DRI-192 for week of 5-24-15: Why Incremental Reform of Government Is a Waste of Time

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Why Incremental Reform of Government Is a Waste of Time

Any adult America who follows politics has seen it, heard it and read it ad infinitum. A person of prominence proposes to reform government. The reform is supposed to “make government work better.” Nothing earthshaking, understand, just something to improve the dreadful state that confronts us. And if there’s one thing that everybody agrees on, it’s that government is a mess.

Newspapers turn them out by the gross – it’s one of the few things that newspapers still publish in bulk. They can be found virtually every day in opinion sections. Let’s look at a brand-spanking new one, bright and shiny, just off the op-ed assembly line. It appeared in The Wall Street Journal (5/27/2015).The two authors are a former governor of Michigan (John Engler) and a current President of the North America Building Trades Unions (Sean McGarvey). The title – “It’s Amazing Anything Ever Gets Built” – aptly expresses the current level of exasperation with day-to-day government.

The authors think that infrastructure in America – “airports, factories, power plants and factories” are cited specifically – is absurdly difficult to build, improve and replace. The difficulty, they feel, is mostly in acquiring government permission to proceed. “The permitting process for infrastructure projects… is burdensome, slow and inconsistent.” Why? “Gaining approval to build a new bridge or factory typically involves review by multiple federal agencies – such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the Interior Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management – with overlapping jurisdictions and no real deadlines. Often, no single federal entity is responsible for managing the process. Even after a project is granted permits, lawsuits can hold things up for years – or, worse, halt a half-completed construction project.”

Gracious. These are men with impressive-sounding titles and prestigious resumes. They traffic in the measured prose of editorialists rather than the adjective-strewn rhetoric of alarmists. And their language seems all the more reasonable for its careful wording and conclusions. Naturally, having taken good care to gain the reader’s attention, they now hold it with an example: “The $3 billion Transwest Express [is] a multi-state power line that would bring upward of 3,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity from Wyoming to about 1.8 million homes and businesses from Las Vegas to San Diego. The project delivers on two of President Obama’s priorities, renewable power and job creation, so the administration in October 2011 named [it] one of seven transmission projects to ‘quickly advance’ through federal permitting.”

You guessed it; the TransWest Express “has languished under federal review since 2007.” That’s eight (count ’em) years for a project that the Obama administration favors; we can all imagine how less well-regarded projects are doing, can’t we? In fact, we don’t have to use our imaginations, since we have the example of the Keystone XL Pipeline before us.

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management pronounced the ink dry on an environmental-impact statement well done. That left only the EPA, the Federal Highway Administration, the Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (!) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (!!) to be heard from. At the rate these agencies are careening through the approval process, the TransWest Express should come online about the time that the world supply of fossil fuels is entirely extinguished – a case of exquisitely timed federal permitting.

According to Messrs. Engler and McGarvey, the worst thing about this egregious case study in federal-government overreach is that it leaves “thousands of skilled craft construction workers [to] sit on their hands.” Apparently, the Obama administration was in general agreement with this line of thought, because “President Obama’s Jobs Council examined how other countries expedite the approval of large projects” and its gaze fell upon Australia.

“Australia used to be plagued with overlapping layers of regulatory jurisdiction that resemble the current regulatory structure in the U.S.” before it installed the type of reform that the two authors are laying before us. The Australian province of New South Wales “now prioritizes permit applications based on their potential economic impact, and agreements among various reviewing agencies ensure that projects are subject to a single set of requirements.” As a result of this sunburst of reformist illumination, “permitting times have shrunk… from a once-typical 249 days to 134 days.”

Mind you, that was the President’s Jobs Council talking, not the authors. And the President, listening intently, created an “interagency council… dedicated to streamlining the permitting process.” Just to make sure we knew the President wasn’t kidding, “the White House also launched an online dashboard to track the progress of select federal permit applications.”

