Posts tagged ‘salaries’

Your Arguments Are Totally Idiotic, Which I Know Even Though I Didn't Read Your Article

Since I am not a very large blogger, and not overtly political (most of the time), I seldom have my articles end up in organized trolling campaigns.  But over the last week I had a flood of comments on this three-year-old article about teacher salaries.  This sudden interest in an old article (particularly when many others more prominent than I have written on the topic more recently) puzzled me until I saw that the Center for American Progress had come out with a study saying that, surprise, teacher salaries were way too low.

I seldom participate in comments wars on my own articles, and prefer to post updates or clarifications in the article itself for all to see.  However, this was particularly frustrating when it was clear that most commentators were coming to the site with some preconceived notion of what the article said, and did not feel the need to actually read the article before commenting.  So, we end up with numerous folks saying "what about all the overtime work", as if I totally ignored that thought and hadn't even considered it, when there was a whole section on teacher overtime in the article.  I finally lost it when I got a comment that said "I don't know where this guy gets his numbers..."  This is a total cop-out response I see in comments all the time.  It allows one to imply the numbers are shady or unsourced without having to actually provide specific criticisms of the data.  I responded:

On the Internet, underlined bits of text, often in a different color, are called “links”.  By clicking on these “links” with your cursor, you will go to other sites.  In the case of this article, the source of data are all from the BLS, a part of the Federal Department of Labor.  The “links” will take you directly to the pages where the data was taken (though since 3 years have passed the links may lead you to newer versions of the data). 

There were also a number of comments along the lines of "well, I don't make anything like those numbers" to which I was forced to respond

In a distribution of millions of values, all the values in the distribution don’t normally match the average.  Some will be above and some will be below.  Though an average is different from a median, it is fairly safe to assume that something like half** of teachers make less than the numbers in the article and half make above those numbers.  As discussed in my second update, if you are in a rural area, you are more likely to be in the “below” category.  If you are in an urban area, you are more likely to be above

** with salary data, since the floor is typically closer to the average than the ceiling (salaries can't go below zero but can in theory go infinitely high), the median is generally below the mean, so likely more than half of teachers make less than the average.

Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.

Government Closing Parks It Does Not Fund or Operate

I mentioned in an earlier article that the Administration is threatening to close US Forest Service parks it does not even fund or run, privately operated parks that happen to have the Federal government as a landlord.  In fact, in our case, we pay the US Forest Service between 8 and 22 percent of revenues as a concession fee, so by threatening to close us it is costing them, not saving them extra money.

Apparently, the NPS is already doing this:

National Park Officials closed down the educational Claude Moore Colonial Farm near the CIA in McLean, Va., even though the federal government doesn't fund or staff the park popular with children and schools. Just because the privately-operated park is on Park Service land, making the federal government simply its landlord, the agency decided to close it.

A Claude Moore Colonial Farm official said that the privately-funded staff is on the job Wednesday, but barred from letting anybody visit the historically accurate buildings or animals. Anna Eberly, the managing director, sent out an email decrying the decision and rude National Park Service staff handling the closure.

Pointing to Park Service claims that parks have to be closed because the agency can’t afford staff during the government closure, Eberly wrote: “What utter crap. We have operated the Farm successfully for 32 years after the NPS cut the Farm from its budget in 1980 and are fully staffed and prepared to open today. But there are barricades at the Pavilions and entrance to the Farm. And if you were to park on the grass and visit on your own, you run the risk of being arrested. Of course, that will cost the NPS staff salaries to police the Farm against intruders while leaving it open will cost them nothing.”

She added: “In all the years I have worked with the National Park Service, first as a volunteer for six years in Richmond where I grew up, then as an NPS employee at the for eight very long years and now enjoyably as managing director for the last 32 years — I have never worked with a more arrogant, arbitrary and vindictive group representing the NPS. I deeply apologize that we have to disappoint you today by being closed but know that we are working while the National Park Service is not — as usual.”

This is purely political -- it costs rather than saves the government money.

Privatization and Private vs. Public Profits

My new column is up at Forbes.com.  A sample:

The most frequent argument I hear is that "its wrong to make a profit on public lands."  Most recently, I heard this from a manager of a large campground and lakefront day use area who works for a federal agency.  I was not normally in my usual diplomatic mood, and I snapped "so you work for free?"

