Posts tagged ‘budget’

Starving Public Services to Pay More to Government Workers

On several occasions, I have wondered why progressives continue to be so supportive of paying too many government workers too much at the cost of reducing the government services they seem so passionate about.  This is something I seen in the public parks world all the time.  Arizona State Parks, for example, has about half of its employees in headquarters buildings rather out in the field serving the public while at the same time paying these headquarters staff very high salaries.  This is despite the fact that the agency has tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance it refuses to address.

I see this story repeated over and over in the public parks world -- when forced to choose, government agencies will cut back on maintenance and services to protect total staffing numbers, pay, and benefits.

The New York Times found something similar in the New York Subway:

An examination by The New York Times reveals in stark terms how the needs of the aging, overburdened system have grown while city and state politicians have consistently steered money away from addressing them.

Century-old tunnels and track routes are crumbling, but The Times found that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget for subway maintenance has barely changed, when adjusted for inflation, from what it was 25 years ago.

Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.

Later they go into more detail about payrolls:

Subway workers now make an average of $170,000 annually in salary, overtime and benefits, according to a Times analysis of data compiled by the federal Department of Transportation. That is far more than in any other American transit system; the average in cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington is about $100,000 in total compensation annually.

The pay for managers is even more extraordinary. The nearly 2,500 people who work in New York subway administration make, on average, $280,000 in salary, overtime and benefits. The average elsewhere is $115,000....

Union rules also drive up costs, including by requiring two M.T.A. employees on every train — one to drive, and one to oversee boarding. Virtually every other subway in the world staffs trains with only one worker; if New York did that, it would save nearly $200 million a year, according to an internal M.T.A. analysis obtained by The Times.

Several M.T.A. officials involved in negotiating recent contracts said that there was one reason they accepted the union’s terms: Mr. Cuomo.

The governor, who is closely aligned with the union and has received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the labor group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said.

Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former M.T.A. officials who were in the room.

They do not mention pensions.  Who wants to be there is also a looming unfunded pension crisis here?

UNC Avoids Athletic Sanctions By Arguing their African-American Studies Dept. Had Staggeringly Low Academic Standards

Well, it appears the common Conservative critique that many university race and gender programs have really low standards has a new supporter:  The University of North Carolina.  UNC successfully argued that it was not giving its athletes special treatment in the African-American studies department -- they had low standards for all students in that department.

A years-long probe into widespread academic fraud in North Carolina’s athletic program, including its storied basketball powerhouse, reached an unexpected end on Friday when the NCAA announced it would not issue major sanctions against the school.

The prolonged investigation focused on a major at the university, African and Afro-American Studies, where about 1,500 athletes over 18 years took advantage to make good grades with little to no work involved. The university’s defense did not focus on the legitimacy of the courses—the NCAA said “generally, the facts of this case are not in dispute.”

UNC instead argued that any problem was university wide, not limited to the athletic department, because the courses were available to all students. On Friday, the NCAA accepted the university’s explanation. .

“A Division I Committee on Infractions hearing panel could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules when it made available deficient Department of African and Afro-American Studies ‘paper courses’ to the general student body, including student-athletes,” the NCAA said Friday.

Greg Sankey, the head of the Southeastern Conference who was the chief hearing officer on the panel, said athletes “likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’” but that “the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes.”

Just so we are clear exactly what we are talking about, UNC freely admits, in fact desperately argues, that it was offering courses like this:

UNC’s surprising defense focused on its own systemic shortcomings. It said that the problems were so fundamental at the school, it wasn’t actually an NCAA issue, and therefore wasn’t for the NCAA to govern. One estimate said athletes made up about half of the roughly 3,100 students who participated in the classes.

These classes were generally portrayed and shown to be fake for the most part. The NCAA, in its decision, said the classes did not require attendance. The students rarely, “if at all” interacted with a faculty member. The classes typically required one paper where the person who graded it admitted she did not read them in the entirety. These classes, the NCAA said, had “liberal grading.”

For reference, the entire UNC system (not just this location) consumes about 12.5% of the entire North Carolina state budget.

Update:  I was thinking over the weekend about whether this really horrible level of education for the money could be considered racist, since a substantially disproportionate number of the students in this department are black.  If one argues that the value of college is in the education itself, then it is preposterously racist, particularly since it hurts minorities at other colleges by reinforcing the general stereotype of low academic standards in race studies programs.  If one argues that the value of college is only in the degree itself - the piece of paper - I suppose one could consider this affirmative action.

I Still Don't Understand Why Progressives Blindly Support Public Employee Unions

I have asked this question before:

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?

I don't think this is an unfair question.  People ask lots of unfair questions in politics that try to impose the questioner's assumptions and worldview on the respondent (You want open immigration?  Don't you care about terrorism?  You don't want a $15 minimum wage?  Don't you care about the poor?)  But I am honestly trying to ask this of Progressives from the Progressive worldview -- Increasingly privileged government workers, who typically make more in pay in benefits for less work than the rest of us, are claiming for themselves so many of the resources of the government that services and programs Progressives favor are being cut back.  In the Progressive oppressor-oppressed model, how does $100,000 pensions for government workers get prioritized over homeless shelters?

