US Capitol building

Reasoning about the structure of the US Federal Government

I try to present facts and logic and solutions rather than just opinions.

Contact me If your facts and logic are convincing, I'll change my mind !

The federal government should be limited to

  • National defense (military, intelligence, borders).
  • Foreign relations.
  • Regulating interstate commerce and foreign commerce.
  • Interstate law enforcement.
  • Judiciary.
  • Regulating national Constitutional issues: voting rights, civil rights, anti-discrimination, etc.
  • IRS.
  • Setting standards (measurements, highways, vehicles, food and drug purity, environment).
  • Some national health monitoring (CDC).
  • Regulating unique national resources: National Parks, etc.

The federal government should not include

  • Education.
  • Arts.
  • Building and running transportation (Amtrak, Post Office, interstate highways, waterways, FAA).
  • Dispensing grants for research (parts of NIH, etc).
  • Parks, national forests, wildernesses, land management.
  • Building and managing power and waterways (dams, canals, etc).
  • Farm subsidies (price supports, stockpiling, etc).
  • Large speculative ventures (NASA).

If we leave these areas up to each individual state, and they screw it up, what are the consequences ? If education is bad in state X, the people of that state will suffer economically, and have an incentive to fix their education system. If the Arts are bad in state X, artists will move out, tourism will suffer a little, education will suffer a little, etc. In each area, the people of that state will have an incentive to fix their problems, or live with the consequences.

Some would say this makes me a "conservative". But in recent years the "conservatives" have

  • Skyrocketed the national debt by increasing the parts of the government they liked and hoping others would cut the parts they don't like (more than doubled the debt under Ronald Reagan, more than tripled it again under G W Bush). Said "deficits don't matter" (Cheney).

  • Given a big tax cut to the rich while borrowing money from the future via increasing the national debt (George W Bush). A fiscal conservative would have reduced expenditures in order to finance a tax cut; he didn't do that. A states-rights, small-government conservative would have reduced the size of the federal government to give a tax cut; he didn't do that.

  • Compromised the constitutional separation between church and state (prayer in school, Pledge of Allegiance with god in it, Congressional chaplain and opening prayer, etc). Is God so weak that he needs government help ?

  • Used government mechanisms to do everything they could to restrict women's ability to get even counseling about birth control and abortion, much less get the actual pills or procedures. A clear case of government abuse of personal freedom. Other examples: prohibition of gay marriage / civil unions, prohibition of gay service in military, intervening in the Terry Schiavo case. This from people who say they are against government power and in favor of individual freedom ?

  • Spent $40 million of taxpayer money in a personal vendetta against Clinton (Ken Starr).

  • Tried to eliminate some rights to free speech (flag-burning).

  • Removed rights to due process for some people in the name of anti-terrorism (John Ashcroft). The terrorists won ! They got us to remove key parts of our democracy.

  • Greatly expanded the size of the federal workforce ("federalizing" airport security workers; adding a whole new layer of bureacracy in the form of the Homeland Security agency).

I don't approve of any of those things, so I don't think I am a "conservative".

[Actually, I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. But many of the people who say they are fiscal conservatives (such as Reagan and G W Bush) are nothing of the sort.]

image about Republican party

Wouldn't we lose or not have some wonderful things the federal government has done ?

  • Interstate highways.

    This could have been done as a public corporation, owned by the states, funded by the states. Maybe it wouldn't have happened without a president (Eisenhower) to make it happen. But it could have been done differently.

    Once built, it could have been maintained by each state. If the citizens of some state decided they don't want to pay for it, they lose the benefits of having nice highways in their state. They lose productivity, tourism, etc. Trade and traffic goes through some neighboring state with better highways.

  • Grants for research (parts of NIH, etc).

    Again, some sort of states-owned public corporation could be arranged as a coordinating body. Why does it have to be the federal government ?

  • Parks, national forests, wildernesses, land management.

