Tuesday, August 14, 2007

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Your declinist metaphor for today

Analysts have been comparing the United States to a decaying, declining Roman empire for close to forty years now. It has become so clichéd that, according to a little-known DC ordinance, anyone who makes the analogy inside the beltway is forced to listen to either Robert Kuttner or George Will pontificate for an entire hour on its historical appropriateness. Shudder.

Given these formidable barriers, it must mean something that the Comptroller General is dusting off the comparison and making it anew. The Financial Times' Jeremy Grant explains:

The US government is on a “burning platform” of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.

David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations”.

These include “dramatic” tax rises, slashed government services and the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.

Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.

“Sound familiar?” Mr Walker said. “In my view, it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.”

Mr Walker’s views carry weight because he is a non-partisan figure in charge of the Government Accountability Office, often described as the investigative arm of the US Congress.

While most of its studies are commissioned by legislators, about 10 per cent – such as the one containing his latest warnings – are initiated by the comptroller general himself.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Walker said he had mentioned some of the issues before but now wanted to “turn up the volume”. Some of them were too sensitive for others in government to “have their name associated with”.

“I’m trying to sound an alarm and issue a wake-up call,” he said. “As comptroller general I’ve got an ability to look longer-range and take on issues that others may be hesitant, and in many cases may not be in a position, to take on.

Click here to read more of Walker's analysis. An excerpt:
Unfortunately, our government’s track record in adapting to new conditions and meeting new challenges isn’t very good. Much of the federal government remains overly bureaucratic, myopic, narrowly focused, and based on the past. There’s a tendency to cling to outmoded organizational structures and strategies.

Many agencies have been slow to adopt best practices. While a few agencies have begun to rethink their missions and operations, many federal policies, programs, processes, and procedures are hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, all too often, it takes an immediate crisis for government to act. After all, history has shown that Washington is a lag indicator!

Efficient and effective government matters. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought that point home in a painful way. The damage these storms inflicted on the Gulf Coast put all levels of government to the test. While a few agencies, like the Coast Guard, did a great job, many agencies, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), fell far short of expectations. Public confidence in the ability of government to meet basic needs was severely shaken—and understandably so. If our government can’t handle known threats like natural disasters, it’s only fair to wonder what other public services may be at risk.

Transforming government and aligning it with modern needs is even more urgent because of our nation’s large and growing fiscal imbalance. Simply stated, America is on a path toward an explosion of debt. And that indebtedness threatens our country’s, our children’s, and our grandchildren’s futures. With the looming retirement of the baby boomers, spiraling health care costs, plummeting savings rates, and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face unprecedented fiscal risks.

Long-range simulations from my agency are chilling. If we continue as we have, policy makers will eventually have to raise taxes dramatically and/or slash government services the American people depend on and take for granted. Just pick a program—student loans, the interstate highway system, national parks, federal law enforcement, and even our armed forces.

I don't think we're in any danger of the kind of Malthusian trap that plagued the Roman empire, and America's demographic situation is much healthier than comparable OECD economies. That said, clichés often do carry a grain of truth to them. So read the whole thing.

UPDATE: I wonder if Walker is trying to cross-promote this:

posted by Dan on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM


Nope, I'm not buying it. Even if fiscal restraint and unending social welfare liabilities weaken the U.S., in relative terms America wil remain the preponderant power, but with some of its strategic efficacy reduced.

Check Mark Haas' excellent piece that provides some demographic evidence to that effect:


posted by: Donald Douglas on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

Over the past 30 years the tax burden on the middle class has increased at a rate three times that of mortgages and twice the rate of mortgages and health insurance combined. So, Mr. Walker's assessment of our "low" tax situation is incorrect, which leads to his solutions (more gov't, more gov't spending, higher taxes) being irrelevant.

Mr. Walker may not be "partisan," but he does have his own agenda. He stakes most of his argument on a false assumption to begin with -- that the federal government is responsible for taking care of us.

For what it's worth, I live in a state with some of the highest gasoline taxes in the country and our roads are already little more than crumbling ruins.

Finally, it has been historically proven over and over again that lower taxes actually generate more revenue for the gov't than high taxes, so why do people like Mr. Walker refuse to understand that simple fact?

Of course, one should expect a bureaucrat to see more bureaucracy as the solution to every problem.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

"Finally, it has been historically proven over and over again that lower taxes actually generate more revenue for the gov't than high taxes..."

Where, exactly, are you getting this evidence from, and what is the basis of the conclusion? I'm not aware of any such "proofs" that pass the smell test.

