Posts tagged ‘budget’

Sequester Madness 2

This just came in over the transom via email.

WASHINGTON, D.C.///February 20, 2013///Sequestration will cut visitor access to the rim of the Grand Canyon, significantly delay the spring opening of key portions of Yellowstone and Yosemite, reduce emergency response help for drivers in the Great Smoky Mountains, limit access to the beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and impair the experiences in many other ways for millions of visitors at America’s national parks.   In addition, local, regional and state economies that depend on national parks will take huge hits as visitors are either turned away or skip visits due to the impact of the mindless sequestration budget cuts.....

CNPSR Spokesperson, Joan Anzelmo, former Superintendent of Colorado National Monument said:  “Congress might just as well put a big “Keep Out !” sign at the entrance to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Cape Cod Seashore, and every other iconic national park in the U.S.   This foolhardy path tarnishes America’s ‘crown jewels’ and is a repudiation of the nation’s national parks often touted as ‘America’s best idea’.  Millions of Americans depend on national parks for their vacations and livelihood.  Those Americans are being told that national parks don’t count … that people who use national parks don’t count … and that people who live and work near national parks don’t count.”

A few observations:

  • It's a 5% freaking cut.  I bet Wal-Mart is a more tightly-run organization than the NPS, and I further bet if I forced an immediate 5% cut at Wal-Mart they would do it without cutting store hours or service to customers.
  • Again, we see government officials cutting the most cherished, visible services, rather than the chaff, in order to maximize citizen outrage rather than do their freaking job and set priorities
  • It's a freaking 5% cut.  Did I say that already?
  • I could cut huge chunks from the NPS budget while improving service by having private companies perform many operating functions.  Our company runs nearly 175 parks and in every one we have seen something like a 50% reduction in cost over government operation while simultaneously increasing staffing in the parks.
  • This is absolutely boilerplate from every single agency and constituency that gets threatened with even the tiniest budget cut -- "you are telling XXX group they don't count."  Barf.
  • I was going to make some observations about their budget over the last few years, but all their budget detail pages online seem to be down

I am currently as depressed and cynical as I have ever been today due to this absurd reaction to a trivial spending cut.  I have about zero hope that Federal spending will ever be reigned in.  Politicians of both parties and the special interests that support them will spend and spend until we find ourselves calling Greece asking for a bailout.

Sequester Madness

If the Republicans are supposed to be the voice of fiscal responsibility in Washington, then we are doomed.  They are absolutely as bad as Obama, running around in panic that the trivial cuts required by the sequester (not 8% this year or 5% or even 2% but 1% of Federal spending).  I have never seen a private organization with a large administrative staff that could not take a 5% reduction and generally be better off for it.   I absolutely guarantee that I could take 5% or more off the top of every agency's budget and you would never notice it.

This includes the military.  In fact, this includes the military in particular.  The military is never asked to prioritize.   We still have armored divisions in Germany.  It is always incredible to me that Republicans, who doubt that the government can ever manage or spend wisely, suddenly cast aside all these doubts when it comes to the military.   I understand the honor that folks accord to front-line soldiers vs., say, DMV workers.  But they are not the ones spending the money.  I am tired of such honor for the troops being used to bait and switch me from a very reasonable focus on DOD spending and waste.

When it comes to the military, Republicans use the same "closing the Washington Monument" tactics that Democrats use for social programs, essentially claiming that a 5% (or 1%) spending cut will result in the cessation of whatever activity taxpayers most want to see continue.  This process of offering up the most, rather than the least, important uses of money when spending cuts are proposed as a tactic to avoid spending cuts is one of the most corrupt practices imaginable.  No corporate CEO would tolerate it of his managers for a micro-second.

About two years ago at Forbes I imagined a hypothetical budget discussion at a corporation that followed Congressional budgeting practices.

The Sequester if Falling, The Sequester is Falling

I cannot believe the sky-is-falling panic around the sequester.  It is all so much BS.  The sequester represents a trivial percentage reduction in spending down to levels we have not seen for, like, 2 years or so.  But apparently everyone is getting into the act claiming the world will end if we cut a couple of percent from the growth rate of government spending.  As an illustration, this is the over-wrought absurd email I just recieved:

If implemented, the US Navy directed cancellation of ship repair and maintenance due to lack of an approved Defense budget and sequestration will have a drastic impact on the commercial ship repair industry across the nation.   The more than 150,000 expert ship repair professionals that have been cultivated across the nation cannot be easily replaced by a new workforce.    In addition, many of our yards nationwide do both defense and commercial work.  The Navy cancellations would severely undermine their ability to continue operating in a high quality, efficient  manner.

The Virginia Ship Repair Association urges you to learn more and voice your concern. We have provided templates for mailing  letters to your members of Congress, as well as contact lists to make phone calls. Please join us in this effort to preserve our maritime interests, protect our shipyards and secure the future of our workforce.

US Shipyards among the great pork-barrel spending stories in this country's history.  Show me a shipyard with lots of defense business (e.g. Ingalls in Pascagoula) and I will show you a Senator from that state who wielded immense power on Congressional defense committees.

A Couple of Nice Observations on Technocracy and Budgets

From South Bend Seven come a couple of comments I liked today.  The first was on the Left and current budget plans:

If I was on the Left I would look at these figures and then begin to think long and hard about whether knee-jerk opposition to things like Medicare block grants or defined-contribution public pensions is such a good idea. The biggest threat to redistribution to the poor is existing redistribution to the old.

To the last sentence, I would add "and redistribution to upper middle class public sector workers."  I am constantly amazed at the Left's drop-dead defense of above-market pay and benefits for public sector workers.  This already reduces funding for things like actual classroom instruction and infrastructure improvements, and almost certainly the looming public pension crisis will reduce resources for an array of programs much loved by the Left.

