The Government Hammer

My father-in-law is known for saying, “When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Thomas Sowell talks about political crises created by Political “Solutions.”

Government laws and policies, especially the Community Reinvestment Act, pressured lenders to invest in people and places where they would not invest otherwise. Government also created the temporarily very low interest rates that made the mortgages seem affordable for the moment. . .

As for the flames sweeping across southern California, tragic as that is, this has happened time and again before — in the very same places in the very same time of year, just like hurricanes.

Why would people risk building million-dollar homes in the known paths of wildfires? For the same reason that people choose to live in the known paths of hurricanes. Because the government — that is, the taxpayers — will get stuck with a lot of the costs of dealing with those dangers and the costs of rebuilding.

Why is there such a huge amount of inflammable vegetation over such a wide area that fires can reach unstoppable proportions by the time they get to places where people live? Because “open space” has become a political sacred cow beyond rational discussion. . .

In other words, government preserves all the conditions for wildfires and subsidizes people who live in their path.

As for water shortages . . . The federal government’s water projects supply much of the water used in California that enables agriculture to flourish in what would otherwise be a desert.

We have created a culture where government is the solution to every every social “problem” (many times government is used to address preferences like open space which are not actually problems) just as technology is the solution to every technical problem. Lawmakers don’t intend to create crises, but crisis is the natural result when government gets involved in things that it was not designed to address (things like the cost of water or the price of home loans). In other words, if you have a hammer everything may look like a nail, but no matter how skillfully you hammer on a screw it won’t work like a screw – you need a screw driver to succeed with screws.

16 comments for “The Government Hammer

  1. November 6, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Very good observations. You might wish to observe that the process is self-perpetuating.

    Politicians gain power and influence by peddling “solutions” to some perceived injustice. These solutions invariably have unintended consequences. When those unintended consequences rear their ugly heads, you hear lobbyists, constituents, and politicians themselves saying, “This looks like a job for a politician!” The politican then emerges from his phone booth clad in the garb of a hero, fully equipped with yet another “solution.” Rinse, lather, and repeat.

    Case in point. Check out the Wall Street Journal Editor’s take ( ) on Rep. Barney Frank’s bill to “fix” the sub-prime mortgage business. Just as Congress created incentives that caused the sub-prime mess, Frank’s bill is a perfect setup to create the “need” for politicians to “save” us from the problems that the bill will create. And yes, it will create a revenue stream from lobbyists. I guess you call that job security.

  2. November 6, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Yes, I do call that job security.

    I wonder what it would take to get people who would want to work themselves out of a job – in other words people who would take the time to find real solutions. Once they had succeeded at really solving one problem they could move on to another problem – the result would be actual progress rather than the political merry-go-round of the current solution/counter-solution cycle.

  3. November 6, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    There are a very few people around like that. A number of years ago, there was a guy that was in the House of Representatives that was very popular in GOP circles. I can’t even remember his name now. When he first ran, he promised to serve only four terms. As his 8th year was coming up, his star was rising. He had worked hard and people expected him to run again, but he refused to do so. And after leaving Congress he refused to work as a lobbyist. Why are people like that so rare?

  4. November 6, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    I believe that people like that are so rare because when you’ve worked hard for 8 years and you are starting to get some real traction it is easy to justify yourself in continuing to serve despite your original promise. After all, you didn’t know going in what great things you could do after your 8 years were up.

  5. Jason Black
    November 7, 2007 at 6:04 am

    I’m a believer in term-limits – legislated or self-imposed.

    That said, I have heard a reasonable argument for legislators to either seek long term job stability or go back on their word to serve short term.

    Much of the influence legislators wield is due to their committee assignments, especially chairmanships. These positions are directed by the party caucus leaders, so loyalty to the party line and seniority play a big role. If a legislator promises to bow out after only 8 years, he will not likely get any important committee assignments, and never chair a committee. Big deal, right? However, from the point of view of a constituent, you’ve got a representative who is essentially stripped of most influence, and has little likelihood of ever doing anything positive.

    It’s a catch 22. You want your representative to influence congress for good, but you don’t want them to get entrenched and be a party lackey. Unfortunately, it’s very hard for an open-minded, selfless public servant to be influential in congress, simply by the nature of the caucus organizations.

  6. November 7, 2007 at 6:33 am

    This makes a very strong argument for legislated term limits. If every congressman were limited to 8 years then committee assignments would have to be given out a bit differently because 8 years would be the most seniority that anyone could have. Without legislated term limits those who self-impose a term limit are punished for their integrity.

