Things We Read Today (46), Weekend


Boy, It Really Is Flyover Country

For some super-secret training and conspiring, I flew out to Phoenix, Arizona, last week.  The trip was my second experience with airplanes since I was a young boy; the first was a trip to Florida in November for some not-so-secret training.

Given the timing of my flights, I managed to fly over the Great Plains, between Phoenix and Chicago, in both the day- and night-times, with clear skies for both.  During the day, when even substantial cities are hardly identifiable as such from that height, there really does appear to be nothing out there, except crop circles.

At night, the ebbs and flows of light from Northeastern sprawl give way to small bursts of population dozens or hundreds of miles away from each other.  One of Rhode Island’s special qualities is the strong definition of its various communities, even though they touch each other and even thought they’re all so close.  But when local character is matched by geographic distance, it must be easier to understand.

Of course, perspective is a necessary thing.  Coasting so far above the Earth, everything looks pretty flat.  The giant craters of New Mexico are only impressive inasmuch as one can make them out at all.  Unless one has stood beside them, has seen flyover country from the ground, one cannot see the landscape for what it is.

Another Kind of Perspective

Here’s the honest truth: I think that most people whom I would consider my political opposition are genuinely good people. Yes, some of them allow themselves to be lured into the dirty-fighting strategy of politics, but if they think they’re sullying themselves, they think they’re doing it for the greater good. One doesn’t have to agree with any aspect of that reasoning to see that the impulse underlying it is ultimately admirable.

This is all to say that I believe that many of the people on the other side would be genuinely appalled at their prior support for destructive, harmful policies if they could be made to see… that they are destructive and harmful.  But that’s precisely why it is so difficult for them to see it. As long as it’s possible to avoid the conclusion that we are to some degree culpable for grievous damage to people’s lives, we’ll do it.

(Of course, this would apply equally to my side, if we were wrong… he wrote with a smile.)

This observation is sharpest with matters of life and death. Tremendous emotional weight must exist, for example, for those who’ve argued with full throat in favor of aborting unborn children, or participated in the act in ways personal and industrial.  It must be a sort of purgatory to cross from such experience to the opposite understanding.

But the same is true of economic matters, even if they are so much more complicated.  Think of the collective suffering for years on end in Rhode Island — from the daily grind of trying to support a family here to the heart-wrenching decisions that come from having no options or expectations of improvement.  How difficult it must be for well-meaning public servants to look at the undeniable evidence of decline and to question whether it isn’t just the fault of circumstances, but of their core beliefs.

Cover-up as Policy

Something along these lines came to mind as I listened to the podcast of the December 20 episode of Positively RI.  The hosts had as their guest Leslie Taito, who is in charge of sifting through the state’s regulations to make them less repetitive and more efficient.  (I saw her speak last February.)

Ms. Taito is doing good, necessary work. But I fear that RI government is trying to do what it does more efficiently without really changing what it does. Here’s an actual line from the state’s request for proposals to hire a contractor to review our abysmal business climate rankings (apparently duplicating efforts also underway in the RI Senate): “The State intends to grow its business environment in a way that maintains high standards for development that equitably serves all our residents, protects the environment and builds on our assets.”

Translation: “We want to find metrics to game rather than to fix.”  More money “invested” in education would improve our rankings?  Coming right up.  Reduce taxes and mandates?  Sorry, that doesn’t maintain our “high standards for development that equitably serves all our residents.”

Or, as House Speaker Gordon Fox put it, “Maybe if we looked at those rankings and figured out what’s making us look so bad and shine ’em up a little bit then maybe we won’t have the Eeyore effect.”

Here’s the missing piece: Efficiency applies to every individual and entity in the economy, on a personal level as well as an operational level. Like education, if you’re doing a job that you don’t want to do, even if it’s a role that the economy needs to have done, then you won’t be efficient at it. Nobody is better at making these sorts of judgments than the person who’ll have to deal with the consequences of the decision. So all the top-down talk about making sure that we have this type of workforce or that type of workforce heads in the wrong direction, no matter how efficiently the doers can get through the regulatory screening process.

Of course, the top-down approach as an attractive allure.  Even one of Positively RI’s free-market hosts, “Madman,” argued that Rhode Island leaders should find an economic niche. I’d argue that the government is not well suited to pick that niche, because (1) politics gets in the way, (2) government is too insulated from the personal decisions of individual people, and (3) it’s too easy for government officials to “shine up” their failures, both philosophical and practical.

The Economy Sure Is Complicated

Forbes staff writer John Tamny published an interestingly contrarian essay this weekend:

Considering future generations, they’re lucky in that if what the worriers foretell is true, interest payments will gobble up limited federal revenues at which point the federal government will no longer be a source of employment for so many Americans, will no longer wreck the lives of other Americans with programs that make them dependent on handouts, plus our military will no longer have bases in 175 countries around the world. Assuming spending and deficits today wreck the ability of the federal government to spend irresponsibly tomorrow, we’ll be doing future generations a favor.

As for the bill they’ll be handed, that’s not the burden. In truth, the burden left on future generations will be a much less evolved economy in terms of technology, the ability to cure fatal diseases, and the ability to employ them in as specialized a manner as possible. Deficits can be financed as we all know, but growth lost is just that. Future generations will inherit a less evolved economy because we let politicians from both political parties waste so much of our growth capital. Sorry, but the latter’s true. If readers disagree, please find me an example of a vibrant company that became that way without investment.

Life in Rhode Island is a good indication of what can happen when the ruling class pays too little attention to the unseen opportunity costs that come with taking so many resources out of the economy and imposing so many restrictions on innovation of product and of organization.  We’ll never know the society we could have built if we’d been permitted, and the inability to know is a central flaw in central planning.

Where Tamny’s contrarianism goes a bit off-track, though, is in his overly light view of the consequences that our mammoth government has made unavoidable if we want to get from here to there.  From a certain perspective, growth in the U.S. economy has been premised on government debt for going on a half-century.  That means that there’s a whole lot of social learning and expectation adjustment before things can improve in another direction, and social learning and expectation adjustment will probably require hardship as motivation.

As the debt is paid back, it’s true, the larger portion will flow back into the hands of the private economy, but even to the extent that the money stays within our country, it represents a transfer of wealth from the most productive to the less productive.  That is, it shifts from the younger families striving to build lives to others who are collecting their investment profits; with the aging Baby Boom generation, many of those will be retirees.  Will younger generations acquiesce to harder lives while watching retirees live it up?  And will the Boomers, now wielding that politically coveted senior vote, recognize that the government can’t simply will the world well?

The second problem is the one described above: Those complicit in the government rampage have incentive to cover up their errors in judgment, and they’ll spend taxpayer dollars on studies about how to manipulate rankings and spin the evidence in such a way as to support continued “investment” in their own priorities.

The best hope, perhaps the only hope, is for the American people to awaken more quickly than seems likely and gain perspective from both the air and the ground.  We have to be clear-eyed about what has happened and what needs to be done, and we have to be able to see the actual people involved — not only those who evoke sympathy for the harm that they experience (whom activists are always ready to parade), but also those on whose interests and personal decisions we rely.

We can fly over the people, so to speak, but economically speaking, we’re relying on them to build us a place to land.