Archive for the ‘Government’ Category.

Blue State Governance: Illinois Needs A Half Year of Taxes Just to Pay Late Bills

Per the WSJ:

This is what happens when a major American state lets its bills stack up for two years.

Hospitals, doctors and dentists don’t get paid for hundreds of millions of dollars of patient care. Social-service agencies help fewer people. Public universities and the towns that surround them suffer. The state’s bond rating falls to near junk status. People move out.

A standoff in Illinois between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan over spending and term limits has left Illinois without a budget for two years. State workers and some others are still getting paid because of court orders and other stopgap measures, but bills for many others are piling up.

...Susana Mendoza, the state’s Democratic comptroller, is in charge of doling out limited funds to organizations demanding payment—a job she likens to handing out crumbs to starving children. She predicted unpaid bills will soon top $16 billion. “It is almost hard to say those numbers out loud because they seem so insane, but that’s where we are right now,” she says.

For reference, the entire tax revenue of the state of Illinois is just $32 billion a year, so even if the government were to close tomorrow and fire everyone, it would still take 6 months of taxes to just catch up on the bills.  And you can bet this does not include the most common form of borrowing done by most government agencies -- deferred maintenance.  Pretty much every government agency in the country at every level of government does not fully fund the maintenance of its capital assets (from parks to school buildings) preferring instead to fund the maximum salaries and retirement benefits for the maximum number of headquarters staff.

By the way, you may notice at the budget link that the proposed budget still calls for $6 to $7 billion a year in deficit spending, and does not include any provision for catching up on Illinois's sky-high $130 billion in unfunded retirement benefits (a number that represents a full 4 years of tax revenues).  Illinois is functionally bankrupt, and the only good news is that Illinois favorite son Barack Obama is no longer in the White House to bail them out.

Coke and Pepsi Healthcare Reform -- It's All About the Credit

Over the last several years, when the successes and failures of the PPACA/Obamacare/Health Care reform entirely accrued to Democrats, the Republicans fought against market stabilization funds as unwarranted subsidies for insurance companies.  My understanding is that the original PPACA included a market stabilization method, but it was written as being revenue neutral - ie funds from insurers who had healthier than average subscriber pools would be transferred to insurers who had sicker subscribers.  But soon, all insurers were losing money and premiums were rising and insurers were dropping out of the exchanges.  So President Obama transferred money from other sources to give extra market stabilization funds, e.g. subsidies, to insurers.  Republicans fought this action in the courts.  There was a principled position that Obama's actions were not legal, but Republicans were also happy to see the PPACA failing.  If Democrats in Congress could have made any one change to the PPACA last year, it likely would have been to increase these stabilization or subsidy funds, which I presume the Republicans would have fought.

Now, it is clear the public and the media is going to hang any future PPACA problems around Republican necks.  Whether this is fair or not is almost irrelevant -- one can see from Republican actions that they feel this to be true, at least in the Senate.  Because now Republicans are proposing market stabilization subsidies that are likely higher than Democrats would have even dreamed of asking for:

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases its estimate of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare discussion draft this week, it will undoubtedly state that the bill will lower health insurance premiums. A whopping $65 billion in payments to insurers over the next three years virtually guarantees this over the short-term.

Indeed, Senate Republican staff have reportedly been telling members of Congress that the bill is designed to lower premiums between now and the 2020 election—hence the massive amounts of money for plan years through 2021, whose premiums will be announced in the heat of the next presidential campaign....

Section 106 of the bill creates two separate “stability funds,” one giving payments directly to insurers to “stabilize” state insurance markets, and the second giving money to states to improve their insurance markets or health care systems. The insurer stability fund contains $50 billion—$15 billion for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 and 2021. The fund for state innovation contains $62 billion, covering calendar years 2019 through 2026.

This goes against pretty much all of the principled reasons Republicans opposed Obamacare in the first place, but given the choice of following principle or using our tax money to help buy another couple years in power, both parties will always make the second choice.  Of course, being given all that they would have wanted last year, the Democrats will likely not sign on for this as they don't want to bail Republicans out any more than Republicans wanted to bail Democrats out.

Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.

Media Matters Provides A Great Reason to Defund Public Television

In response to PBS's airing of Andrew Coulson's pro-school-choice documentary, Brett Robertson of Media Matters writes:

Why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education?

Well, if public funding means that PBS should not air anything critical of public institutions, its time to end the public funding.  Robertson simply confirms what critics have been saying for years, that public funding makes PBS an agent of the state, and there is not much we need less today than state-sponsored television**

 

** I will add that I watch way more PBS than the average person and donate to it every year.  I often don't agree with their editorial policy and if it really ticked me off enough I suppose I would stop donating.  My opposition to state funding of PBS has nothing to do with my enjoying its product.  Ironically, I actually think that it might be worse without state funding because I think the shaming about lack of balance that goes with the funding tends to put a small brake on its management's tendency to go hard Left.  But that is irrelevant to the principle that state-funded media is a bad idea.