    Each state should be able to do this. If they squandered their land, residents would vote them out, and tourists would vote with their feet.

  • Building and managing power and waterways (dams, canals, etc).

    Same as the interstate highways.

  • Post Office (with universal service at flat rate).

    Same as the interstate highways.

  • Civil Rights over state's objections. I think this falls under federal law enforcement.

A major benefit of using focused public corporations to run things is that performance becomes much easier to measure, and to compare to non-government companies. It is much easier to hide pork-barrel spending, incompetence and trickery in one huge pile of money (the federal budget) than in a smaller pile that has clear goals.

Some people would say the state governments are worse than the federal government. I'd say

  • At least your money, voice and vote are about 50 times more powerful when directed against state government than when directed against federal government.

  • Each state has its own local conditions and problems; state laws can target those more effectively than federal laws can.

  • Maybe with less meddling by the federal government, the states would do a better job.

  • Diversity has always been a key strength of the USA. Having various states trying different approaches to, say, health care would result in innovation, and wide adoption of the more successful models. With a single (federal) government in control, there is only one approach, and little innovation.

Bob Garfield's "I Luv Big Gov"

Fixing the federal budget

Chart of US federal spending - 2009 But from Another chart of US federal spending - 2009 It's not clear where intelligence agencies appear in the budget charts; see FAS's "Intelligence Budget Data". It's not clear where the $60 billion of Homeland Security appears in the budget charts.

How I'd fix/balance/reduce the USA federal budget:
  • Get our military almost entirely out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany and Japan. Cut the military/intelligence/security budget to 1/3 of current level. Cut our nuclear arsenal from 20K warheads to 100 warheads. No new missile submarines or aircraft carriers. No more ultra-expensive warplanes; use more of cheaper planes. We can live with a less-capable military. (Maybe that would mean losing more soldiers in future wars; but maybe it would make us less eager to start future wars. And even the hugest military imaginable can not make us completely safe; there's no such thing as completely safe.)

    Another way I stated this on a forum 7/2011, about cutting the military budget:
    All of this focus on the budget numbers is looking at the issue the wrong way around. Cut the MISSION of the military, and cutting the money should follow.

    Accept that we're not going to be able to fix every bad country, and kill every terrorist; take that out of the military's mission. Stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the missile strikes in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Pakistan. Cut the out-of-control intelligence and homeland-security-related missions (and budgets).

    Accept that we're not going to be able to protect every ally and ourselves from every threat; take that out of the military's mission. Close our bases in Japan and Korea and Germany. We'll always have CIA and DEA and military liaison in many, many countries; that's prudent. But major bases and troop concentrations ? No.

    I think our military has something like "fight two major simultaneous attacks/wars on USA or US allies" in its planning. Take that out of the military's mission. Accept that if it happens, we'll take bad damage before we can ramp up to fight off that situation.

    Change our military planning and mission statements to remove the "we can do anything and everything, guarantee complete security, fix every situation". We're never going to be able to protect completely against every threat. Some level of risk is normal; we can never get the risk to zero.

    Another way I stated this on a forum 7/2011, about cutting the military budget:
    Starting from a dollar figure to cut is wrong. Cut the missions, and then see how much money has been saved. Get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan ASAP, except for a couple hundred CIA and Special Forces to hunt terrorists. Stop firing missiles into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya. Mothball the bases in Germany, Korea, Japan, maybe elsewhere. Take "fighting off two major wars against USA or allies simultaneously" out of the strategic plans.

    Are we still building nuclear missile-subs or new carriers or new types of top-end fighters ? Stop that. The future will involve smaller smarter cheaper drones and missiles that can take out ultra-expensive carriers and fighter planes. Subs are fine but we don't need more.

    Then come up for air and see how much money has been saved, and what manpower levels are needed.

    Take some of the saved military-money, and use it to employ the former troops and current unemployed on infrastructure projects. Dams, bridges, roads, tunnels, sewer systems, water systems, electrical grid. Those things are decaying all over the USA.

