Monday, August 09, 2010

Budgets, part I

Reason's Matt Welch asks Can we at least have some elementary journalism in budget-cut scare stories? in regards to this New York Times article from the weekend. The Times piece tells us "Governments go to Extremes at the Downturn Wears On," highlighting Colorado Springs decision to cut costs by turning off street lights. Welch is clearly driven crazy by the same thing that drives me crazy. Can we have some numbers please:

All snickering about the NYT's slant aside, it strikes me as an elementary journalistic principle–whether we're talking about your local daily, a magazine of opinion, or certainly The Paper of Record–that if you're going to wrap even a heavily anecdotal feature around what is essentially a number (the total budget for various governmental units), you would find room within 2,350 words to, I dunno, INCLUDE THE GODDAMNED NUMBER.

This is what happens when you close school for 17 FridaysI mean, sure, we learn that Colorado Springs "shut off a third of its 24,512 streetlights this winter to save $1.2 million on electricity," and cut its police force from 687 to 643, but aside from that down-to-the-last-digit specificity we learn nothing about the city's (or even its police force's) budget, and how it compares to one, two, five, or 10 years ago. We read on three separate occasions that the state of Hawaii closed school down for 17 Fridays, but the only clue we have about either the state's or the education department's budget is the aforementioned $110 million in stimulus money. I really don't mean to sound like a dick when I say that this kind of basic numerical avoidance wouldn't have passed muster at my college newspaper.

More indestructible than Jason?Please note that I'm not asking for any journalistic outlet to agree with my POV on government spending here. In fact, it's quite possible that the inclusion of actual budget numbers in an article about the effect of budget cuts would rally readers in opposition to the kind of cold-hearted budget-slashing I prefer. But if you don't give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation about, say, which elements of state and local budgets have been swelling in recent years even while the quality of services has not swelled along for the ride?


Every single time a budget debate comes up in the context of local government, some politician will inevitably make a statement that unless some proposed tax increase passes, the municipality will be forced to make cuts to essential services. It never fails to amaze me that this tactic of putting essential services on the chopping block is not scrutinized.

I have a thought that left, right, and libertarian alike, the vast, vast majority of Americans don't know what their government does and more importantly, how their government pays for it. This is true for each and every level of government and it poses a severe handicap for anyone who claims to have an opinion on what the government should and shouldn't do. I doubt many supporters of more stimulus to help end the rescission (including most economists and policy wonks) have poured through the federal budget and decided that every federal currently being budgeted is too valuable to be reallocated for stimulus purposes. Nor have the vast majority of tea partiers and supporters of limited government bothered to pick out what specific aspects of government could be cut that would actually make a difference to our large budget deficits.

I don't particularly mean this as a criticism of anyone. The biggest problem is that the information revolution which has taken over our private lives has not had a parallel movement in government. And yes, this is a libertarian critique, because there's no reason that the very same information revolution which has enabled us to instantaneously search for every actor in every movie ever made would not enable the government to provide us with easy access to the details of what it does, what it spends, and how it spends it. My wife has access to Quickbooks online for our law practice - Why can't we, as taxpayers, have similar access to the most intimate budget decisions of government at every level? My libertarian critique is that government is a lumbering dinosaur which is years if not decades behind the rest of the country, but whether you're a libertarian, a conservative, or a liberal, I can't imagine anyone has a legitimate reason to oppose more openness in how our government actually works.

Until that point, we're all just dancing around the real issues. The left loves to list all the wonderful things we get for our tax dollars, but even if you love each and every little thing the government does, that doesn't mean we're getting our money's worth. And the big concern with the tea party movement is that for whatever political clout it has to oppose new spending, it has none to make any significant cuts to our current budget. The solution is for government to embrace the information age and become more accountable, but I'm not holding my breath.

7 Comments:

Anonymous rose said...

"The biggest problem is that the information revolution which has taken over our private lives has not had a parallel movement in government. And yes, this is a libertarian critique, because there's no reason that the very same information revolution which has enabled us to instantaneously search for every actor in every movie ever made would not enable the government to provide us with easy access to the details of what it does, what it spends, and how it spends it."

Perfect example of how markets are held to a different standard than government.

Joe Stiglitz, prominent leftist economist (and arrogant dick), won the Nobel prize for his work on "information assymetries"; basically situations where markets fail to produce optimal outcomes because people have imperfect information and thus make bad choices. Information assymetries are one of the justifications for Obamacare; people are too dumb to buy the right type and amount of healthcare.

Shouldn't Stiglitz (or the NYT) be leading the charge to reduce information assymetries in government so that voters can choose politicians more rationally?

Just a perfect example of how minor market imperfections are heavily scrutinized and the exact same imperfection in government is ignored (despite being much more severe).

2:34 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

One other thought I had this afternoon: With all the debate over the DISCLOSE Act and this insane demand we follow every penny of campaign spending how ridiculous is it that we demand more information and more accounting from political campaigns and independent groups speaking on candidates than we do from the actual government.

We've somehow created a system where it's fundamental to our democracy that we know if someone donated a few thousand bucks to a campaign but citizens have no way of seeing how their tax dollars are actually being spent.

The sad fact is, this is how the system works. The public and politicians themselves thrive on scandal, in part because it's either to point to a sleazeball like Charlie Rangel as a problem with government than it is to point to point to anything significant the government actually does with our tax dollars. In rare cases, like the Patriot Act or TARP, we get this slight bit of outrage that politicians didn't read the bill, but there's no appreciation that TARP and the Patriot Act were just large scale versions of every piece of legislation Congress passes. Even when legislators do read the bill, it's rare that they actually understand the full ramifications of the programs they're implementing.

And Stiglitz, ugh ... I always took those theories as a ridiculous extension of an obvious premise. Obviously, there are circumstances where a lack of information leads to a lack of informed outcomes, but somehow the solutions are always the strong arm of government and not, well, making use of tax dollars to provide people with information - although I suppose it's crazy to assume that the government could provide us with useful information about markets when it can't provide useful information about it's own functioning.

4:09 PM  
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