Some Approaches to Reforming Congress and Its Budget Process

I thought this Megan McArdle interview of Yuval Levin explained a lot about how the Congressional budgeting process has gone off the rails.   It does not blame anyone as somehow guilty of being bad actors, but merely looks at shifting incentives for parties and legislators and how these have gotten us where we are.  One example:

The process began to decay in the mid-1990s, when something very important changed in Congress. After 40 years of Congress understanding itself as an institution run by Democrats, with Republicans exercising power by putting pressure on internal Democratic divisions (and making demands in return for giving votes to measures that couldn’t quite get enough Democrats), Republicans took control.

When Republicans took control, Congress didn’t settle into a new partisan pattern, but instead settled into a sense that control could switch with the next election -- always.

So it's not that Republicans failed to run the budget process, but that both parties started thinking very differently about Congress. Now, the minority party tends to think the imperative is to keep the majority from getting anything it wants, instead of making trades in order to get something from its own to-do list, because that list would be much easier to achieve after the next election if control changes hands. And the 1974 process is a poor fit for that set of incentives.

Evergreen Campaign Promises that are Always Broken

Some Conservatives are miffed that Trump is apparently not going to move the US Embassy in Israel to Tel Aviv

In March 2016, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Donald Trump said that, as president, he would move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump called that city “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Now, however, President Trump has decided to keep our embassy in Tel Aviv. A senior White House official explained: “We don’t think it would be wise to [move] it at this time” because “we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”

This promise to move the US Embassy in Israel is evergreen, and is always broken.  A similar promise by candidates such as Barack Obama to declare the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians to be genocide is another promise of symbolic action that is never actually implemented in office.  These mostly symbolic gestures are really powerful in campaigns, because they will tend to energize certain groups and make them more likely to vote for you.  But it turns out that each of these actions would tend to tick off unpredictable, scary, violent parties, the negative consequences of which might well outweigh the benefits of the gesture.  Even ignoring violence and irrationality, these actions impose an opportunity cost, likely limiting progress on other diplomatic fronts with these same parties.

This is why the vast majority of actual government actions reside in the lower left square in the framework below -- don't believe me?  Look at the legislative output from any particular session of Congress.  The vast majority of the actions taken are to declare some special day, a low-cost symbolic action meant to make some group feel warm towards some politician.

 

An Honest Question to Progressives: When Does the Proportion of Tax Money Claimed By Government Workers Get Too Large?

I have sent the following question to a number of Progressives. I have yet to hear anything back.

I have been following the story about UC possibly hiding funds as a sort of rainy day fund in accounts because several years ago I worked with a lot of folks (e.g. Ruth Coleman) at California State Parks who lost their jobs when accused of the same thing.  But looking at the story, the part that really appalled me was this from the auditor's report:

​The last few years UC has been begging and pleading for $50 or $100 million extra so they could enroll more in-state students, when the office of the president, if this is presented correctly, seems to be bloated by perhaps $400 million.  God knows what the administrative staffs of the individual universities look like.It appears what we have here is a conflict between more output of government services to the public, which I might call an ideological imperative of the Progressive left, with protection of government workers and their pay and benefits, which I might call a political imperative.

I am wondering if the Left's near absolute political support for government workers is undermining what I might call the good government impulses on the Left.  My involvement with CA politics is mostly in parks, but I know that there are a number of fundamental reforms that could allow the parks agency to do a lot more with their current budget, in fact perhaps even start getting at working down deferred maintenance logs, but these were torpedoed as non-starters because they would involve job losses and changes in work rules.  I am not saying they were discussed and defeated, I am saying they were stopped immediately as pointless to even discuss.

I don't agree with Progressives on the size and scope of government, but leave that aside.  Taking the government's current size and tax base as a given, is there a segment of the progressive community that gets uncomfortable with the proportion of these resources that are channeled into government employee hands rather than into actual services for the public?  Or is there a progressive argument for larger-than-needed government staff and higher-than-necessary pay and benefits (e.g. a city on the hill argument where the government is setting a higher standard that perhaps the benighted private employers will someday more closely emulate)?

The Staggering Administrative Bloat of Universities

This chart is from a recent state audit report of Janet Napolitano's office at the University of California, an audit I already wrote about here.

Obviously Napolitano's office is particularly bad as compared to peers, but she has 1667 staff and spends over a half billion (billion with a B) just on the office of the President!  This is not in any way shape or form the total administrative size of the system - each university has its own administrative staff, for example.  This is just her central office.  This is a staggering number.  It equates to every student in the system paying over $2500 a year just for the central headquarters staff that they will never see, this is before the first dollar is spent on their individual campus -- or God forbid -- on teaching or academics.  To my mind this is way more of a scandal than her hiding a money reserve in various accounts.

This begins to get at a conflict I keep expecting to happen, but doesn't.  Time and time again, particularly in places like California, we find examples where agencies that are supposed to be serving the public are in fact diverting much of their resources to maintain the staffing levels, salaries, and rich benefits and pensions of their employees.  For years I have expected some sort of civil war on the Left, where Progressives figure out that providing things they care about (e.g. education, parks) is being limited by the huge resources that are being diverted to government employees.  Just look at the chart above -- California Democrats have twisted themselves into knots trying to find an incremental $50 or $100 million of funding for the California public university system, and here it is -- I can see an easy $400 million one could easily pull out of Napolitano's office.  Unfortunately, government employees and their unions are a big force in electing Democrats, and so they are reluctant to challenge these folks.  It is a classic example of "do you care about the things you say you value or do you care about power" and so far in places like California the answer has been "power."

