The Skeptic's Guide to Public Policy and Politics

There’s an old saying that there are really only about a half-dozen or so different plots in all the sitcoms that have ever been produced for television. That might be an exaggeration, but it’s a good piece of wisdom to apply to many areas of life — including government.

Basically, there are about 10 main ways that the government spins the public. Whether it’s a presidential press conference about a war, or a city manager’s explanation about a land-use decision, often the explanations or justifications sound eerily similar. The trick is cutting through the slapstick and understanding what’s going on and determining the true values, risks, opportunities and trade-offs at stake.

Here’s our guide to the process after a collective 40-plus years of writing and observation. You’re on your own figuring out the plots to "Seinfeld" and "I Love Lucy."

So, when you hear these words, look for the red flag:

1."We’re cutting it to the bone."

Every time there are tough budget times, government agencies get apoplectic complaining about the difficulties that lie ahead.

Often, government agencies or their beneficiary groups complain about cuts, when in reality any proposed cuts often are simply reductions in the proposed increased rates of growth. It’s as if you estimated your salary to go up 5 percent next year and you only get a 3 percent raise, yet you complain that your employer is cutting your salary. Gov. Davis is doing it right now. He is calling his reductions in proposed increases "cuts."

Sometimes their complaints about cuts are taken out of perspective. The state’s teachers union is warning about a "crisis" if anything is cut from the education budget. But don’t expect any mention of the significant increases in spending that have occurred over the past decade. Total per-pupil spending rose nearly 29 percent in real, inflation-adjusted terms between fiscal 1992—93 to 2002—03, according to the Pacific Research Institute.

Finally, in all the talk of cutting, there’s never an admission by government about the flabbiness in every government budget. In private enterprise, the final profit-loss tabulation imposes a bit of reality. But government has no final accounting. Officials just spend until their budget is used up. When they run out of dough, they go to taxpayers and ask for more cash. If anyone resists, he’s depicted as greedy.

Think about Orange County’s planning department, which kept spending well in excess of its revenues, and then twice demanded multimillion-dollar bailouts from the county, even as the spending train continued.

2."It won’t cost anything."

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once summed up the essence of wisdom on public policy as "There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch." Even if you aren’t paying for it, somebody else is, and chances are there will be a price exacted eventually, whether in money, obligation or loss of options. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein even had his freedom fighters in the novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" chant the acronym: "TANSTAAFL! TANSTAAFL!" as they overthrew their oppressors. Common sense as a populist slogan? A dead giveaway that it must have been fiction.

Nonetheless, politicians and government functionaries seldom tire of trying to convince us that their latest proposal to expand their power and/or buy votes can be had free for the asking.

One example recently detailed by columnist Dan Weintraub came in 1999 when the California Public Employees Retirement System had large surpluses generated by the stock market boom. So it lobbied for more generous pension benefits for government retirees. It could be done as the taxpayers’ "obligation" gradually declined to zero for at least 15 years. But the stock market tanked and this year taxpayers are being asked to pony up $2.2 billion. And in the face of all that, Santa Ana state Sen. Joe Dunn is pushing to increase the already-generous pension benefits for police and firefighters, claiming it won’t cost a thing because people will wait a few extra years to retire.

Don’t believe it. Ever.

3."It’s free money."

This is heard often in reference to federal funds and many times a "use it or lose it" proposition.

Why else would Caltrans spend $900,000 placing those hideous plastic panels along the county’s freeway sound barriers? That kind of money was desperately needed for real transportation needs, such as pouring concrete for roads and bridges. But these funds were earmarked for, umm, freeway art, and that’s where the money went.

Yet, ultimately, the money came from taxpayers. That’s always forgotten in the competition among localities for state money and among states for federal money. Government takes our money and then filters it back in grants to different places. It’s a shell game, designed to keep the competition going so no one complains about the con.

Wendell Cox, the renowned transportation consultant who documents the wastefulness of light-rail transit systems, once said that the Orange County Transportation Authority would take federal funds to build a giant hole and then fill it with concrete, if that’s how the funds were earmarked. Another forgotten point: All that free money usually comes with matching-fund requirements, and that money comes right from local taxpayers.

4."Your layoff notice is in the mail."

This is a favorite tack of school districts whenever some proposed tax increase is threatened. Districts have to, by law, send layoff notices to any teacher who might get laid off because of budget cuts. So they send out the notices to the broadest possible pool of teachers as a means to stir up fear and cause the teachers to pressure the community to support the tax hike or bond initiative. Rarely are more than a handful of teachers ever laid off. But school districts often choose to use the requirement to stoke the flames of concern rather than reassuring people that the action is only a precaution.

This is one version of what’s known as the Washington Monument Syndrome. When the federal government faces a budget impasse, officials shut down the monument and other historic sites that serve tourists as a way to inflict the most pain most visibly on the public. Just as libraries always reduce hours during tough times. That way the public lobbies its legislators for a quick resolution to the problem, even if it means more taxes or bigger deficits. Those dorky, wasteful offices and programs never are threatened.

The message is: Every government program is necessary and streamlined. There simply is nothing else to cut, except those things that harm the public. Don’t buy it.

5."There is no Plan B."

When government officials want to sell the public something, they usually insist that there is no other choice. Like that publicly funded hockey stadium proposed in Ohio a few years back. Vote for it or no hockey in Columbus. Period. There is no Plan B. Except that after the voters rejected the plan, a plan to build the stadium mainly with private funds materialized almost immediately.

We see this with redevelopment projects. Reject the use of eminent domain or a certain corporate subsidy and the city will never get this big deal tax-generating project. Period. Except that plans B and C and D often sprout up as quickly as ice plant.

