Posts tagged ‘monopoly’

Conflict of Interest

By the way, there is a reason for this choice (from an article on why unions are worried about the PPACA)

The second problem is that the 40 percent excise tax on especially expensive plans — the so-called Cadillac tax — is going to hit union plans especially hard. Unlike most people negotiating compensation, union negotiators make an explicit trade-off between wages and other benefits, and the benefit that they seem most attached to is generous health plans. Union plans are made more expensive still because union membership is heavily skewed toward older workers. They are thus very likely to get hit by the Cadillac tax, which takes effect in 2018.

The preference for health benefits over cash compensation makes some sense for tax reasons (as it shifts taxable income to nontaxable income).  And at some level it is typical of union thinking, which is often driven by seniority and by benefits for older workers over younger workers.  But there is another reason for this that is almost never stated -- the unions themselves run many of these health plans.  And because it is priced as a monopoly, the unions often earn monopoly rents on these plans, and use management of large health plans to justify much higher compensation levels for union leaders.  In Wisconsin, ending public union strangleholds on health plan management immediately saved the state and various local school districts millions of dollars when they were allowed to competitively bid these functions for the first time.

Surprise: Near Bankrupt City Finds that Throwing Good Money After Bad is Not a Good Investment

I have written here any number of times about the crazy ongoing subsidies by Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 resident suburb of Phoenix) to an NHL franchise.  The city last year was teetering at the edge of bankruptcy from past hockey subsidies, but decided to double down committing to yet more annual payments to the new ownership of the team.

Surprisingly, throwing more money into an entreprise that has run through tens of millions of taxpayer money without any hint of a turnaround turns out to be a bad investment

Revenue from the Phoenix Coyotes is coming up short for Glendale, which approved a $225 million deal to keep the National Hockey League franchise in 2013.

City leaders expected to see at least $6.8 million in revenue annually from the team to help offset the $15 million the city pays each year for team owners to manage Jobing.com Arena. The revenue comes from ticket surcharges, parking fees and a split of naming rights for the arena.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has collected $1.9 million from those sources, and nearly $2.3 million when including sales-tax revenue from the arena.

Even including the rent payments on the publicly-funded stadium, Glendale is still losing money each year on the deal.

The source of the error in forecasting is actually pretty funny.  Glendale assumed that it could charge very high monopoly parking fees for the arena spaces ($10-$30 a game).  In some circumstances, such fees would have stuck.  But in this case, two other entities (a mall and another sports stadium) have adjoining lots, and once parking for hockey was no longer free, these other entities started competing parking operations which held down parking rates and volumes (I always find it hilarious when the government attempts to charge exorbitant monopoly prices and the free market undercuts them).

Had the parking rates stuck at the higher level, one can assume they still would have missed their forecast.  The Coyotes hockey team already has among the worst attendance numbers in the league, and hockey ticket buyers are particularly price sensitive, such that a $20 increase in the cost of attending a game likely would have driven attendance, and thus parking fees and city ticket surcharges and sales taxes, down.  Many private companies who are used to market dynamics still fail to forecast competitive and customer reaction to things like price increases well, and the government never does it well.

The Real Health Insurance Shock Is Coming Next Fall

Obviously, the whole Obamacare implementation is in disarray.  Some of this I expected -- the policy cancellations -- and some of it I did not -- the horrendous systems implementation.  But I actually thought that most of this would be swept under the rug by a willing media.

What I really expected was for the true shock to come next fall.  And I think it is still coming.  I believe that despite rate increases, insurers are likely being overly optimistic about how much adverse selection and cost control issues they are going to have.  As a result, I expected, and still expect, huge premium increases in the fall of 2014.

Why?  The main benefit of Obamacare is for people who cannot afford health insurance but want it, and for people who are very sick and have lost their insurance.   Obamacare is a terrible plan as implemented because it futzes with virtually everything in the health care system when a more limited plan could have achieved the same humanitarian coverage goals.

Anyway, one reason Obamacare is so comprehensive is that it is based on a goal of cost control for the whole system.  Unfortunately, most all of its cost control goals are faulty.  From Megan McArdle, in an amazing article covering a huge range of Obamacare issues:

But I think it’s also clearly true that the majority of the public did not understand this. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign told them that their premiums would go down under the new health-care law. And the law’s supporters believed it.

Q. Obama says his plan will save $2,500 annually for my family. How?

A. Through a combination of developing efficiencies in the system, expanding coverage to all Americans, and picking up the cost of some high-cost cases. Specifically:

-- Health IT investment, which will reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending in the health care system. Examples include extra hospital stays because of preventable medical errors and duplicative diagnostic tests;

-- Improving prevention and management of chronic conditions;

-- Increasing insurance industry competition and reining in the abusive practices of monopoly insurance and drug companies;

-- Providing reinsurance for catastrophic cases, which will reduce insurance premiums; and

-- Ensuring every American has health coverage, which will reduce spending on the “uncompensated” care of uninsured people who end up in emergency rooms and whose care is picked up by institutions and then passed through higher charges to insured individuals.