Janet Napolitano Could Be In Big Trouble

Audit shows Napolitano's office hiding funds from the legislature

The University of California hid a stash of $175 million in secret funds while its leaders requested more money from the state, an audit released on Tuesday said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the audit found that the secret fund ballooned due to UC Office of the President overestimating how much is needed to run the school system that includes 10 campuses in the state. Janet Napolitano, the former Department of Homeland Security chief, is in charge of the school system.

Napolitano denied the audit’s claim. She reportedly said the money was held for any unexpected expenses. Her office also denied the amount in the fund.

Pretty much the entire management team of California Sate Parks got fired for doing almost the exact same thing, with the exact same excuses

California state parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her second-in-command was fired Friday after officials discovered the department has been sitting on "hidden assets" totalling [sic] nearly $54 million.

The money accumulated over 12 years in two special funds the department uses to collect revenue and pay for operations: $20.4 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund.

The money accumulated, state officials said, because the parks department had a pattern of under-reporting the actual size of the funds in its regular dealings with the state Department of Finance.

Ms. Coleman (who I worked with a few times and liked) was frankly an easier "kill" because, while long tenured in the state parks job, she really did not have a lot of political muscle.  Napolitano does.  Relying on consistent standards would say Napolitano should go, but government has never been about applying consistent standards, only power.  So we shall see.

More Folks Climb Onto the US Royal Family Bandwagon

Back on Inauguration Day I wrote:

Wow, it sure does seem useful to have a single figurehead into which the public can pour all the sorts of adulation and voyeurism that they seem to crave.  That way, the people get folks who can look great at parties and make heart-felt speeches and be charismatic and set fashion trends and sound empathetic and even scold us on minor things.  All without giving up an ounce of liberty.  The problem in the US is we use the Presidency today to fulfill this societal need, but in the process can't help but imbue the office with more and more arbitrary power.  Let's split the two roles.

Last week, Andrew Heaton made a similar proposal in the Federalist, but explained the logic better than I did:

We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we kicked the monarchy out of America, and we ought to bring it back. To be clear, I do not mean the sort of hereditary tyrants who rule North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or the New York Yankees. Rather, I’d like for us to get one of those cute, ornamental throne warmers the Europeans trot around to cut ribbons at events.

In America we’ve combined power and reverence in the office of the presidency, but legal authority and veneration compliment each other about as well as Scotch and back pain medication. It’s safer to ingest them separately....

In America our head of government and head of state both problematically reside in the president. We can see that unholy union in full force during the spasm of pageantry which is the State of the Union address. President Jefferson rightly viewed the whole affair as pompous and monarchical, and sent Congress a letter instead.

Unfortunately the nimbus of deference surrounding the presidency has swelled with time. In 1956 a political scientist named Clinton Rossiter published “The American Presidency,” a tome sopping wet with sycophantic notions about the Oval Office. He described the commander-in-chief as “a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes.”

Gag me. The president is the top bureaucrat, and there’s nothing more American than despising bureaucrats. The government is basically a giant Human Resources Department with tanks, and the president is in charge of it.

My only response to this is to quote from just about every comment section on the internet:  "first!"

Bureaucracy Creep

One of the irritating tasks I am required by law to perform for the government is fill in a bunch of detailed information about my business for the US Census Bureau.  This is one of a number of reports the government sends me each year to fill in.  The first thing I look at on these forms is whether they are required by law.  If they are not, they immediately go in the trash can.  In particular, I could spend 110% of my free time filling in Department of Labor surveys that seem to come for each state we operate in.  The only entertainment value I get associated with these many surveys is the calls I sometimes get from government workers asking me if I would please fill in the survey.  Generally I explain to them that 1.  My time is too valuable to waste on this stuff and 2.  There is no way in hell I am going to give them a bunch of data they will likely only use to justify new regulations that make my business life even harder.

The two reports that are required (this does not include of course the dozens of required tax forms, licensing forms, and corporate registration forms we fill out every year) are the annual Census report and the EEO-1 report.  I already discussed a while back the 15-20x increase in size and complexity of the EEO-1 report, where about 3600 new cells have been added that have to be filled in.  This year the Census Accommodations Industry Report had a huge increase in complexity -- last year's report had one cell for last years' total expenses (though the Census bureau's definition of total expenses was so arcane that it took an hour or so to calculate the number).  This year, instead of a single number for expenses there are 48 different cells to be filled in with detailed categories of expenses.  Here are just two of the many categories they demand:

d.  Purchased repairs and maintenance to machinery and equipment - Expensed repair and maintenance services to machinery, vehicles, equipment, and computer hardware. Exclude materials, parts, and supplies used for repairs and maintenance performed by this firm's employees

e.  Purchased repairs and maintenance to buildings, structures, and offices - Include repair and maintenance to integral parts of buildings (e.g., elevators, heating systems). Exclude materials, parts, and supplies used for repairs and maintenance performed by this firm's employees. Report janitorial and grounds maintenance services in line 4c

Perhaps I am a failure as a business person, but my company does not track expenses in this detail, or at least in these specific categories.   The exercise was not only absurdly time-consuming, it was impossible.  Depending on my mood, I might have just filled it all in with random guesses.   However, even though it is not supposed to be used this way, I couldn't shake the sense that someone someday might try to use it to compare against my tax returns (which are prepared quite carefully and accurately) and try to raise red flags.  So I left it all blank.  I will be interested to see how they respond.