Remember Measure R? Wasn’t the county going to collapse if residents didn’t pass this half-cent post-bankruptcy sales tax? Well, a Plan B was developed with revenue diverted from OCTA and the floating of an $800 million bond, and the rest is history. The county, last time we checked, is doing just fine financially.

6."If you knew everything we knew, you wouldn’t quibble."

This ploy is most often used in foreign affairs, when advocates of the most recent intervention or military incursion are seeking to defuse criticism from beleaguered patriots who believe with John Quincy Adams that America should be the friend of freedom everywhere but the guarantor only of its own. The contention is almost impossible to counter in real time, in part because the government keeps so much information secret that has no business being secret. But it’s also used in domestic policy from time to time and even at City Hall.

A variation is sometimes used by supporters of whatever the latest proposal or war is: "I’m sure the people in the [Defense-State-Energy-HHS-redevelopment agency] know things they can’t make public that would wipe your argument off the board."

Usually they don’t. More often than not, in fact, they know much less than they imply and considerably less than real experts. People achieve political appointments through political skills, not genuine expertise, scholarly skills or dispassionate analytical prowess. They might well know less about specific policy areas than a reasonably competent college student who’s had a class or two in the subject.

An ongoing recent example is Iraq’s elusive "weapons of mass destruction." Official after official, using the "We know things we can’t share" paradigm explicitly or implicitly, assured us they were there. What is now clear, even if some eventually turn up, is that they were hardly ready for deployment and posed no imminent danger to the United States.

7."Let’s get all the stakeholders together."

The best example of this is the Rancho Mission Viejo project — the Moiso family land in south Orange County that is now undergoing limited development plans. Environmentalists and out-of-town officials are involved in the Heart and Soul Coalition, which is pushing for the land to be set aside mostly as open space. Supervisor Tom Wilson has created the SCORE process, to put all the "stakeholders" together and work out a compromise.

The problem — typical in most land-use disputes — is that every stakeholder seems to have equal say in the process. It’s as if you and your neighbor each had a vote on what color you painted your house.

The stakeholder concept long has been used the corporate world, where, for instance, Ford Motor Co. sought to get management, engineers and sales people involved in developing products, so that everyone had a stake in the outcome. That’s good management, but the concept is ill-suited for public policy.

Decisions must be made based on constitutional principles such as free speech and property rights, not on a crude form of majoritarianism, in which we all vote on whether to restrict other people’s rights.

8."We can’t afford to spend the money on tax cuts at this time."

This is a current favorite of congressional Democrats opposed to President Bush’s modest tax-cut proposals. The beauty of it is that it works whatever the condition of the economy. We can’t "afford" to squander the surplus, and we can’t "afford" to worsen the deficit. Whatever the situation, conditions are just never right for a tax cut.

But consider the assumptions that logically have to lie behind the notion that letting people keep more of their own money amounts to "spending" that money — and worse, on something over which the government has no direct control. For that to make sense, you would have to assume that every penny in the country by right belongs to the government, and it is only by the graciousness of our government overseers that we are allowed to see any of it.

Of course, the preference of many politicians and bureaucrats would be just that — to take all the money and dole it out in the form of welfare, transfer payments, subsidies, services and favors, for which we peasants would feel obligated to show eternal gratitude and vote for them forever. They can’t pull off that glorious scheme just yet, but they’re constantly laying the rhetorical foundation for cradle-to-grave welfarism by referring to tax cuts as "spending."

9."We must do it for the children [or whatever]."

This is a common trump card, the invocation of emotion and sympathy in hope of deterring anything that might get in the way of the latest power grab, like reason or analysis. In a large, complex society like ours, of course, there is unlikely ever to be shortage of sympathetic people whom most decent people would like to see better off than they are. Whether the program of the moment will actually help the victim of the day — often enough putting them on a dole or program might offer short-term benefits and produce long-term harm — is precisely the question advocates would prefer you don’t even ask.

This is not to say that sympathetic victims never get any real benefit from the programs touted in their name. But you can be sure most of the spending will go to support bureaucrats, office space, assistant secretaries and press offices to spin activities and make the case for an even bigger budget next year.

Using "the environment," which no sane person wants unduly polluted, to support proposals for more spending or more incursions on liberty or property rights is especially rewarding, and it suggests a corollary. Whenever there’s an intersection between science and public policy, you’re usually safe assuming that the account of the "latest scientific findings" relayed in most of the establishment media is seriously flawed. The conventional wisdom might not be outright, directly false, but scientific knowledge is seldom cut-and-dried and can often be interpreted in different ways. The first publicized version, when there’s a program or proposal at stake, has almost certainly been spun at least a little bit, and closer examination will usually demonstrate that "science shows" no such thing.

10."It’s for the greater good."

This is the mother of all justifications. How can you be skeptical about "the greater good"? Does anyone favor "the greater evil"?

But think about it. In a country of 280 million people, some of whom come from virtually every country in the world, what coherent version of "the greater good" or "the public interest" can you describe, let alone embrace?

Reality check: There are hundreds, probably thousands of private interests that would like to have government funding/beneficence/benign neglect under the rubric of "the greater good." In real life, those with the most political power, rather than those with the most elegant arguments or compelling case, tend to win these arguments and control the goodies.

Some things, like national defense, can be viewed as a common good, leaving room for legitimate debate over whether actions like the recent war in Iraq really defended the nation. And while there is plenty of room for discussion as to whether infrastructure like roads, water, electricity and telecommunications can best be provided under private or government auspices, or whether actual users should pay more, they do require more complicated arrangements than just setting up a storefront to sell them.

Most of the time, however, when you hear people invoke "the greater good," the "public interest" or "common goals" — especially if accompanied by a plea for "unity at this time of crisis" — your internal robot should start repeating urgently, "Danger, Will Robinson."

Alan Bock [send him mail] is a senior editorial writer for The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif. Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.

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