The part about reinsurance was always nonsense; unless it’s subsidized, reinsurance doesn’t save money for the system, though it may reduce the risk that an individual company will go broke. But the rest of it all sounded entirely plausible; I heard many smart wonks make most of these arguments in 2008 and 2009. However, it’s fair to say that by the time the law passed, the debate had pretty well established that few to none of them were true. “We all knew” that preventive care doesn’t save money, electronic medical records don’t save money, reducing uncompensated care saves very little money, and “reining in the abusive practices” of insurance companies was likely to raise premiums, not lower them, because those “abuses” mostly consist of refusing to cover very sick people.

The result?  Many of these things that supposedly reduced costs actually increase them.  So if you think the shock is high now, wait until next fall.  We will see:

  • Rates going up
  • Less choice, as insurers pull out of many local markets
  • Narrowing of doctors networks, and reduced choice in doctors
  • Companies dropping health care and dumping workers (and retirees if they can get away with it) into the exchanges and Medicare.

Other Views on Teach for America

Since I have posted positively about Teach for America, it is only fair I post this article from the Atlantic of a Teach for America alum who felt she was unprepared for what she faced in the classroom.

Over the years, I have met many TFA teachers and have been in their classrooms, and have never gotten this vibe from them, but perhaps one of our samples (mine or the author's) are flawed**.

I guess my reaction to the article is this:  TFA is the best program I have encountered to try to improve education within the framework of our deeply flawed public education system***.  However, understanding the flaws of public education, and being someone who would much rather see competition introduced into the k-12 education system, I suppose I am not surprised that putting really talented people in a bad system can only do so much.

The education establishment, which is implicitly backed by most of the media, really wants to kill TFA, which just goes to show, perhaps, the impossibility of making change happen within the system.  Think of it this way:  TFA is everything liberals have wanted in teaching reform.  It brings the brightest of the bright from America's colleges and diverts them from Wall Street and Harvard Law to teaching schoolkids.  It is modeled roughly on the Peace Corps.  It is the most establishment-friendly way I can think of to try to make public schools better and still the public school system immune system rejects it.  If TFA cannot work, then we should take that as proof that it is time for a radically new system that eliminates the government monopoly on education.

 

** I confess it may be my sample.  When we pay to sponsor a teacher, we specify that we will only sponsor one in a charter school.  Consistent with my comments in the rest of the article, I despair of throwing even really good people into typical public schools, and want to send them where they might have a chance.  The school where we have sponsored a teacher the last couple of years is doing great, with a population of kids nearly 100% eligible for the Federal school lunch program and most of whose parents do not speak English as a first language (or at all) significantly outperforming their peers.

*** I also think it is a great program for the young adults in it.  I have seen many of the not-for-profit and NGO jobs smart kids go into out of college, and they are awful.  They teach bad organizational lessons that will make these folks less employable in the future by productive enterprises and they at best do nothing (at worst spend their time lobbying to make my life harder and more expensive).  Against this backdrop, it is a much better experience for folks who want a service type of job out of college - the life skills taught are more relevant and the work has a higher impact.

Obamacare Mandates Delayed -- And That Other Shoe

Well, it certainly comes as happy news to this correspondent that the Administration announced this week it will delay health insurance mandates on businesses.  Our company has spent a ton of time since last November trying to minimize the expected cost of the mandates -- the initial cost estimates of which for our business came in at three times our annual net income.  Our preparation has been hampered by the fact that the IRS still has not finalized rules for how these mandates will be applied to a seasonal work force.  Like many retail service businesses, we have studied a number of models for converting most of our work force to part time, thus making the mandates irrelevant for us.

I know this last statement has earned me a fair share of crap in the comments section as a heartless capitalist swine, but the vitriol is just absurd.   Many of the folks criticizing me can't or don't want to imagine themselves running a business, so let's say you have an annual salary of $40,000.  Now, on top of all your other expenses, the government just mandated that you have to pay an extra $120,000 a year for something.  That is the situation my business is in.  Are you just going to sit there and allow your savings to become a smoking hole in the ground, or are you going to do something to avoid it?  Unlike the government, I cannot run a permanent deficit and I cannot create new revenues by fiat.  Congress allowed business owners a legal way to avoid the health insurance mandate, and I am going to grab that option rather than be bankrupted.  So are every other service business I know of, which is why I have predicted that full-time jobs are on the verge of disappearing in the retail service sector.

Anyway, it appears that the IRS and the Administration could not get their act together fast enough to make this happen.  Not a surprise, I suppose.  You and I have both been in committee meetings, and have seen groups devolve into arguments aver useless minutia.  This is not a monopoly of the government, it happens in the private sector as well.  But in the private sector, in good companies, a leader steps in and says "I have heard enough, it is going to be done X way, now go do it."  In government, the incentives work against leaders cutting through the Gordian knot in this way, so the muddle can carry on forever.

There are at least two more shoes that are going to drop, one bad, one good:

  1. On the bad side, while companies like mine complain about the cost of the PPACA, they are going to freak when they see the paperwork.  My sense is that we are going to be required to know in great detail what kind of health insurance policy every one of our employees have, even if it was not obtained through our company, and will have to report that regularly to the government.  In addition, there are gong to be new reporting requirements to new agencies for wages and hours.  It is going to be a big mess, and my uneducated guess is that someone in the last week or so looked at that mess and decided to hold off announcing it.