The second observation relates to a favorite topic of mine, on technocracy:

Often enough I think "you know, we need more scientists in charge of things." Then I remember that the scientists we get are Steven Chu and I think "yeah, maybe not so much."

Then I think about all the abominable committee meetings and discussion sessions I've been in with scientists and I think "perhaps best not to put scientists in charge."

Then I look over at my bookshelf, notice my cope of The Machinery of Freedom, and think "why are we putting anybody in charge at all?"

If this Administration has any one theme, it is a total confidence that a few people imposing solutions and optimizations top-down  is superior to bottom-up or emergent solutions.   Even the recent memo on targeted killings reflects this same philosophy, that one man with a few smart people in the White House can make better life-or-death decisions than all that messy stuff with courts and lawyers.   Those of us who understand our Hayek know that superior top-down decision-making is impossible, given that the decision-makers can never have the information or incentives to make the best decisions for complex systems, and because they tend to impose one single objective function when in fact we are a nation of individuals with 300 million different objective functions.  But the drone war / targeted killing memo demonstrates another problem:  technocrats hate due process.   Due process for them is just time-wasting review by lesser mortals of their decisions.  Just look at how Obama views Congress, or the courts.

Arguing Against Personal Interest

The best time to argue for general principles is when they work against one's own interest, to firmly establish that they are indeed principles rather than political opportunism.  Two examples:

First, from a topic rife with political opportunism, the Supreme Court a three-judge panel recently ruled Obama's NLRB not-really-recess appointments were unconstitutional.  I think that was the right decision,  but a President has got to be able to get an up or down vote in a timely manner on appointments.  As much as I would love to see all of Obama's appointments languish for, oh, four years or so, and as much as I really don't like his activist NLRB, having to resort to procedural hacks of this sort just to fill administrative positions is not good government.  The Senate rules (or traditions as the case may be) that even one Senator may put a hold on confirmations is simply insane.  While I am a supporter of the filibuster, I think the filibuster should not apply to certain Constitutionally mandated activities.  Specifically:  passing a budget and appointment confirmations.

Second, readers of this blog know how much I dislike our sheriff Joe Arpaio.  He was unfortunately re-elected a couple of months ago, though the vote was closer than usual.  This week, an Arizona group who also does not like Joe has announced it is going to seek a recall election against him.  Again, as much as I would like to see Arpaio ride off into the sunset, this practice of gearing up for recall elections just days after the election is over is just insane.  It is a total waste of money and resources.  While I don't like to do anything that helps incumbents, there has to be some sort of waiting period (perhaps 1/4 of the office term) before we start this silliness.

Bizarre Alternate Reality

Kevin Drum is claiming that the government has already done much fine work on deficit reduction, reducing spending by $1.8 trillion and increasing taxes by $600 billion.

This is fantasy, pure and simple, and perhaps why the term "reality-based community" has fallen out of favor among Progressives.   There has been and will likely be no reduction in spending -- these "spending cuts" are merely reductions in spending growth rates from the Administration's initial wet dream spending proposals. I am sure the tax increases are probably real, but Obama and the Congress were already proposing to spend most of those in new stimulus and other boondoggles right in the end of year tax legislation.

The tax numbers are characteristic of the stupid budget games played by both parties.   For example, the recent tax law represents a tax increase over law in place on 12/31/2012, but represents a massive tax cut vs. law set to be in place on 1/1/2013.  This gives the administration cover to call it both!  When it wants to portray itself as a deficit hawk, as in this case, it was a tax increase.  When it wants to portray itself as being populist, it was a tax cut.

Charts like this are absolutely worthless.  We will likely get deficit reduction over the next few years, but it will be entirely due to rising tax revenues from an improving economy.

And here we are back to my constant theme -- if you want to posit a trend, then show the trend.

Words That Have Been Stripped of Any Meaning: "Spending Cuts" and "Austerity"

I have already written that the supposed European austerity (e.g. in the UK) is no such thing, and "austerity" in these cases is being used to describe what is merely a slowing in spending growth.

Apparently the same Newspeak is being applied to spending cuts in the US.  How else  can one match this data:

With these words from President Obama (my emphasis added)

"If we're going to raise revenues that are sufficient to balance with the very tough cuts that we've already made and the further reforms in entitlements that I’m prepared to make, then we’re going to have to see the rates on the top two percent go up"

Seriously?  The only small reductions in the budget were because some supposedly one-time expenses (like TARP bailouts, war costs, and stimulus spending) were not repeated.  Allowing one-time costs to be, uh, one-time does not constitute "tough cuts."

Tough cuts are when we knock government spending back down to 19-20 percent of GDP.  Clinton level spending in exchange for Clinton tax rates.   That's my proposed deal.

Government Spending Ratchet

In 2010, Arizona v0ters passed proposition 100, a 1% "temporary" sales tax increase that was meant to help fill in the budget hole created by the recession.  The tax was only to last 3 years.

It is pretty clear that by the end of 2013, when the tax expires, the rationale for the temporary tax cut will have passed.  Already the state's finances are improving and all signs are that by 2014 the economy and real estate market should be greatly recovered.

But, having got taxpayers used to paying the higher tax, supporters of big government and public employees unions have put a proposition on the ballot this year (204)  to make the 2010 tax increase permanent.  The tax extension will go to a mish-mash of new programs.

This is how the government spending ratchet works.  A "temporary" tax increase is justified in a fiscal emergency to fill in a recession-created hole.  Government insiders decide they like having more money, and make the tax permanent.  The new money is used to create brand new programs.  Then, in the next recession, when all these brand new programs are now "essential" and "beyond the reach of even the worst austerity", a new, even higher "temporary" tax increase is necessary.

