Posts tagged ‘productivity’

Eating Your Seed Corn

I found this to be one of the most immoral statements I have read in a long time (bold added)

Saez and Diamond argue that the right marginal tax rate for North Atlantic societies to impose on their richest citizens is 70%.

It is an arresting assertion, given the tax-cut mania that has prevailed in these societies for the past 30 years, but Diamond and Saez’s logic is clear. The superrich command and control so many resources that they are effectively satiated: increasing or decreasing how much wealth they have has no effect on their happiness. So, no matter how large a weight we place on their happiness relative to the happiness of others – whether we regard them as praiseworthy captains of industry who merit their high positions, or as parasitic thieves – we simply cannot do anything to affect it by raising or lowering their tax rates.

The unavoidable implication of this argument is that when we calculate what the tax rate for the superrich will be, we should not consider the effect of changing their tax rate on their happiness, for we know that it is zero. Rather, the key question must be the effect of changing their tax rate on the well-being of the rest of us.

From this simple chain of logic follows the conclusion that we have a moral obligation to tax our superrich at the peak of the Laffer Curve: to tax them so heavily that we raise the most possible money from them – to the point beyond which their diversion of energy and enterprise into tax avoidance and sheltering would mean that any extra taxes would not raise but reduce revenue.

Another way to state the passage in bold is, "if one can convince himself he will be happier with another person's money than that other person would be, it is not only morally justified, but a moral imperative to take it."

This is the moral bankruptcy of the modern welfare state laid bare for all to see.  Not sure if this even deserves further comment.  Either you see the immorality or you bring a lot of very different assumptions about morality to the table than I.  For those of you who accept the quoted statement, how are you confident you will always be the taker, the beneficiary?  You might be if the box is drawn just around the US, but from a worldwide perspective all you folks in the American 99% may find yourselves in the world's 1%.

And from a purely practical standpoint, while I suppose one might argue that the total happiness in this particular instant could be maximized by taking most all the rich's marginal income, what happens tomorrow?  It's like eating your seed corn.  Taking capital out of the hands of the folks who have been the most productive at employing capital and helicopter dropping it on the 99% feels good right up until you need some job creation or economic growth or productivity improvement.

To this day, over 30 years after I had it explained in economics class, I am still floored by the line I read in the introductory macro textbook describing the Keynesian manipulation of Y=C+I+G+(X-M) to demonstrate a "multiplier" effect.  The part that I never could get over was at the very beginning when they said "I, or Investment, is considered exogenous" - in other words, the other variables could be freely manipulated, the government could grow and deficit spend as much as it liked, and investment would be unaffected.  Huh?

My memory was that Keynesians considered "I" a loser.  They felt anything that was not G or C actually acted as a drag, at least in the near term (in the long run we will all be dead).  This despite the fact that "I" is the only thing that grows the pie over time.

Chinese Declaration of Independence

This is a story I don't know enough about

Farmers from 18 households in Xiaogang signed a secret life-and-death agreement ending collective farming with their thumbprints. (From Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics)

The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward – agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over.  In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting.  The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep.  The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be killed or jailed the others would raise his or her children until the age of 18. [The actual agreement is shown at right.]

The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased.  “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.

Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides.  But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property. In Beijing, Mao Zedong was dead and a new set of rulers, seeing the productivity improvements, decided to let the experiment proceed.

The Ultimate End of Social-Democratic Labor Policy

When a country

  • Increases the minimum wage, and therefore the minimum skill / productivity needed for a job
  • Adds substantially to the costs of labor through required taxes, insurance premiums, pensions, etc
  • Makes employees virtually un-fireable, thus forcing companies to think twice about hiring young, unproven employees they may be saddled with, good or bad, for decades
  • Puts labor policy in the hands of people who already have jobs (ie unions)
  • Shift wealth via social security and medical programs from the young to the old

It gets this


The bitterly ironic part is that when these folks hit the streets in mass protests, it will likely be for more of the same that put them there in the first place.

Want to argue that such policies are hurting workers rather than helping?  Good luck, at least in Italy

Pietro Ichino, a professor of labor law at the University of Milan and a senator in the Italian legislature, is known as the author of several “neoliberal” books and studies recommending that the Italian government relax its extraordinarily stringent regulation of employers’ hiring and firing decisions. As Bloomberg Business Week reports, that means that Prof. Ichino must fear for his life: “For the past 10 years, the academic and parliamentarian has lived under armed escort, traveling exclusively by armored car, and almost never without the company of two plainclothes policemen. The protection is provided by the Italian government, which has reason to believe that people want to murder Ichino for his views.”