    But readers can expect a Coyote freak out whenever it is announced, because it is going to be bad.  Wal-mart will be fine, it has the money to build systems to do that stuff, but companies like mine with 500 employees but only 2 staff people are going to get slammed.  There is a reason government agencies, even government schools, have more staff than line personnel -- they live and breath and think in terms of complex reporting and paperwork.  They love it because for many it is their job security.  Swimming every day in that water, it is no surprise they impose it without thought on the private sector.  This makes it hard for companies like ours that try to have 99% of our employees actually serving customers rather than pushing paper.

  2. The individual mandate is toast for next year.  No way it happens.  If the Administration cannot get the corporate piece done on time, there is no way in hell it is going to get the exchanges up and running.  And even if they do, some prominent states with political influence with this President, like Illinois and California, likely will not get their exchanges done in time and will beg for a delay.

:( Google Reader to End

Perhaps I am the last one to get the word on this, but I have happily depended on Google Reader for years for my blog and news reading.   Recommendations for an alternative would be greatly appreciated, but I am not optimistic anything will be a good replacement, particularly since I frequently use the simply link in Reader to Gmail to send stories to friends and family.

reader

I blame Twitter.

Update:  As an aside, Google's behavior here seems to be exactly the opposite of the fears people usually have vis a vis monopolies.  Google gained a dominant market share by leveraging off other strong products and under-cutting prices (ie free).  I would be thrilled if they did what monopoly-phobes fear, which is raise prices.   I would happily pay, say, $10 a month to keep the service.  But in fact, Google, having subsidized its way to market leadership, is simply liquidating.

 Update #2:  Lots of alternatives out there.  In the end, this may be a positive since Google Reader had not really innovated much of late.

One Reason the Press is Always So Statist

Why is the media always so deferential to the state?  The reasons may be in part ideological, but there is a public choice explanation as well -- the state (particularly local police and crime stories) generate most of its headlines, and so they have a financial incentive to retain access to the source of so much of their content.

Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:

To start, [San Diego County Sheriff's Office] spokeswoman Jan Caldwell explained to the room full of journalists why it is so important to be nice to her: "If you are rude, if you are obnoxious, if you are demanding, if you call me a liar, I will probably not talk to you anymore. And there's only one sheriff's department in town, and you can go talk to the deputies all you want but there's one PIO."

Here we have the heart of the matter. "Professional" journalists may, indeed, be brilliant, talented, well-trained, professional, with an abiding appetite for hard-hitting but neutral reporting. Yet professional journalists also depend on relationships. Ms. Caldwell calls that fact out, sending law enforcement's core message to the press: if you want access, play the game.

The game colors mainstream media coverage of criminal justice. Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor, and a critic of the criminal justice system. In my view, the press is too often deferential to police and prosecutors. They report the state's claims as fact and the defense's as nitpicking or flimflam. They accept the state's spin on police conduct uncritically. They present criminal justice issues from their favored "if it bleeds it leads" perspective rather than from a critical and questioning perspective, happily covering deliberate spectacle rather than calling it out as spectacleThey accept leaks and tips and favors from law enforcement, even when those tips and leaks and favors violate defendants' rights, and even when the act of giving the tip or leak or favor is itself a story that somebody ought to be investigating. In fact, they cheerfully facilitate obstruction of justice through leaks. They dumb down criminal justice issues to serve their narrative, or because they don't understand them.

This "professional" press approach to the criminal justice system serves police and prosecutors very well. They favor reporters who hew to it. Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access. (Of course, he might also be completely nuts, in a way that "mainstream" journalism screens out to some extent.)

Which is why, despite Joe Arpaio's frequent antics that make national news, it falls to our local alt-weekly here in Phoenix rather than our monopoly daily paper to do actual investigative reporting on the Sheriff's office.

Defending Corporatism, In the Name of Eliminating It

For years I have argued that Obama is leading us to a European-style corporate state rather than socialism per se (though the two have many things in common).  It seems like his defenders on the Left have figured that out, and are getting on board.

The other day, Kevin Drum seems to agree with a Washington Monthly article that defends corporatism in the name of attacking it.  In this case, it was an example from the beer industry:

Prior to the 2008 takeover, Anheuser-Busch generally accepted the regulatory regime that had governed the U.S. alcohol industry since the repeal of Prohibition. It didn’t attack the independent wholesalers in control of its supply chain, and generally treated them well. “Tough but fair” is a phrase used by several wholesale-business sources to describe their dealings with the Busch family dynasty. Everyone was making money; there was no need to rock the boat.

All that changed quickly after Anheuser-Busch lost its independence....Today, with only one remaining real competitor, MillerCoors, the pressure it can put on its wholesalers is extraordinary. A wholesaler who loses its account with either company loses one of its two largest customers, and cannot offer his retail clients the name-brand beers that form the backbone of the market. The Big Two in effect have a captive system by which to bring their goods to market.

.... So distributors are caught in an impossible bind: they either do the brewer’s bidding, including selling their businesses to favored “Anchor Wholesalers,” or they lose Anheuser-Busch InBev as a client. And if the wholesalers try to push back? Anheuser-Busch InBev will get rough.

I don't know if this is just tremendous ignorance or some sort of calculated scheming.  The article decries the growing power of beer manufacturers vis a vis liquor distributors, and wants to call this some sort of slide into corporatism.    Actually just the opposite is true -- what we see is Anheuser-Busch taking on some of the largest beneficiaries of government cronysism:  the liquor wholesalers.