The Terrorists Have Won

Security wall going up around the Eiffel Tower

The city of Paris is planning to build a permanent barrier around the Eiffel Tower and its two adjacent ponds in order to beef up security, replacing temporary protective structures that had been up as a result of recent terror attacks. It’s estimated that the structure, which will be bulletproof and able to stop vehicles, will cost the city 20 million euros (about $22 million). ...

Work on the perimeter is scheduled to start this fall, although plans are subject to approval. Once the project is complete, you’ll no longer be able to stroll leisurely under the massive steel tower, as you’ll first have to pass through a security checkpoint involving a metal detector and ID check before you can get up close to the base.

Nothing more romantic than a moonlight stroll under the Eiffel tower... and getting frisked by the French equivalent of the TSA.

By the way, if the Conservatives in this country need a better euphemism for their Mexican wall, here is a suggestion from the French:

While reports have said the wall be made of glass, Paris‘ deputy mayor Jean-François Martins wouldn’t confirm that to be true in a press conference last week — however, Martins did say, “It’s not a wall, it’s an aesthetic perimeter,”

If only the East Germans had been so clever with words, they might have won the Cold War.

Trump is Going to Destroy Economic Growth If We Don't Find Ways to Block Him -- We Need A Real Consumer Advocacy Organization

As an example, from the WSJ today:

Auto executives typically spend the end of the year prepping for product debuts and thinking up ways to spark sales.

This time around, Detroit’s chiefs devoted considerable time to trying to figure out how to deal with the nation’s new commander in chief. Union bosses are being called in to consult on how to reshuffle factory work, board members are trying to figure out who has friends in President Donald Trump ’s new administration, and task forces have been created to monitor his Twitter account.

At a dinner party during the Detroit auto show earlier this month, Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Mark Fields said he reread Mr. Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” over the holidays. He first read it in the 1980s, but wants to better understand the new occupant of the Oval Office.

American companies, several of which have been scolded by Mr. Trump, often via Twitter, are suddenly grappling with a new, unpredictable force in their operations. Barbs have included the price the Pentagon pays for Lockheed Martin Corp. jets and whether Carrier Corp. assembles furnaces in Indiana. AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson recently met with Mr. Trump, who had expressed concerns about the telecom giant’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Inc.

In other words, rather than worrying about pleasing consumers, auto companies are spending all their time figuring out how to please the occupant of the White House.  This sounds more like corporate life in Venezuela than the US.  It is absurd that Trump claims to be about reducing regulation, and then personally intervenes to micro-manage corporate division-of-labor and sourcing decision.

We need new consumer activist organizations.  The classic ones, like Nader's PIRG, are captured by progressives and economic illiterates.  Economic nationalism and tariffs and reduced immigration and border taxes and elimination of free trade treaties are all direct assaults on the American consumer.  Do all the Midwestern folks who voted for Trump ostensibly because they are struggling economically really want 20% higher prices in their Wal-Mart?

Postscript:  By the way, for a moment let's accept this awful situation.  Consider women's groups (as discussed here) and their response to Trump and Ford's response.  Which is more likely to succeed?  If abortion were my #1 issue (as it is for my wife), I would be seriously concerned that women's groups were using all the wrong tactics.  Trump is petulant.  He does not back down based on protests, he moves you up the target list.   This is a terrible, awful character flaw, but it is reality.  If women's groups had calmly sat down with Trump in a back room and worked out a deal (with a man who is a lifelong social liberal) they would probably be further ahead.

A Modest Proposal: Let's Adopt A Ceremonial Royal Family for the US To Safely Absorb People's Apparent Need for Powerful, Charismatic Presidents

I have been watching the Crown as well as the new PBS Victoria series, and it got me to thinking.  Wow, it sure does seem useful to have a single figurehead into which the public can pour all the sorts of adulation and voyeurism that they seem to crave.  That way, the people get folks who can look great at parties and make heart-felt speeches and be charismatic and set fashion trends and sound empathetic and even scold us on minor things.  All without giving up an ounce of liberty.  The problem in the US is we use the Presidency today to fulfill this societal need, but in the process can't help but imbue the office with more and more arbitrary power.  Let's split the two roles.

Update:  Don Boudreaux writes:

A Trump presidency comes along with awful risks for Americans.  Yet one very real silver-lining is that Trump’s over-the-top buffoonery and manic barking like a dog at every little thing that goes bump in his sight, along with his chronic inability even to appear to be thoughtful and philosophical and reflective and aware that he is not the center of the universe, might – just might – scrub off some of the ridiculous luster that has built up on on the U.S. Presidency over the course of the past 90 or so years.  Let us hope.

