October 16, 2016
State and local governments provide the infrastructure of our daily lives, from the streets we drive on to the legal and judicial institutions that maintain a sense of order within our communities, yet we pay far more of our paychecks to a distant capital in Washington. Why? To understand we must look at a two century long battle of opposing ideas, two ideological forces fighting for power.
We can judge the pervasive impact of state and local government by the amount of taxes that they collect to provide that infrastructure. I’ll count the primary taxes – sales, corporate and peronal income and property tax. In the past four quarters, state and local governments collected $1.2 trillion, about 6.5% of the nation’s GDP.
On the other hand, Washington has a much reduced impact in our lives and, we might hope, an accordingly smaller tax bite. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In the past four quarters, the Federal Government collected almost three times the state and local amount, close to $3.6 trillion. (Chart link). For the past eighty years, the Federal Government has assumed an ever larger role as a national insurance company. In the past year, the Federal Government collected $1.2 trillion – the same amount as primary state and local government taxes – in pension and medical insurance receipts alone. (Graph link)
The two major political parties in this country have different ideological approaches. Democrats prefer to have the bulk of tax collections come into a central authority like the Federal Government, where a number of central committees decide on the allocation of those funds. Republicans favor a system where the majority of tax collections come into the states. Decisions over the allocation of those tax funds should be more responsive to the voters in that state.
In the Democratic system representatives from each state in both the Congress and Senate must vie with each other for access to tax funds under an ever growing number of programs that the Federal Government oversees. States are administrative and geographical branches of the Federal Government and have limited autonomy. In the House, this competition exists within a system of seniority so that junior members must compete for favors from senior members who control committee assignments and access to discretionary funds.
The Republican system recognizes state borders and autonomy to a greater degree that promotes competition among states for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of businesses and individuals. Within each state, elected members of both parties should compete with each other for tax funds. Because each state must adhere to a balanced budget by law, spending has more constraints than the Democratic system.
The responsibilities and powers of the Federal Government are more constrained under the Republican system. When Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States,” Republican politicians and conservative justices read the clause literally, that this provision applies to the states, not the people in the states.
Democratic politicians and liberal justices interpret the clause as meaning that the Federal Government has a direct responsibility for the welfare of each citizen within each state and gives the Federal government greater oversight of state and local communities, which are more easily influenced by local economic interests and disciminations. These two competing interpretations were hotly debated at the drafting and ratification of the Constitution so it is likely that the argument may never be resolved as long as this country exists.
Again let’s come back to that pot of money that makes our cities and counties go. In the current system we take that same amount and give it to the Federal Government, which spends most of it on older people. This massive transfer of resources from younger generations to an older generation is likely to permanently hobble our economic growth. Under a broader scope of social insurance programs, the people in European nations have reluctantly accepted the tradeoff of economic growth for increased sense of security in their personal lives – more health, job, educational and child rearing protections. French people have become accustomed to a 10 – 12% unemployment rate. In the U.S. such a high rate provokes political upheaval.
Do Americans want to follow the European model? Half of the citizens of this country say yes, half say no. What we do know from the European and Japanese models is that, as social insurance programs get larger, the transfer of money from the productive element of society to the less productive segment of society hampers growth. This in turn makes it more difficult to fund those insurance programs. There is a tried and true maxim that applies here – what can’t last forever, won’t.
Older Americans should understand that there is no social contract other than the informal contract of the ballot box. Each generation pays into “the system” and waits until it is their time to collect. Each generation relies on earlier generations to honor the promise but, just in case, the older generations vote far more than younger generations because they want to insure that pension (Social Security) and health (Medicare) benefit laws are protected.
Insurance companies must keep assets in order to pay future claims. The Federal Government is not an insurance company and keeps no assets to pay future benefits. Instead, it collects taxes under the Social Security system and puts those funds in the general pot of money, leaving a little slip of paper in the Social Security fund that says “We owe you.” Really, it is little more than this – an accounting entry. From that big pot of money, benefits are paid. This is a cash based system called “Pay Go” or “Pay As You Go.” The lack of an asset base for future benefits means that it is extremely difficult to convert the current system to another type. Former President George Bush learned this harsh lesson ten years ago when his political talk of privatizing Social Security ran into the harsh realities of actually making the transition. Oops. Bush dropped the idea.
This election season is another episode in a continuing series, a battle between the forces who want the Federal Government to take an ever greater role in our individual lives, and those who want to roll back national control in favor of state, local and private solutions. The election will take place shortly before the debut of the next Star Wars movie. Some Republican voters see the Democratic vision of the political system as the Empire of rigid Federal oversight and conformity, where everyone must come under the authority of a central command. Some Democratic voters may see themselves as part of the Rebel Alliance, fighters for the vision of the Old Republic, a constitutional democracy of worlds that is similar to the European Union, and, like the EU, was bogged down in bureaucracy.
On November 8th, 130 million people will unsheath their political swords and continue the battle. (Presidential election stats http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php). Starting December 15th, more than 80 million people will fire up their light sabres at the coming Start Wars movie. (Star Wars box office stats). En garde!