    See also "US Military / Intel / Security Budget" section on US Policy page.

  • Means-test Social Security benefits: if a retiree earns more than X dollars (from investments or wages), they get reduced or no SS benefits. Remove the cap on SS-taxable income (tax high earners on all income, not just first $107K or so) without increasing benefits. Have a "floor" to make the SS tax slightly progressive: no SS payroll tax on the first $10K of income. No need to change retirement age or other things.
    Robert Reich's "The Hoax of Entitlement Reform"
    Paul Buchheit's "Five Reasons Why Cutting Social Security Would Be Irrational"
    [Interesting article: The Development of Social Security in America.]
    Wikipedia's "Social Security (United States)"

  • Go to single-payer universal health-care insurance. Eventually this will reduce health-care costs.
    See my USA Health Care System page.

  • Get rid of all agricultural subsidies (they mainly go to the huge corporations that grow corn, soybeans, wheat and one or two other crops, not "family farms").

  • Legalize and tax marijuana. This will increase revenues, and decrease the prison population and justice system costs. Not a big share of the budget, but it's the right thing to do.
    See my Drugs page.

  • Greatly increase gasoline taxes. Greatly increase prices charged to extract oil and coal and other minerals from federal land. This will increase revenues, decrease pollution, and encourage use of renewable energy.

  • Get rid of foreign aid (mainly loans to buy military equipment) to Israel, Egypt, etc. Not a big share of the budget, but it's the right thing to do.

  • Put NASA's manned space program out of business; it's pointless. Not a big share of the budget, but it's the right thing to do.
    See my Manned Space Program page.

  • Take airport security out of the federal government and make the airports and airlines responsible for it. Their insurance companies will press them to do it better. Not a big share of the budget, but it's the right thing to do.
    See my Terrorism page.

  • Over time, eliminate income-tax deductions for home mortgage interest, and for children. We shouldn't be encouraging debt and over-population.

  • Change the Constitution to cut the size of Congress in half.

Cutting government waste:
"Government waste" is a canard, a falsehood. It is held forth as a prospect of some painless way to avoid the hard choices facing us. Cut spending ? Raise taxes ? Cut services to people ? Reduce our military might ? No, just "cut waste" !

From Jordan Weissmann's "Ben Carson Knows Terrifyingly Little About the Government or the Economy":
It is a popular delusion that Washington could solve its long-term fiscal issues by eliminating waste and inefficiency. The reality is that we spend a great deal of money on benefits for the elderly and the poor while maintaining a massive military; the government, as the joke goes, is basically an insurance company with an army attached. ...

"Waste" could be one of:
  • Incompetence:

    I can believe that actual incompetence and mindless stupidity in government procedures and staffing amounts to a few percent of the whole operation. Not to mention deliberate featherbedding and inefficiencies created by Congress to deliver jobs to their districts, or reward campaign donors. Any huge human endeavor (corporation, big construction project, government, university, etc) is going to have slop, overstaffing, mistakes, stupidities. We should try to minimize them, but they're probably inescapable.

  • Fraud:

    Sure, there's plenty of fraud: welfare fraud, Medicare fraud, military contracting fraud, substandard goods sold to the government. Any big flow of money attracts criminals. The government (FBI, IRS, GSA, etc) investigates and prosecutes fraud; maybe it could do better.

  • Policies you disagree with:

    If some congressman doesn't like a project or policy, they label it as "waste". Why study volcanoes ? Why give foreign aid to Egypt ? If someone thinks Social Security should be privatized, maybe they label the whole SS program as "waste". These are misleading labels. I think the military budget should be 1/3 of the current size; does that mean that 2/3 of the military budget is "waste" ?

I don't see any quick and easy ways to reduce the "incompetence" and "fraud" types of waste, and the "policies" type is not really "waste".

For some radical ideas for restructuring the federal government, see my "Restructuring the US Federal Government" page.

Corporations did bad things to me, so I hate the government