Here is another example:

We have written frequently over the past couple of weeks about the disastrous public pension funds in Kentucky that are anywhere from $42 - $84 billion underfunded, depending on which discount rate you feel inclined to use. As we've argued before, these pensions, like the ones in Illinois and other states, are so hopelessly underfunded that they haven't a prayer of ever again being made whole.

That said, logic and math have never before stopped pissed off teachers and/or clueless legislators from throwing good money after bad in an effort to 'kick the can down the road' on their pension crises. As such, it should come as no surprise at all that the Lexington Herald Leader reported today that Kentucky's 365,000 teachers and other public employees are now demanding that taxpayers contribute a staggering $5.4 billion to their insolvent ponzi schemes over the next two years alone. To put that number in perspective, $5.4 billion is roughly $3,200 for each household in the state of Kentucky and 25% of the state's entire budget over a two-year period.

Trump Administration Wants More Private Operation of Public Parks. Here Is What That Would Require

A lot of people have been asking me about Secretary Zinke's statements about encouraging more private operation of parks.  First the good news, its a great idea.  Here is my standard 400-word essay on why:

Should National Park’s be privatized, in the sense that they are turned entirely over to private owners?  No.  Public lands are in public hands for a reason — the public wants the government, not, say, Ritz-Carlton, to decide the use and character and access to the land.  No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a common fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned.

However, once the agency determines the character of and facilities on the land, should their operation (as opposed to their ownership) be privatized?  Sure.   The NPS faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance.  It is crazy to use its limited budget to have Federal civil service employees cleaning bathrooms and manning the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job so much less expensively.  The US Forest Service, for example, has had private operators in over a thousand of its largest parks for nearly thirty years, and unlike state parks agencies or even the NPS, it is not considering park closures or accumulating deferred maintenance, despite having its recreation budget axed.  Why? Because its partnership program with private operators is a fundamentally sounder, lower-cost approach to park operations.

In fact, such public-private partnerships are nothing new for the NPS.  The NPS was an early innovator in this field, and currently private companies operate many of the visitor services in parks, such as lodges and gift shops.  The US Forest Service innovation, which has been copied by many agencies including most recently California State Parks, has been to turn over operations of the whole park, not just the lodge, to a private company.  These are highly structured contracts, wherein the private company cannot modify the facilities or change fees without agency approval, and must meet a range of detailed performance goals.

Most critiques of private park operations center around quality and fees.  While there certainly have been some isolated failures, in general the results have been quite good.  In Arizona, a recent poll by CampArizona.com ranked the top 10 public campgrounds in Arizona.  Of these, three of the top five were US Forest Service campgrounds run by a private operator, as was the top Arizona campground in Sunset Magazine’s “Best of the West”  (OK, I have to brag, these are all run by my company). As for fee concerns, state-run parks in California charge $30 for a no-hookup camp site.  Privately operated public campgrounds in California forests seldom charge more than $18.

My company operates over 150 state, county, and federal parks.  I encourage you to take the “Pepsi Challenge” and see some of them for yourself.  They are well-run, generally with more staff than a typical state park, and have no significant deferred maintenance backlog.  Oh, and not a single one has a McDonald’s, a billboard, or a neon sign in front of a national monument.

Now for the bad news:  I am skeptical any progress will be made, for several reasons.

  1. The rank and file of these organizations are generally against private operation of any of their functions.  For a couple of reasons.  First, people who work in government tend, through a self-selection process, to be people who are more confident in government solutions and more skeptical of private solutions.  Second, agency leaders are seldom judged on things like efficiency or customer service.  I read and act on every single negative review that comes in for our operations.  It is impossible to imagine the head of Arizona State Parks (which is about the same size as our company in terms of revenue and visitors) doing such a thing.  Agency leaders get their pay and prestige based on the size of their budget and headcount, and private outsourcing even of non-core functions works against this.
  2. Overcoming this skepticism takes a lot of hard work, organizational work the Trump Administration has shown itself either unable or unwilling to undertake so far.   As a minimum, change requires messaging that engages the rank and file, not just the Republican base.   In most lands agency, it would also require that they scrap their insanely useless (but time-consuming) planning processes in favor of a real portfolio planning process that assigns recreation lands to different customer segments (e.g. wilderness experience vs. high development) and then explicitly addresses where private capital and operating efficiency could help.

The good news is that I think there is a path to success.  The privatization message should offer real benefits agency personnel care about (and I am pretty sure tax reduction is not one of these).  Privatizing things like bathroom cleaning would allow the agency to stop overpaying for routine non-core tasks and allow it to free up resources for things its employees (and the public) are passionate about, like addressing the enormous deferred maintenance account in most lands agencies and reversing crumbling infrastructure in parks.  Most agency employees joined with recreation or environmental science degrees and don't want to clean bathrooms or deal with angry customers anyway.