The liquor distribution scheme, and resulting government enforced monopolies, created post-Prohibition have been the worst sort of corporate statism, and what is going on here is that the beer manufacturers are finally fed up with it.  Regional liquor wholesalers are generally some of the most politically powerful forces in local and state politics.  These distribution monopolies have all created multi-millionaire owners who deploy money and political clout to prevent any changes in law that might weaken their government-enforced monopoly position.  Wonder why you still can't mail order from Amazon that bottle of California Merlot -- thank the liquor wholesale lobby.  Without all this government protection of distributors, the soft drink business went through identical changes, relatively quietly, decades ago.

This whole liquor distribution scheme we have today is consistent with FDR's corporatist thinking (he was a great admirer of the economic aspects of Mussolini's fascism, and modeled the National Recovery Act after this Italian system).  But it is also thoroughly anti-consumer, and has both raised prices of alcohol to consumers as well as stifled innovation and competition.  We are living in a glorious age of incredible micro-brew choice, but this almost didn't happen.  The biggest hurdle these early pioneers had to clear was cracking this liquor distribution monopoly.

I find it incredible that a Progressive like Drum sees fit to defend such a system and castigate Anheuser-Busch for challenging it.  It is even more amazing to see him positing that anti-trust is all about protecting millionaire corporate players in one part of the supply chain from billionaire corporate players in another part.  I have said for years that anti-trust has been corrupted from protecting consumers to protecting weaker competitors, even when this protection hurts consumers  (remember, Microsoft was convicted of anti-trust violations for giving away free stuff to consumers).  I just am amazed that the Left has come so far that it has now openly adopted this view of anti-trust.

Update:  Here is another example of the Left describing market attacks on a government-protected corporation "Corporatist."  There are always beneficiaries of deregulation (consumers being the most unsung of these).  It is crazy and disingenuous for the Left to call those who win in a newly deregulated market "cronies."

False Assumption of Statists

Mike Rizzo raises a point that is a common theme here at Coyote Blog.  People often propose a statist solution because they distrust some private actor (e.g. large corporations) and want someone with power over the top of them.  However, to create such a regulatory structure, one has to give even more power to the state's regulator than the corporation has.  At least one has the choice of whether or not to deal with a private entity (unless of course it is a government-enforced monopoly, but that just takes us back to statism).  We give private actors power only to the extent that we choose to transact with them.   When we give government power, there is no longer this sort of opt-out.  Rizzo observes:

Just ask the person a question. “I can respect why you think this. But can you do me a favor? Can you imagine getting your ideal world in place, and then rather than “your guys” being in charge, how would you feel if the person/people running it were people you completely mistrusted, despised and disagreed with? Would you feel good about your system? Why or why not?”

I tell folks all the time - I don't trust private actors any more than the people in government.  What I trust more are their incentives and the tools I have for enforcing accountability on them.

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

The whole topic of licensing as anti-consumer efforts to restrict competition is a long-running one here.   Since I am sort-of-kind-of not-blogging right now, I won't excerpt or comment on it a lot, but this is a very interesting piecelooking at internal documents of the American Dietetic Association discussing their efforts to pass laws in various states that essentially ban anyone but their members from giving diet and nutrition advice.  It is one such law in North Carolina which required that Steve Cooksey take down all his blog posts about his dieting experiences (since he is not licensed by the state, it is illegal for him to speak on the topic).

The funniest part for me in the ADA materials is that they constantly seem to be put out that their efforts to  ban competition from anyone outside of their organization are described by critics as creating a monopoly.  Who, us? Monopoly?  We are just trying to help customers.  Missing in all this, of course, is any evidence of a grass roots effort by nutrition customers.  I will remind everyone of this great Milton Friedman quote:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Another Reason to Love Fracking

Anything Vladimir Putin fears can't be all bad

Whilst it is exceedingly difficult to summon up much sympathy for either Russia’s state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom or Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, the dynamic rise of natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,” has raised alarm bells in the highest reaches of the Kremlin.

Why?

Because Gazprom’s European customers, tired of being ripped off by Gazprom, are avidly exploring the possibilities of undertaking fracking to develop their own sources of the “blue gold,” and nowhere is interest higher than in the Russian Federation’s neighbors Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and China.

Of Course, the Left Takes No Ownership for This

from Kevin Drum

Today, Aaron Carroll tells us the story of TriCor, aka fenofibrate, a cholesterol drug licensed by Abbott Labs in 1998. Unfortunately, TriCor's patent was due to run out in 2000 and a maker of generic drugs was all set to produce a generic version. So Abbott sued, which delayed the generic version by 30 months:

In the interim, Abbott sought and obtained FDA approval for Tricor-2. That drug was nothing more than a branded reformulation of Tricor-1.Tricor-1 came in 67-mg, 134-mg, and 200-mg capsules; Tricor-2 came in 54-mg and 160-mg tablets. No new trials involving Tricor-2 were submitted to the FDA. But Tricor-2 came out while the generic company was still waiting to make Tricor-1, and thus Tricor-2 began selling with no direct competition.

Six months later, Tricor-2 evidently accounted for 97% of all fenofibrate prescriptions. By the time the generic copies of Tricor-1 came out, no one was taking it anymore, and they couldn’t penetrate the market.