He also links a good article from Kevin Williamson on the cult of the Presidency

Conflict of Interest In Government

You want to raise a government ethics violation?  Here is one for you with which I absolutely agree:

I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions.  Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming.  The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.

This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.

Good God -- California Unfunded Pension Liabilities Estimated at Over $92,000 per State Household

2016-12-02-pension-chart-2

via here.

All that money you thought you were saving for retirement -- it may be you were really saving it for your friendly neighborhood DMV worker's retirement.

Federal Government Punishing Private Individuals for the Fraud and Mistakes of Government Workers

From the LA Times, the US Government is demanding that soldiers repay enlistment bonuses years after they were promised

Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.

But soldiers say the military is reneging on 10-year-old agreements and imposing severe financial hardship on veterans whose only mistake was to accept bonuses offered when the Pentagon needed to fill the ranks.

Note that there is no implication that there was any fraud on the soldiers' part -- they were offered a fair exchange and they took it.  The Federal government is trying to punish soldiers for potentially illegal or fraudulent actions of government workers.  Now that the soldiers have provided the service they promised, the government is trying to take back the money it promised.  But the soldiers cannot in turn take back their service.

This sort of retroactive one-sided reneging on government contracts and promises is actually fairly common.  For example, I wrote about it here, where private creditors lost all the money they loaned to the government when it was determined that the government officials who approved the loans did not have the authority to do so.  The punishment for the government taking out loans it should not have was to allow the government to keep all the money and screw the  private parties who lent them money in good faith.

I actually have faced this same thing a number of times in my own business.  I pay the government concession fees for the public campgrounds we operate.  There is a process by which the government can ask us to pay these fees in kind by doing some of the government's capital maintenance for it.  The government likes this because we can spend the money more efficiently and get more done with it, and we (and our visitors) like it because the money gets spent right in the park where the customer fees were collected.  However, it has happened on a number of occasions that some internal audit has determined that some agency official approved an in-kind project they should not have. When this happens, the government often comes to me and tells me that they need the money back.  My response is consistently something like, "Bullsh*t!  I have your approval to spend the money and your promise to be reimbursed in writing -- I can't unspend the money you asked me to spend.  There is absolutely no way I am going to pay the financial cost of you violating your own rules."

Working With the Government

In my email today:

CDFW LICENSE PAPER STOCK NOTIFICATION

This email is to inform you that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is discontinuing the BLUE license paper.  Effective November 1, all licenses must be printed on GREEN license paper.

Please check your license paper stock, if you do not have GREEN license paper, place an order through the CDFW terminal by following the directions below. Once you confirm and/or receive the GREEN license paper, please recycle the BLUE license paper.

 

It Turns Out That Firing Nobody and Giving the Agency More Money is a Really Poor Way to Fix Things

Working in the world of privatization, one objection I get all the time to privately operating in a here-to-for public space is that government officials are somehow more "accountable" to the public than are private companies.

This strikes me as an utter disconnect with reality.  If I screw up, I make less money or even go out of business.  When government agencies or officials screw up, they generally remain unchanged and unpunished forever.  There are no market competitive forces just waiting to shove a government agency aside -- they have a monopoly enforced at the point of government guns.  As I wrote a week ago about a conversation between myself and a government official about my operating public parks:

I understand that my margins are so narrow, if even 5% of those visitors don't come back next year -- because they had a bad time or they saw a bad review online -- I will make no money.  Those 2 million people vote with their feet every year on whether they think I am adequately serving the public, and their votes directly affect how much money I make.

Government agencies have nothing like this sort of accountability for public service.

One reason government agencies seldom change is that the typical response to even overt malfeasance is 1) to give the agency more money, as the agency will blame all incompetence on lack of budget (just think "public schools" and teachers unions) and 2) the agency will fire nobody.

Take the Phoenix VA.  Congress eventually rewarded the VA with more money, almost no one was fired, and the one of the worst managers in the VA system, a serial failure in multiple VA offices who would have been fired from any private company I can think of, was put in charge of the struggling Phoenix VA.

Well, it turns out that firing nobody and giving the agency more money is really a poor way to fix things.

Patients in the Phoenix VA Health Care System are still unable to get timely specialist appointments after massive reform efforts, and delayed care may be to blame for at least one more veteran's death, according to a new Office of the Inspector General probe.

The VA watchdog's latest report, issued Tuesday, says more than two years after Phoenix became the hub of a nationwide VA scandal, inspectors identified 215 deceased patients who were awaiting specialist consultations on the date of death. That included one veteran who "never received an appointment for a cardiology exam that could have prompted further definitive testing and interventions that could have forestalled his death."

The report portrays Phoenix VA clerks, clinicians and administrators as confused and in conflict about scheduling policies despite more than two years of reform and retraining.

"Unexpectedly" as a famous blogger would say.

 

 

Failing Government Managers Are Never Fired, They Are Just Moved (Or Even Promoted)

After the scandalous management practices in the Phoenix VA which were proved to sacrifice patient well-being, and even patient lives, in favor of artificially pumping up managers' metrics and bonuses, someone with experience in the private sector might have expected the agency to clean house.  Hah!

