Thursday, July 25, 2013

One Nation, Divisible

With preference and protection for some

Favoritism and economic bias. I know I bang these drums often, but not a week goes by when we don't see the face of political patronage in the shape of skewed markets and greater inequity. These arise not because of district gerrymandering or unlimited reelection but because plausible, sensible sounding arrangements enrich vested interests and raise consumer prices, taking the most from those that can least afford it.

Let's start this week's rant with a look at the Jones Act. Now nearly 100 years old, the Merchant Marine Act promotes the domestic sea-borne shipping industry by requiring that only U.S.-flagged, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-crewed ships are allowed to transport goods between domestic ports. It seems like a nice idea to support a home-grown industry. But over time it limited competition to raise the price of moving goods via the sea. A recent CNBC article suggests that the Jones Act adds as much as 30 cents to a gallon of gasoline.

Next stop: the United States Postal Service. USPS has long been Congress's experiment in running government as a business; unfortunately few members of Congress know how to run a business. The Postal Reform Act of 2013 (yes, we've heard this tune before) purports to normalize postal rates yet continues special rates for nonprofit organizations; seeks delivery efficiency with implementation of "cluster boxes" yet continues to limit the closure of inefficient rural post offices; and adds more management oversight and Congressional fiddling on a Postmaster General who knows his business better than any part-time committee. All of this "help" does nothing more than raise rates and put USPS's future further in jeopardy.

Political parties thrive on division. I know this sounds cynical but it's also realistic: it's easier for politicians to parse the electorate into smaller, bite-sized portions. It's difficult and a bit ambiguous to level the field for "consumers"; it's tangible and more effective (especially when soliciting campaign contributions) to help specific groups such as "America's shipping fleet" and "dedicated postal workers".

I see preference and protection falling into two camps. Camp 1 seeks tax breaks for the well-to-do and barriers to competition for newcomers. Camp 2 seeks tax breaks for "socially responsible" causes and industries while shielding the public sector from private sector competition. Each camp seeks to protect entrenched interests and build political prowess from the support of those interests. I'll let you label the camps as you see fit.

Favoritism and protectionism confer unearned riches, increase inequity, and fill the campaign coffers of the elected. They deepen entrenched interests and amount to hidden taxes by raising consumer prices.

"Conveyance" is a legal term for the transfer of tangible assets from one party to another. Favoritism and political preference take from us unwillingly to dishonor our national motto. E pluribus unum is Latin for "Out of many, one". Congress and political patronage divide us into the haves and have nots, the served and unserved, leaving some – as George Orwell wrote – "more equal than others".