Memo to US:  Don't get cocky, you are going down the same path

 Update:  Interesting and sort of related from Megan McArdle

An apparent paradox that frequently puzzles journalists is that Europeans work fewer hours than workers in the United States, while in some countries, hourly productivity appears to be the same, or even higher, than that of American workers.
This is not actually a paradox at all.  Much of the decline in European hours worked per-capita came in the form of unemployment.  Rigid labor laws which make it hard to fire (and thus, risky to hire) shut less productive workers out of the market, particularly the young, and those who had been displaced due to disruptive industry change.  So does anything that raises the cost of labor, like, er, loads of mandatory vacation and leave.  When you exclude your least productive workers from the labor force, your measured hourly productivity will be higher, particularly if you use metrics like GDP per hours worked.

Government Mal-Investment

A reader sends me this editorial from Jerry Jordan at IBD.  It discusses a topic that is one of my favorites - government mal-investment.  By a thousand different mechanisms, from direct investment (Solyndra) to artificial interest rates to monkeying with price signals to economic rule-making (e.g. community banking, ethanol mandates) the government is shifting capital and resources from the allocations a well-funcitoning market would make to optimize returns and productivity to allocations based on political calculation.  We rightly worry about deficits and taxes, but in the long run this redistribution of investment from the productive to the sexy or politically expedient may have the largest long-term negative implications -- just look at what the management of the Japanese economy by MITI (touted at the time as fabulous by statists everywhere) did to that country, with the lost decade becoming the the lost two decades.

It is hard to excerpt but here is how it begins

It usually surfaces with an entrepreneurial adolescent deciding it would be a good idea to sell lemonade at the curbside to passersby

Parents, wanting to encourage the idea that working and making money is a good idea, drive around to buy the lemon, sugar, designer bottled water, cups, spoons, napkins, a sign or two, and probably a paper table cloth.

Aside from time and gas, the outing adds up to something north of $10. At the opening of business the next day, the kids find business is slow to nonexistent at $1 per cup. So, they start to learn about market demand and find that business becomes so brisk at only 10 cents per cup that they are sold out by noon, having served 70 cups of lemonade and hauled in $7.

The excited lunch-time conversation is about expanding the business. A stand across the street to catch traffic going the opposite direction; maybe one around the corner for the cross-street traffic. The kids see growing revenue; the "investors" see mounting losses.

There is a strand of economics, we'll call it the K-brand, that sees all this as worthwhile. They add together the $10 spent by the parents to back the venture and the $7 spent by the customers and conclude that an additional $17 of spending is clearly a good thing. Surely, the neighborhood economy has been stimulated.

To the family it is a loss, chalked up as a form of consumption. If this were a business enterprise it would be a write-off. In classical economics it is a "mal-investment."


Name the Industry

Name the industry where 99.9% of the time, public policy has an explicit goal to substantially reduce worker productivity.   Answer.

Do You Want to Be A Farmer?

I have zero desire to be  a farmer.  But that would seem to be the logical end result if we take Obama's recent statement to its logical conclusion.  He said in his Kansas "OK, I really am a socialist after all" speech:

Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Steel mills that needed 100—or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle. And these changes didn’t just affect blue-collar workers. If you were a bank teller or a phone operator or a travel agent, you saw many in your profession replaced by ATMs and the Internet.

As has been pointed out by economists everywhere since the speech, Obama is fighting against the very roots of wealth creation and growth and our economy.  Productivity improvement has always been the main engine of a better life for Americans, but here Obama is decrying it.

This reduction in employment in major industries due to productivity is not new.  It began with the agriculture.  Check this out from the always awesome Mark Perry

This is exactly what Obama is criticizing.  Without productivity improvements of the type Obama seems to hate, nine out of ten of you would be laboring in a field rather than reading this on the Internet.   Are you poorer because you don't have to grow your own food?  Of course not.   Every time we increase productivity in a major industry, we fee up labor for the next big thing.  We couldn't have had the steel or auto or oil industries if agricultural productivity improvements had not feed up labor for them.  The computer revolution would be impossible if we all were working in steel mills.

PS- of course this does not work if the next big thing, say domestic gas productions through fracking, is blocked by the government and private investment capital is diverted by the government to cronies with a solar panel factory.

Paying More Now So We Can Pay More Later

From the Goldwater Institute, on the amount of money we in Phoenix are paying in taxes to support union management costs

Phoenix taxpayers spend millions of dollars to pay full salary and benefits for city employees to work exclusively for labor unions, a Goldwater Institute investigation found.