Wash, rinse, repeat. The generic companies petitioned to make generic Tricor-2. Abbott filed a patent infringement suit buying them a 30 month delay. They got to work on Tricor-3. That tablet came in 48-mg and 145-mg doses. No new studies. They got approval. Evidently, 70 days after Tricor-3 was introduced, 70% of users were switched to the new branded drug. By the time the other companies got generic Tricor-2 out, Tricor-3 had 96% of the market.

Apparently, the entire moral blame for this accrues to Abbott, though he admits maybe physicians have some culpability for never prescribing the generic.

Really?  I have no particular desire to defend serial rent-seekers like Abbott, but the farce here seems to be in the regulatory system where small changes in what is essentially the packaging size allow companies to protect a government-enforced monopoly for their product.  Given the enormous difference in earnings between a monopoly product and one with a generic competitor, it is no surprise that Abbott is going to react to these incentives and use the system as presented to it.  In fact, if it did not, its executives would be making a huge ethical lapse in failing in their fiduciary responsibilities.

If you really think this is a corporate greed problem, then why is it that Apple doesn't keep competitors out of the smartphone market by making tiny tweaks to the screen size of the iPhone.  Wait, you say, screen size changes don't act as a barrier to competition?  Of course not.  But then why do changes in capsule size for a given chemical compound?  Because of the involvement of the government.

No, the problem here is not Abbott, the problem is a broken government regulatory system.  And you can pretty much count on Drum and his allies responding to anyone who actually tries to initiate a reform by streamlining this craziness by screaming that they just want to kill people by relaxing government regulations.

The Mapmakers Petition

This could have also been labelled as from the files of "anti-trust is not about consumers."  Apparently, a mapmaker in France has successfully sued and won damages from Google for unfair competition, ie from providing Google Maps for free.

Just as in the Microsoft anti-trust case and just about every anti-trust case in history, companies who brought the suit are really trying to stop an up-start competitor from trashing their business model, but they have to couch this true concern in mumbled words about the consumer.  Specifically, they raise that ever-popular boogeyman of jacking up prices once the  monopoly is secured.  The next time this happens, of course, will be the first time.  Its a myth.  For example, in Google's case, left unsaid is how they would jack up their prices when at least two other companies (Bing, Mapquest) also provide mapping services online for free.

Public vs. Private Privacy Threats

I am always fascinated by folks who fear private power but support continuing increases in public / government power.  For me there is no contest - public power is far more threatening.  This is not because I necesarily trust private corporations like Goldman Sachs or Exxon or Google more than I do public officials.  Its because I have much more avenues of redress to escape the clutches of private companies and/or to enforce accountability on them.  I trust the incentives faced by private actors and the accountability mechanisms in the marketplace far more than I trust those that apply to government.

Here is a good example.  First, Kevin Drum laments the end of privacy because Google has proposed a more intrusive privacy policy.  I am not particularly happy about the changes, but at the end of the day, I am comforted by two things.  One:  I can stop using Google services.  Sure, I use them a lot now, but I don't have to.  After all, I used to be a customer or user of AOL, Compuserve, the Source, Earthlink, and Netscape and managed to move on from those guys.  Second:  At the end of the day, the worst they are tying to do to me is sell me stuff.  You mean, instead of being bombarded by irrelevant ads I will be bombarded by slightly more relevant ads?  Short of attempts of outright fraud like identity theft, the legal uses of this data are limited.

Kevin Drum, who consistently has more faith in the state than in private actors, actually gets at the real problem in passing (my emphasis added)

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

The last part is key.  Because the worst P&G will do is try to sell you some Charmin.  The government, however, can throw you and jail and take all your property.  Time and again I see people complaining about private power, but at its core their argument really depends on the power of the state to inspire fear.  Michael Moore criticizes private enterprise in Capitalism:  A Love Story, but most of his vignettes actually boil down to private individuals manipulating state power.  In true free market capitalism, his negative examples couldn't occur.  Crony capitalism isn't a problem of private enterprise, its a problem of the increasingly powerful state.  Ditto with Google:  Sure I don't like having my data get sold to marketers, and at some point I may leave Google over it.  But the point is that I can leave Google .... try leaving your government-enforced monopoly utility provider.  Or go find an alternative to the DMV.

A great example of this contrast comes to us from Hawaii:

There may be some trouble brewing in paradise, thanks to a seemingly draconian law currently under consideration in Hawaii's state legislature. If passed, H.B. 2288 would require all ISPs within the state to track and store information on their customers, including details on every website they visit, as well as their own names and addresses. The measure, introduced on Friday, also calls for this information to be recorded on each customer's digital file and stored for a full two years. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that the bill includes virtually no restrictions on how ISPs can use (read: "sell") this information, nor does it specify whether law enforcement authorities would need a court order to obtain a user's dossier from an ISP. And, because it applies to any firm that "provides access to the Internet," the law could conceivably be expanded to include not just service providers, but internet cafes, hotels or other businesses.

Americans fed up with Google's nosiness can simply switch email providers.  But if they live in Hawaii, they will have no escape from the government's intrusiveness.

Crony Capitalism? Blame the Progressives

That is the purposely inflammatory title of my article this week at Forbes.com, finding the roots of crony capitalism not in capitalism itself, but in progressive legislation.  An excerpt:

The core of capitalism has nothing to do with, and is in fact inherently corrupted by, the exercise of state power.  At its heart, capitalism is one simple proposition -- free exchange between individuals based on mutual self-interest.  There is no room in this definition for subsidies or special government preferences or bailouts.  The meat and potatoes activities of crony capitalism are corruptions rather than features of free markets.  Where state power to intervene in economic activity does not exist, neither does cronyism.

