My exchange with Barton Swaim of the SC Policy Council

This morning, I had this email from the SC Policy Council’s Barton Swaim about yesterday’s math problem:

“They have tightly contained the growth in funding sources that they control.”

So you think the legislature doesn’t control the federal portion of the budget? Or the fines/fees portion, which has consistently climbed upward?

So I responded:

The fines and fees, yes. But in making a philosophical argument about the “size of government,” you can’t hold legislators responsible for federal appropriations. Doesn’t make sense. If you want to talk about federal money, talk about Congress.

And he responded:

btsThey have to approve almost every federal dollar. With only a few exceptions, “no agency may receive or spend federal or other funds that are not authorized in the appropriations act” (state law, 2-65-20 [5]). The fact that lawmakers completely neglect oversight in this area – except to advocate for more federal money and change state laws per federal demands in order to draw it down – does not alter the fact that they do, in fact, have the power to control it. Indeed, they actively encourage more federal spending so that Washington can pay for basic state government services (roads, social services, etc.) and the legislature can blow more and more state money on bogus stuff like corporate welfare and tourism marketing….

Incidentally, I’m not a libertarian. I don’t even “lean libertarian,” as some people say.

And I responded:

You sound pretty libertarian to me. When the objection isn’t to raising taxes (or fees, if you like), but to spending at all, wherever the money comes from, that’s pretty much a blanket negation of the value of government.
And by “corporate welfare,” do you mean incentives for economic development? I’m sort of neutral on those. If they seem likely to pay in the long run, I’m for them. Otherwise, not.
And why wouldn’t we do tourism marketing, since tourism is such a big piece of our economy? I can see debating it, case by case, but dismissing the whole notion as “bogus” seems to be going too far.
Do you mind if I post our conversation on my blog?

And he responded:

No problem about posting the conversation, just take out … [which I did]….

In the cases of both tourism marketing and corporate welfare, there’s no way to prove that either “work.” With incentives (both tax favors for specific companies and outright cash for the same), the only way the state keeps track of their success is a series of press releases sent out by the governor and Commerce department boasting on the number of jobs “recruited.” Whether these jobs ever become actual jobs, nobody knows.

On tourism marketing, how would you know if it was working or not? An increase in tourism – which you would get in any case when the economy improves? Come on. When you see a commercial saying “Virginia is for lovers” or whatever, do you think, “You know, Virginia would be a nice place to take the family for a vacay”? Well I don’t. What I think is, “Looks like Virginia’s tourism department had some leftover money they needed to blow so they wouldn’t have any left over at the end of the fiscal year and they could as the House of Delegates for more.” Similarly, nobody needs to be told that South Carolina has nice beaches and that it’s less expensive to vacation here than Florida. They know that already. And if they don’t, they ain’t gonna be persuaded to change their summer plans after watching some hokey commercial.

I ended with:

Well, since I’m working in the marketing biz these days, don’t expect me to agree that it’s a waste of money. 🙂
Thanks for the exchange.

14 thoughts on “My exchange with Barton Swaim of the SC Policy Council

  1. Doug Ross

    I think what you frequently miss in your dismissive attitude regarding libertarians is that it isn’t about one person paying less taxes, it’s about everyone paying less taxes. And that is driven by the combination of several ideas:

    1) There are functions that the government SHOULD perform and there are others that it SHOULD NOT. Marketing would fall into that category for a libertarian (as would spending on arts, etc.). Too often the bang for the buck is not measurable and, as well, certain connected people get to reap the benefits of the tax dollars based not on performance but on relationships.

    2) What the government does, it frequently does poorly for many reasons. Waste, fraud, and abuse is rampant in the social programs because there is no true accountability – mainly due to nobody REALLY caring if money is wasted because it came from someone else. So spending tax dollars on inefficient programs feels like wasting money. When I look at my tax bill and see how much I’m paying in, I’d like to see a quality result. What we get is K-Mart at Neiman Marcus prices.

    So it’s not about the money, it’s about the way the money is spent. We should spend less and expect better results.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    And here is the key place where the libertarian’s emphasis on SELF is manifest. It’s not personal greed or anything like that — it’s the idea that there’s something wrong if government is doing things that the individual libertarian believes it should not do.

    As you say, “There are functions that the government SHOULD perform and there are others that it SHOULD NOT.” And the difference between what it should perform and what it should not is properly decided by the representatives that we elect. If we don’t like the decisions they make, we should vote for other people — and accept that we’re never, ever going to get our way entirely.

    And the fact that we DON’T get our way all the time, or even a lot of the time, is not in itself evidence that government is screwed up.

    Now, all of that said, does government function the way it should all the time? No. Reapportionment, particularly as it has been practiced after the last three censuses (censi?), has greatly reduced the influence of electoral majorities, and thrown the selection of representatives into party primaries, where people who can command a plurality of support in that party’s primary tend to drive the agenda. And so our politics is driven to extremes that do not reflect the views of the vast majority.

    This needs to be fixed. It may be the single greatest problem in our system today…

    1. Doug Ross

      “it’s the idea that there’s something wrong if government is doing things that the individual libertarian believes it should not do.”

      How is that different from any other philosophy? You want the government to do some things it doesn’t do and not do some things it does do. What’s the difference? Is it because you want it to a lot more of X and a tiny, tiny bit less of Y that makes the difference?

      And I go back to my second point – it’s not just that it does some things it shouldn’t do, it’s that it does what it does so poorly in many cases. I’d be fine with paying taxes for government to do things well. For the large number of people who pay little or no taxes, what they get in return is a bargain. It’s like going to K-Mart with three dollars and walking out with a new TV. Me? I walk in with $1000 and come out with a Betamax VCR.

    2. bud

      It’s a big problem no doubt. So is the death penalty and the electoral college and overspending on the military and lax regulation of the banking industry. My point is that everyone has their set of problems with government that need fixing. Mine are very different from Doug’s so Brad’s point that we can never get our way on how government spends tax money is a very good one.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Point of Order: The name “Barton Swaim” sounds like it should be the name of a character on Downton Abbey. It’s about the most white-guy sounding name I’ve ever heard.

    Lady Edith Crawley: Oh, Robert! I’ve just heard that Barton Swaim will be joining us for dinner tonight!”
    Lord Grantham: How lovely! I haven’t seen old Barton since my schoolboy days.
    Lady Mary: Isn’t he Lord Swaim now?
    Lord Grantham: Yes, after his father died, he inherited an sizable estate in Northern Glastonbury.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Except he would be Lord Something Entirely Unlike Swaim. Because the Brits like to confuse us.

      For instance, Robert Dundas, the first lord of the Admiralty in the early 19th century, was known as Lord Melville. Or the Viscount Melville.

      Other examples, of course, abound. But I thought of him first since he crops up so much in the Aubrey/Maturin books I love.

      Actually, more people are familiar with the example on Downton Abbey itself. Robert Crawley is the Earl of Grantham, or Lord Grantham…

      1. Scout

        “George Gordon, Lord Byron” for example? I can still see it that way on the page in my 11th grade literature textbook.

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      That name bugged me, and Bryan has nailed it.

      Unlike Holt Chetwood who sounds like a character from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Except maybe Barton Swaim is the commoner suitor of Lady Edith who has unsavory political ideas or is a social climber

      2. Bob Amundson

        The name is most likely a product of a Southern “tradition” of giving a child the mother’s maiden name as the first name. I’m glad I was born in Minnesota and given the name Robert. If born in the South, I could be Brandes Amundson. Ouch . . .

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