Collective bargaining agreements with seven labor organizations require the city to pay union officers and provide members with thousands of additional hours to conduct union business instead of doing their government jobs.

The total cost to Phoenix taxpayers is about $3.7 million per year, based on payroll records supplied by the city. In all, more than 73,000 hours of annual release time for city workers to conduct union business at taxpayers’ expense are permitted in the agreements.

The top officials in all of the unions have regular jobs with the city. But buried in the labor agreements are a series of provisions for those employees to be released from their regular duties to perform union work.

For top officers, the typical amount of annual release time is 2,080 hours, a full year of work based on 52 weeks at 40 hours each. They continue to draw full pay and benefits, just as if they were showing up for their regular jobs. But they are released from their regular duties to conduct undefined union business.

Union officials say the time is a good investment that leads to a more productive workforce. Critics say it amounts to an illegal gift of taxpayer money.

The "more productive workforce" line is just hilarious.  99.9% of the this work very likely is against the best interests of taxpayers, either raising future salaries or enforcing productivity-killing work rules or preventing the termination of incompetent employees.

I understand that there are similar provisions in some private union contracts, but if I was a shareholder in these companies I would be outraged about those as well.  As it turns out, private companies that have these deals tend to be among the most dysfunctional and uncompetitive in the country (e.g. GM).

What's particularly ugly about this is that it is so reminiscent of a number of Soprano's episodes, with the mafia guys all sitting around in no-work and no-show jobs at taxpayer expense.

Believe it or Not....

... there are actually folks who think that Obama's farcical and unreachable 54.5 mpg standards for cars are too low.

Since cars are redesigned every 5 years, the 2025 date is basically 3 car revisions from now.  It also is far enough in the future the auto makers can cynically sign on now fully expecting to ignore or change the regulation in the future.

This is the corporate state in 2011.  Every single executive signing on to this is thinking "this standard is total BS."  But they go along with it because they fear the government's power over them and crave the valuable taxpayer $ giveaways this Administration has demonstrated it is willing to give its bestest buddies in the auto industry.

Of course, once again, some greenie has convinced himself this will create all sorts of jobs.   Sure, investments in car mileage is an investment in productivity (cars will uses fewer resources for the same output, ie miles driven).  BUT - the money that will be forced into this investment would come from other spending and investments.  Right now, private actors think that these other investments are a better use of the money than investing in more MPG.  I will take the market's verdict over the gut feel of an innumerate green.  So this standard is about shifting investment and spending from more to less productive uses.  Which has to reduce growth and jobs.

Stossel on Keynsianism

This is right on the mark

His description of what Keynesians believe is correct. It's why Keynesians, including the President, thought that government spending would stimulate the economy. As Klein points out, "Obama didn't just have a team of Keynesians. He had the Keynesian all-star team."

Right, but then Klein gets it wrong: "The idea [behind Keynesian economics], in other words, is not about whether the government spends money better than individuals."

Yes it is! Obama and Klein think that during a recession, "the financial system scares business and consumers so badly that they hoard money, which worsens the damage to the system." Therefore, the government must take money away from individuals, and spend it elsewhere. Eric Cantor correctly pointed out that the theory is: "government can be counted on to spend more wisely than the people."

Part of the problem here is in nomenclature.  People don't think of saving as spending.  So I will shift a word a bit.  The idea of Keynesian economics is that the government can deploy your money better than individuals can.

The cause of the asset bubble for this argument is almost irrelevant.  Households, finding themselves over-leveraged, want to deleverage by buying fewer things and saving more money.  The Keynesians explicitly wanted to prevent this by taking the money that would have been saved and spending it.  This destroys value in two ways.  As Stossel points out, it shifts money from being deployed with an eye on productivity to being deployed with an eye on politics.  From a value-creation standpoint, this has to destroy value.  In addition, by slowing the process of deleveraging, it slows the recovery, unless individuals in the mean time can be convinced that they really don't need to deleverage.  And is that really the post-bubble message we should be sending out?


Mandating Faulty Accounting to Reach Absurd MPG Standards

President Obama wants a 56.2 mile per gallon standard for cars by 2025.  Both advocates and opponents of this say the only way to make this is if everyone drives an electric car or plug in hybrid.  But the fact of the matter is, even those don't get 56.2 mpg, except through an accounting fiction.

