Sunday, August 21, 2016

Head-Banging Through the Weeds

It's head-banging time.  I have at hand a book that makes me crazy because it is so full of promise and comes so close and--okay, let me explain.

The title is We Are Better Than This, subtitled "How the Government Should be Spending Our Money."  The author is Edward D. Kleinbard and so far as I can tell, it would be hard to find anyone better qualified for the job he tackles.  He is now a professor (USC) but he spent his prime as chief of staff for the US Congress'' joint committee on taxation, which has long enjoyed (and I think still enjoys) a rep as "the nonpartisan tax resource to Congress."  And he certainly gets off on the right foot with me.  "This book argues," he writes, "that the strand of contemporary American political thought that defines itself through the hatred of taxation is narcissistic, self-pleading, wrapped in a flimsy sheaf of economic lingo." He makes a subordinate point that is equally enticing: "instead of focusing on what government might usefully do ... we obsess over the taxing side of things and igloo;e the purposes to which those tax revenues are applied."

Oh, preach it, brother, even if you are preaching to the choir.  I can't wait to turn the page.

But but but.  But I wouldn't suggest for a moment that he goes nowhere with his promise.  In fact he goes quite away with some stuff you might expect him to be good at: in-the-weeds marshaling of data about US government spending.  More: he collects instructive comparisons with other "similar" countries.  I suppose a critic could say "you can Google all that stuff," and maybe you can, but there are still some codgers who enjoy seeing it pulled together and presented in a book.

But then--well; then the book tends to sprawl all over the map into a number of only loosely related topics, some of which he handles well, some not so.   He has a very good account of government-as-social-insurer, for example--a topic which which he seems to feel comfortable.  He's got some useful things to say about government as investor--the idea that (contra the popular conception) government dollars can produce more than private dollars.  But here, coverage is more patchy: okay on conventional infrastructure, so-so on the productive capacity of education spending.  Beyond that, surprisingly little: next to no attention to DARPA and the NIH and other government programs whose task seems to be to expend pubic dollars so others can reap private benefits.  

And branching out--further into a book that seemed intent on talking about spending, he offers long chapters on topics that come suspiciously close to tax policy-is government too big?  Are taxes too high  (perhaps you can guess the answer to those)? There is even a chapter headed "A Field Guide to False Fiscal Crises"--interesting enough in itself, but pretty far afield from what seemed to be his central topic.  And to top it off, he offers (tentatively and haltingly) an effort to present a big-picture justification for who might call left social-democratic pubic spending in general.

Maybe you can see what the trouble is.  I think he tried to do too much.  The dedicatory inscription goes "to my father, who delayed my entry into academia by 30 years--just long enough for me to have something useful to say."  Wryly clever and undoubtedly sincere, but it gives the game away.  At last liberated from the cares of his day job,  Kleinbard upended his briefcase (downloaded his cloud drive?) full of insights, fragments, talking points and undertook to weave them all together into a big-picture overview of the whole world of tax-and-spend.  It's a noble intention and as I say, the hell of it is, he is part way there.  I'm now recalling the old canard about how"I'm writing you a long letter because I didn't have time to write a shorter."  He would have done better for himself and us if he had written just half a book.

Fn.:  And while we are at it, where was his "editor"--I use the term loosely at the distinguished university-sounding press that published it?  Isn't it (or wasn't it?) precisely the job of editor to be the dutch uncle and to tell the author to cut it down to size?

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