Believe it or not, the Occupy movement reminds me of nothing so much as 1832.  Flash back to that year, and you will find Federal officials with almost no power to help or hinder commerce... with one exception: the Second Bank of the United States, a powerful quasi-public institution that used its monopoly on government deposits as a source of funds for private lending.  The bank was accused of using its immense reserves of government cash to influence elections, enrich the favored, and lend based on political rather than economic formulae (any of this sound familiar?).  Andrew Jackson and his supporters, the raucous occupiers of their day, came into office campaigning against the fraud and cronyism at the Bank.

Jackson, much like the current OWS folks, was a strange blend of sometimes frontier anarchist and sometimes tyrannical authoritarian.  But in the case of the Second Bank, the OWS movement could well learn from Jackson.  He didn't propose new and greater powers for government officials to help check abuses of the existing powers -- he proposed to kill the Bank entirely.  Eliminate the source of power, and men can no longer tap it for their own enrichment.

Unfortunately, the progressive Left which makes up most of the OWS movement has taken exactly the opposite approach over the last century or so, expanding government powers and economic institutions (such that today the scope of the second bank seems quaintly limited) and thus the opportunity for cronyism.   In fact, most of the interventions that make crony capitalism possible are facilitated and enabled by the very progressive legislation that the progressive Left and the OWS protesters tend to favor.  Consider some examples...

The Teacher Salary Myth -- Are Teacher Underpaid?

My new column in Forbes addresses a topic I wrote about over 6 years ago, and got a ton of feedback on.

The problem with salaries for government workers like teachers is that, in a monopoly (particularly one enforced by law), the usual checks and balances on compensation simply don’t exist.  Let’s say a private school gives its teachers a big raise, and has to raise its tuitions to pay for those higher salaries.  Parents are then left with a choice as to whether to accept the higher tuitions, or to look elsewhere.  If they accept the higher fees, then great — the teachers make more money which is justified by the fact that their customers percieve them to be offering higher value.  If they do not accept the higher tuition, the school withers and either changes its practices or goes out of business.

But what happens when the state overpays for teachers (or any government employee)?  Generally, the govenrment simply demands more taxes.  Sure, voters can push back, but seldom do they win in a game dominated by concentrated benefits but dispersed costs.  On a per capita basis, teachers always have more to fight for than taxpayers, and are so well-organized they often are one of the dominant powers in electing officials in states like California.  This leads to the financially unhealthy situation of a teachers’ union negotiating across the table from officials who owe their office to the teachers’ union.

We might expect this actually to lead to inflated rather than parsimonious wages.  To see if this is true, we have a couple of different sources of data within the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to help us.

Click through to see the numbers, which tell the story pretty clearly

Cost Savings In Wisconsin

This was a pretty amazing article on cost savings experienced already by one school district in Wisconsin after the collective bargaining agreement with government unions was voided.

Of course, there have already been substantial cost-savings as more sane work rules have been put in place and employees have to pay a larger (but still trivial) share of their pension and health care premiums.

But I thought this bit of self-dealing by the unions was pretty amazing and is the type of thing that did not make the news back in the whole Wisconsin brouhaha

"The monetary part of it is not the entire issue," says Arnoldussen, a political independent who won a spot on the board in a nonpartisan election. Indeed, some of the most important improvements in Kaukauna's outlook are because of the new limits on collective bargaining.

In the past, Kaukauna's agreement with the teachers union required the school district to purchase health insurance coverage from something called WEA Trust -- a company created by the Wisconsin teachers union. "It was in the collective bargaining agreement that we could only negotiate with them," says Arnoldussen. "Well, you know what happens when you can only negotiate with one vendor." This year, WEA Trust told Kaukauna that it would face a significant increase in premiums.

Now, the collective bargaining agreement is gone, and the school district is free to shop around for coverage. And all of a sudden, WEA Trust has changed its position. "With these changes, the schools could go out for bids, and lo and behold, WEA Trust said, 'We can match the lowest bid,'" says Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke, who represents the area and supports the Walker changes. At least for the moment, Kaukauna is staying with WEA Trust, but saving substantial amounts of money.

This strikes me as an amazing example of self-dealing.  The union requires that their health care insurer get a monopoly, and then extract monopoly rents from the relationship.  You can be sure the union rank and file never saw a dime of these health care profits, which likely flowed to just a few union leaders plus the politicians who helped make it possible.

Bruce at Q&O has more

Standard disclaimer: I have no particular beef with unions per se, whose ability to organize workers is protected under the First Amendment's right to assembly.  My problems related to unions are

  1. Government rules that tilt the balance of power in negotiation to unions, require that all employees (in certain non-right-to-work states) join unions or at least pay dues, etc.
  2. Public unions are a different animal than private sector unions and I have turned pretty strongly against these.  The problem in public sector unions is that there is no adversary -- ie the politicians nominally negotiating with unions are often on the same side as the unions and cut horrible sweetheart deals that screw taxpayers.  Until we find a way to really represent taxpayers in public sector union negotiations as well as shareholders are represented in private sector negotiations, I tend to favor limits on public sector collective bargaining.

