Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Congressional snack accounting

K. William Watson wrote an amusing little piece yesterday over at Cato. Riffing off a POLITICO article about Congressional staff bartering gifts of snack food, Watson highlighted the natural impetus to trade. In his own words he writes “[i]n order to be insufferably pedantic.”

On the contrary, Watson is insufficiently so. He writes
I think it’s worth pointing out how crazy it would be to restrict this trade. Should offices worry that they’re running a snack trade deficit? Are some snacks being unfairly traded at too low a price? Are other offices inadequately inspecting their exports for safety?
Obviously, the trade is highly regulated. Only certain gifts may be exchanged, and production of these snacks presumably fall under common regulatory schemes before entering into the staff barter system. Ultimately, though, I would like to focus on the question of the “snack trade deficit.” Offices should worry about the existence of such deficits– not because trade deficits do not matter; rather it is unclear what a legal snack-trade deficit might look like.

A trade deficit results from drawing down on currency or other capital stores to finance an excess of imports over exports. To a first approximation, then a snack trade deficit involves paying more cash for snacks obtained than the cash received for snacks given up. But the Congressional snack trade is regulated so no cash may change hands and everyone winds up with exactly the cash they started with. There can be no snack trade deficit so long as staffers merely barter snacks.

But snacks are not the only medium circulating in the Congressional snack trade. According to the POLITICO article, snacks have been exchanged for use of a cell phone charger. This is probably no big deal. Use of snacks for rewarding unpaid interns is probably a but more sketchy, but pales in comparison to the fact that there are unpaid interns. Ultimately, the critical question is what else might be exchanged for snacks?
Alabama Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt’s chief of staff, Brian Rell, said in an email that he doesn’t see a lot of trading going on; “it is more like a tailgate where food is readily available.”
To the extent this is true, great. Share and share alike. Perhaps there are offices which are snack-rich and others snack-poor and so there may be net transfers of snacks from rich to poor showing up in the snack accounts even if there are no snack trade deficits. But to the extent that there are any expectations for non-snack compensation offices should very much worry about large snack account imbalances.

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