If my company operated that park for the federal agency, a park that nets about $300,000 a year in visitor revenue, my company would probably make $15,000 or $20,000 a year in profit doing so, if all goes well, which it seldom does (this is a very low margin business).  I have no idea what that park manager makes in salary and benefits, but I would be surprised if it were less than $55,000 plus benefits, and probably more.  Why is his $55,000  "clean" but my $15,000 for the same task "dirty"?  Particularly when the increase in his and his staff's salaries and their increases in benefits has left the park financially tottering and on the brink of closure?

Go read it all.

Update:  I have added some comments on privatization design on the Privatization blog

A Note on 501(c)4 Corporations

This whole notion that  501(c)4 groups are receiving some kind of huge implicit tax subsidy whose use needs to be policed is simply absurd.  I am a board member of several 501(c)6 trade associations, which have roughly the same taxation rules as 501(c)4.

The largest tax subsidy, by far, available to some non-profits is the deductibility of donations to the group.  This is available to 501(c)3 groups (traditional charitable organizations) but NOT to  501(c)4 or  501(c)6 groups.  Whether the Tea Party of Cincinnati is a  501(c)4 or not, you cannot deduct your donations to them.

The one tax break that  501(c)4 corporations get is that they do not pay taxes on any surplus they accumulate in a year.  In general, non profit groups like this collect donations and spend them.  So in general, their outlays match their revenues, such that they tend to show very little income anyway, even if it were taxable.  The only thing the non-profit status brings to  501(c)4 organizations is that they don't have to spend a lot of time and effort trying to make sure, at the end of the fiscal year, that expenditures and revenues exactly match.  Basically, the one benefit granted is that these groups can collect money in November for expenditure in January without paying taxes on this money.  This is hardly much of a subsidy, just a common sense provision.  (By the way, at least in a  501(c)6, there is no break from the paperwork.  We will have to pay an accountant to file a tax return for the Feds and the state of California.

This actually comes up from time to time in my industry.  A couple of my competitors are actually non-profits.  My for profit competitors always complain that these non-profits have an advantage, arguing that they are really for-profit, but just paying their "owners" large salaries rather than dividends.  My general answer is, so what?  My company is a subchapter S corporation, and it does not pay taxes either -- I pay taxes on the profits as regular income in my personal tax return, exactly as if I had paid out all the profits as salary.  Sure, it would be nice to accumulate profits in the company tax free, but seeing the shoe-string way my non-profits competitors run, I don't think that is what they are doing.  It used to be that as non-profits, they considered themselves immune to certain laws, like the Fair Labor Standards Act and minimum wage, but the courts have disabused them of that notion.  So it is hard to see what advantage they enjoy, but folks love to complain none-the-less.

The only real business advantage I have ever found these non-profits have is in perception among leftish politicians -- they are considered "clean" while as a for-profit company I am considered "dirty".  Which is why in California, early laws allowing outside companies to operate public parks allowed non-profits but not for-profits, and almost every state who goes this route tries non-profits first for the same reason.  This no longer bothers me -- anyone who had ever been part of a non-profit can probably guess the reason.  They really are not set up to operate a 24/7/265 service business, and within a year typically fall short, and I, with a bit of patience, then get my chance.

Rich People Acting Like Babies

I don't pay much attention to TV and entertainment news, but I found myself kind of fascinated by this train wreck.  

I was amazed at the stakes, how many hundreds of millions of dollars were on the line, based on small changes in the perceived likability of certain talking heads.

But I was even more amazed by how juvenile, thin-skinned, and emotionally-immature people making 10 million + salaries could be.  One woman, who had a reputation as a serious journalist (at least until she took a job on a morning show) breaks down into tears and goes into a year-long depression because she lost her job -- and was effectively given a $12 million severance, a figure well north of my lifetime cumulative income.  Jeez, who in this day and age has not lost a job, likely with no more to show for it than a box of their personal items and a security escort to the door?  Reading this thing I just wanted to keep shouting "grow the f*ck up!"