A while back I ran the numbers on the Nissan Leaf. According to the EPA, this car gets an equivalent of 99 MPG.  But that is only by adopting the fiction of looking only at the efficiency in converting electricity to power in the wheels.  But the electricity comes from somewhere (the marginal kilowatt almost certainly comes from a fossil fuel) and the new EPA methodology completely ignores conversion efficiency of fuel to electricity.  Here is how I explained it at Forbes:

The problem is that, using this methodology, the EPA is comparing apples to oranges.   The single biggest energy loss in fossil fuel combustion is the step when we try to capture useful mechanical work (ie spinning a driveshaft in a car or a generator in a power plant) from the heat of the fuel’s combustion.  Even the most efficient processes tend to capture only half of the potential energy of the fuel.   There can be other losses in the conversion and distribution chain, but this is by far the largest.

The EPA is therefore giving the electric vehicle a huge break.  When we measure mpg on a traditional car, the efficiency takes a big hit due to the conversion efficiencies and heat losses in combustion.  The same thing happens when we generate electricity, but the electric car in this measurement is not being saddled with these losses, even though we know they still occur in the system.

Lets consider an analogy.  We want to measure how efficiently two different workers can install a refrigerator in a customer’s apartment.  In both cases the customer lives in a fourth floor walkup.  The first installer finds the refrigerator has been left on the street.  He has to spend much of his time struggling to haul the appliance up four flights of stairs.  After that, relatively speaking, the installation is a breeze.  The second installer finds his refrigerator has thoughtfully been delivered right to the customer’s door on the fourth floor.  He quickly brings the unit inside and completes the installation.

So who is a better installer?  If one only looks at the installer’s time, the second person looks orders of magnitude better.  But we know that he is only faster because he offloaded much of the work on the delivery guys.  If we were to look at the total time of the delivery person plus the installer, we’d probably find they were much closer in their productivity.  The same is true of the mileage standards — by the EPA’s metric, the electric vehicle looks much better than the traditional vehicle, but that is only because someone else at the power plant had to do the really hard bit of work that the traditional auto must do itself.  Having electricity rather than gasoline in the tank is the equivalent of starting with the refrigerator at the top rather than the bottom of the stairs.

The DOE has actually published a better methodology, going from "well to wheels," creating a true comparable efficiency for electric cars to gasoline engine cars.  By this methodology, the Nissan Leaf all electric car only gets 36 MPG!  In fact, no current electric car would meet the 56.2 MPG standard if the accounting were done correctly.  Which is why the EPA had to create a biased, inaccurate MPG equivalent measure for electric vehicles to artificially support this Presidential initiative.

Obamacare and the Lost Recovery

Corporate profitability is back up, and output has returned to nearly pre-recession levels.  But employment still has not recovered.  Why?

Well, I am sure there are a lot of reasons, but one potential reason I have pointed out for a while are Federal efforts to increase the cost of employment.  If the true cost of an employee is higher, or even more uncertain, then investments are going to be funneled preferentially into capital rather than labor.  Certainly that is what our company has been doing for a while.  Thus productivity is way up, and employment is low.

I believe that Obamacare is a very important element in raising the cost and uncertainty of hiring new employees, particularly for small and middle-sized businesses that so often drive much of American employment growth.  Certainly in the NFIB, the small business group to which my company belongs, the entire character of our internal discussions has changed.  Three years ago we might have been discussing a mix of 10 or 12 issues we had.  Now all you hear is Obamacare discussion.  [Note - some on the Left like Kevin Drum argue that this concern is irrational.  I seldom take seriously the opinion of people who have never tried to make a payroll about what business people should and should not be concerned about, but it almost does not matter.  Whether it is irrational or not, the concern is a fact.]

Let me share a chart I just saw on Kevin Drum's blog (which he used to make an entirely different point).  Let's look at the recession up to March 2010:

Look at the orange line which is private sector employment growth (the blue bars include government and get squirrelly in 2010 due to temporary census workers).  This looks like a normal (though deep) recession with a nice recovery beginning.

Then, on March 18, 2010, Obamacare passed.  Now lets play the numbers forward.  Again, pay attention to the private job growth in orange - the blue spike in April in May is all temporary census workers

Correlation is not equal to causation, but Obamacare looks to me to be exactly like the National Industrial Recovery Act under FDR, a huge source of regime uncertainty and stab at free markets that killed an incipient recovery.

Things People Believe That Make No Sense

You often hear people say that one of the main reasons for health care inflation is the cost of all the new technology.  But can you name any other industries that compete in free markets where technology introductions have caused inflation rates to run at double the general rate of inflation?  In fact, don't we generally associate the introduction of technology with reduced costs and increased productivity?

Compare a McDonald's kitchen today with one thirty years ago -- there is a ton of technology in there.  Does anyone think that given the price-sensitive markets McDonald's competes in, this technology was introduced to increase prices?