For the public, recreators who like a lot of infrastructure and facilities are natural supporters of private operation and bringing in private capital to public lands, but the most passionate advocates for public lands are disproportionately folks who want wilderness experiences and distrust development.  That is why having a portfolio management process for public lands is so important.  The Forest Service, for example, makes every campground they own in the west look the same.  I can close my eyes and tell you what your Forest Service campground looks like even if I have never been there.  This is crazy.   Create something like a "Wild Camping" label and attach it to a subset of the portfolio and don't allow any development.  Even remove development.  Then have other sites for more developed camping.   Maybe sites that focus on first-timers or kids.  Maybe lower-cost value sites.  (People always assume that as a private operator, I want to develop everything, but I don't.  Sure I have places where we have cabins and showers and electricity at every site.  But I also operate pure primitive sites with no power, water, or even cell service.  Hell, in some ways I like operating the latter better -- less to go wrong.)

A Government Healthcare Alternative

A few years ago I began to find the hard-core libertarian anarcho-capitalist advocacy to be getting sterile.  I would sit in some local discussion groups and the things we would argue about were so far outside of reality or what was realistically politically possible that they seemed pointless to talk about.  Taking a simplified example, baseball purists can argue all day the designated hitter rule should go away but it is never going to happen (players support it because it creates another starting roster spot and owners like it because it juices offensive numbers which drive ratings).  So I embarked on suggesting some left-right compromise positions on certain issues.

One result was my proposed climate compromise, which fit the classic definition of a good compromise (both sides don't like it) as many skeptics disowned me for writing it and the environmental Left campaigned hard against a similar proposal in Washington State.

I tried something similar with a proposal for restructuring the government role in health care.  First, I defined what I think are the two most important problems a government health care proposal has to address.  Most current and proposed plans fail to address at least one of these:

The first is a problem largely of the government's own creation, that incentives (non-tax-ability of health care benefits) and programs (e.g. Medicare) have been created for first dollar third-party payment of medical expenses.  This growth of third-party payment has eliminated the incentives for consumers to shop and make tradeoffs for health care purchases, the very activities that impose price and quality discipline on most other markets.

The second problem that likely dominates everyone's fears is getting a bankrupting medical expense whose costs are multiples of one's income, and having that care be either uninsured or leading to cancellation of one's insurance or future years.

I think the second point is key.  Everyone keeps talking about a goal of having coverage -- coverage even if you don't have money or don't have pre-existing conditions.  But that is not, I think, the real human need here.  The real need is to be protected from catastrophe, a personal health-care crisis so expensive it might bankrupt you, or even worse, might deny you the ability to get the full range of life-saving care.  Everything else in the health care debate and rolled up in Obamacare is secondary to this need.  Sure there are many other "asks" out there for things people would like to have or wish they had or might kind of like to have, but satisfy this need and the majority of Americans will be satisfied.

And so I proposed this:

So my suggestion ... was to scrap whatever we are doing now and have the government pay all medical expenses over 10% of one's income.  Anything under that was the individual's responsibility, though some sort of tax-advantaged health savings account would be a logical adjunct program.

I found out later that Megan McArdle, who knows way more about health care policy than I, has been suggestion something similar.

How would a similar program work for health care? The government would pick up 100 percent of the tab for health care over a certain percentage of adjusted gross income—the number would have to be negotiated through the political process, but I have suggested between 15 and 20 percent. There could be special treatment for people living at or near the poverty line, and for people who have medical bills that exceed the set percentage of their income for five years in a row, so that the poor and people with chronic illness are not disadvantaged by the system.

In exchange, we would get rid of the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance, and all the other government health insurance programs, with the exception of the military’s system, which for obvious reasons does need to be run by the government. People would be free to insure the gap if they wanted, and such insurance would be relatively cheap, because the insurers would see their losses strictly limited. Or people could choose to save money in a tax-deductible health savings account to cover the eventual likelihood of a serious medical problem.

A few weeks ago I started reading the blog from the Niskanen Center after my friend Brink Lindsey moved there from Cato.  If I understand him, Niskanen has quickly become a home to many libertarian-ish folks who focus on real workable, executable policy proposals more than maintaining libertarian purity.  In that blog, Ed Dolan has proposed something he calls UCC (Universal Catastrophic Coverage) which would work very similarly to what I proposed earlier:

Universal catastrophic coverage is not meant to cover every healthcare need of every citizen. Instead, UCC would offer protection from those relatively rare but ruinous healthcare expenses that are truly unaffordable. (Note: As we use the term UCC here, it is not to be confused with the more narrowly defined catastrophic insurance that is available, in limited circumstances, under the ACA.)

Here is how UCC might work, as outlined in National Affairs by Kip Hagopian and Dana Goldman. Their version of the policy would scale each family’s deductible according to household income. The exact parameters would be subject to negotiation, but to use some simplified numbers, the deductible might be set equal to 10 percent of the amount by which a household’s income exceeds the Medicaid eligibility level, now about $40,000 for a family of four. Under that formula, a middle-class family earning $85,000 a year would face a deductible of $4,500 per family member, perhaps capped at twice that amount for households of more than two people. Following the same formula, the deductible for a household with $1 million of income would be $96,000.

