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Government and the Economy, Limitations of Government Programs

sugar producers, voting public, corn farmers, beverage companies, sugar beets

Government economic programs are not always successful in correcting market failures. Just as markets fail to produce the right amount of certain kinds of goods and services, the government will often spend too much on some programs and too little on others for a number of reasons. One is simply that the government is expected to deal with some of the most difficult problems facing the economy, taking over where markets fail because consumers or producers are not providing clear signals about what they want. This lack of clear signals also makes it difficult for the government to determine a policy that will correct the problem.

Political influences, rather than purely economic factors, often play a major role in inefficient government policies. Elected officials generally try to respond to the wishes of the voting public when making decisions that affect the economy. However, many citizens choose not to vote at all, so it is not clear how good the political signals are that elected officials have to work with. In addition, most voters are not well informed on complicated matters of economic policy.

For example, the federal government’s budget director David Stockman and other officials in the administration of President Reagan proposed cuts in income tax rates. Congress adopted the cuts in 1981 and 1984 as a way to reduce unemployment and make the economy grow so much that tax revenues would actually end up rising, not falling. Most economists and many politicians did not believe that would happen, but the tax cuts were politically popular.

In fact, the tax cuts resulted in very large budget deficits because the government did not collect enough taxes to cover its expenditures. The government had to borrow money, and the national debt grew very rapidly for many years. As the government borrowed large sums of money, the increased demand caused interest rates to rise. The higher interest rates made it more expensive for U.S. firms to invest in capital goods, and increased the demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets as foreigners bought U.S. bonds paying higher interest rates. That caused the value of the dollar to rise, compared with other nations’ currencies, and as a result U.S. exports became more expensive for foreigners to buy. When that happened in the mid-1980s, most U.S. companies that exported goods and services faced very difficult times.

In addition, whenever resources are allocated through the political process, the problem of special interest groups looms large. Many policies, such as tariffs or quotas on imported goods, create very large benefits for a small group of people and firms, while the costs are spread out across a large number of people. That gives those who receive the benefits strong reasons to lobby for the policy, while those who each pay a small part of the cost are unlikely to oppose it actively. This situation can occur even if the overall costs of the program greatly exceed its overall benefits.

For instance, the United States limits sugar imports. The resulting higher U.S. price for sugar greatly benefits farmers who grow sugarcane and sugar beets in the United States. U.S. corn farmers also benefit because the higher price for sugar increases demand for corn-based sweeteners that substitute for sugar. Companies in the United States that refine sugar and corn sweeteners also benefit. But candy and beverage companies that use sweeteners pay higher prices, which they pass on to millions of consumers who buy their products. However, these higher prices are spread across so many consumers that the increased cost for any one is very small. It therefore does not pay a consumer to spend much time, money, or effort to oppose the import barriers.

For sugar growers and refiners, of course, the higher price of sugar and the greater quantity of sugar they can produce and sell makes the import barriers something they value greatly. It is clearly in their interest to hire lobbyists and write letters to elected officials supporting these programs. When these officials hear from the people who benefit from the policies, but not from those who bear the costs, they may well decide to vote for the import restrictions. This can happen despite the fact that many studies indicate the total costs to consumers and the U.S. economy for these programs are much higher than the benefits received by sugar producers.

Special interest groups and issues are facts of life in the political arena. One striking way to see that is to drive around the U.S. national capital, Washington D.C., or a state capital and notice the number of lobbying groups that have large offices near the capitol building. Or simply look at the list of trade and professional associations in the yellow pages for those cities. These lobbying groups are important and useful to the political process in many ways. They provide information on issues and legislation affecting their interests. But these special interest groups also favor legislation that often benefits their members at the expense of the overall public welfare.

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