"Over the past 30 years the tax burden on the middle class has increased at a rate three times that of mortgages and twice the rate of mortgages and health insurance combined."

What, exactly, are you comparing here? Are you confusing average revenue collected per household with household taxation *rates*? Are you including state and local taxes/fees? And what's the basis of the comparison to mortgages and health insurance?

posted by: Dan Nexon on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

Doug: I thought that was a great article. One of our bloggers had a recent post on the comparative economic dimensions of "graying populations." But two points here:

1) Because the US birth-rate advantage over China, Russia, and Europe stems largely from immigration effects--themselves subject to political uncertainty both in the US and abroad--we shouldn't take these projections for granted;

2) We're really in untested waters here when it comes to aging populations, so, again, I wouldn't lay odds on optimistic scenarios for how this impacts US power and use speculative work like Haas' for saying everything's a-ok;

3) Some of the kinds of problems pointed to actually derive from demographic effects.

posted by: Dan Nexon on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

D. Nexon -- sorry, I didn't realize I was trying out for JV debate squad, here. I thought I was posting a comment on a blog. As for my proof, just look it up, like I did.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

Useless Sam Grant - I was being relatively charitable. Neither of the arguments you make are correct. The tax burden is lower now than it was 30 years ago--at least in Federal terms--and there's virtually no evidence that supports the less taxes = more revenue within the range of tax rates we've seen in the US over the last few decades. So, in asking for evidence, I was attempting to give you the benefit of the doubt and find out whether you were just citing, for example Laffer-curve-esque nonsense based upon observations like "look, the tax rate is lower now and we have more revenue" or the kind of junk peddled on the op-ed pages of the WSJ, of whether you had something worthwhile to back up these claims.

The nice thing about "JV level debate" is that it requires, you know, evidence for claims that cut against the grain. When it works, it selects out statements like "historically proven" when that is not, in fact, the case.

posted by: Dan Nexon on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

OK, if the taxes are indeed higher, why do you suppose that would be? Perhaps, if taxes on the very rich go down very sharply (as they have), and taxes on corporations go down very sharply (as they have), and federal government spending's share of GDP remains around the 20 percent mark (as it has), then someone else has to foot the bill. As far as I can see, the people who have had to pay the price are the lower and middle classes (in the form of user fees, personal allowances that don't keep up with average earnings, excise taxes, and higher state taxes due to the feds offloading services they once paid for on to the states), and borrowers (as the federal government borrows ever more and drives up interest rates).

posted by: DB on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

I'm not fond of historical analogies used promiscuously, as here, but what is interesting is Walker's effort to identify and call for action against major faults in the American government without specifying who he thinks is responsible for them.

Could he do otherwise as Comptroller General? Probably not. Does his failure to do otherwise mean his dramatic report is likely to be ignored? That would be my bet.

"Government departments need to transform themselves" is not news; most people (and a solid majority of elected officials) are only vaguely familiar with the ways many government departments operate now, let alone how they should change to meet the challenges of the 21st century. "We need a top-to-bottom review of federal programs" is not news either, for the same reason.

"ABC Department has drifted into irrelevancy because its Secretary is a doofus and many of her subordinates are corrupt" would be news. "XYZ program is an example of many that should have been ended 20 years ago and their beneficiaries thrown out into the snow" would be news. "I feel I have to say these things as Comptroller General because the legislators I work for spend all their time fundraising, campaigning and otherwise goofing off" would really be news.

I don't want to seem to be criticizing Walker, who is doing his best, and with whose substantive points -- historical analogies aside -- I mostly agree. It's just that in his position he is like a man trying to cut down a redwood with a pocketknife.

posted by: Zathras on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

As an outside observer (Ireland) I would like to add my tuppence worth. As the piece suggests it's been fashionable for some time to draw parallels between the US and the declining Roman Empire. I think the analogy is rushed. It is true that the US probably stood at her relative peak in 1945 in terms of its percentage of global power. From there, she has always been in (modest) decline. US percentage of World GDP continued to drop. But she still had another superpower facing her down. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 89-91, America stood as the world's only superpower - but in a world very much changed since 1945. What with India, China and other emerging nations on rapid upward curves America's relative position was always in decline. But the US is still by far the most powerful nation, and has in the past shown remarkable ability to adapt when the chips are down. As Mr Walker points out - the nation faces many difficult challenges, but America (to an outside observer at least) has shown herself to be a resilient nation. I would be optimistic that she can affect some of the difficult but crucial changes that are needed to safeguard her position for some time to come.

posted by: Tomaltach on 08.14.07 at 08:38 AM [permalink]

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