The cost of the catastrophic policy would be covered by the government, either directly or through a refundable tax credit. The policies themselves could, as in the Swiss model, be offered by private insurers, subject to clear standards for pricing and coverage. Alternatively, they could take the form of a public option, for example, the right to buy into a high-deductible version of Medicare.

With UCC in place, people could choose among several ways to meet their out-of-pocket costs, which, for middle-class families, would be comparable to those of policies now offered on the ACA exchanges.

One alternative would be to buy supplemental insurance to cover all or part of expenses up to the UCC deductible. The premiums for such supplemental coverage would be far lower than policies now sold on the ACA exchanges, since the UCC policy would set a ceiling on claims for which the insurer would be responsible. If the supplemental policies included modest deductibles or co-pays of their own, they would be more affordable still. Although UCC itself would be a federal program, the supplemental insurance market would continue to be regulated by the states to meet their particular needs.

Very likely, many middle-class families would forego supplemental insurance and cover all of their routine health care costs from their regular household budgets, the way they now pay for repairs to their homes or cars. Doing so would be easier still if they took advantage of tax-deductible health savings accounts—a mechanism that is already on the books, and could be expanded as part of reform legislation.

The main thing that has always flummoxed me is that I have no idea how expensive this plan might be.  Dolan is claiming it could be done at reasonable cost.

As it turns out, the numbers don’t look all that bad. Because UCC leaves responsibility for routine care with individual families, in line with their ability to pay, it would be far less expensive than a system that offered first-dollar coverage to everyone. Hagopian and Goldman estimate that their version of UCC would cost less than half as much as the projected costs of the ACA.

The impact on the federal budget would be further moderated if the tax deduction for employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) were phased out as UCC came online. Tax expenditures for ESI currently cost the budget an estimated $235 billion per year, an

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.

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.

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)?

Three Reasons Why More Money Does Not Translate Into Better Education

  1.  There is absolutely no guarantee that spending more money increases service quality, especially when (as is the case with public schools) there is no competition to discipline spending and ensure that it is funneled to those aspects of the service that are actually important to customers
  2. Over the last 20-30 years, administrative staffing in public schools has grown from a small percentage of the total to about half the headcount in many public school districts, and thus likely more than half the salary budget (since administrators frequently make more than teachers)
  3. Much of the increased funding is going to retired teachers who aren't actually teaching anyone

Per-student spending on K-12 education has risen steadily over the last two decades, but student test scores, and teacher salaries, are stagnant. Why hasn’t this massive increase in investment produced better teachers and better opportunity for students? The short-answer, according to a new Manhattan Institute report by Josh McGee: State and local governments have catastrophically mismanaged their teacher pension systems. The cash infusion to K-12 has been used largely to pay for irresponsible pension promises politicians made to teachers’ unions and justified to the public with shoddy accounting. . . .

In other words, to cover benefits for retirees, states need to dig into education funds that might otherwise be used to attract and retain good teachers or buy better textbooks and build new facilities. So long as state governments are unwilling to reform the blue model pension-for-life civil service system, and so long as teachers unions continue to wield outsized influence in so many state legislatures, this pattern seems likely to continue indefinitely.

Campaigns to increase spending on schools are always popular, and understandably so: Education ought to be a great equalizing force in our society and, in theory, an efficient way to invest in the future. The problem is that in many states, new “K-12 spending” isn’t really an investment so much as a transfer payment to retired employees of the public schools who have been promised untenable lifetime pension benefits.

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?

Public Park Management

As many of you know, my company privately operates public parks and recreation areas.  With costs 50-70% lower than government management, one would think that private operation would be on the table as an option when government recreation budgets face shortfalls**.  However, this is seldom true.  The reason is that you will almost never, ever, ever hear discussion of efficiency improvements in any discussion of public park budgets.  100% of any such discussion will be "how do we find new revenue streams", even when those revenue streams are one or even two orders of magnitude smaller than potential efficiency gains.  When costs have to be cut, they are cut solely by closures and service reductions.

Which is why I smiled when I read this article about Connecticut State Parks sent by a reader:

The effects of state budget cuts will soon be felt at Connecticut’s 109 state parks, including cutbacks in lifeguard staffing and park maintenance and the closure of three state campgrounds.

The $1.8 million in reductions to park operations will take effect after the July Fourth holiday weekend, and Robert Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said he expects additional cost-cutting steps next spring. DEEP faces an overall $10 million reduction in funding from the state’s general fund.

“By carefully analyzing how and when the public uses our state park system, we will achieve the savings we need while keeping much of what we offer at our 109 parks open and available to the public,’ Klee said.

But park advocates argue these reductions point to the necessity of identifying additional revenue streams to help fund the parks.

“This just underscores the need for these sustainability funds,” said state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., the Democratic co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee. Kennedy and other lawmakers have proposed concepts over the years such as expanded park concessions, a tax on disposable plastic bags, higher park rental fees and sponsorships.

