Piece by Piece, Bone by Bone

If the November elections sweep a principled changing of the guard into power in DC, we have a slim chance of seeing this present disastrous expansion of government reversed. The grass roots are rising across the land objecting to spending, deficits, and bloating bureaucracies. The stock market is flashing serious warning signs as Moody’s mentions potential downgrades for US debt. The present administration appears somewhere between terminally tone deaf, and hopelessly stuck on stupid. How can government growth, regulation, and waste be corralled and reduced?

Some valuable lessons were learned when the past administrations tried to eliminate programs and departments. Every handout, subsidy, boondoggle, or obsolete program has a constituency behind it. In the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” atmosphere of Congress, the votes to eliminate anything are traded just as carefully as votes to initiate something. The only way to approach this is to build momentum from incremental moves. All these programs and departments were established one at a time. They will have to be cut apart piece by piece and bone by bone in chunks too small to affect any but a small number of beneficiaries.

The best suggestion is to start out with Mathew Lesko’s books and “Free Money Club” on line. House member’s staffers could cull the thousands of government giveaway programs and bills could be written to eliminate them one or only a few at a time. “Small potatoes” some will say, but when Congress wastes time on stupid resolutions like honoring some ball team, entertainer, or athlete, they could certainly take the time to vote on a couple wasteful programs each day. Since each bill would be eliminating very limited target, the possibility of a majority voting against it would be minimized.

The next step is earmark reform. The public is sick and tired of these blatant efforts by Congress to fund pet projects in return for votes and political contributions. The present bunch of incumbents is deaf to the outrage and they will pay the price in November. A crop of new representatives and senators with some momentum could use the tailwind of a landslide election and the expectations of their supporters to end the practice once and for all. Concrete rules have to be established that amendments must apply directly to whatever bill is under consideration.

Ronald Reagan said government reaction to business was “If it moves, tax it. If it continues to move, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” Taxing and borrowing to subsidize failure is ludicrous. The government taxes successful individuals and businesses, borrows billions abroad, and funds pathetic economic black holes like wind farms and light rail. No sane person would buy a car that only worked 25% of the time, but wind farms do exactly that, which is why they are not being built by private enterprise without huge subsidies from the federal government.

Rails were invented because the motive power in the 1800s was too heavy to move about on roads. Cars and airplanes evolved to improve transportation, but we are stuck carrying Amtrack at huge losses because a few romantics think trains are still necessary. Heavy rail moves freight efficiently, but people need to move faster than freight. Worse, light rail which became obsolete with the invention of efficient busses is now being built at tremendous cost in cities where it will never be viable. The per passenger/ride subsidies create financial drains forever. Ethanol fuel consumes more energy in its production than it delivers when burned. Dumping corn in stills to make lousy motor fuel instead of feeding it to people and animals is a gross misallocation of resources. If light rail, wind farms, and ethanol can’t make a profit, the government has no business wasting hundreds of billions each year on them and other such economic losers.

The only way to eliminate some of these massive expenditures in dead ends is to introduce bills individually where urban representatives can vote against farm subsidies and rural representatives can help kill rail and other utopian foolishness. These will have to be broken down even farther perhaps; stopping Seattle light rail one month and chopping the Twin Cities another time. Ethanol could go in one bite, dairy products in another, and crop by crop, the rest of the farm support would be gone. Does anyone really think that American agriculture will stop producing if it were to operate as a self supporting industry?

De Tocqueville warned 180 years ago that the American Experiment would likely fail once the people realized they could vote themselves money. He was right, but the past few generations of politicians have been too busy buying votes instead of paying heed to his warnings. We stand on the edge of the abyss. For the love of our country and its future citizens, we must seize this moment and save their future before it turns to ashes.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Good article! We will be linking to this particularly great
    content on our site. Keep up the good writing.


  2. I really like it when individuals get together and share thoughts.
    Great website, continue the good work!


  3. Hi Brian:
    You have touched on many points here and I am sure to miss several in response.

    I am not an energy expert, but having worked at Prudhoe Bay do know that there is plenty of domestic petroleum available if only the government would allow access. Denying such is only forcing us to purchase billions of barrels from nice folks like the Saudis and Hugo Chavez with adverse effects on our economy and jobs picture.