First, Congress rewarded the failing VA with more budget and headcount, the very things that motivate most government managers.

Now, the VA has assigned what appears to be their worst manager from a tiny, overseas branch of the agency to run the sensitive Phoenix office.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has named a new director to its beleaguered Phoenix VA Medical Center, and the decision instantly came under fire because the appointee left a previous hospital leadership post after it got the lowest satisfaction rating of any facility in the VA system.

RimaAnn Nelson, who most recently headed a tiny VA clinic in the Philippines, is expected to take charge of a Phoenix VA Health Care System that was the epicenter of a national crisis over its treatment of veterans. She is the seventh director during the past three years to enter a revolving leadership door at Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center....

Nelson, who began her career as a nurse, was sent to the Philippines in 2013 after a series of incidents under her leadership at the VA St. Louis Health Care System. The Daily Caller, a non-profit, investigative news organization, said the incidents included two closures of the hospital due to medical safety issues, and potential exposure of HIV to hundreds of veterans.

How is this person even still employed, much less being rewarded with a larger, more responsible post?

One Weird Trick That Will Sell Your Tax Increase to the Public

Here is the trick:  You want a tax increase for X.  The public is never going to approve of raising taxes for X.  So you bundle 95% X with 5% Y, Y being something the public is really excited about.  As much as possible, you never mention X in any discussion of the tax increase, despite most of the funds being dedicated to X, and instead focus solely on Y.   If history is any guide, you will get your tax increase.

What a specific example?  You want a tax increase to fund a huge public transit boondoggle.  The public is not buying it.  So you rebrand the public transit project as a "transportation bill", you throw in a few highway improvements, you talk mainly about the highway improvements, and you get your public transit bill.

Another example is general revenue increases.  Most of these tax increases go to increasing the salary and pensions of bureaucrats and senior administrators that aren't really doing anything the public wants done in the first place.  So you say the tax increase is to improve the pay of three (and only these three) categories of workers:  police, firefighters, and teachers.  The public likes what these folks do, and could mostly care less about what anyone else in local government does.   So even if the taxes help about just 3 teachers among 3000 other bureaucrats, you sell it as a teacher salary increase.

It is because I understand this one weird trick that this sort of story does not surprise me in the least:

'Yikes!': Some Arizona teachers see little from Prop. 123

For months leading up to the vote on Proposition 123, supporters of the public education funding measure pleaded for its passage, saying it represented money for teachers.

But as the first installment of cash has gone out, many teachers may find Prop. 123 is a smaller windfall than they hoped. And voters may be surprised to learn where some of the money is going.

In some cases, teachers will collect less than 20 percent of their district's Prop. 123 funds. Some districts will use most of their money for other purposes, ranging from textbooks to computers to school buses, according to an Arizona Republicsurvey of district spending plans.

The measure was sold as a way to direct money — significant money — to teachers and classrooms....

With no rules on how the money can be used, each school district has tried to address its own priorities. While many supporters of the measure invoked teachers as the main reason to vote for Prop. 123, others in the public school systems have staked a claim to the money, especially after many went years without raises beginning in the recession.

Those seeing raises include relatively low-paid secretaries, custodians and bus drivers. But it also includes superintendents, principals and mid-level administrators who don’t work in classrooms.

That may not sit well with voters who opposed the measure or with supporters who thought they were doing something more substantive for teachers.

 

 

Republican Administrations Are Just As Incompetent as Democratic Administrations: Governor Doug Ducey in AZ

Strong supporters of both political parties maintain a delusion that all government problems are the result of the incompetence of the other political team, rather than the inherent incentive and information problems facing all government efforts.

Republicans, for example, made fun of Obama's competence with the horrendously bad rollout of the Federal Obamacare exchange.  But now, Doug Ducey's Arizona Department of Revenue is having the same problem.

As of this month, the agency is requiring that all multisite businesses (like mine) must file online rather than with pen and paper.  So we logged in today to file our report.  What a disaster!  The only thing I can even compare it to is stories of the early days of the Obamacare exchange.  First, the site is set up so that even a relatively simple return must have data entered across scores of pages.  In basic layout, it  is probably the worst site of any of the ten states we do business in.

But what has really made today a nightmare is that it is taking 5-10 minutes to load each page.  The agency clearly was not ready for the load.  Combined with a site design that requires many many page loads to complete simple tasks, and it makes filing (a 10 minute or so job on paper) a multi-day nightmare.  Four hours into it and I have not completed one location out of 15 or so I need to enter.

When I called the DOR, they basically said I had to suck it up.  I begged them for some sort of simple accommodation -- I have filed by paper for 13 years, why not allow me to file by paper for one more month until they get their act together?  No dice.  They instead suggested that my accounting staff come in at midnight tonight to do the work when the load on their servers would be lower.

