Pomp and government

This post is going to be a collection of a few random thoughts on what governments should and (maybe) should not do.  This topic obviously deserves a lot more thought, but for now here is something related to a recent experience.  I’m sure these bullet points could be organised into a coherent whole, but right now I don’t feel like the effort, so hopefully this works:

Here's the first thing Google spat at me when I image-searched "pomp and government"

  • The first time I remember seriously thinking about this topic was during my first class with Prof Sukhatme.  He corrected someone in our class, who presented the familiar caricature of Adam Smith as a pseudo-anarchist who believed governments should not exist, by saying that Smith in fact saw the government to be a very important institution that should limit itself to three main tasks.  First, government should make sure that the rule of law (especially with regard to property rights and contracts) should be enforced.  Second, government should provide goods and services that would be under-provided by private actors, such as roads and schools.  Third, the government should keep the country/economy safe from external threats.
  • In Prof West’s Public Finance class, our textbook Public Finance by Rosen and Gayer made the very interesting point that government support of museums, national parks, and many artistic projects was often a regressive redistribution of wealth.  When such projects are funded not by direct revenue (like ticket sales) and receive government funding, it is very often the wealthy who benefit more, as they tend to use these services more frequently and in greater numbers than poorer people.  Spending a year in Washington DC, which has probably the best free museums in the world, this point seemed very valid.  The National Gallery of Art, Air and Space Museum, Museum of Natural History, etc. are largely populated by school children on field trips (this seems fair), tourists (who could afford a trip to DC in terms of both time and money), and rich DC residents (including college students, who tend to be wealthier than average Americans).  In general, very few poor people, other than students on school trips, were visible at these places.
  • India recently celebrated it’s 62nd Republic Day, which is supposed to be a celebration of our constitution, but has actually become better known for the huge military parade that blocks off most of central Delhi for an entire week every year.  The direct costs of this are large, as soldiers, police, dignitaries, various government officials, etc are transported to the capital and given accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the country.  There are also huge indirect costs, as security checkpoints are set up everywhere and traffic in parts of the city becomes even more insane than usual because many arterial roads are blocked, thus costing people large amounts of time.  A VERY conservative estimate would be that 100,000 people (Delhi’s population is estimated at 14 million) lose half an hour of time during Republic Day week due to traffic and bulked up security.  This is 50,000 person hours, or, assuming a (conservative) 9 hour working day, a bit more than 5,555 person-days of lost productivity.

    Once in three years is enough

    Then why do governments spend so much on these kinds of things?  When I raised this topic at my office and suggested that having the parade once in three or five years (if at all) was enough, I was accused of being anti-national.  So I guess part of the reason is that things like big museums and fancy parades help maintain the illusion of a “nation-state”, which is supposed to result in loyalty to the state and government.  With regard to the DC museums, someone told me that it’s important for the nation’s capital to be impressive and intimidating, so I guess part of it is just a symptom of the hypermasculine, “mine is bigger than yours” construct of countries and international relations.  Either way, seems like a silly way to be spending a lot of money.

    Then again, compared to military budgets, all this is peanuts.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kb
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 21:42:58

    You make excellent points, as always–but, Kabir, you can’t just ignore nationalism! Republic Day is a perfect example: spending that much on something (in both actual and labor costs) is an indication that the state is functioning–and, in a less tangible sense, it gives everyone something to be proud of. Perhaps the global elite isn’t super into it, but everyone else probably is (4th of July??).

    The connection in terms of free museums in DC is a bit more tenuous: yes, DC was in theory designed to be imposing to foreigners, but I actually think it’s just as imposing for most Americans. But to have this central source of information that’s free and accessible to all (though I take your point about the skewed usage) is a pretty powerful source of pride, which goes along with the awe.

    Distressing but true: nationalism’s not going anywhere, and signals by state governments to that effect matter. And it could be worse: people at least get excited about Republic Day, right? I bet that doesn’t happen in Belarus…


  2. Kabs
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 22:52:03

    kb! I am so glad you commented.

    I don’t mean to “ignore nationalism” at all – I just want to point out how much it costs. You are of course right that events like the Republic Day parade give people something to be proud of, and I’m sure many people would argue that having a huge army and high-tech machines that kill and maim people are achievements that one should be proud of (I will leave my thoughts on violence nationalism for another time). But is it really worth however many millions this event costs?

    Similarly with museums, having billions of dollars of paintings in a city is arguably worthy of pride, but what is the cost of that pride, when the direct beneficiaries (people who visit the museums) are mostly the elite?

    Although as I quickly mentioned in the interest of context, all this expenditure is nothing compared to what either India (33.6 billion USD) or the US (663.3 billion USD) spend on defence, which likely plays a major role in reinforcing the idea of a national identity.


  3. Tommy
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 17:10:31


    This reminds me the first time you mentioned regressive distribution to me, with the same examples. And I asked, “do you think everything the government does has to have a redistributive element?” You answered “yes,” and I disagreed.