The only cost reductions discussed in the article are reductions in service days and hours.    If one were in private industry, one would approach this by identifying all the activities performed by the organization, such as bathroom cleaning and landscaping, and then look at benchmarks to see if others do it less expensively and then try to figure out how they do it less expensively and determine if those methods could be copied.  None of this ever occurs in the public sphere.  The several times I have suggested it in senior meetings, for example in California, the whole room goes quiet and looks at me like I am insane.

 

** In reality, every single government agency running parks has a shortfall, even when their budget is balanced.  Why?  Because virtually no agency, including the big ones like the National Park Service or California State Parks, fully cover all of their capital maintenance costs.  All these agencies have growing deferred maintenance accounts, even when they claim that budgets are nominally balanced.

Reopening A State Park

Over  a year ago, due to budget constraints, Alabama State Parks was forced to shut down Roland Cooper SP, near Camden, Alabama.  The park was beloved by the local community and an important economic asset to the town of Camden.  As a result, a lot of local folks put pressure on the state to find some other solution than just closure.  To its credit, the Alabama State Parks Department was willing to consider private options that most state agencies refuse to countenance.  The end result is that my company will be reopening the park -- still a public asset but operated privately -- in time for Labor Day.  The full announcement is here.

We are still working on the permanent web page, but if you are in the area our Facebook page is here.

This is A First: Our Local Paper Actually Questions Movie Tax Incentives

I find that the local newspaper in most towns is generally a strong supporter of most every business relocation subsidy or tax incentive that comes along -- whether it be for Apple or an NHL team or a movie production, the local paper benefits from having more newsworthy activity in town.

But the AZ Republic actually ran an article this weekend questioning movie tax incentives, perhaps the only government subsidy dumber than buying sports stadiums for billionaires

States, including Arizona, that don't offer movie and television tax breaks usually are smart not to do so, a researcher contends.

Nearly all states have lured Hollywood productions at one time or another with special tax incentives, but a University of Southern California professor says such spending fails to deliver the long-term economic benefits promised by industry lobbyists and lawmakers.

“The subsidies are a bad investment," said Michael Thom, an assistant professor in USC's Price School of Public Policy, in a prepared  statement. "States pour millions of tax dollars into a program that offers little return."

Arizona doesn't currently offer tax incentives for the industry but spent $23.7 million on subsidies between 2005, when the program started, and 2010, when incentives ended amid a state budget crisis.

Thom, who has led two recent studies on the topic, looked at job growth, wage increases, entertainment-industry output and other factors for each state.  "On average, the only benefits were short-term wage gains, mostly to people who already work in the industry," he said. "Job growth was almost non-existent. Market share and industry output didn’t budge.”

The Lifestyle Charity Fraud

For decades I have observed an abuse of charities that I am not sure has a name.  I call it the "lifestyle" charity or non-profit.  These are charities more known for the glittering fundraisers than their actual charitable works, and are often typified by having only a tiny percentage of their total budget flowing to projects that actually help anyone except their administrators.  These charities seem to be run primarily for the financial maintenance and public image enhancement of their leaders and administrators.  Most of their funds flow to the salaries, first-class travel, and lifestyle maintenance of their principals.

I know people first hand who live quite nicely as leaders of such charities -- having gone to two different Ivy League schools, it is almost impossible not to encounter such folks among our alumni.  They live quite well, and appear from time to time in media puff pieces that help polish their egos and reinforce their self-righteous virtue-signaling.  I have frequently attended my university alumni events where these folks are held out as exemplars for folks working on a higher plane than grubby business people like myself.  They drive me crazy.  They are an insult to the millions of Americans who do volunteer work every day, and wealthy donors who work hard to make sure their money is really making a difference.  My dad, who used his substantial business success to do meaningful things in the world virtually anonymously (like helping save a historically black college from financial oblivion), had great disdain for these people running lifestyle charities.

So I suppose the one good thing about the Clinton Foundation is it is raising some awareness about this kind of fraud.   This article portrays the RFK Human Rights charity as yet another example of this lifestyle charity fraud.

The Media's Role in Generating Polarization

A while back, I was asked to write a short essay answering the question of whether the National Parks should be privatized.  

Let me show you the first paragraph and a half of my answer, because I want to use it to make a point:

Should National Park’s be privatized, in the sense that they are turned entirely over to private owners?  No.  Public lands are in public hands for a reason — the public wants the government, not, say, Ritz-Carlton, to decide the use and character and access to the land.  No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a common fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned.

However, once the agency determines the character of and facilities on the land, should their operation (as opposed to their ownership) be privatized?  Sure.   The NPS faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance.  It is crazy to use its limited budget to have Federal civil service employees cleaning bathrooms and manning the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job so much less expensively....

It goes on from there, but I think that is a fairly nuanced and balanced answer, particularly given that I am probably the most vocal advocate in the country for public-private partnerships in public recreation.