  7. Jason Black
    November 7, 2007 at 7:52 am

    Bingo! But it also illustrates why so many elected officials are unwilling to limit themselves – it irritates the constituents to have limited voice.

    In Missouri, our state legislature has term limits. Since everyone is held to the same limit, committee assignments abound, and turnover brings fresh, new, not so entrenched ideas every few years. What’s more important, our legislators don’t have decades of history working with the same lobbyists. The new guy on the block, when approached by lobbyists, is much more skeptical of his influence, and more likely to push his own (or his constituents’) agenda.

  8. November 7, 2007 at 9:12 am

    I think it’s time for more states to institute term limits in their legislatures. We also need to get term limits at the federal level.

    Jason, do you know what happens to legislators that complete their limit of terms, do they move on to other elective positions or just go back to private life?

  9. Jason Black
    November 7, 2007 at 10:30 am

    Missouri’s General Assembly is incredibly large – 163 representatives and 34 senators – so most can’t go on to higher elected office. Many representatives run for senate, and many senators run for statewide or federal office. But with 1999 seats opening up during any 8 year period, there just aren’t enough higher offices for everyone. Some pick up lobbying jobs, some become political consultants. The great majority, however, simply disappear back into their private lives.

    This is aided by the fact that Missouri’s general assembly is only in session 5 months of the year, and the pay is lousy ($33,000 annually for reps and senators), so most legislators in Missouri own, run, or work at private businesses concurrently with their legislative work, allowing them to smoothly fall back into life outside the public sector.

  10. November 7, 2007 at 10:45 am

    That sounds just about ideal. Hopefully it is primarily the best of them who move on to higher offices (I had no inkling that it would be all or even a majority who moved on) but having a system which encourages regular turnover is good.

  11. November 8, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Jason also provides a great argument in favor of a part-time legislature. I am vehemently opposed to Utah increasing its legislative term. We can see from California and other states that this leads to overspending and mischievous legislation from politicians with too much time on their hands.

  12. November 8, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    I was not aware that Utah was considering increasing the legislative term for the state. I agree that having a full time legislature just gives our representatives at the state level more opportunity to pound some extra screws with the hammer of government.

  13. November 9, 2007 at 11:07 am

    I agree with you that we need to make sure that we avoid any effort to extend the legislative session. One argument that you did not list is that a full-time legislature would attract more qualified candidates.

    I don’t believe that it is true, but I am sure that anyone proposing such a move would make the argument that it is. Personally I would bet that a full-time legislature would attract the same mix of qualified vs. under-qualified candidates that the part-time legislature attracts.

    The argument that it is difficult to be a member of a part-time legislature is a good thing as far as I am concerned for two reasons – it encourages people to run because of a great desire to serve, and I have never found anything in life to be easy that was truly worthwhile. A full-time legislature would be much easier on the legislators, but it would also encourage a disconnect from the lives of everyday constituents as they become insulated from the economy of life that every other voter is subject to.

  14. November 9, 2007 at 10:17 am

    There is constant whining by legislators about how much work they have to do, how little they get paid for it, and how much unpaid time they put in outside of the legislative session. They note the number of special sessions that get called and suggest (rather naively) that these would go away if we increased our legislative session a month or two.

    Others think that having a part-time legislature makes it difficult for most people to consider running for office. I mean, how many people can afford to keep their day job AND spend time at the legislature? How many can take three months off to attend the legislative session? They say that this warrants a full-time legislature.

    While all of these concerns are real and valid, I do not believe they outweigh the value of a limited, part-time legislature. The simple answer to those that want a full-time legislature because most people can’t take time away from their regular jobs is that most people can’t consider a career shift to become a professional politician either. Either way, most people are excluded from the process. But legislative races for part-time positions are far less expensive than they would become if we went to full-time positions. And if you think lobbyists have lots of pull with our current part-time legislators, it’s nothing compared to what it would be like if we had a full-time legislature.

    Also, if people find putting in the time to do the job too burdensome, the easy answer is simply not to run for the position. Do we have a significant shortage of qualified candidates? If somebody doesn’t want to put in the time it takes to be a legislator, somebody else will invariably step up to the plate.

    There are currently no significant proposals out there to extend the legislative session. I think we should make sure that none materialize.

Comments are closed.