A Good Reason To Get Obama Out of Office

OK, there are lots of reasons to get Obama out of office.  The problem is, that for most of them, I have no reasonable hope that Romney will be any better.  Corporatism?  CEO as Venture-Capitalist-in-Chief?  Indefinite detentions?  Lack of Transparency?  The Drug War?   Obamacare, which was modeled on Romneycare?  What are the odds that any of these improve under Romney, and at least under Obama they are not being done by someone who wraps himself in the mantle of small government and free markets, helping to corrupt the public understanding of those terms.

But here is one issue Obama is almost certainly going to be worse:  Bail outs of states.  States will start seeking Federal bailouts, probably initially in the form of Federal guarantees of their pension obligations, in the next 4 years.  I had thought that Obama would be particularly susceptible if California is the first to come begging.  But imagine how fast he will whip out our money if it is Illinois at the trough first?

Now that Chicago's children have returned to not learning in school, we can all move on to the next crisis in Illinois public finance: unfunded public pensions. Readers who live in the other 49 states will be pleased to learn that Governor Pat Quinn's 2012 budget proposal already floated the idea of a federal guarantee of its pension debt. Think Germany and eurobonds for Greece, Italy and Spain.

Thank you for sharing, Governor.

Sooner or later, we knew it would come to this since the Democrats who are running Illinois into the ground can't bring themselves to oppose union demands. Illinois now has some $8 billion in current debts outstanding and taxpayers are on the hook for more than $200 billion in unfunded retirement costs for government workers. By some estimates, the system could be the first in the nation to go broke, as early as 2018....

For years, states have engaged in elaborate accounting tricks to improve appearances, including using an unrealistically high 8% "discount" rate to account for future liabilities. To make that fairy tale come true, state pension funds would have to average returns of 8% a year, which even the toothless Government Accounting Standards Board and Moody's have said are unrealistic....

Look no further than the recent Chicago teachers strike. The city is already facing upwards of a $1 billion deficit next year with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual pension costs for retired teachers coming due. But despite the fiscal imperatives, the negotiation didn't even discuss pensions. The final deal gave unions a more than 17% raise over four years, while they keep benefits and pensions that workers in the wealth-creating private economy can only imagine.

As a political matter, public unions are pursuing a version of the GM strategy: Never make a concession at the state level, figuring that if things get really bad the federal government will have no political choice but to bail out the pensions if not the entire state. Mr. Quinn made that official by pointing out in his budget proposal that "significant long-term improvements" in the state pension debt will come from "seeking a federal guarantee of the debt."

I had not paid much attention to the Chicago teacher's strike, except to note that the City basically caved to the unions.  The average teacher salary in Chicago, even without benefits, will soon rise to nearly $100,000 a year for just 9 months work.  But I am amazed at the statement that no one even bothered to challenge the union on pensions despite the fact that the system is essentially bankrupt.  Illinois really seems to be banking on their favorite son bailing them out with our money.

The Medicare Problem -- A Reminder

There is no free lunch.

As I have written before, the problem with Social Security is not a mismatch of taxes and benefits - it's simply that 40 years of Congresses have spent the premiums, and now they no longer exist to pay benefits.

The problem with Medicare is actually more difficult.  By these numbers, Medicare taxes are not even a third of what they need to be to pay for actual benefits.  There are only two solutions that don't involve running up Federal debt:  1)  Triple Medicare taxes.  or 2) Cut back benefits and/or eligibility by 2/3.

Interestingly, neither party is suggesting either of these solutions, which makes all the light and noise from the Conventions totally meaningless on this issue.  The Left's notion that cost control will close the gap is sheer fantasy -- already Medicare is getting an effective cross-subsidy from non-Medicare customers and price controls have gone about as far as they can.  In fact, the cost mismatch above is understated as many Medicare costs (e.g. buildings, revenue collection) are actually not charged to the program but to other agencies.  The Right's pitch that small cuts around the edges that Grandma won't notice at all will balance the budget are equally a fantasy.

Believe it or not, I have come around to the solution that we need to raise the Medicare tax.  I would like to privatize the whole thing, and in particular see a reintroduction of individual shopping and out-of-pocket expenditure to the system.  But in the interim we have to acknowledge that there is no way substantial changes to Medicare benefits or delivery is going to happen.  The program remains incredibly popular, though one reason for this is that it is priced wrong.  I am sure Aston-Martin sports cars would be staggeringly popular if sold for a third of their true cost.  In my mind, there is nothing more dangerous to an economy than an artificially incorrect price, and Medicare prices are WAY off.  We need to raise taxes to match the current benefits package, and THEN let's talk about reforming the program.

Government Spending Bait and Switch

New taxes are frequently sold as protecting police, fire, and education, though these together represent barely 25% of all US government spending.  Where does the rest go?  It's a giant bait and switch, made worse by the fact that even within these categories, new headcount is more likely to be added in administrative and overhead roles rather than in promised functions such as "teachers".  This is the subject of my Forbes column this week:

There is a way to reconcile this:   While increases in education spending are sold to the public as a way to improve results in the classroom, in reality most of the new money and headcount are going to anything but increasing the number of teachers.

Let’s start with an example from the city of Phoenix, New York.  Why this town?  Am I cherry-picking?  In fact, I was looking for data on my home town of Phoenix, Arizona.  But I have come to discover that while school districts are really good at getting tomorrow’s cafeteria menu on the web, they are a little less diligent in giving equal transparency to their budget and staffing data.  But it turns out that Phoenix, New York, which I discovered when I was looking for my home town data, publishes a lovely summary of its budget data, so I will use it as an example that helps make my point.