Lack of Imagination

One of the things I struggle with in arguing for ending the government schools monopoly is a lack of imagination.  In most people's lifetimes, there has never been a robust network of private school options to fit all needs and budgets, so folks assume that that such choices can't exist -- that there is some structural failure of capitalism that would prevent these choices from existing rather than structural government factors that have prevented them from existing.

Don Boudreaux has a nice analogy that helps make the logic of school choice clearer.

Public Employee Compensation Packages

I am with Megan McArdle in confirming that the non-pay portions of the typical public employee compensation package is at least as important, and as potentially expensive, as the money itself.  In particular, two aspects of many public employee compensation packages would be intolerable in my service business:

  • Inability to fire anyone in any reasonable amount of time
  • Work rules and job classifications

From time to time I hire seemingly qualified people who are awful with customers.  They yell at customers, or are surly and impatient with them, or ruin their camping stay with nit-picky nagging on minor campground rules issues.  In my company, these people quickly become non-employees.  In the public sector they become... 30 year DMV veterans.  Only in a world of government monopoly services can bad performance or low productivity be tolerated, mainly because the customer has no other option.  In my world, the customer has near-infinite other options.  And don't even get me started on liability -- when liability laws have been restructured so that I am nearly infinitely liable for the actions of my least responsible employee, I have to be ruthless about culling bad performance.

The same is true of work rules.  Forget productivity for a moment.  Just in terms of customer service, every one of my employees has to be able to solve customer problems.  I can't automatically assume customers will approach the firewood-seller employee for firewood.  All my employees need to be able to sell firewood, or empty a trash can when it needs emptying, or clean a bathroom if the regular cleaner is sick, or whatever.

For those who really believe state workers in Wisconsin are underpaid, I would ask this question:  Which of you business people out there would hire the average Wisconsin state worker for their current salary, benefits package, lifetime employment, work rules, grievance process, etc?  If they are so underpaid, I would assume they would get snapped up, right?  Sure.

Bonus advice to young people:  Think long and hard before you take that government job right out of college.  It may offer lifetime employment, but the flip side is that you may need it.  Here is what I mean:

When people leave college, they generally don't have a very good idea how to work in an organization, how to work under authority, how to manage people, how to achieve goals in the context of an organization's goals, etc.   You may think you understand these things from group projects at school or internships, but you don't.  I certainly didn't.

The public and private sector have organizations that work very differently, with different kinds of goals and performance expectations.  Decision-making processes are also very different, as are criteria for individual success within the organization.  Attitudes about risk, an in particular the adherence to process vs. getting results, are entirely different.

I am trying hard to be as non-judgmental in these comparisons as I can for this particular post.  I know good people in government service, and have hired a few good people out of government.  But the culture and incentives they work within are foreign to those of us who work in the private world, and many of the things we might ascribe to bad people in government are really due to those bad incentives.

It is a fact you should understand that many private employers consider a prospective employee to have been "ruined" by years of government work, particularly in their formative years.  This is simply a fact you will need to deal with (it could well be the reverse is true of government hiring, but I have no experience with it).  That is why, for the question I asked above about hiring Wisconsin government workers, the answer for many employers would be "no" irregardless of pay.

The Man Who Saved the Whales

My new Forbes column is up, and discusses two of the most vilified men in history.  One ended (at least for a while) the blight of government enforced monopoly in industry.  The other saved the whales.

Nobody Likes Having Competitors, but Only the State Can Ban Them

Private companies often come running to the government to protect themselves from competition.  Sometimes they are successful, and get government licensing and certification requirements that help create barriers to entry that protect incumbents  (if incumbents are lucky, they will actually get to control the licensing and certification board and testing process).

But whether or note private companies have the political muscle to get this kind of protection, the government almost always protects itself whenever it embarks on any sort of quasi-commercial enterprise.  The ban on first class mail delivery competition is one example (as an aside, when email began making an end run around this ban, the USPS actually made a [fortunately failed] play to be the monopoly email provider).  In Denver, there was a story a while back that after they built a new toll road, they added traffic lights and lowered the speed limit on a parallel free road to drive more people to the toll road.

Carpe Diem brings another example:

"When the old arena for the Orlando Magic opened 21 years ago, it was common for Parramore neighborhood residents who lived nearby to charge Magic fans and concert-goers to park on their property. But five weeks ago, the Orlando City Council approved standards that will likely keep most Parramore homeowners from profiting on parking near the Orlando Magic's new $480 million Amway Center (pictured above).

Among other things, property owners must pay a $275 application fee and provide a business tax receipt. Lots must have an attendant, signs, proper lighting and a paved, gravel or grass surface free of potholes or ruts. City officials also recommend hiring security. Even when all those requirements are met, temporary parking lots are allowed only during an event expected to draw at least 5,000 attendees. So far, five applications have been approved, but all are for large properties such as churches, not homeowners.

The city, meanwhile, has doubled its event-parking rate to $20 at the two garages closest to the Amway Center; elsewhere, event parking at city garages and lots is $10."

The last sentence explains the first two. They are trying to charge an above market price for parking, so must constrain supply to avoid being undercut.

You Want to Know Why Medical Care Is So Expensive?

You Want to Know Why Medical Care Is So Expensive?  Because the government has passed numerous laws to help medical practitioners enforce their monopoly on numerous medical services.