But that nuance is not really interesting to the media.  They like point-counterpoint polarization.  So a web site called Blue Ridge Outdoors reprints me answer, but they edit it:

YES

No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned. However, once the government determines how to manage a particular park, should its operation be privatized? Sure. The National Park Service faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance. It is crazy to use that limited budget for federal employees to clean bathrooms and man the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job much less expensively.

So my answer, which is pretty much "no" gets edited to a "YES" and the entire first paragraph of nuance is deleted.    And we wonder why the world seems polarized?

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".

A Modest Proposal to Improve Elections - CBO Scoring Resources for Candidates

At some point in the election, based on some criteria I do not understand, a Presidential candidate crosses some threshold of seriousness and they are given Secret Service protection.

I have a similar idea.  At some point in the election, candidates should have the ability to have a certain number of their proposals (spending, regulatory, tax plans) scored by the CBO, just as legislation is scored.  Use of such services would not be mandatory, but I would assume that there would be a certain pressure to get one's own plan scored if one's opponent is waving around a scored plan.

CBO scoring has all sorts of problems, not least of which is the common trick of spending like crazy for 9 years and then inserting some huge imaginary savings in year 10 that makes the whole thing score as budget neutral.  But folks will be able to see that (if they want to) and I think the advantage of being able to see actual costs and revenues of candidate plans in the same way they would be viewed as legislation  (which presumably is the goal of candidate proposals, to turn them into real legislation) would outweigh these shortcomings.

The New Rich -- Living the High Life Through Your Non-Profit

Several months ago, a lot of folks where shocked to find that the Clinton Foundation only spent $9 million in direct aid out of a total budget of $150 million, with the rest going to salaries and bonuses and luxury travel for family and friends and other members of the Clinton posse.

None of this surprised me.  From my time at Ivy League schools, I know any number of kids from rich families that work for some sort of trust or non-profit that has nominally charitable goals, but most of whose budget seems to go to lavish parties, first-class travel, and sinecures for various wealthy family scions.

But this week comes a story from the climate world that demonstrates that making a fortune from your non-profit is not just for the old money any more -- it appears to be a great way for activists to build new fortunes.

The story starts with the abhorrent letter by 20 university professors urging President Obama to use the RICO statute (usually thought of as a tool to fight organized crime) to jail people who disagree with them in a scientific debate.  The letter was authored by Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University, and seems to take the position that all climate skeptics are part of an organized coordinated gang that are actively promoting ideas they know to be wrong solely for financial enrichment. (I will give the near-universal skeptic reply to this:  "So where is my Exxon check?!"

Anyway, a couple of folks, including Roger Pielke, Jr. and Steve McIntyre, both folks who get accused of being oil industry funded but who in fact get little or no funding from any such source, wondered where  Shukla's funding comes from.   Shukla gets what looks like a very generous salary from George Mason University of $314,000 a year.  Power to him on that score.  However, the more interesting part is where he makes the rest of his money, because it turns out his university salary is well under half his total income.  The "non-profits" he controls pays him, his family, and his friends over $800,000 a year in compensation, all paid out of government grants that supposedly are to support science.

A number of years ago Shukla created a couple of non-profits called the Institute for Global Environment and Security (IGES) and the Center for Ocean Land Atmosphere Interactions (COLA).  Both were founded by Shukla and are essentially controlled by him, though both now have some sort of institutional relationship with George Mason University as well.  Steve McIntyre has the whole story in its various details.

COLA and IGES both seem to have gotten most of their revenues from NSF, NASA, and NOAA grants.    Over the years, the IGES appears to have collected over $75 million in grants.  As an aside, this single set of grants to one tiny, you-never-even-heard-of-it climate non-profit is very likely way higher than the cumulative sum total of all money ever paid to skeptics.   I have always thought that warmists freaking out over the trivial sums of money going to skeptics is a bit like a football coach who is winning 97-0 freaking out in anger over the other team finally picking up a first down.

Apparently a LOT of this non-profit grant money ends up in the Shukla family bank accounts.

In 2001, the earliest year thus far publicly available, in 2001, in addition to his university salary (not yet available, but presumably about $125,000), Shukla and his wife received a further $214,496  in compensation from IGES (Shukla -$128,796; Anne Shukla – $85,700).  Their combined compensation from IGES doubled over the next two years to approximately $400,000 (additional to Shukla’s university salary of say $130,000), for combined compensation of about $530,000 by 2004.

Shukla’s university salary increased dramatically over the decade reaching $250,866 by 2013 and $314,000 by 2014.  (In this latter year, Shukla was paid much more than Ed Wegman, a George Mason professor of similar seniority). Meanwhile, despite the apparent transition of IGES to George Mason, the income of the Shuklas from IGES continued to increase, reaching $547,000 by 2013.

Grant records are a real mess but it looks like from George Mason University press releases that IGES and its successor recently got a $10 million five-year grant, or $2 million a year from the government.  Of that money:

  • approximately $550,000 a year goes to Shukla and his wife as salaries
  • some amount, perhaps $90,000 a year, goes to Shukla's daughter as salary
  • $171,000 a year goes as salary to James Kinter, an associate of Shukla at George Mason
  • An unknown amount goes for Shukla's expenses, for example travel.  When was the last time you ever heard of a climate conference, or any NGO conference, being held at, say, the Dallas-Ft Worth Airport Marriott?  No, because these conferences are really meant as paid vacation opportunities as taxpayer expense for non-profit executives.