Or look at medical fields like cosmetic surgery or laser eye surgery.  Both these fields have seen substantial introductions of new technology, but have seen inflation rates not only below the general health care inflation rate but below the CPI, meaning they have seen declining real prices for decades.

The difference is not technology, but the pricing and incentive system.  Cosmetic surgery and laser eye surgery are exceptions in the health care field -- they are generally paid out of pocket rather than by third parties (Overall, third party payers pay about 88% of all health care bills in the US).

The problem with health care is not technology -- the problem is that people don't shop for care with their own money.

Postscript:   Thinking some more after I wrote this, I can think of one other industry where introduction of technology has coincided with price inflation well above the CPI -- education.  It is interesting, but not surprising to me, that this is the other industry, along with health care, most dominated by third party payer systems and public subsidies of consumers.

Have a Koch and a Smile

So we now discover yet another similarity between Left and Right -- they both seem to get powerful motivation by singling out a billionaire on the opposite side of the political spectrum and then blaming all manner of conspiracies on him.  The right has had fun for years vilifying George Soros and so the Left, sad to be left out of the fun, has latched onto the Koch brothers.  The objective is to tar an individual so thoroughly that mere suggestion that he supports a particular issue  casts so much doubt on the issue that its merits do not even have to be argued.  This is a game that climate alarmists were really pioneers at devising, tarring skeptics for years at the mere hint that some organization they are related to got 0.1% of its funding from Exxon.  I know folks play this game in my comment section from time to time.

This is a game I find utterly exhausting and absolutely without merit, a black hole of intellectual productivity.  For God sakes there are 524,000 Google results for "soros-funded."  Of what possible value is this adjective?  Perhaps at its best it is a proxy for "left-leaning" but then why not just use those more descriptive words?

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.

Notice to Companies

Calling me with a robo-caller, and then putting me on hold for any amount of time other than about 2 seconds, is not going to reach me.  Today I actually was not busy and waited 30 seconds through such a hold before I hung up, and that is a record.  I know that you are concerned about the productivity of your workers, but I am concerned with mine as well.

Finger on the Pulse of America

Yeah, I can see the Administration has its finger on the pulse of what all Americans feel to be the real, burning issue confronting the TSA.  Specifically:

"It is no secret that the morale of the TSO workforce is terrible as a result of favoritism, a lack of fair and respectful treatment from many managers, poor and unhealthy conditions in some airports, poor training and testing protocols and a poor pay system," said AFGE President John Gage. "The morale problems are documented by the government's own surveys. TSOs need a recognized union voice at work, and the important decision of the FLRA finally sets the process in motion to make that right a reality."

At every airport I have been to lately, there are probably two TSA workers standing around doing nothing for every one working.  Obviously this is a brutal productivity standard, and TSA workers long for the conditions that obtain, say, among municipal road workers where five or six workers stand around doing nothing for every one working.


This post and this post came up back to back in my feed reader this morning.  The first explored per capita GDP between Greece and Germany, and wonders why the published numbers can be so close when visual evidence is that the average Greek is far less prosperous than the average German.  Brian Caplan explains the largest difference between Greece and Germany in terms of public sector productivity, with 10% of the workforce in Germany working for the state while a third of Greeks do so.

Knowing the Germans, it's easy to believe that its government employees accomplish as much as the Greeks' despite their smaller population share.  This implies that 25% of the Greek labor force is, contrary to official stats, producing nothing.

So using Sumner's other numbers - and assuming output is roughly proportional to labor force - per-capita GDP is more than 50% higher in Germany than Greece.  First-hand observation tells me that's still an understatement, but it still closes a big chunk of the gap between official stats and reality.  How's that for a mental image?

UPDATE: The NY Times apparently overstated the 1/3 figure, see here.

Right after reading that piece, I read this from Jim O'Brien via Tad DeHaven:

Back in 1990, Halstein Stralberg coined the term "automation refugees" to describe Postal Service mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing. Since the Postal Service couldn't lay off these employees, they had to be given something to do, and manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees by the simple expedient of reducing its productivity. The result was a sharp decline in mail processing productivity and a sharp increase in mail processing costs for Periodicals class. Periodicals class cost coverage has declined steadily since that time.

O'Brien then tells of visiting seventeen mail processing facilities as part of a Joint Mail Processing Task Force in 1998. During those visits he noted that the periodical sorting machines always happened to be down even though the machines were supposed to be operating seventeen hours a day. Although the machines weren't working, manual operations were always up and running.