Today I encountered an egregious example.  1-800-Contacts will not ship my contact lens order.  Seeing that my 1-year prescription was about to run out (but still valid for another week, it expires on the 18th), I ordered a bunch of boxes of my daily lenses to see me through some more months.  The retailer called my eye doctor, who confirmed that the prescription was still valid but that the doctor would only allow me to buy one box because he wanted me to return for an exam soon.  They confirmed this by email:

Thank you for choosing 1-800 CONTACTS. While we were verifying your prescription, your eye care provider informed us that your prescription will be expiring soon. Unfortunately, this means that we are unable to ship your order....

But then we get to the real point

Also, if you would like assistance scheduling a new exam, we can help! We have a network of doctors with convenient locations and hours....

Sincerely,

The Doctor Network Team at 1-800 CONTACTS

So the email is not even from the customer service department.  It is from their doctor network.  Its clear the requirement is all about pumping up the eye doctor business.

I remember a Dilbert cartoon (or maybe it was the Far Side) where one copier repairman was pointing into a copier and telling the other that he should "set this dial for when he wanted to return."  We all have suspected something like this exists in copiers, but for all the dark humor, it really exists in the medical profession.

Why should the government force me to pay the doctor for as many visits as the doctor wants just to be able to purchase contact lenses?  One could argue this is for eye health or some happy BS like that, but we don't require everyone to visit the eye doctor at the doctor's pleasure, just people with bad vision who have daily wear contacts.  There is not, to my knowledge, any correlation between glaucoma and contact lens wearing, so why do I face such a government mandate while someone with 20/20 vision does not?

Further, why can't I self medicate on contact lens selection?  I know people who have been raised to be submissive sheep deferring to the almighty medical degree gasp at such a suggestion, but why not?  Because I have problems with both near and far sightedness, my choice of contact lens strength is a tradeoff anyway.  If I can see well long distance, I can't read anything without reading glasses.  Back off a bit on the far vision, allowing a little blurriness in one eye, and I can read in an emergency without my glasses.  I chose my own lens strength, and my doctor then wrote a prescription for it.  Why can't I just do this on my own, say with a trial kit of lenses from the manufacturer.  (for those who think it might be a size issue, there are only about 3 sizes in this type of lens, and they are far enough apart that once a size is selected, they are likely that size forever).  It's fine if people want to do this under a doctor's supervision, and I would certainly get into the doctor every two or three years, but why must the government mandate I go in more frequently, at the doctor's pleasure, not mine?

This kind of thing exists ad infinitum in the medical profession, with government mandates helping to protect over-educated professionals from lower-cost competition.  Why do I have to go to a dentist's office to get my teeth cleaned?  Why do I need someone with 12 years of medical training to put three stitches in my knee?  Why do I need a fully trained doctor to take me through the basics of a routine physical?  Why does Viagra require a prescription -- I mean, doesn't the doctor just take my word there is a problem, or is there actually a doctor out there who sends in hot nurses to prove whether I have an erectile problem?  OK, I might not begrudge that particular doctor visit.

Three Quarters of A Million Americans Arrested For Marijuana Possession in 2008

In the US last year, 754,224 people were arrested for possession (not dealing or production) of marijuana.  By the logic of US drug laws, all of these folks are better off with an arrest record and possible incarceration that they are from the nominal negative effects of smoking marijuana (FBI report here, via Radley Balko).  These numbers are just insane.  And while the report only gives race numbers for total drug arrests rather than for just marijuana offenses, a hugely disproportionate number are black (over 1/3 of arrests).

And speaking of equal protection, the arrest numbers for gambling are eye-opening (table 43).  75% of all people arrested for gambling last year in the US were black, including 90% of the arrests of those under 18 for this offense.  It seems it is A-OK for whites to play poker at home for money (I'm guilty) or to bet in Super Bowl pools (guilty again) or to clad themselves in polyester and head to the casino boat, but blacks who choose to compete with the state gambling/lottery monopoly will get arrested.  As an aside, I have always laughed at the government piously suing tobacco companies for targeting minorities with their advertising and then using the same techniques themselves to target minorities for their lottery sales.

That Great Public Service

Via Cafe Hayek:

American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus complains that "It is deeply troubling that Journal editors advocate ending the Postal Service's exclusive right to sort and deliver mail.  The Postal Service must remain a public service if we are to honor our nation's commitment to serve every American community "“ large or small, rich or poor, urban or rural "“ at affordable, uniform rates"


My family has  a ranch that is absolutely in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming - it is 30 minutes by dirt road from a town of 2,000.  The USPS delivers mail to a box 3 miles away from the ranch, and does it 3 days a week.  The USPS will not deliver overnight mail.   UPS delivers 6 days a week right to our door, including overnight mail.

The word "uniform" is the key -- what the USPS government protected monopoly buys us is a massive cross-subsidy, where city dwellers subsidize rural communities, Alaska, and Hawaii.   Further, because the USPS knows that these subsidized routes are cost black holes, they tend to cut back on service to try to save money.  The result is that no one is served well, as is often the case when a large cross-subsidy exists -- cities pay more for their mail, and everyone gets worse service.

Explain the Correlation...

I am confused as to why a preference for overpriced organic foods and a preference for government monopoly control of health care are necessarily correlated at the 1.0 level.  But apparently they are.  Maybe its a common desire to overpay for basic necessities?