I don't think it would be too much of a stretch, if one includes travel and personal expenses paid, that half the government grants to this non-profit are going to support the lifestyle of Shukla and his friends and family.  Note this is not money for Shukla's research or lab, this is money paid to him personally.

Progressives always like to point out examples of corruption in for-profit companies, and certainly those exist.  But there are numerous market and legal checks that bring accountability for such corruption.  But nothing of the sort exists in the non-profit world.  Not only are there few accountability mechanisms, but most of these non-profits are very good at using their stated good intentions as a shield from scrutiny -- "How can you accuse us of corruption, we are doing such important work!"

Postscript:  Oddly, another form of this non-profit scam exists in my industry.  As a reminder, my company privately operates public recreation areas.  Several folks have tried to set up what I call for-profit non-profits.  An individual will create a non-profit, and then pay themselves some salary that is equal to or even greater than the profits they would get as an owner.  They are not avoiding taxes -- they still have to pay taxes on that salary just like I have to pay taxes (at the same individual tax rates) on my pass-through profits.

What they are seeking are two advantages:

  • They are hoping to avoid some expensive labor law.  In most cases, these folks over-estimate how much a non-profit shell shelters them from labor law, but there are certain regulations (like the new regulations by the Obama Administration that force junior managers to be paid by the hour rather than be salaried) that do apply differently or not at all to a non-profit.
  • They are seeking to take advantage of a bias among many government employees, specifically that these government employees are skeptical of, or even despise, for-profit private enterprise.  As a result, when seeking to outsource certain operations on public lands, some individual decision-makers in government will have a preference for giving the contract to a nominal non-profit.   In California, there is even legislation that gives this bias a force of law, opening certain government contracting opportunities only to non-profits and not for-profits.

The latter can have hilarious results.  There is one non-profit I know of that is a total dodge, but the "owner" is really good at piously talking about his organization being "cleaner" because it is a non-profit, while all the while paying himself a salary higher than my last year's profits.

No on Phoenix Prop 104: The Promised Benefits Are Almost Certainly Grossly Exaggerated

A reader sent me this:  A recent McKinsey study looked at large infrastructure projects (over $1 billion).  In the introduction they observe:

Rail projects, for example, go over budget by an average of 44.7 percent, and their demand is overestimated by 51.4 percent.

We actually can combine these two numbers and find that the total cost per user of these systems was over-estimated by 117%, meaning the cost per user was on averagemore than double what was promised when these projects are sold to the taxpayers.

At the end of the day, the first segment of the line cost $75,000 per round trip daily raider.  We could have bought every regular rider a prius and a lifetime of gas and still saved money.

The Uphill Battle to Reduce the Size of Government

Last year, when Congress did a 1-year renewal of legislation governing public recreation and fee policies (FLREA) they left out a tiny provision that discouraged government agencies from taking back tasks they had privatized.  With that gone, parts of the USFS immediately began to move to bring certain operations back in house, even when doing so required that they both spend more tax money AND reduce services levels to the public.  Such is the strength of incentives in any government bureaucracy to expand their scope, staffing, and budget, even when it makes no sense for the public.

This week in an article at PERC, I tell one such story in depth. Here is an excerpt:

Consider one example: The Tahoe National Forest in California recently took the operation of some of their parks out of private hands, ending a nearly 30-year partnership with one of our competitor companies.

Did the Forest Service do it to save money? The private concessionaire operated entirely with the user fees paid by visitors, using no taxpayer money, and even paid rent back to the government. The agency’s in-house operating plan for running these campgrounds requires at least $2 million in taxpayer money over the next five years to supplement user fees.

Did they do it to improve service? The private concessionaire employed more than 60 paid workers living on site, with managers who worked weekends and holidays. The Forest Service plan calls for half this number of paid employees, and none will live on site or work weekends—the busiest time for recreation.

Did they do it to address some egregious for-profit abuse? The agency is actually planning to replace dozens of paid private workers with volunteers. At the same time that the federal government is mandating higher minimum wages for campground concessionaires, the Forest Service is replacing paid workers with unpaid labor.

Did the Forest Service do it to keep user fees low? The original stated reason for kicking out the private operator was the concessionaire’s request to increase user fees in response to recent increases in California’s minimum wage. In the end, however, the Forest Service raised fees even higher than those proposed by the concessionaire.

The Saudis Tried to Kill The Shale Oil Business. It May Turn Out The Other Way Around

This article on Saudi Arabia, shale oil, and oil prices was interesting throughout

Saudi Arabia is effectively beached. It relies on oil for 90pc of its budget revenues. There is no other industry to speak of, a full fifty years after the oil bonanza began.