At this point, readers might envision the two authors reading their op-ed to a live audience consisting of Wall Street Journal readers – who would greet the previous two paragraphs with a few seconds of incredulous silence, followed by gales of hilarious laughter. Doubtless sensing the pregnancy of these passages, the authors follow with some rhetorical throat-clearing: “It has become clear, however, that congressional action is needed to make these improvements permanent and to require meaningful schedules and deadlines for permit review. Fortunately, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have introduced the Federal Permitting Improvement Act.”

“The bill would require the government to designate a lead agency to manage the review process when permits from multiple agencies are needed. It would establish a new executive office to oversee the speed of permit processing and to maintain the online dashboard that tracks applications.”

“The bill would also impose sensible limits on the subsequent judicial review of permits by reducing the statute of limitations on environmental lawsuits from six years to two years and by requiring courts to weigh potential job losses when considering injunction requests.”

Ah-hah. Let’s summarize this. President Obama, whose world renown for taking unilateral action to achieve his ends was earned by his selective ignoring and rewriting of law, confronted a situation in which two of his administration’s priorities were being thwarted by federal agencies over which he, as the nation’s Chief Executive, wielded administrative power. What action did he take? He turned to a presidential council – a century-old political buckpassing dodge to avoid making a decision. The council proceeded to do a study – another political wheeze that dates back at least to the 19th century and has never failed to waste money while failing to solve the problem at hand. When the study ostensibly uncovered an administrative reform purporting to achieve incremental gains in efficiency, the President (a) “streamlined the process” by telling two of the agencies who were creating the worst problems in the first place to cooperate with each other via an additional layer of bureaucracy (an “interagency council”) and created an “online dashboard” so that we could all watch the ensuing slow-motion failure more closely. All these Presidential actions took place in 2011. It is now mid-2015.

And what do our two intrepid authors propose to deal with this metastatic bureaucratic cancer? Congress will point its collective finger at one of the agencies causing the original problem and give it more power by making it “manager” of the review process. (This action implies that the root cause of the problem is that somebody in government doesn’t have enough power.) Of course, the premise that “permits from multiple agencies are needed” is taken completely for granted. Next, Congress would establish still another layer of bureaucracy (the “executive office”) to “oversee” the very problem that is supposedly being solved (e.g., “speed of permit processing”). (This implies that we have uncovered two more root causes of the problem – not enough layers of bureaucracy and not enough oversight exercised by bureaucrats.) A classic means of satisfying everybody in government is by getting every branch of government into the act. Accordingly, Congress points its collective finger at “the courts” and tells them to “weigh” job losses when considering requests for injunctions against projects. (The fact that this conflicts with the original “potential economic impact” mandate doesn’t seem to have concerned Congress or, for that matter, Messrs. Engler and McGarvey.) Finally, Congress throws a last glance at this unfolding Titanic scenario and, collective chins resting on fists, rearranges one last deck chair with a four-year reduction in the statute of limitations on environmental lawsuits.

The most amazing thing is not that anything ever gets built, but that these two authors could restrain their own laughter long enough to submit this op-ed for publication. The above summary reads more like a parody submitted for consideration by Saturday Night Live or Penn and Teller.

Two questions zoom, rocket-like, to the reader’s lips upon reading this op-ed and the above summary. What good, if any, could possibly result from this kind of proposal? Why do these proposals pop up with monotonous regularity in public print? The answers to those questions give rise in turn to a third question: What are the elements of a truly effective program for government reform and why has it not emerged?

Why Doesn’t Incremental Reform Work? 

