A resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Strain, has a piece in the Washington Post faulting Congress for wanting to "cut" the budget of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The article, which appears under the headline, "Congress is trying to make it harder to know how the economy is doing," is a fascinating example of how difficult it is to change anything in Washington for the better, so it's worth examining in detail.
First, it's not just the left in Washington that pushes for more spending. The American Enterprise Institute is a center-right think tank.
Second, spending in Washington is all too often discussed in relative rather than absolute terms. You can scour the hundreds of words in Mr. Strain's article and never find anywhere how much money the government spends on the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I looked it up on the BLS web site and the enacted budgets were $544.3 million in 2008, $610.2 million in 2011, $592.2 million in 2014, and $592.2 million in 2015.
Third, it's a framing issue. Mr. Strain writes, "In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the principal agency charged with producing information on the labor market, received $41 million less from Congress than the president requested." That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that the agency still spent tens of millions of dollars more than it spent in 2008. Even the "cut" that Mr. Strain is complaining about, to $579 million, would still be $35 million more than the BLS spent in 2008. Given that plenty of American workers still haven't seen their own wages recover to 2008 levels, why should the BLS bureaucrats be living large?
Mr. Strain's first argument for funding the Fed is that "The Federal Reserve needs high-quality information on prices, jobs and wages to set interest rates." If this information is so important to the Fed, why not let the Fed pay for it rather than having it come out of the federal budget? Or why not let the interest rates be set by free markets rather than by the Fed?
Give that the Federal government already has three vast bureaucracies — the IRS, Social Security, and Medicare — devoted to collecting payroll taxes, a fourth bureaucracy devoted to surveying employers about the same information that they are filling in on their payroll forms strikes many of the employers filling out those surveys as an expensive redundancy. Yet no matter how redundant a program may seem, no matter how many bureaucrats' jobs can be replaced easily — and would be replaced, in the private sector, with technology — federal spending just keeps going up and up and up, in part because whenever anyone suggests a minor reduction, people make arguments like those of Mr. Strain.