A decade later, O'Brien points out that the situation apparently hasn't changed:

More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline. Periodicals Class now only covers 75% of its costs. How can this dismal pattern of declining productivity and rising costs continue more than two decades after it was first identified, especially when the Postal Service has invested millions of dollars in flats automation equipment?

Years ago, I briefly consulted to the SNCF, the French national railroad.  I say briefly, because thought they technically asked us to benchmark them against US firms, its clear they did not really want to hear the results.  The one figure that sticks in my mind is that they had something like 100,000 freight cars, but 125,000 freight car maintenance employees.  I remember observing to a highly unamused SNCF executive that they could assign one maintenance worker to his very own freight car and still lay off 20% of the staff.  And apparently France is an order of magnitude better on stuff like this than Greece.

Health Care and the Post Office

The recent bankruptcy of the USPS and the proposal to cut Saturday delivery has interesting implications for government and health care.  Everyone, from the GAO to the management of the USPS know that there are substantial productivity improvement that could be had with better labor deployment and employee accountability, but no one has the will to take on the union.  As a result, the only cost cutting idea they can propose is service cuts.  Which is further proof of what I have been saying for a couple of years -- that despite all the hopey changey talk, the only real idea anyone in the Obama administration or Congress can come up with for health care cost reduction is reduced services and/or price controls (which reduce supply and thus services).

Economic Ignorance

The WSJ is reporting that Obama's speech will propose:

Starting next year, the plan also calls for annual fees of $6 billion on health-insurance providers, $4 billion for medical-device makers, $2.3 billion on drug makers and $750 million on clinical laboratories. The fees would be levied on individual companies based on market share.

Don't you love that, by the way.  The benefits are not programmed to begin until 2013 but the taxes start in 2010.  But let's rewrite this paragraph to be less economically ignorant:

Starting next year, the plan also calls for annual fees of $6 billion on customers of health-insurance providers, $4 billion for customers of medical-device makers, $2.3 billion on customers of drug makers and $750 million on customers of clinical laboratories. The fees would be levied on individual companies based on market share, then passed on to their customers in the form of price increases, as are all such fees, particularly on low-margin industries such as health insurance.

Congratulations.  Obama has embarked on his quest to reduce the cost of health care by increasing the costs of health care suppliers by over $13 billion per year.  That should work.

For years I have been saying that the government has only one lever to reduce costs (as any thought that they might reduce costs through increased productivity is just a joke rebutted by all of history):  Force people to use less, either by raising the price, reducing the supply, or outright banning certain expenditures in certain situations.

Universities are Farther Left Than I Remembered

It is not at all surprising that an Ivy League University professor does not recognize a difference between rationing by individual choice based on price signals and rationing based on government mandate.  What is surprising to me is that I remember this particular professor, Uwe Reinhardt, as the only person who would ever take the free market side of campus debates.  Kind of depressing.  I guess he must have seemed free market just by contrast, or else he has evolved a bit.  Is it ironic to anyone else that radicalism of the 1960s, which purported to be based on individualism and freedom, has led to campuses where it is normal not to even consider individual liberty as part of a public policy equation?  It just reinforced my sense that no one really wants to get rid of "the man," they just want to be "the man" themselves.

In particular he writes:

As I read it, the main thrust of the health care reforms espoused by President Obama and his allies in Congress is first of all to reduce rationing on the basis of price and ability to pay in our health system

We actually have plenty of examples of the government ending rationing by price and ability to pay.  Gas price controls in the 1970s are one very good example.  Anyone remember the result?


Or more recently in China, where gas prices were controlled well below world market levels:


We substituted gas rationing by willingness to pay the posted price with gas price rationing by ability to waste four hours of one's day sitting in lines. (I had never thought of this before, but there must be some interesting economic implications of preferentially routing fuel to those least likely to have a full-time job).

Perhaps worse, Reinhardt equates criticism of the current health care system ( and particularly its productivity) with support for socialization of the system.  Really?  There are perfectly valid free market reasons to criticize health care, where any number of government policy decisions over the years have disrupted the efficacy of price signals and created terrible incentives.

More here from Doug Bandow of Cato

Postscript: Farther left?  Further left?  Sorry, I try, but your scribe is an engineer at heart and sometimes struggles with the native tongue.  When I was in fourth grade, I remember doing a battery of achievement tests, and getting 99+ percentile scores on every test but spelling, where I got something like a 25th percentile.   I think this score put me down mostly with kids for whom English is a second language  (or maybe even worse, with Russian kids for whom ours is a second alphabet).  Only technology in the form of spell-checkers has bailed me out of my personal handicap.