US Doctor Salaries

Kevin Drum thinks he has found the smoking health care gun - US doctors are paid more than everyone else.  That is why we have too-expensive medical care!  A few quick thoughts

  • I am the last one to argue that doctors salaries are set anywhere like at a market clearing price.  Our certification system, crazy third-party payer systems, lack of price transparency, and absurd arguments over the "doc fix" and Medicare reimbursement rates all convince me that doctor salaries must be "wrong"
  • The charts he shows have absolutely no correction for productivity, at least as I read the methodology.  Per the text, they don't even have correction for hours worked.  A McKinsey report several years ago found that US doctors made more, but also saw a lot more patients in a day.  GP care cost more than expected vs. other country's experience, but is due mostly to number of visits, not cost per visit.
  • There is no correction for doctor expenses.  Malpractice insurance, anyone?  We have the most costly malpractice insurance in the world because we have the most broken system.  Doctors pay that out of their salary
  • US GP salaries in Drum's linked report are actually falling, unlike all the other countries studied.  Seem to have fallen 6% in 10 years (page 18), whereas France, for example, has increased more than 10%.

To the last point, I have a hypothesis.  When you first overlay a government health care / price control regime, you get an initial savings.  Doctors are forced to work for less and they still, out of habit and momentum, abide by past productivity standards.  But over time, productivity, like any government-captured function falls.  And over time, doctors, like other civil service groups, become better at organizing and lobbying and begin to get increasing pay packages.  After all, if teachers and fire-fighters can scare Californians into absurd pay and benefit packages, what do you think doctors will be able to do once they learn the game?

Claiming to Find One Variable That Explains Absolutely Everything in a Complex System

Of late I have been seeing a lot of examples of people trying to claim that complex, even chaotic multi-variable systems are in fact driven by a single variable.  Whether it be CO2 in climate or government spending in Keynesian views of the economy, this over-simplification seems to be a hubris that is increasingly popular.

The worst example I believe I have ever seen of this was in the editorial page today in the Arizona Republic.  Titled Arizona vs. Massachusetts,  this article purports to blame everything from Arizona's higher number of drunk driving accidents to its higher number of rapes on ... the fact that Arizona has lower taxes.  I kid you not:

In the absence of discernible benefits, higher taxes are indeed a negative. We would all like to keep more of what we earn. That is, if there are not other negative consequences. So, it is reasonable to ask: What do Massachusetts citizens get for these increased public expenditures? A wide range of measures from widely disparate sources provide insight into the hidden costs of a single-minded obsession with lower taxes at all costs.

The results of such an investigation are revealing: Overall, Massachusetts residents earn significantly higher salaries and are less likely to be unemployed than those who live in Arizona. Their homes are less likely to be foreclosed on. Their residents are healthier and are better educated, have a lower risk of being murdered, getting killed in a car accident or getting shot by a firearm than are Arizonans. Perhaps these factors explain the lower suicide rate in Massachusetts than in Arizona as well as the longer life spans.

None of this supposed causation is based on the smallest scrap of evidence, other than the spurious correlation that Arizona has lower taxes at the same time it has more of the bad things the authors don't like.  The authors do not even attempt to explain why, out of the thousands of variables that might have an impact on these disparities, that taxation levels are the key driver, or are even relevant.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors somehow fail to even mention the word demographics.  Now, readers know that I am not very happy with Arizona Conservatives that lament the loss here of the Anglo-Saxon mono-culture.   I think immigration is healthy, and find some of the unique cultures in the state, such as on the large tribal reservations, to make the state more interesting.

However, it is undeniable that these demographic differences create wildly different cultures between Arizona and Massachusetts, and that these differences have an enormous impact on the outcomes the authors describe.  For example, given the large number of new immigrants in this state, many of whom come here poor and unable to speak English, one would expect our state to lag in economic averages and education outcomes when compared to a state populated by daughters of the revolution and the kids of college professors (see immigration data at end of post).  This is made worse by the fact that idiotic US immigration law forces many of these immigrants underground, as it is far harder to earn a good income, get an education, or have access to health care when one does not have legal status.  (This is indeed one area AZ is demonstrably worse than MA, with our Joe-Arpaio-type fixation on harassing illegal immigrants).

By the way, it turns out Arizona actually does pretty well with Hispanic students vs. Massachusetts  -- our high school graduation rate for Hispanics is actually 10 points higher than in MA (our graduation rate for blacks is higher too).  But since both numbers are so far below white students, the heavy mix of Hispanic students brings down Arizona's total average vs. MA.   If you don't understand this issue of how one state can do better than another on many demographic categories but still do worse on average because of a more difficult demographic mix, then you shouldn't be writing on this topic.

