Iain Murray is the author of the book, “Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off Of You,” released Monday.
Murray, Vice President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his new book.
1. Why did you decide to write the book?
Ever since I arrived in the United States (I’m an immigrant from Great Britain, where I was a government employee), all my dealings with American bureaucracy have convinced me that the system isn’t run for the benefit of the taxpayer or the recipient of government services, but for the benefit of the bureaucracy itself. With government sucking up a third of the economy — half if you include the cost of regulation — we are left with a system that really amounts to a massive swindle on the American people.
2. What are some of the more outlandish programs our government is spending money on?
Where do you start? There are grant programs to study how sick shrimp react on treadmills or feed cocaine to monkeys to find — surprise, surprise —that they get addicted to it. Other grants have been used to organize a robot hoedown and to study how Farmville affects social relationships. Those are small beer compared to things like High Speed Rail, however — which isn’t high speed and no one will use. That’s pretty outlandish when you think about it.
3. While those examples of government waste will certainly make headlines, they are not really what threatens our long-term economic health. What programs are really killing us fiscally?
If you add all the congressional pork projects together you get $30 billion annually — a lot of money. But our big entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — cost us $2 trillion, and are going to cost a lot more. Then there’s the cost of the regulations government imposes on us —$1.75 trillion a year. In a $12 trillion economy, that represents a significant portion of our national wealth.
4. What numbers frighten you the most about America’s current fiscal path?
It’s the entitlement programs that are the real issue. The Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2050, they’ll soak up 18.4 percent of GDP between them, which is almost exactly how much the federal government raises in revenue. So we won’t have any money to spend on discretionary projects, like the military, without significant tax increases. Let’s not forget that we also have a $4 trillion unfunded liability in the form of state and local public pension commitments, and the money for that will have to come from somewhere unless that problem gets tackled.
5. What do you think is the proper role of our federal government?
I believe government exists to secure our liberties, which it does by defending us from violence, persuading other governments to foster free trade, and to provide a court system for redress of grievances between citizens. I think that the U.S. Constitution provides a great framework for doing just that.
6. You favor doing away with whole agencies. Which ones and why?
The Department of Commerce is where big government started under the progressive President Herbert Hoover, and almost every program it has under its wing could be swept aside with very little effect on the economy. The Department of Energy seems to exist to reduce our access to affordable energy, so that can go. The Departments of Labor and Education exist as governmental lobby forums for special interests. Housing and Urban Development are properly the concern of local governments, in so far as they need to be a concern at all, and whatever it is that Health and Human Services does could also be undertaken more efficiently at a state or local level. That had be a start.
7. Defense spending isn’t really a major cause of our long-term fiscal crisis, as some on both the left and right like to suggest, is it?
I think that America spends too much on defense — I don’t think we should be at war with Libya, for instance, and that there is no need for us to have bases in Europe, or South Korea for that matter. Yet even with that bloat, defense spending is only equal to a third of how much regulation costs us every year.
8. On average, is it better to be a government employee or a private sector employee?
For the average earner, no question: You get better base pay, better benefits and better hours in the government sector. Moreover, there’s virtually no chance of getting fired for bad performance, and you might still get annual increases however much effort you put into the job. The very top earners do better in the private sector, but increasingly the way to get there is by knowing how your industry is regulated and taking advantage of that, which means that the career path to the top in the private sector now often involves wading into the public sector as well.
9. How is the IRS a problem, and what would you do to reform our tax system?
The IRS isn’t a problem because it is inefficient, but because it is far too powerful. It is allowed to ignore the Constitution by exercising summary judgment — ignoring due process — and voiding the right to trial by jury until you’ve paid up. The size and complexity of the tax code — 2.1 million words — is so overwhelming that everyone is likely to miss something, leading to possible IRS investigation. So the best thing to do is to reduce that complexity and enact a single fair tax like a flat tax. Everyone will know where they stand and in all probability revenue will increase and the need for enforcement will decline practically overnight.
10. Any plans to write another book? If so, about what?
I’ve been thinking about one entitled something like “Mythocracy: Ten Ideas That Govern Our Public Discourse — And Are Completely False.” It’d be about the received wisdom in Washington that flies in the face of the evidence, like the idea that government spending fosters innovation (which I touch on in “Stealing You Blind”) or the idea that you can accurately predict the costs and benefits of government action. It needs some work, but I think it’d interest people.