The city’s budget summary for 2012-2013 is here.  Overall, they are proposing a 0.4% increase in spending for next year, which initially seems lean until one understands that they are projecting a 4% decline in enrollment, such that this still represents an increase in spending per pupil faster than inflation.  But the interesting part is the mix.

What are the two things politicians are always claiming they need extra money for?  Classroom instruction and infrastructure.  As you can see in this budget, only two categories of spending go down:  classroom instruction and facility maintenance and cleaning.  Administrative expenses increase 4% (effectively 8% per pupil) and employee benefits expenses increase just under 1% despite a total decline in staffing.  Though I am not very familiar with the program, one irony here is that the fastest growing category is the 8.7% growth (nearly 13% per pupil) in spending with BOCES, a New York initiative that was supposed to reduce administrative costs in public schools.  In other words, spending increases are going to everything except the areas which politicians promise.

I don’t think these trends are isolated to this one admittedly random example.  The Arizona auditor-general recently did a study on trends in education spending in the state.  They found exactly the same tendency to reduce classroom spending to pay for increases in administrative headcounts.

Read it all, as they say.

My Annual Mockery of Arizona Budget Games

If it's June, it must be time for me to mock Arizona budget games.  To save re-writing the old post over and over, here is what I wrote several years ago.

In May of this year I got a form from the Arizona Department of Revenue that said my company was now large enough to make estimated sales tax pre-payments.  Some states do this when you are large enough - they don't like you holding their sales tax money a whole month until the reporting deadline, they want their cash in hand.  Its a pain, so I sighed, but we did it.  We prepaid estimated full-month June sales tax in mid-June as required, rather than in mid-July when the payment would normally be due.  Note that we still have to fill out all the sales tax reports in July, so paperwork is doubled, not to mention the extra work to reconcile between the estimate and actual results.

So this month, I was looking for the July pre-payment form.  I figured the July pre-payment must be due soon, so I called the Department of Revenue and asked where my form was.  They said there was no form for July.  The pre-payment is only one time.  I said, "its only for June?" and they said yes.  You can see the blank form online is hard-coded for June.

Then it dawned on me:  Arizona is on a June 30 fiscal year.  The entire point of this exercise is to pull July revenues into June to artificially inflate the prior fiscal year financials.  Wow - all those pious government workers artificially manipulating results just like an evil old corporation.  Because there is absolutely no other reason to do this for just one month.  The time value of money gained is dwarfed by the costs of changing your payment processing approach for just one month, and is certainly dwarfed if you consider the extra taxpayer effort required (which of course the government never does).

But it's even worse!  Because, in effect, this only worked one time -- the first time.  The first time they did this, they helped the fiscal year.  But now, pulling forward July this year just offsets losing the July revenues from last year.  So politicians have saddled us with a tax process that costs the government more money and the taxpayer more time and has no benefit beyond generating a slightly more positive press release about the budget for some politician several years ago (whatever year this was first implemented).

Privatization Updates

While this may be familiar territory for readers of this blog, I have a post up at the Privatization blog on the history of private operation of public parks.  In this article I quoted one of my favorite over-wrought criticisms of private operation of parks, this time from the San Francisco Chronicle:

The question is, how will these agreements work over time? If parks remain open using donations, what is the incentive for legislators to put money for parks in the general fund budget? And who is going to stop a rich crook or pot dealer from taking a park off the closure list and using it for fiendish pursuits?

LOL.  "Fiendish pursuits?"

I also had an article there a while back about government accounting systems and how they make such privatization efforts difficult:

Back when I was in the corporate world, "Make-Buy" decisions -- decisions as to whether the company should do some task itself or outsource it to companies with particular expertise or low costs in that area -- were quite routine.  Even in the corporate world, though, where accounting systems are built to produce product line profitability statements and to do activity-based costing, this kind of analysis is easy to get wrong (in particular, practitioners frequently confuse average versus marginal costs).

But if these analyses are tricky in the private world, they are almost impossible to do well in the public sphere.  Grady Gammage, a senior and highly respected research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute, has as much experience with public policy analysis as anyone in the state.  Several years ago, he spent months digging into the financial numbers of Arizona State Parks, with the full cooperation of that agency.  A critical question of the study was how much it actually cost to operate a park, vs. do all the other resource and grant management tasks the agency is asked to perform.  Despite a lot of effort by Gammage and his staff, he told me once that the best he could do was make an educated guess --plus or minus several million dollars -- as to how much of the Agency's budget is spent actually operating parks vs. performing other tasks.

The reasons that this is so hard is that the parks agency's budgeting process was not set up to determine true net operating gains and losses at parks.  It was set up, like most public accounting systems, to enforce accountability to different pools of money that have been allocated by the legislature for certain tasks.  This tends to lead to three classes of problems that cause public make-buy decisions, as well as ex post facto third-party analyses, so difficult.  Since I am most familiar with the parks world, I will discuss these three issues in the context of parks:

Great Moments In Public Sector Compensation

I can't confirm this by Randal O'Toole is usually pretty much on top of Portland transit issues:

Portland’s TriMet agreed to allow transit workers to retire at age 55 after as little as ten years on the job and gave them and their families free medical care (with a $5 co-pay, no deductible) for life (plus 16 years after the retiree’s death for their families). As a result, health-care costs have grown from $18 million in 2000 to $68 million next year and projected to rise to $153 million–40 percent of the agency’s 2010 operating budget–by 2020.

 

Myth-Making By the Left on Europe Continues

The Left continues to push the myth that government "austerity"  (defined as still running a massive deficit but running a slightly smaller massive deficit) is somehow pushing Europe into a depression.  Well, this myth-making worked with Hoover, who is generally thought to have worsened the Depression through austerity despite the reality that he substantially increased government spending.