If anything, the response from Republican Doug Ducey's office was even more insulting.  They said to me that this change had been announced for months, as if it was my failing to enter the system in a timely manner that was the problem.  According to Ducey's staff, I could have avoided the whole problem by filing my June revenue numbers a few months back, lol.  I patiently explained that June numbers could not be reported until the bank statements had arrived and were reconciled, such that most all returns had to be filed between the 15th and the 20th of the month.  And what is more, if this had been in the works so long, why hadn't the Administration seen fit to do an adequate job of testing the site and preparing for adequate capacity?

The answers from the governor's office were just as absurd and arrogant as any coming out of the Obama Administration about the failures of the exchange.  Which again proves to this libertarian that there is no much real difference between the Coke and Pepsi parties.  The problem is the government -- without the accountability brought by market competition -- trying to do these sorts of things.

Government, Arrogant Ignorance, and the Power of Incentives

As most of you know, my company operates parks on public lands, so I work with government agencies a lot.  Years ago, from this experience, I coined a term called "arrogant ignorance."  It comes from numerous times when government employees will be completely ignorant of some process, perhaps even their agency's own rules and procedures, but will fight to the death any suggestion that I might be able to enlighten them or that they are doing something wrong.

For a while, people had me believing that I had just rediscovered the Dunning–Kruger effect.  But I am now convinced that this is not the same as my "arrogant ignorance".  And the difference between the two highlights a key point about failure of government I have made for years, which is that government does a bad job not because the people are bad, but because it hires good (or at least average) people who have terrible incentives and information.

First, here is Dunning-Kruger per Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.

Like most people, I see Dunning-Kruger all the time.  But I see it equally frequently in private and public settings.  I don't think it is necessarily unique to the public sphere, and may be over-represented there only to the extent that it is much harder to eliminate under-performers from public rather than private jobs, so they may tend to concentrated more in public positions.

But my concept of arrogant ignorance is not really a cognitive effect, I think, but rather a symptom of incentives.   The problem with most government jobs is that they have no service or output metrics so that they are instead judged mainly on conformance to procedure.  And even that is not quite correct, because most agencies I work with do not even have formal standards or quality review processes for their employees, at least below the executive level.

I want to take an aside here on incentives.  It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics.  Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives.  But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives.  Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

Within government agencies, I think these informal incentives are what matter.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Don't ever get caught having not completed some important form or process step or having done some beauracratic function incorrectly
  2. Don't ever get caught not knowing something you are supposed to know in your job
  3. Don't ever say yes to something (a project, a permit, a program, whatever) that later generates controversy, especially if this controversy gets the attention of your boss's boss.
  4. Don't ever admit a mistake or weakness of any sort to someone outside the organization
  5. Don't ever do or support anything that would cause the agency's or department's budget to be cut or headcount to be reduced.

You ever wonder why government agencies say no to everything and make it impossible to do new things?  Its not necessarily ideology, it's their incentives.  They get little or no credit for approving something that works out well, but the walls come crashing down on them if they approve something that generates controversy.

So consider the situation of the young twenty-something woman across the desk from me at, say, the US Forest Service. She is probably reasonably bright, but has had absolutely no relevant training from the agency, because a bureaucracy will always prefer to allocate funds so that it has 50 untrained people rather than 40 well-trained people (maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission).  So here is a young person with no training, who is probably completely out of her element because she studied forestry or environment science and desperately wanted to count wolves but now finds herself dumped into a job dealing with contracts for recreation and having to work with -- for God sakes -- for-profit companies like mine.

One program she has to manage is a moderately technical process for my paying my concession fees in-kind with maintenance services.  She has no idea how to do this.  So she takes her best guess from materials she has, but that guess is wrong.  But she then sticks to that answer and proceeds to defend it like its the Alamo.  I know the process backwards and forwards, have run national training sessions on it, have literally hundreds of contract-years of experience on it, but she refuses to acknowledge any suggestion I make that she may be wrong.  I coined the term years ago "arrogant ignorance" for this behavior, and I see it all the time.

But on deeper reflection, while it appears to be arrogance, what else could she do given her incentives?  She can't admit she doesn't know or wasn't trained (see #2 and #4 above).  She can't acknowledge that I might be able to help her (#4).  Having given an answer, she can't change it (#1).

You may think I am exaggerating -- how could people react so strongly to seemingly petty incentives.  But they do.  In my example above, this is probably her first job.   The government is the only employer she has known.  The confidence you might have to ignore these incentives to do the right thing likely come from jobs and experience that this woman has not had.

I will give you a real example.  One government contract manager asked us to spend $10,000 to do something, promising that the agency would reimburse me.  I told her that I had never heard of this type of spending being reimbursable, but she said we would be reimbursed.  So we did it.  Later, her boss's boss heard about the reimbursement and said it was not correct under the rules.  Eventually, our contract manager was challenged on it.  You know what she said?  She said our company spent the money without permission and that we were never promised reimbursement.  She sacrificed her honor out of the fear of #1 and #3 - the incentives were that powerful for her.  She knowingly lied and -- by the way - cost me personally $10,000 and a reprimand in our contract file.  When I called her afterwards and asked her, "what the hell?" -- she apologized to me in tears and said she just would be in too much trouble once her boss's boss was involved to admit she had authorized the expense.