Staggeringly Low Productivity

I was amazed by this:

Total k-12 expenditures in this country were about $630 billion two years ago (see Table 25, Digest of Ed Statistics 2008). The efficiency of our education system is less than half what it was in 1971 (i.e., we spend more than twice as much to get the same results "” see Table 181, same source).

So if we'd managed to ensure that education productivity just stagnated, we'd be saving over $300 billion EVERY YEAR. If we'd actually seen productivity improvements in education such as we've seen in other fields, we'd be saving at least that much money and enjoying higher student achievement at the same time.

Get Bob Cratchitt to Do It

The Town of South Attleboro, MA sent out wildly threatening past due letters for folks with balances as low as 1-cent  (thereby investing at least 42 cents to get one back).  In response to charges that this was stupid, City Collector Debora Marcoccio responded:

A computer automatically printed the letters for any account with a balance remaining, and they were not reviewed by staff before being sent out, Marcoccio said.

"It would be fiscally irresponsible for me to have staff weed through the bills and pull out any below a certain amount," Marcoccio said. " And what would that amount be?"

What, are we living in the 19th century with clerks in a musty room preparing bills by hand?  This fix probably requires one whole entire line of program code in the billing system to fix.  I could probably teach myself to code whatever language the payroll system is written in (my guess is COBOL, which, god help me, I already know) in less time than this woman has spent fielding complaints and media inquiries.  Compare this to what TJIC has to do just to get the mail out.

And don't you love people who don't even have enough spine to make a simple decision about the cutoff for minimum bill size.  I have found this is one of those things the government is really, really bad at -- making decisions under uncertainty  (which covers about all decisions, except routine ones embodied in SOP).  Government has no incentives, in general, for productivity, or production, or customer satisfaction.  The only time government employees get feedback at all is when they get negative feedback from having someone yell at them for making a decision that some higher-up didn't like..  So if a decision is not justifiable either by past precedent/SOP or explicitly by the rules, it is not made.

By the way, I had a personal programming milestone last night.  I finally built a website without using a WYSIWIG editor that formatted the way I wanted it to all in CSS without a single table.  I predict that now that I have finally gotten a decent handle on CSS, which mainly consists of learning all the workarounds for when it doesn't work as you would expect, that someone is about to introduce a whole new system for formatting web pages.

In Search of the Good Life

Tim Harford Via TJIC:

Superficially, it seems that many people seek sunny climes,
especially now that air conditioning is available. For example,
long-run population growth in the "Sunbelt" "” the US South - is often
attributed to a demand for, well, sun.

Harvard economists Ed Glaeser and Kristina Tobio think
otherwise. They argue that before 1980, the boom in the South was
thanks to the region's growing productivity. After 1980, population
continued to grow, but house prices lagged behind those elsewhere in
the US, suggesting that the driving force was not high demand but
permissive planning rules. Certainly balmy California, with its tighter
restrictions on building, did not enjoy the same population growth.

All of this tends to suggest that people don't value sunshine quite as much as is supposed.

I have pretty convincing anecdotal evidence that the first part, at least, is true.  I worked for a large manufacturing corporation called Emerson Electric (no relation to the electronics company).  They are one of the few Fortune 50 companies not at all coy to admit that they move factories around the world chasing lower wages.  They had an epiphany decades ago, when in their planning, they assumed the move overseas was always a trade-off of wages for productivity... until they visited at motor plant in Brazil that had first world automation and productivity combined with third world wages.  That got their attention.  To their credit, they have pushed this further and further, such that not only are their factory workers in Mexico, but their plant superintendents and skilled workers and even their engineers are now Mexican too.

Anyway, if you listen to the company tell this story, phase 1 of the story was not a move to Mexico or Asia but to the south.  They must have moved probably 50 manufacturing plants over a decade from the northeast to the south during the sixties and seventies. 

This constant movement seems to be a natural life-cycle of locations as they grow wealthy.  Poorer regions eagerly welcome newcomers who may bring jobs and prosperity.  But, once the prosperity is there, the prosperous in town begin using government and other institutions to try to lock in their gains.  Corporations use government to fight new competitors.  Wealthy homeowners pass zoning to keep home prices high and rising.  Unions tend to increase and lock in gains for current workers at the expense of new workers.  A kind of culture of hostility emerges to any new job that makes less than $54,000 a year, any house that costs less than $400,000, and any immigrant who doesn't have a pale face.

Just When You Thought the DMV Couldn't Get Any Worse

Arizona required emissions inspections of vehicles, but only for vehicles in the cities of Phoenix or Tucson.  So, as you can imagine, they only have testing stations in Phoenix and Tucson.