It is almost impossible to spot this mythical austerity beast in action in these European countries.  Sure, they talk about austerity, and deficit reduction, and spending increases, but if such talk were reality we would have a balanced budget in this country.  If one looks at actual government spending in European nations, its impossible to find a substantial decline.  Perhaps they are talking about tax increases, which I would oppose and have been occurring, but I doubt the Left is complaining about tax increases.

Seriously, I would post the chart showing the spending declines but I can't because I keep following links and have yet to find one.  I keep seeing quotes about "commitment" to austerity, but no actual evidence of such.

Let's take Britain.  Paul Krugman specifically lashed out at "austerity" programs there are undermining the British and European economy.  So, from this source, here is actual and budgeted British government spending by year, in billions of pounds:

2007: 544.0

2008: 575.7

2009: 621.5

2010:  660.6

2011:  683.4

2012:  703.4

2013: 722.2

Seriously, I will believe the so-called austerity when someone shows it to me.  And this is not even to mention the irresponsibility of demanding more deficit spending without even acknowledging the fact that whole countries already have so much debt they are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Here is the European problem -- they are pouring hundreds of billions of Euro into bailing out failed banks and governments.  They are effectively taking massive amounts of available resources out of productive hands and pouring it into failed institutions.   Had they (or we) let these institutions crash four years ago, Europe would be seeing a recovery today.  The hundreds of billions of Euros used to keep banks on life support could have instead been used to mitigate the short term effects of bigger financial crash.

First Rule of Budget Politics

Proponents of higher taxes and larger government often criticize small government folks in Congress for being "obstructionist" and "not willing to compromise."

But here is the problem:  Coyote's first rule of budget politics is to never trade current tax increases or "temporary" spending increases for future spending cuts, because the future spending cuts never happen.  Ever.  Not once.  In fact, I would not agree to trading current tax increases for current spending cuts, because taxes will stay forever but spending cuts will just be over-ridden in a few months.

Here is a recent example:

Last summer, Republicans in Congress agreed to increase the federal debt limit in exchange for the Democrats’ pledge to cap future spending at agreed-upon levels. The compromise was embodied in the Budget Control Act; discretionary spending was to increase by no more than $7 billion in the current fiscal year. I wrote yesterday about the fact that the Democrats intended to violate the Budget Control Act by increasing deficit spending on the Post Office by $34 billion. The measure probably would have glided through the Senate without notice had Jeff Sessions not challenged it. Sessions insisted on a point of order, based on the fact that the spending bill violated the Budget Control Act. It required 60 votes to waive Sessions’ point of order and toss the BCA on the trash heap.

Today the Senate voted 62-37 to do exactly that. This means that the consideration that Republicans obtained in exchange for increasing the debt limit is gone. Moreover, some Republicans–I haven’t yet seen the list–voted with the Democrats today.

One principal lesson can be drawn from this experience. It happens all the time that Congressional leaders will trumpet a budget agreement that allegedly saves the taxpayers trillions of dollars–not now, of course, but in the “out years.” But the out years never come. Tax increases are rarely deferred to the out years; they take place now, when it counts. But spending cuts? Never today, always tomorrow.

Purported agreements about what federal spending will be years from now are utterly meaningless. Congressmen will make a deal, brag about the ostensible savings in the press, and then walk away from it the moment our backs are turned, as the Democrats (and a handful of Republicans) did today.

When folks say, "we just want a compromise" on budget issues, what they are really saying is "we want to roll you.  We are hoping you are stupid enough to trade for future cost reductions that will never happen.  We can get away with this because we have an ally in the press, who always treats promises of future cost reductions as entirely credible and believable and thus paint those who are skeptical of them as radical obstructionists."

California Schadenfreude

From Zero Hedge:

The hoped-for April spike in personal income tax revenues for the State of California fell once again below theoveroptimistic assumptions used to get the budget to “balance.” Instead of the $9.4 billion that the government had counted on collecting in April, it only collected $7.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. A 21% shortfall! In addition, corporate taxes were $450 million below forecast. After months of “disappointing” tax revenues, the total shortfall in income taxes now amounts to $3.5 billion for fiscal 2012 ending June 30.

The budget, supposedly balanced when it was passed last summer, had been spewing red ink from day one. Tax revenues were one problem. Expenditures were the other. The most recent re-revisions pegged the deficit at $9.2 billion. That was a few weeks ago. Now it’s going to be re-re-revised to nearly $12 billion.

Just how bankrupt does a budgeting process have to be for a budget that is supposedly in balance turn out to be $12 billion overdrawn barely 9 months later?  I have a California state tax refund on my desk -- better cash it quick or else its going to be replaced by scrip again.

The same article has this interesting tidbit about California high speed rail:

The CHSRA plan assumes that it would cost 10 cents per passenger mile (the average cost of carrying one passenger one mile at a given load factor) when international high-speed rail systems averaged 43 cents per mile, according to a report that just surfaced. The low-cost leader was Italy with 34 cents per mile; at the upper end were Germany and Japan with 50 cents per mile; Amtrak’s Acela Express, though not truly high speed, was in the middle with 44 cents per mile. And in California, it’s going to be 10 cents per mile?

The CHSRA correctly assumes that train tickets compete with air fares and the cost of driving, which, despite our incessant complaints, are lower in California than overseas. Thus, the US market requires cheaper tickets. And to make the project appear profitable, and thus more digestible for the taxpayer, the CHSRA lowered its projected operating costs to less than a quarter of the international average.