So, I try to learn from this.   One thing, for example, I always do is ask myself when someone who works for me screws up, "Is this really my fault, for not training them well."  A surprising number of times, the answer is a reluctant, "yes".

Huh? Punishment for Taking Out A Loan You Couldn't Afford is... You Don't Have To Pay the Loan Back?

I really was not going to blog this week but this article exceeded by fury threshold, which is pretty hard to do nowadays.

The report, shared with MarketWatch, states that some of Puerto Rico’s debt may have been issued illegally, allowing the government to potentially declare the bonds invalid and courts to then decide that creditors’ claims are unenforceable. The scope of the audit report, issued by the island’s Public Credit Comprehensive Audit Commission, covers the two most recent full-faith-and-credit debt issues of the commonwealth: Puerto Rico’s 2014 $3.5 billion general-obligation bond offering and a $900 million issuance in 2015 of Tax Refund Anticipation Notes to a syndicate of banks led by J.P Morgan

So government officials break the law by taking out a loan they shouldn't have taken out, and the punishment is that they get to keep the money and not pay it back?  This is absolutely absurd.  That means that completely innocent third parties are essentially being fined $4.4 billion for the malfeasance of Puerto Rico's government officials.  Were the creditors truly innocent?  Well, the same report goes on to further criticize the government officials for not telling their creditors that what the government was asking for was illegal

Puerto Rico did not inform bondholders that its constitution forbids it from using debt to finance deficits. That, the commission’s report says suggests “substantive” noncompliance with the letter of the constitution

So in fact, incredibly, the creditors' very innocence is used as part of the proof that the debt was illegal, and thus that creditors should be expropriated.

I thought that this couldn't possibly be the law, except that the Supreme Court has already upheld the same outcome in other cases:

The U.S. Supreme Court has said in the Litchfield v. Ballou case and, more recently, in litigation related to Detroit’s bankruptcy that borrowing above a debt ceiling may allow the issuer to declare debt invalid and, therefore, unpayable. Detroit went to court to invalidate $1.45 billion in certificates of participation, debt issued by two shell companies called “service corporations.” The parties settled before the case went to trial, but, while refusing two initial proposed settlements, the judge stated that Detroit’s argument had “substantial merit” and that the suit would have had a “reasonable likelihood of success.”

This is they type of thing that occurs in banana republics.  No honest nation with a strong rule of law operates this way.  And what is to prevent other distressed government bodies with limited ethics (e.g. the State of Illinois) from carefully borrowing money in a way that is subtly illegal and then repudiate it a few years later?

Disney Wait Times Are Among The Most Transparent Service Numbers Anywhere

How often does Amazon fail to deliver Prime shipments in two days?  I have no idea -- I know it has happened to me sometimes, but they don't publish the metric.  What is the average wait time on the phone with the IRS?  We don't know.  What is the average wait time at a TSA checkpoint?  We don't know.

One thing we most certainly do know, and can know any time on any day, is the current wait time for any Disney ride.  I bring this up because some goofball in the Obama Administration made this absurd statement trying to justify the lack of transparency for VA wait times:

When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?” McDonald said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Bruce McQuain rightly points out the downside of a longer wait for Space Mountain is just a tiny bit lower than the downside of waiting for heart surgery.

But I want to add that this statement is not even close to being factually correct on its face.  Here is an example of a site that has Disney ride wait times in real time, but there are dozens of apps and sites with this info because Disney makes the data public in an API most anyone can access.  (My favorite is Touring Plans, which has built a whole Disney trip planning business on top of Disney published wait time data -- as an aside, if you are a Disney fan or future visitor, you should join).

But I would go further.  I know for a fact that Disney spends a ton of time internally planning and improving ride throughput and capacity entirely with an eye to reducing wait times (and also, by the way, to making design changes that make ride waits more enjoyable with in-line activities).  They have a sophisticated operational research staff working on this all the time, and they are constantly tweaking their Fastpass system which would not even begin to work correctly if they did not understand ride wait times down to the second decimal place.  And by the way, if their management found out that some folks in their organization were fudging line wait time data, I am pretty sure the offenders would not be working there any more (as they are at the VA).

Postscript:  I am still amazed by the fail here.  Anyone who has been to Disney even once will know that all wait times are displayed all over the park on boards, and that at each ride, every few minutes a customer will get an electronic card at the beginning of the ride that precisely times their wait.   Seriously, where do they get folks like this who can blithely utter nonsense as if they know what they are talking about.  The whole premise is screwed up.  Yes, good service companies measure overall satisfaction. This is marginally useful data, but what does one do with it?  To really fix and improve the experience, one also has to measure many important bits of the experience.  Saying that one should pay attention to only one output metric and nothing else would get you laughed out of any quality course I have ever been to.

Update:  Also, I would add that there is a lot of market pressure on the wait time issue pushing Disney to improvement on lines, market pressure that does not exist on the VA (which is one reason they totally lack any accountability).  Disney has its FastPass system for helping guests manage ride waits, but both Universal and Six Flags have their own different systems (Universal has a higher level ticket you can buy that gets you preferred access to all rides, Six Flags Magic Mountain has a pager system where you tell it which ride you want to do next and they page you when your place is ready).