Citizens pay no tax on income, interest, or stock dividends. Subsidized petrol costs twelve cents a litre at the pump. Electricity is given away for 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Spending on patronage exploded after the Arab Spring as the kingdom sought to smother dissent.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the budget deficit will reach 20pc of GDP this year, or roughly $140bn. The 'fiscal break-even price' is $106.

Far from retrenching, King Salman is spraying money around, giving away $32bn in a coronation bonus for all workers and pensioners.

He has launched a costly war against the Houthis in Yemen and is engaged in a massive military build-up - entirely reliant on imported weapons - that will propel Saudi Arabia to fifth place in the world defence ranking.

The Saudi royal family is leading the Sunni cause against a resurgent Iran, battling for dominance in a bitter struggle between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. "Right now, the Saudis have only one thing on their mind and that is the Iranians. They have a very serious problem. Iranian proxies are running Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon," said Jim Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Money began to leak out of Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring, with net capital outflows reaching 8pc of GDP annually even before the oil price crash. The country has since been burning through its foreign reserves at a vertiginous pace.

Some More Thoughts on Greece -- When European Charity Runs Out, All That is Left is Inflation

People keep talking about reducing Greek debt to a sustainable level, but part of the problem is that there is not such level.  Even at zero.  The problem is that Greece is running a government deficit even before any debt service, so if creditors were to waive all of its debt, it would still need to be borrowing new money tomorrow.  Debt forgiveness is not enough -- what the Greeks need is for Europe to write off all its debt, and then (having lost all their money on the old debt) start lending new money immediately.  Note also that any bailout agreement reached this month will just put everyone back in the exact same place a few months from now.

This situation cannot be expected to change any time soon, for a variety of reasons from demographics (Greece has the oldest population in Europe, and a relatively rich pension system) to ideology (the current pseudo-Marxist government will never implement the reforms needed to turn the economy around, even if they promise to do so under duress).

With structural solutions unlikely, Greece has only the options of charity and inflation. Greece still seems to be hoping for charity, which they make harder by spewing derision at the same folks whom they are begging for alms.  Europe, certainly Germany, is in no mood to be charitable any longer, but may still do so depending on their calculation about which action -- bailout or exit -- has the worse long-term consequences for keeping Portugal, Spain, and Italy both in the Euro and continuing to pay their debts.

Lacking charity, the only thing left is inflation.  Some folks think I am advocating that option.  I am not.  The best possible hope for Greece is to slash its economic regulation, privatize business, and cut back on the public sector -- but that is not going to happen with the current government.  Or maybe any government.

I say inflation is the only option because that is what balances the budget and "solves" debt problems when politicians are unable or unwilling to make any hard choices.  It is sort of the default.  If they can't balance the budget or figure out how to pay off debt, then inflation does it for them by reducing the value of pensions and outstanding debts**.  This is what will happen with a Grexit -- a massive bout of devaluation and inflation what will greatly reduce the value of any IOU, whether it be a pension or a bank deposit.

Eventually, the one good thing that comes from inflation and devaluation is that the country becomes really cheap to outsiders.  Tourists will flock in and olive oil will sell well internationally as the new drachma loses its value, creating value for people holding stronger currencies and potentially forming the basis for some sort of economic revival.  My wife and I decided a few months back to postpone the Greek vacation we wanted this year -- too much turmoil is still possible -- and wait for it to be a bargain in 2016 or 2017.

 

**Postscript:  This is exactly why the Euro is both immensely seductive and a dangerous trap for countries like Greece.  Seductive, because it could pursue any sort of destructive banana republic fiscal policy it wished and still have a strong currency.  A trap because it can no longer print money and inflate away its debt problems.

Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Last week I wrote:

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count.  Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency's public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

Despite being a Jerry Pournelle fan, I had never heard his Iron Law of Bureaucracy, but it certainly fits my observations

Iron Law of Bureaucracy

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

Congress Almost Always Rewards Failed Government Agencies. Here is Why

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count.  Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency's public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

The way, then, to punish an agency is to take away some staff and budget.  Nothing else will get their attention.  Unfortunately, in most scandals where an agency proves itself to be incompetent or corrupt or both (e.g. IRS, the VA, more recently with OPM and their data breaches) the tendency is to believe the "fix" involves sending the agency more resources.  Certainly the agency and its supporters will scream "lack of resources" as an excuse for any problem.

And that is how nearly every failing government agency is rewarded for their failure, rather than punished.  Which is why our agencies fail so much.

Note that organizations in the private world are not immune to similar incentives.  A company's marketing staff will work hard to get more people and resources for marketing, and in good times their staff and budget may balloon.  The difference is that in the private world, there is competition.  Other companies are trying to sell similar products and services.  And if the marketing department is screwing up a lot, or those resources spent on it are not being used productively, the company is going to lose sales and thus resources.  To survive, massive changes will be made, including likely some deep cuts and large restructurings in marketing.

It is frustrating to work in corporations that seem to lurch from growth periods to cutbacks in an endless cycle.  But it beats the alternative where the organization always grows and never is forced to confront the value of how it spends its resources.