But if actual operating costs are 43 cents per mile and not 10 cents per mile, annual subsidies of $2 billion to $3 billion would be required just to keep the trains running, according to the report. Yet, AB3034, the California High-Speed Train Bond Act, makes these subsidies illegal. A conundrum that the Legislature, the Administration, and the CHSRA have so far successfully ignored.

The City of Glendale is Pathetic

For years now I have lampooned the crazy money Glendale, AZ has thrown at the Phoenix ice hockey team in a desperate attempt to trade taxpayer money for prestige.  Let me bring you up to date:

Years ago a town of about 250,000 people committed about $200 million in taxpayer money to build a stadium for a professional ice hockey team, to attract it away from Scottsdale or downtown Phoenix to what is frankly the ass-end of the metropolitan area  (I have no problems with the west side of town, but from a geographic, demographic, and economic logic standpoint this was roughly equivalent to moving the LA Lakers to Riverside or San Bernardino).

For some weird reason, moving an ice hockey team to the desert with no base of hockey fans and locating it a good 45 minutes from the wealthier parts of town caused the team to go bankrupt.  Lots of people were willing to pay good money to haul the team back to Canada where there are, you know, ice hockey fans, but few wanted to pay good money to keep it on the west side of Phoenix.

So enter the NHL, which took the team over.  The NHL commissioner promised the other owners that it would not lose money on the deal, so it set the price of the team not at the market price (which appears to be around $100 million based on the Atlanta sale) but based on its costs, which were about $200 million.   It has agreed to try to keep the team in Glendale, but only if the city covers its operating losses of $25 million each year, which incredibly, the city has done for two years (note this is $100 a year for every man, woman, and child in the city to subsidize a hockey team).

The team may be worth $200 million in Canada, but it is only worth $100 million in Glendale (at most) so it does not sell.  The city agreed to make up the $100 million difference  with a bond issue (and throw another $90+ million in to boot), which almost closed the deal with one buyer until the Goldwater Institute pointed out that this kind of subsidy was illegal under the AZ constitution.  And so the situation sits.  The asking price is still $200 million, which no one will pay if they have to keep the team in Glendale.  And the city keeps forking over $25 million a year to the NHL to keep the team running.

OK, so that is the background.  Here is the new news.

The league, which purchased the Phoenix Coyotes at a bankruptcy court auction in 2009, has been managing the team and city-owned arena until an owner willing to keep the team in Glendale can be found. The city paid $25 million to the NHL during the 2010-11 season and pledged another $25 million for the current season, which is expected to come due in May.

To fulfill that pledge, the city put $20 million in escrow and still needs to come up with $5 million.

The hefty payouts have nearly drained the city's reserves, leading to a recent drop in the city's bond rating.

And the city is looking at a deficit next fiscal year that one councilwoman has estimated could reach $30 million. A possible sales-tax hike, furloughs and program cuts are on the table to close the spending gap....

During Tuesday's budget talks, [Glendale Mayor] Scruggs asked council members to join her in signing a letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to "release us from that $20 million in escrow and let us pay over time."

None of the councilmembers responded to her request. Councilman Manny Martinez later told The Republic he would "have to think about it in light of what is going on."

Scruggs said if the city can get back the $20 million from escrow and pay the NHL an initial $5 million, "our problems and everything our employees are fearful of would pretty much go away."

Translation:  Dear NHL, we are idiots and committed a bunch of money to a stupid purpose that we can't really afford.  Would you pretty please let us out of our commitment?  Hilarious and pathetic.  The chickens are coming home to roost by the millions.

Even funnier, the Glendale mayor is trying to blame the NHL for bad faith

The mayor said she and four others councilmembers pledged the second payout last May because city staff and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said a deal with a team owner was nearly complete and that "we should never have to pay that $25 million."

Scruggs said the city was told the money was just a place holder so that the NHL wouldn't move the team out of Glendale.

"Given the stress that our budget is under, there should be a payment plan developed," Scruggs said. "They have no right to that money. They held us hostage for a year."

She said the NHL never intended to do business with Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer, who wanted to buy the team but walked away from the negotiation table in frustration just weeks after the council pledged the second payment to the NHL....

Scruggs said the NHL last spring "misled us and they can't do this to our city."

In fact, the NHL was totally serious about the Hulsizer deal.  That deal fell through not because the NHL screwed up, but because Glendale did.  The deal fell through because Glendale had committed to a subsidy of the deal which may not have been Constitutional, and even if it had proved legal, became impossible when Glendale's bond ratings started tanking and they realized they could not move the paper.  Glendale officials have been amateurish and dishonest through this entire process.

By the way, several years ago, Jim Balsillie offered a deal worth over $200 million for the team, PLUS he offered to pay off something like $150 million of Glendale's stadium debt.  Glendale opposed the deal, because they would have been left with an empty stadium and tens of millions in debt (given the crash in RIM's fortunes, the offer is unlikely to be renewed).

Glendale is likely going to wish they had taken the first offer.  There is a very good chance that Glendale will lose the team without any sort of payment on their debt and after paying $25 million a year to the NHL.  Glendale will end up with hundreds of millions in debt, an empty stadium, a junk-level bond rating and a busted budget.

There is a saying in the investment world - your first loss is your best loss.  Glendale is about to learn this very expensive lesson.

Worst American Rail Project Ever?

Last week I was in Albuquerque several hours early for my meeting in Santa Fe.  Several years ago I had written about the Railrunner passenger rail line that operates from south of Albuquerque north to Santa Fe.  Our Arizona Republic had written a relentlessly positive article about the line, focusing on how much the people who rode on it loved it.  Given that the picture they included in the article showed a young woman riding in a nearly empty car, I suspected that while the trains themselves might be nice for riders, the service probably wasn't a very good deal for taxpayers.

