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Who Has the Power?

I highly recommend one of Arnold Kling’s latest books, Unchecked and Unbalanced. It is a short, highly readable and lucid presentation of the structural problems with government in a wealthy, large and dispersed modern society. The central thesis is that there is a divergence between knowledge (which is largely decentralized and virtually impossible to aggregate) and power (which is increasingly centralized because both scale of government activities and the scope of government activities has increased) which undermines the good functioning of representative institutions. It’s too bad the book has not been widely applauded or read – and certainly lamentable that I am not familiar with works like this coming out of Political Science. The book is full of interesting data and recommendations for making government more accountable to the citizens it claims to represent.

In any case, Kling presents one measure of the increased power of the state – and that is looking at spending per legislator. He uses his home county in Maryland to illustrate, and so I thought I would look up similar data for my home county here in New York. The 2010 budget for Monroe County, NY was approved at $913.9 million. There are 29 county legislators here in Monroe County (thankfully, most of them work full-time elsewhere). Dividing the budget by the number of legislators shows that each legislator averages allocating $31.5 million of spending, every year.

In capitalized terms, assuming a 3% risk-free interest rate, that is the equivalent to each legislator controlling an asset valued at one billion dollars. Kling talks about why this might or might not be a fair assessment, but however you look at it, this is a vast amount of money for individuals to control. There is a mix of lawyers, small businessmen and others on the legislature. Keep in mind that there are only 793 billionaires in the entire world. And a relatively moderate spending county legislature in depressed Western New York has 29 people that have as much wealth at their disposal as the 793 richest people in the entire world.

At least the county council has a mix of representation on it – I used to live in Massachusetts where the highest ranking elected member of the opposition party was something like a county Sheriff. Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone groaning about inequality and the power of corporate interests in the United States.

2 Responses to “Who Has the Power?”

  1. Harry says:

    During my informal but very important education, post-college, my Uncle Harry would pose such questions, off the cuff, over dinner, about how you might capitalize this or that. His mind kept discounting everything economically, in the best sense of using the word “discounting”.

    Thus, your comment is to the point, exactly.

    Personally, I’m contemplating a quest for elimininating one local official who does nothing productive and costs us more by his presence.

    Best wishes

  2. David Scott says:

    Although, I personally am so far to the left that even the democrats appear to me to be “right-wing,” I consider myself to be a strict constitutionalist. It is my opinion that since its inception there has been an organized and systematic assault by the conservatives in the United States (and in the other industrialized nations) on the civil liberties written into the US Constitution. The “War on Drugs”; “War on Terror”; “War on Communism” and a host of other wars waged by the right wing are really nothing more than a War on People–an excuse to erode civil rights to the point of non-existence. I invite you to my website devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on freedom: http://pltcldscsn.blogspot.com/

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