    I’ve often thought about this afterwards, and I ask whether you would answer likewise today. I still hold the same opinion. It would be an incredible headache for all government office to have a redistributive element in their work. The Tourism Board will have to think of ways that tourism would benefit the poor and the Trade Commission would have to connect the dots between a tariffs on luxury car imports to redistribution on wealth.

    You’ve mentioned museums and natural parks, and to those examples I would ask whether you think these can be considered under-produced goods and services that Adam Smith mentions as #2. Plus, rather than heavily considering the regressive nature of national parks and museuams, I think that they should be supported for the sake of nature or the sake of science. I would assume that nature lovers, artists, and scientists would place the values of nature, arts, and science as noble as egalitarianism.


  4. yolorenz
    Jan 31, 2011 @ 13:58:32

    But surely there’s away to manage the level of regressiveness of national parks and museums…Tanzania’s actually an excellent example of the potential to do this in its targeting of the upper end of the tourist market and subsequently extracting ridiculous amounts of cash, feeding both the public and private sector, and using that money to not only keep the parks running but also subsidising the local population’s enjoyment of national parks and (theoretically) redistributing some cash to rural development. Of course, when you don’t have nationality as a convenient generalisation of how much an individual is likely willing to pay it gets more complicated…


  5. Kabs
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:21:00

    Great comments as always!

    I feel the need to clarify a few things:

    1. Tommy – When we talk about “underproduced goods”, it is those things where the socially desirable supply is higher than the private supply. Whether or not this is true for museums and national parks is debatable. Is there a social benefit from parks and museums that would not be captured by private suppliers? I honestly don’t know, but I would guess that a stronger case can be made for parks than museums.

    2. I don’t think that we should get rid of museums and parks. But I would be very interested in an audit which shows the costs of these as well as info on who uses these facilities the most and derives the most satisfaction from using it (does a poor 8th grade student who is going to the museum on a school field trip enjoy it as much as a person who goes there every week? What about comparing a public park in a poor area of Washington DC vs. a national park like Yosemite? What are the demographics of the visitors to these?)

    3. Regarding all government actions being redistributive: I think the question is not so much about it being redistributive, but rather about being non-regressive. This can mean being progressive or neutral. If a tourism board is taking tax money and only spending it on yachts for rent, then I would certainly consider that poor use of government resources. But using the money for maintaining, for example, the Taj Mahal, and thus charging Indian citizens only Rs 20 (50cents) to enter, is not. Foreigners are charged Rs. 750, which I think is sensible and just. This sounds similar to what yolorenz mentioned is happening in Tanzania.

    Anyway, would love to hear more of your thoughts on this!


  6. yolorenz
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:32:24

    Kabcity’s point 3 is definitely the heart of the debate, how to make government institutions we want to preserve progressive, neutral, or even just less regressive. The easiest way to do this, at least in emerging nations, is charging more to foreign tourists. However, while I definitely back charging foreigners more at the Taj etc, finding a way to minimise the extent to which those revenues merely subsidise local elites’ consumption of public goods is still a vital debate. Also, there’s not this easy, semi-progressive option of targeting elite pocketbooks based on nationality for DC, which further underscores the need to find other viable ways of making museums and parks less regressive…


  7. Tommy
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 00:11:40

    kabcity, yolo,

    I’ve given some thought to your replies, and I must admit, the largest factor contributing to my reasoning is that I really appreciate public goods and services when they are awesome. When museums are awesome, I think wow, this building and the things inside are so awesome, that I am so glad it exists, and I am enjoy this to the fullest. When natural parks are awesome, I think likewise. Minneapolis Public Library, Lake Calhoun, Light Rail, all awesome. It is hard, almost impossible, to detatch this personal sentiment from my thoughts on government and the greater good.

    To add further comments though, if we think about how much the poor people enjoy public goods and services, we can easily imagine how they are enjoying them less. For example, my school started feeding students porridge for a small fee. Really poor students, cannot pay for the porridge, thus are less productive in class. They also cannot partake in school trips to other cities if they cannot pay for it. Are they enjoying less of their public education than the wealthier ones? Maybe this is a bad example, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that because of low income, a lot of the activities that poorer people do take up a larger share of the income, making these activities more expensive than they are for wealthier people. And these activities include, going to the museum, visiting natural parts, and even going to school. But that’s the way life is isn’t it? It costs to go on a vacation, take a day off, take the bus, etc. But the fact that these public goods themselves are so cheap, deserves credit.

    Damn, I hope that was coherent.


  8. yolorenz
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 01:48:05

    But to para 1) why does that awesomeness need tax payer funding? If you paid $5 while lower income families paid less would it be less awesome?

    Para 2) both India and the US have similar feeding programmes but have found ways to offer free meals to students with great success, I’m not sure if that hits your point but seems it is on the way to doing so…


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