Of course, as is typical, the Republic article had absolutely no information on costs or revenues, as for some reason the media has adopted an attitude that such things don't matter for rail projects -- all that matters is finding a few people to interview who "like it."  So I attempted to run some numbers based on some guesses from other similar rail lines, and made an educated guess that it had revenues of about $1.8 million and operating costs of at least $20 million, excluding capital charges.  I got a lot of grief for making up numbers -- surely it could not be that bad.  Hang on for a few paragraphs, because we are going to see that its actually worse.

Anyway, I was in Albuquerque and thought I would ride the train to Santa Fe.  I had meetings at some government offices there, and it turns out that the government officials who spent the state's money on this project were careful to make sure the train stopped outside of their own workplaces.    I posited in my original article that every rider's trip was about 90% subsidized by New Mexico taxpayers, so I might as well get my subsidy.

Well, it turned out I missed my chance.  Apparently, trains do not run during much of the day, and all I saw between 9:30AM and 4:00 PM was trains just parked on the tracks.  I thought maybe it was a holiday thing because it was President's Day but their web site said it was a regular schedule.  I caught the shot below of one of the trains sitting at the Santa Fe station.

Anyway, I got interested in checking back on the line to see how it was doing.  I actually respected them somewhat for not running mid-day trains that would lose money, but my guess is that only running a few trains a day made the initial capital costs of the line unsustainable.  After all, high fixed cost projects like rail require that one run the hell out of them to cover the original capital costs.

As it turns out, I no longer have to guess at revenues and expenses, they now seem to have crept into the public domain.  Here is a recent article from the Albuquerque Journal.  Initially, my eye was attracted to an excerpt that said the line was $4 million in the black.  Wow!  Let's read more

New Mexico Rail Runner Express officials said Wednesday the railroad will receive an additional $4.8 million in federal funding this year that puts the operating budget more than $4 million in the black.

The injection of new money boosts Rail Runner’s revenues this year to $28 million, well in excess of expected operating costs of $23.6 million, said Terry Doyle, transportation director of the Mid Region Council of Governments, which oversees Rail Runner.

OK, I am not sure why the Feds are putting up money to cover the operating costs of local rail lines in New Mexico, but still, this seems encouraging.  This implies that even without the Fed money, the line was withing $800,000 of breaking even, which would make it impressive indeed among passenger rail lines.  But wait, I read further down:

The announcement comes as state lawmakers debate a measure that would require counties with access to the Belen-to-Santa Fe passenger railroad to pay for any deficit in Rail Runner’s operations with local taxes. Currently, almost half its revenues, $13 million, comes from local sales taxes.

Oops, looking worse.  Now it looks like taxes are covering over half the rail's costs.  But this implies that perhaps $10 million might be coming from users, right?  Nope, keep reading all the way down to paragraph 11

The Rail Runner collects about $3.2 million a year in fares and has an annual operating budget of about $23.6 million. That does not include about $41.7 million a year in debt service on the bonds — a figure that include eventual balloon payments.

So it turns out that I was actually pretty close, particularly since my guess was four years ago and they have had some ridership increases and fare increases since.

At the end of the day, riders are paying $3.2 million of the total $65.3 million annual cost. Again, I repeat my reaction from four years ago to hearing that riders really loved the train.  Of course they do -- taxpayers (read: non-riders) are subsidizing 95.1% of the service they get.  I wonder if they paid the full cost of the train ride -- ie if their ticket prices were increased 20x -- how they would feel about the service?

Of course, the Railrunner folks are right on the case.  They have just raised prices, which "could" generate $600,000 in extra revenue, assuming there is no loss in ridership from the fare increases (meaning assuming the laws of supply and demand do no operate correctly).  If this fare increase is as successful as planned, they will have boldly reduced the public subsidy to just 94.2% of the cost of each trip.

By the way, it is interesting to note in this Wikipedia article (Wikipedia articles on government rail projects generally read like press releases) that ridership on this line dropped by over half when the service went from free to paid (ie when the government subsidy dropped from 100% to 95%).  The line carries around 2000 round-trip passengers (ie number of boarding divided by two) a day.  It is simply incredible that a state can directly lavish $60 million  a year in taxpayer money on just 2000 mostly middle class citizens.  That equates to a subsidy of $30,000 per rider per year, enough to buy every daily round trip rider a new Prius and the gas to run it every single year.

Postscript:  This person seems to get it.  One thing I had not realized, the trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe that I did in my rental car in 60 minutes takes 90 minutes by "high-speed rail".

The Corporate State Rolls On

In a Senate budget hearing with the Department of Energy, one would have expected a lot of questions about the loan program to avoid future Solyndras.  But Al Franken uses his time to pester the DOE to give taxpayer money to a corporation in his state.

This is the answer as to why so many bone-headed loans were made despite evidence of likely disaster.  You can bet that Boxer and Feinstein were all over the DOE several years ago pushing for the Solyndra loan.  Franken doesn't give a rip whether the loan is smart or not, or whether the taxpayers' money is safe or not.  He wants a multi-million dollar press release to get himself in the Minnesota news for a newscycle or two helping out the home state.  After that, the money's purpose has been achieved and I can't imagine him caring what happens to it.  Certainly that is the fate of most of these jobs-related government investments - big splashes up front with promises of hundreds of new jobs, but absolutely no scrutiny in the back end when, likely as not, these jobs don't actually materialize.

What's the Difference?

What is the difference between this hypothetical family budget and the US Government's budget?

One answer is:  eight zeros, because these are essentially the US budget numbers with eight zeros knocked off.

