Among my responsibilities at the Cato Institute, I read most of our new books (ideally, before publication, since it never hurts to have more eyes catching errors, glitches, and infelicities of expression) and write the memos with which they’re sent to our sponsors and friends. The two most recent are especially clear and interesting.
Medicare Meets Mephistopheles by David Hyman uses the “Screwtape Letters” technique of describing Medicare in a series of memos from an underling demon to Satan. It actually works. And it earned this endorsement from critic Ezra Klein of the American Prospect:
[T]he book is actually quite good. I’d happily recommend it to anyone with a basic grasp on health care and a desire to learn a bit more about Medicare. Hyman is a felicitous and fun writer, and he conveys an impressive amount of history and data in as accessible and absorbable a manner as one could hope. I know how tricky it is to make health care a quick and gripping read, and I tip my hat to anyone who is capable of enriching the debate and educating readers by doing so.
Hyman does a great job of explaining how the Medicare system works — and that actually is a remarkable accomplishment.
The other is Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, by my colleague Steve Slivinski. It’s a great read and full of insights.
So many accounts of goings-in in D.C. focus on corruption, with the implication that bags of cash are regularly handed to members of Congress. As we learned from the case of California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (now behind bars), that does sometimes happen. But it’s actually pretty rare. What is overlooked in most accounts is the truly pervasive forms of corruption, the type that really is business-as-usual. Votes are bought and sold, not for diamond rings and fancy condos, but for government spending in their states or districts, for subsidies to favored constituents, for unnecessary government purchases that conveniently include components manufactured in the districts of the politicians making the decisions. Occasionally the lid is taken off the process and we can see exactly how it’s done. Steve describes how Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster got more money for his favorite pork barrel spending: highway construction. In that case, the incriminating evidence was revealed to the public by then-representative and now-senator Tom Coburn. On page 97 of Buck Wild, Steve quotes a message left by one of Shuster’s aids on the voicemail of Coburn’s staff assistant, which Coburn copied and released to the media:
“We have a deal on the funding levels for [the highway bill]. I originally spoke to your boss, to your office, last September and we had notified you that there was $10 million in the bill for your boss. We’re upping that by $5 million, so you have $15 million, and I’m just trying to figure out where you want to put the new money, the new $5 million.”
That’s the corruption that is almost never discussed. Log-rolling (if you vote for my special-interest handout, I’ll vote for yours) among members and the bribery of the public by politicians, who openly buy votes in exchange for “bringing home the bacon,” that is, taking money from others to give to constituents and supporters. It’s what the late Senator Barry Goldwater called “government by bribe.” As one of my very favorite economists, Frederic Bastiat, neatly explained the process: “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” Of course, it’s not possible for everyone to live at the expense of everyone else, and, as Steve explains so clearly, the great majority of us lose in that game.