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    Thursday, July 18, 2019-9:08:25A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Variations | Pssst! Need a business plan?

THESE are measures no sane household or business entity would consider, but are warmly embraced by many of us when proposed for the entire Commonwealth: impose higher costs and more restrictions on revenue generating activities, and just take other people’s money.

Voila. Truer progress.

Which reminds me of the now classic “South Park” episode that first aired over 20 years ago. It was about, among other things, business-minded gnomes and their three-phase business plan:

Phase 1: Collect (steal) underpants

Phase 2: ?

Phase 3: Profit

Asked how taking other people’s underpants will result in profit, the gnomes don’t have a good answer. We laugh, of course, but as Art Carden, an associate professor of economics, pointed out in Forbes, “a lot of...policy proposals…are based on a view of the world more appropriate to the Underpants Gnomes from South Park than serious and reasoned discussion.” Consider, he added, “virtually any problem that professional hand-wringers…worry about.” The argument usually proceeds as follows:

Phase 1: Pass a law.

Phase 2: ?

Phase 3: virtue and/or prosperity.

Carden says it also applies to the spectacular (cough cough) success that is the War on Drugs:

Phase 1: Crack down harder on drugs.

Phase 2: ?

Phase 3: Cleanliness, sobriety, virtue, and prosperity.

Too often, Carden says, “policy proposals are evaluated on the basis of their intentions rather than their predictable results and the debate proceeds as if the conflict is purely distributional or…the goals themselves are morally desirable. This is the political economy of the Underpants Gnomes…. To have a truly useful conversation about policy, we need to focus less on the desirability of what we can imagine in Phase 3 and think harder about what is going on in Phase 2.”

Good luck with that.

* * *

We say we need a plan but what we call a “plan” is usually based on a wish — with consequences that are, more often than not, the opposite of our lofty objectives. To paraphrase Reason’s Peter Suderman, what many of us subscribe to is “less a platform than a tendency, a manner of understanding politics and economics that is light on particulars and heavy on easy assumptions about the way the world should be and what it should offer…. It’s an airy and reckless populist fantasy of broad social and economic transformation — an ideology, yes, but also an attitude….”

* * *

In a speech delivered by Richard Cobden in Britain’s House of Commons in 1846, he asked his fellow members of Parliament: “Can you, by legislation, add one farthing [a quarter of a penny] to the wealth of a country? You may, by legislation, in one evening destroy the fruits and accumulations of a century of labor; but I defy you to show me how, by the legislation of this House, you can add one farthing to the wealth of this country. That springs from the industry and intelligence of the people of the country. You cannot guide that intelligence; you cannot do better than leave industry to its own instincts. If you attempt by legislation to give any direction to trade and industry, it is a thousand to one that you are doing wrong; and if you happen to be right, it is [needless] work…for the parties for whom you legislate would go right without you, and better than with you.”

* * *

Many of us expect that when an elected official say so, then because s/he said so, it must be so. Hence our never-ending frustration with politics and government. To be sure, many if not almost all politicians and elected officials are sincere people willing and eager to serve the public. But they’re into politics, and politics is usually about what is popular and not what is right. The thing is, many notions that feel so right and are extremely popular are also boneheaded.

So we keep hearing complaints against “runaway government spending” (which is the only kind there is — but don’t tell anyone). Old timers may recall reading in this newspaper about “the need to cut the size of government” since the TT administration or the early years of the Commonwealth. The “big size of government,” “wasteful spending,” etc., etc. We’ve heard them all before. It is likely that our children’s children would hear them, too.

But where are the actual proposals to significantly, once and for all, reduce government spending? Such proposals must, for example, identify the government offices, agencies and/or programs that would be shut down; the number of government employees who would lose their jobs; and the names of these unfortunate, soon-to-be-jobless voters.

Anyone?

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