A second answer is:  Prisons and the printing press.  Because the biggest difference is that in the family budget context, everyone sees these numbers as simply insane, while on the national level at least half of folks think they are just fine.  The difference is that the US government can take money from other people at whim and by force, backed by the threat of incarceration.  And if that fails, it can print money  (actually using bits and bytes rather than the printing press, but that's just a detail) to pass the cost of its extravagance onto other people in the form of inflation.

Update:  The chart above probably over-estimates the belt-tightening.  If you really wanted a comparable situation to today's federal government, the example would say that the family spent $37,000 last year, proposed to spend 38, 285 next year, but agreed to only spend 37,900 for a $385 "cut", said cut being claimed despite the fact that actual spending will be $900 more than last year.

Thinking About Medicare and Social Security

Neither Medicare nor Social Security should be government programs.  The government essentially takes on two roles in these two insurance programs:  1) To subsidize the premiums of low income Americans; and 2) To use its power of coercion to force everyone to participate.  I have no stomach for the latter role and the former could be much more cheaply achieved with some sort of voucher or credit program.

But these programs are not going away.  While both need reform, it may turn out to be politically impossible to even reform them.

But if we take off the table for a moment their existence and their basic structure, there is still an enormous problem we might fix:  pricing.  There is absolutely nothing more deadly to an economy than a false or corrupted pricing signal.  But that is clearly what we have with these two programs.  The Medicare "premium" (tax) taken out of every paycheck is clearly way too small to cover true actuarial costs of this program.  And while Social Security rates may have been set right if the premiums were really being kept in escrow for the future, the fact is that the so-called trust fund has been raided into oblivion by past government spending programs  -- Social Security taxes need to be reset to reflect that fact.

The result, of course, will be a substantial increase in both payroll taxes.  I am not a big fan of tax increases, and find taxes on labor to be among the worst.  But as long as we hold on to the collective notion that these are insurance programs and the taxes we pay are premiums, its time to stop fooling Americans into thinking that the premiums they are paying are truly sufficient to fund their benefits.  Maybe after we reprice the "premiums" to their true actuarial value, we can then have a real debate about the structure and existence of these programs.

Greek Government Essentially in State of Default

Nice tax refund you have coming .... we think we'll keep it

The [Greek] government has decided to stop tax returns and other obligation payments to enterprises, salary workers and pensioners as it sees the budget deficit soaring to over 10 percent of gross domestic product for 2011.

For all the supposed austerity, the budget situation is worse in Greece.  Germany and other countries will soon have to accept they have poured tens of billions of euros down a rathole, and that they will have to do what they should have done over a year ago - let Greece move out of the Euro.

Government workers and pensioners simply will not accept any cuts without rioting in the street.  And the banks will all go under with a default on government debt.  And no one will pay any more taxes.  And Germany is not going to keep funding a 10% of GDP deficit.  The only way out seems to be to print money (to pay the debt) and devalue the currency (to effectively reduce fixed pensions and salaries).  And the only way to do all that is outside of the Euro.  From an economic standpoint, the inflation approach is probably not the best, but it is the politically easiest to implement.

Just Fooling, We Had No Idea What We Were Doing

California voters -- unskeptical, unrealistic, and gullible -- nevertheless trusted their elected and unelected technocrats in Sacramento to be telling them the truth when they agreed to a $9.95 billion bond issue for high speed rail.  It turns out, even according the HSR's most fervent supporters, that the numbers that were used to sell the bond issue were total crap, and they knew it at the time

In September, I was one of several journalists who interviewed top officials with the California High Speed Rail Authority. Here is board member Lynn Schenk’s response to my question about accountability:

Q: In 2008, this project was sold to voters with the claim that when it was done there would be 117 million annual riders, which is more than four times what Amtrak now has, and it operates in 46 states. It was sold with claims of a $100 round-trip ticket and many other claims that no one believes anymore. If we had known then what we know now, it might not have passed. So when do we get accountability?

SCHENK: This deserves as much of a direct answer as I can maybe possibly give. And that is about the first business plan and those early studies. These gentlemen were not there at the time. I was there. We had one professional and two half-professionals, who were constantly being furloughed because of the state budget issue. That first plan, much to the regret of many of us, was pulled together with Scotch tape and hairpins because we had to get something to the Legislature, but we didn’t have the money, the resources, the people to pull together, so there were a lot of errors. You’re right. But there were also things in there that still stand true today. And we have new studies, a new business plan coming out. The ridership study that we had it is not as bad as the opponents would say. But there are tweaks. And there are things that need to be adjusted and we are looking to do that.

Because the last thing a bureaucratic is ever going to say is "we don't know."   So they told they public the rail line would have 117 million annual riders, when even an estimate of 5 million is probably high.  Jeff Skilling is in jail for a far less substantial exaggeration of his business prospects.

Of course voters were idiots to accept these numbers, when 5 minutes of research would have shown them absurd (the media did nothing to help, of course).  One relevent factoid:

The current air passenger traffic between LAX and SFO is 2.7 million a year

But we are going to have tens of millions of rail customers.  Right.

Modern Political Incentives

Arnold Kling has one of the best statements on modern political incentives I have seen lately

Salmon complains that as far as the latest [European debt] plan is concerned, "the commitment is still vague." What I want to suggest is that for the politicians, vagueness is a feature rather than a bug. This reflects a fundamental misalignment between political incentives and economic requirements.

What markets and the economy need are policies that resolve uncertainty. That way, people know who is going to take a hit. Most important, they know where they can invest with confidence going forward.

What politicians need are vagueness and opacity. Having a clear, well-defined policy exposes the politician to the people who are hurt by that policy. Thus, instead of producing a balanced budget today, you produce a plan to produce a plan to balance the budget down the road. Instead of restructuring sovereign debt, you make a commitment that everyone will be made whole, without explaining how that commitment will be honored.