes citizens more able and willing to support more effective forms of governance. But the correlation between per-capita income and the CPI is far from perfect. For example, the United States, which had higher per-capita income than any of the top ten on the 2007 CPI, ranked only twentieth-best on that list, primarily because of perceptions that our campaign finance system had corrupted Congress.

In countries with honest and effective governments, the view that promoting good government is a worthwhile investment would not strike most observers as absurd. Yet that does not seem to be the position of antigovernment evangelists in the United States, many of whom view government service with thinly veiled contempt. The foundation of honest and effective government is a professional civil service that takes pride in its work. Fostering a climate in which government is viewed with contempt inevitably makes it more difficult to recruit talented and dedicated civil servants.

If we must have a government, it's surely worth thinking seriously about how to promote good government. What public goods and services do we want? How can we best raise the money to pay for them? And how can we attract the kinds of civil servants we're willing to install in positions of trust? Going forward, questions like those should be our main focus.


Robert Frank is the Louis Professor of Management in the Johnson School, a New York Times columnist, and the author of such books as Luxury Fever, Falling Behind, and The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide. He also co-authored the textbook Principles of Economics with Ben Bernanke.

Excerpt from The Darwin Economy by Robert H. Frank, to be published by the Princeton University Press on September 21, 2011. © 2011. All rights reserved.

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