The reform proposed by Messrs. Engler and McGarvey is best characterized as “incremental” because it does not change the structure of government in any fundamental way; it merely tinkers with its operational details. It aims merely to change one small part of the vast federal regulatory apparatus (permitting) by improving one element (its speed of operation) to a noticeable but modest degree (reduce average [?] time needed to secure a permit from 269 days to 134 days). And the rhetoric employed by the authors stresses this point – aside from the attention-grabbing headline, they are at pains to emphasize their modest goal as a major selling point of their proposal. They’re not trying to change the world here. “Americans of all stripes know that something is seriously wrong when other advanced countries can build infrastructure faster and more efficiently than the U.S., the country that built the Hoover Dam.” They use words like “bipartisan proposal” and “strengthen the administration’s efforts” rather than heaping ridicule on the blatant hypocrisy and stark contradiction of the Obama administration’s actions. They want to get a bill passed. But do they want actual reform?

Superficially, it seems odd that two authors would propose reform while opposing reform. Yet close inspection confirms that hypothesis not only for this op-ed, but in general. The authors deploy the standard op-ed bureaucratic argle-bargle that we have absorbed by osmosis from thousands of other op-eds – “infrastructure,” “permitting,” “priorities,” “job creation,” “streamline [government] process,” “expedite approval,” “implemented reforms,” “economic impact,” “manage the review process,” “lead agency,” “executive office.” The trouble is that if all this really worked, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The TransWest Express review wouldn’t have begun in 2007 and still be in limbo today. The Obama Administration wouldn’t have started remedial measures in 2011 and still be waiting on them to take effect in 2015. The U.S. wouldn’t be staggering under a cumulative debt load exceeding its GDP. The federal government wouldn’t have unfunded liabilities exceeding $24 trillion. The Western world wouldn’t be supporting a welfare state that is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Who are John Engler and Sean McGarvey? John Engler was formerly the Governor of Michigan. At one time, he was considered the bright hope of the Republican Party. He began by trying to reform state government in Michigan. He failed. Instead, he was co-opted by big government. Detroit went on to declare bankruptcy. John Engler left office and went to work for the Business Roundtable. Business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce exist today for the same reason that other special-interest organizations like La Raza and AARP exist – to secure special government favors for their members and protect them from being skewered by the special favors doled out to other special-interest organizations. Sean McGarvey is President of North America’s Building Trades Unions, a department of the AFL-CIO that performs coordinative, lobbying and “research” (i.e., public-relations) functions. Unions can achieve higher wages for their members only by affecting either the supply of labor or the demand for it. There is precious little they can do to affect the demand for labor, which comes from businesses, not unions. Unions can affect the supply of labor only by reducing it, which they do in various ways. This causes unemployment, which in turn exerts continuous public-relations pressure on unions to support “job creation” measures. But true job creation can come only from the combination of consumer demand and labor productivity, which underlie the economic concept of marginal value productivity of labor.

In the jargon of economics, all these organizations are rent-seekers that seek benefits unobtainable in the marketplace. They represent their members in their capacities as producers or input suppliers, not in their capacities as consumers. In other words, rent-seekers and the op-eds they write structure their pleas for “reform” to raise the prices of goods and inputs supplied by their member/constituents and/or provide jobs to them. Virtually all the op-eds appearing in print are written by rent-seekers striving to shape pseudo-reforms in ways that suit their particular interests.

In the Engler-McGarvey case, there are two possibilities. Possibility number 1: The Federal Permitting Improvement Act actually passes Congress and actually achieves the incremental improvement promised. In this wildly unlikely case, Mr. Engler’s business clients benefit from the modest reduction in permitting times. Since the entire wage and hiring process for infrastructure processes – government or otherwise – is grossly biased in favor of union labor, Mr. McGarvey’s clients benefit as well. Possiblity 2: As the above Summary suggests, the likelihood of actual incremental improvement is infinitesimal even if the legislation were to pass, since it requires efficient behavior by the same government bureaucracy that has caused the problems requiring reform in the first place. So the chances are that the result of the reform proposal will be nil.