    I spent 4 years involved in a fight against a huge wind farm project that was to be sited among the most scenic and valuable second home and recreational property in our state. In doing so, I studied the economics of it, and it is a fraud. Wind farms only work about 22% of the time on average and all capacity has to be backed up with redundant alternate fossil or hydro capacity at all times. Coal or gas plants must be kept steamed up in a status called “spinning reserve’, sort of like a car at idle. Therefore for every wind farm, there has to be an offsetting fossil plant or dam taking the load for 75+/-% of the time and running w/o output for the time when there is sufficient wind.

    You are correct in that fixed rail transportation will force some dense growth around stations, and that is the dream of the social engineers who think they know what is best for the rest of us. However the formerly (100 years ago) concentrated residental and business/industrial zones are now scattered far and wide. Stitching them together with fixed infrastructure only leads to half filled trains at unbeliveable expense to taxpayers. An earthquake or a barge hitting a bridge support would render them useless for months or years while a bus can easily be re-routed and maintain service.

    Inter-city passenger rail is obsolete, even though I will admit I personally love to ride the train. Two runways a thousand miles apart and an aluminum tube that travels at 550 MPH with no expensive fixed infrastructure in between works far better. It is also musch more time efficient. That is why airlines can be privately run at a profit (someitmes), but rail traffic is minimal and requires huge taxpayer subsidies. People are not sacks of cement that can sit on a siding for a day or two on each end of the trip waiting for a full booking of cars for a power unit to haul over the mountains.

    The piece you are commenting on was meant to toss out some ideas on how cuts can and must be made somewhere, somehow, to avoid the looming unfunded liabilities of our federal government. Some may be considered good, others bad, but all should be seriously considered. In defense of our childrens’ future, it is time to gore some oxen.

    Sorry it took so long to reply, and thank you so much for your interest.

    Old Iron Jarhead


  4. Posted by Brian on March 29, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    I agree with some of this, but I believe a lack of thinking about Peak Oil led you to the wrong conclusion on two smaller points. For a brief introduction, Peak Oil isn’t when we run out of oil – we still have 1 trillion barrels in the ground. But, due to geological constraints, at a certain point the amount we can extract from the ground each year starts declining (this will happen somewhere between 2005 and 2020). Beyond that, due to domestic demand growth in oil exporting countries, the amount of oil available on the world market will start shrinking even earlier (that happened ~2 years ago). Since cheap oil defines the modern American life, coming up with coping strategies may be the biggest challenge our civilization has faced.

    1) Wind power – depending on your views of the impending energy crisis, it’s either necessary for the continuance of civilization, or it’s only useful as a way to slowly start reducing air pollution, haze, and curb climate change. In either case, wind is directly displacing natural gas for electricity production, which keeps prices low for heating your home. Come up with a position on Peak Oil and the impact on society, and you’ll quickly fall into one of those two buckets. Yes, the industry gets some subsidies now, but the entire energy industry does (look at mountaintop removal coal mining for an example – what other industries can destroy mountains then contaminate & bury streams?).

    You may want to read up on T. Boone Pickens’ plan for our energy future. His plan – eliminate oil imports by switching to natural gas as a transportation fuel. To avoid driving up the price of natural gas too much, you must also build wind farms to generate electricity. Then you can start reducing the 20% of our power nationally that we get from natural gas, and shift that to cars & trucks.

    2) Rails done well aren’t just public transportation infrastructure – they define how your city grows. Rails are pretty much permanent – you can make land use decisions around their presence. Busses don’t give that same sense of permanence, and thus are not as likely to shape a neighborhood. After seeing cities like London and Tokyo and even Chicago, I think commuter rail has a useful place in America’s future (including Seattle – I want to see Sound Transit phase 2 built ASAP).

    Beyond commuter rail, rail is obviously critical for long-distance freight hauling. Here’s the crucial statistic: “the standard mileage per gallon of gasoline to move one ton of freight is often cited as follows: Trucks: 155; Railroads: 413; Ships/Barges: 576”. Trucks are necessary for local distribution, but I sure wouldn’t bet on any long-haul trucking company stocks. While I don’t go as far as another author, here’s an article on the potential increasing use of rail & canals as oil availability dries up.


    It’s sad that Amtrak doesn’t have high-speed rail lines. China’s investing a ton in high speed rail, to build the infrastructure in their country to drive their economy for another century. We’re not.

    You’re right that ethanol using today’s processes isn’t ready. I think the energy return is actually 1.3x, so it’s positive, but not by much.

    Getting back to your main thrust, I agree it’s time to do something about social security & Medicare, and the need for some transparency & accountability on earmarks is obvious.


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