Saturday, January 5, 2013

Gene Steuerle is a Jeffersonian

Here he talks about the problems of dead men ruling - or what Christopher Hitchens once called a "necrocracy".

A lot of the decline - you'll notice - is due to the recession. But not all of it. This is tough, of course, because people living today also like entitlements. That would almost certainly be part of the democratic choice. But the fact that all the revenue is eaten up immediately is still startling.

Speaking of great Urban Institute commentary on fiscal issues, I am going to this event on the fiscal cliff on Tuesday. It's not too late to sign up, and it's also available to watch online.

"...But what limits, it will be asked, does this prescribe to their powers? What is to hinder them from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. The will and the power of man expire with his life, by nature's law. Some societies give it an artificial continuance, for the encouragement of industry; some refuse it, as our aboriginal neighbors, whom we call barbarians. The generations of men may be considered as bodies or corporations. Each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist, the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation, free and unincumbered, and so on, successively, from one generation to another forever. We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country."


  1. Ah, the irony of citing two dead guys for this post.

  2. Unrelated to this post, but more musing here on the post WWII boom:

  3. I noticed at least one factual error. During the Clinton years, even though medical costs continued to rise, they did not rise as a percentage of GDP. The increased economic growth did not translate into further increases in medical care.

    Also, at the start, where he talks about both parties, he is kind of vague, and the picture goes back several decades. But in recent decades, it is the Republicans who are mainly to blame. When deficit spending increased during the Reagan boom years, it was Democrats who objected to "throwing a party". It was the Clinton administration who threatened to run surpluses that were projected to pay off the national debt, inducing Greenspan to raise the alarm, and Bush II to cut taxes even while waging two unfunded wars.

  4. I believe is important to start the New Year with a prediction.

    Economists in the future will understand that we have these deficits because our economy broke in the 1970s and the deficits were path dependent, arising from our failure to correct what is broken for more than 40 years. Clinton made small corrective steps and look at the path on which he launched us.

    Further, contrary to what is asserted---the current Congress can do nothing---the opposite is true. If our current Congress would adopt the correct policies, within 3 to 4 years, save war or untoward natural disaster, any deficit problem would be behind us.

    One need only look at the mobilizations in WWII regarding the ability of economies to recover.

    Last, there is a second fact the presentation omits. Our economy broke at the same time when under Jimmy Carter the Federal Deficit reached its post WWII low.

    Arguing about deficits is a sign of our ignorance, not our knowledge

  5. I have to agree with Evan ... this is a bit like someone who might quote the anti-authority streak of Paul (as found in Romans) as a means to deny the authority of authority.

    Anyway, since I will appeal to a past generation openly I will do so by quoting Thomas Paine:

    "But if we adopt the vague, inconsistent idea that every new assembly has a full and complete authority over every act done by the state in a former assembly, and confound together laws, contracts, and every species of public business, it will lead us into a wilderness of endless confusion and insurmountable difficulties. It would be declaring an assembly despotic for the time being. — Instead of a government of established principles administered by established rules, the authority of government by being strained so high, would, by the same rule, be reduced proportionably as low, and would be no other than that of a committee of the state, acting with discretionary powers for one year. Every new election would be a new revolution, or it would suppose the public of the former year dead and a new public in its place."

    1. I think Evan was joking, and I think you ought to take it that way. Does Jefferson claim to dictate anything to the future? Of course not. So what's the problem? Does Hitchens exercise political authority over the future? No? So why can't a dead man be cited for a catchy term to describe the rule imposed by dead men.

      Paine strikes a similar note to Jefferson elsewhere on the rule of the past.

      I think you err in not adopting a marginalist approach to this, and instead in adopting some kind of all-or-nothing strawman. As I alluded to in the post, a lot of these programs stick around because we - here in the present - actually want them around. Maintaining a past law is fine. The question is, do we leave the next Congress breathing room at all. Are we experimenting at all? Or do the decisions of the past crowd out the space for experimentation.

  6. Well, that is for Evan to tell us.

    Jefferson was very inconsistent in how he dealt with this issue (he was one of the least consistent of the founding generation IMO, as one might expect of someone who believed in nothing and thus believed in everything - to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton); he was more than willing to let the dead hand of the past dictate his thoughts when it benefited what he thought was opportune.

    I think you're reading something into what I wrote that isn't there.

    Yeah, and I am sure I could find a contradictory statement by Jefferson somewhere in his writings. I'm not really interested in that terribly much but I am interested in the truth to be found in the quote I posted here.

    Anyway, now you appear to be adopting some sort of "balancing" criteria and that rarely works in the way that it is supposed to.

    Yes, experiments are great and all, but when experiments repeatedly fail (Head Start is a notorious example and I could point to many, many others) and they continue to be funded then they are no longer experiments (and our government is littered with such programs). So this whole bit about innovation and experimentation isn't quite what it is advertised as by advocates of a muscular state. A good analogy here is to instead compare government agencies and programs to living organisms (not mine BTW, it comes from a rather classic piece in political science literature) - government agencies (like living organisms) fight for their survival like living organisms but are much more effective in the process even if what is being fought for leads to what I am going to call objectively negative outcomes.


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