Our company is headquartered in Phoenix.  That is our legal address and the address on all our titles and registrations and licenses and such.  Because all of our vehicle registrations show the company headquartered in Phoenix, then the state of Arizona treats all our trucks as being located in Phoenix.  As a result, we are required to get emissions tests each year on about 20 vehicles.

But wait.  None of our vehicles are actually in Phoenix.  In fact, none have ever even crossed into this county.  They are all in places like Flagstaff and Sedona and Payson that have no emissions requirements, and therefore, no testing locations.  As a result, I am apparently required to, once a year, have all of our trucks driven to Phoenix for an emissions test that they are not actually required to have based on where they operate.  In additions to the cost of the test itself, and any repairs mandated by the test, it costs us 400 miles x $0.55 per mile gas and depreciation plus 8 hours x $12 hour labor for the driver or $316 per vehicle to get them to the test site and back.  A sort of annual pilgrimage to worship at the alter of mindless bureaucracy.

Recognize that none of this was obvious to me at 8AM this morning.  I spent my entire morning not worrying about my 500 employees and not improving productivity and not pursuing some projects we are considering for expanded customer services, but trying to figure this situation out.  All because some state legislators didn't realize that maybe corporate vehicle fleets are not necessarily registered in the location in which they are used.

I still think there must be a legal way to show my vehicle domiciled at one physical address but have the mailing address be my corporate office in Phoenix.  But if there is, I have not found anyone who will admit it.

Another Government Program that Misses the Point

Apparently, the state of Arizona, fearing the coming old-folks demographic boom, is looking to create programs to keep older Americans working longer (and by extension off the government teat longer).

The thought of millions of boomers taking their early-retirement
benefits is causing concern about the stability of Social Security and

"We know not everybody is going to up and retire all at once," Starns
said, "and we will have younger workers coming in. But if you look at
all the demographics, there just won't be enough people to fill all the
jobs that could be vacant."

Add that possibility to existing shortages of workers in health-care
and other fields, she said, and "there could be some pretty significant
problems in society."

Arizona, which launched its Mature Workforce Initiative in 2005 to
avert such a crisis, was one of five states lauded last month for
efforts to engage people 50 and older in meaningful jobs and community

The San Francisco-based Civic Ventures think tank also cited
California, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts, saying the five
states recognize older workers as "an experience dividend," rather than
a drain on resources.

Of course, since it is government, the state of Arizona is, with one hand, patting itself on the back for instituting vague and meaningless but well publicized programs nominally targeted at this issue, while with the other taking steps that have real and substantial effects in exactly the opposite direction.

First, Arizona has some of the toughest laws in the country to penalize businesses for hiring, even accidentally, young vigorous immigrants who don't have all their government licenses in order.   Young workers are pouring into this state every day, but Arizona is turning them away and locking them up. 

Second, Arizona has been legislating as fast as it can to make it nearly impossible to hire older workers.  I know, because the vast majority of my work force managing campgrounds is over 65.  These workers tend to work for a free camp site plus minimum wage.  They like the job despite the low pay because they get a place to park their RV and because the job is part time and very flexible in how they work (not to mention offers the opportunity to take whole chunks of the year off).  I like these workers because they are experienced and reliable and paying them minimum wage helps offset their slowing productivity and higher workers comp costs as they age. 

Here is the math:  Older workers might work 30-50% slower than a younger worker (I have workers right now in their nineties!)  They also have higher workers comp costs, maybe equating to as much as 10% of wages.  This means that an older worker at the old minimum wage of $5.15 an hour might be financially equivalent to a younger worker making $9.50 an hour, which is about what we might have to pay for such a worker. 

However, many states have implemented higher minimum wages with annual cost of living escalators.  States like Oregon and Washington now have minimum wages over $9.00.  At $9.00 an hour, an older worker is now financially equivalent to a younger worker making $16.50 an hour, well above what I can hire such a person for.  This means that as minimum wages rise, I have to consider substituting  younger workers for older but slower workers.

Last year, Arizona adopted just such a minimum wage system with annual escalators.  Though we have not reached the point yet, the state soon may make it impossible economically to hire older workers.  Already, we are looking at some automation projects to reduce headcount in certain places.  This is sad to me, but in a business where a 12% rise in wages wipes out my entire profit, I have to think about these steps.  I have to react to the fact that, no matter how many "policy advisers on aging" the state hires, in reality it is increasing the price to my company of older people's labor vis a vis younger workers.