As far as you and I are concerned, this represents a colossal waste of time and money. But for Messrs. Engler and McGarvey, this is not so. They are creatures of government. The next-best alternative to positive benefits for their client-constituents is no change in the status quo. For Mr. Engler, the status quo gives the biggest companies big advantages over smaller competitors. For Mr. McGarvey, the status quo gives unions and union labor big advantages that they cannot begin to earn in the competitive marketplace. Unions have been losing market share steadily in the private sector for many years. But they have been gaining influence and membership in the government sector, which is ruled by legislation and lobbyists.

Op-eds and reform proposals like this one allow people like Mr. Engler and Mr. McGarvey to earn their lucrative salaries as lobbyist and union president/lobbyist, respectively, by sponsoring and promoting pseudo-reform policies whose effects on their client-constituents can be characterized as “heads we win, tails we break even.”

But what about the effects on the rest of us?

What Would Real Reform Require – and Why Don’t We Get It?

A fundamental insight of economics – we might even call it THE fundamental insight – is that consumption is the end-in-view behind all economic activity. All of us are consumers. But this very fact works against us in the realm of big government, because this diffuses the monetary stake each one of us has in any one particular issue as a consumer. A tax on an imported good will raise its price, which rates to be a bad thing for millions of Americans. But because that good forms only a small part of the total consumption of each person, the money it costs him or her will be small. The cost will not be enough to motivate him or her to organize politically against the tax. On the other hand, a worker threatened with losing his or her job to the competition posed by the imported good may have a very large sum of money at stake – or may believe that to be true. The same is true for owners of domestic import-competing firms. Consequently, there are many lobbyists for legislation against imports and almost no lobbyists in favor of free, untaxed international trade. Yet economists know that free international trade will create more happiness, more overall goods and services and almost certainly more jobs than will international trade that is limited by taxes and quotas.

This explains why so many op-ed writers are rent-seekers and so few argue in favor of economic efficiency. True reform of government would not focus on the aims of rent-seekers. It would not strive to preserve the artificial advantages currently enjoyed by large companies – neither, for that matter, would it seek to preserve the presence of small companies merely for their own sake. True reform would allow businesses to perform their inherent function; namely, to produce the goods and services that consumers value the most. The only way to effect that reform is to remove the artificial influence of government from markets and confine government to its inherent limited role in preventing fraud and coercion.

Based on this evaluation, we might expect to see economists writing op-eds opposing the views of rent-seekers. Instead, this happens only occasionally. Economists are just as keenly attuned to their self-interest as other people. Most economists are employed by government, either directly as government employees or indirectly as teachers in public universities or fellows in research institutions funded by government. At best, these economists will favor the status quo rather than true reform. Only the tiny remnant of economists who work outside government for free-market oriented research organizations can be relied upon to support true reform.

Incremental Reform Vs. Structural Reform 

Incremental reforms are sponsored by rent-seekers. They are designed either to fail or, if they succeed, to yield rents to special interests instead of real reform. Real reform must be pro-consumer in nature. But the costs of organizing consumers are vast. In order to mobilize a reform of that scale, it must offer benefits that are just as vast or greater in size and scope. That means that true reform must be structural rather than incremental. It cannot merely preserve the status quo; it must overturn it.

In other words, true reform must be revolutionary. This does not imply that it must be violent. The reform that overturned Soviet Communism, perhaps the most powerful totalitarian dictatorship in human history, was almost completely non-violent. Admittedly, it had outside help from the international community in the political and moral form from people like Lech Walesa, Pope John, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, most of all, President Ronald Reagan.

As the efforts of the Tea Party have recently demonstrated, pro-consumer reform cannot be “organized” in the mechanistic sense. It can only arise spontaneously because that is the least costly way – and therefore the only feasible way – to achieve it.

We are unlikely to read about such a reform in the public prints because most of them are owned or sponsored by people who have vested interests in big government. These interests are usually financial but may sometimes be purely ideological. Big government may be a means of suppressing competition. It may be a means of subsidizing their enterprise. It may be a means of providing a bailout when digital competition becomes too fierce. In any event, we cannot look to the op-ed pages for leadership of real government reform.