Further, the large swaths of this state that are part of various Indian nations complicate the picture.  AZ has by far the largest area under the management of tribal nations in the country -- in fact, almost half the tribal land in the country is in this one state.  These tribal areas typically add a lot of poverty, poor education outcomes, and health issues to the Arizona numbers.  Further, they are plagued with a number of tragic social problems, including alcoholism (with resulting high levels of traffic fatalities) and suicide.  But its unclear how much these are a result of Arizona state policy.   These tribal governments are their own nations with their own laws and social welfare systems, and in general fall under the purview of Federal rather than state authority.  The very real issues faced by their populations have a lot of historical causes that have exactly nothing to do with current AZ state tax policy.

The article engages in a popular sort of pseudo-science.  It drops in a lot of numbers, leaving the impression that the authors have done careful research.  In fact, I count over 50 numbers in the short piece.  The point is to dazzle the typical cognitively-challenged reader into thinking the piece is very scientific, so that its conclusions must be accepted.  But when one shakes off the awe over the statistical density, one realizes that not one of the numbers are relevant to their hypothesis: that the way Arizona runs its government is the driver of these outcome differences.

It's really not even worth going through the rest of this article in detail.  You know the authors are not even trying to be fair when they introduce things like foreclosure rates, which have about zero correlation with taxes or red/blue state models.  I lament all the negative statistics the authors cite, but it is simply insane to somehow equate these differences with the size and intrusiveness of the state.  Certainly I aspire to more intelligent government out of my state, which at times is plagued by yahoos focusing on silly social conservative bugaboos.  I am open to learning from the laboratory of 50 states we have, and hope, for example, that Arizona will start addressing its incarceration problem by decriminalizing drugs as has begun in other states.

The authors did convince me of one thing -- our state university system cannot be very good if it hires professors with this sort of analytical sloppiness.  Which is why I am glad I sent my son to college in Massachusetts.

PS- If the authors really wanted an apples to apples comparison that at least tried to find states somewhat more demographically similar to Arizona, they could have tried comparing AZ to California and Texas.  I would love for them to explain how well the blue state tax heavy model is working in CA.  After all, they tax even more than MA, so things must be even better there, right?  I do think that other states like Texas are better at implementing aspects of the red-state model and do better with education for example.  You won't get any argument from me that the public schools here are not great (though I work with several Charter schools which are fabulous).  For some reason, people in AZ, including upper middle class white families, are less passionate on average about education than folks in other states I have lived.  I am not sure why, but this cultural element is not necessarily fixable by higher taxes.

Update- MA supporters will argue, correctly, that they get a lot of immigration as well.  In fact, numerically, they get about the same number of immigrants as AZ.  But the nature of this immigration is totally different.  MA gets legal immigrants who are highly educated and who come over on corporate or university-sponsored visa programs.  Arizona gets a large number of illegal immigrants who get across the border with a suitcase and no English skills.  The per-person median household income for MA immigrants in 2010 was $16,682 (source).  The per-person median household income for AZ immigrants was $9,716.  35.3% of AZ immigrants did not finish high school, while only 15.4% of MA immigrants have less than a high school degree.  48% of AZ immigrants are estimated to be illegal, while only 19% of those in MA are illegal.  11% of Arizonans self-report that they speak English not at all, vs. just 6.7% for MA (source).

Administrative Bloat

Administrative bloat is a natural tendency of organizations.  I am not entirely sure why, though I understand some of the drivers.  Never-the-less, I have seen it in nearly every organization I have worked in or consulted for.

Even the best-run private companies still have this problem.  To remain competitive, then, they have to come through every few years and wield the ax on these growing staffs, almost like trimming back a hedge that keeps trying to overgrow your house.  I spent a depressing amount of time as a consultant helping them.  It is uncomfortable, sometimes heartbreaking work, and one wonders the whole time why there is not some better way to keep staff in check.  To my mind, there is a still a great academic work to be written on this topic some day.

The alternative, in organizations that can get away with it, is administrative bloat.  Like, for example, in this public institution:

via Mark Perry, now at AEI

That staff adds up to an incredible billion dollars in administrative salaries, or nearly $21,000 a year per full-time student.  And remember, if this is just salaries, the actual cost is much higher because they all need offices, supplies, travel, etc.

A Terrible Chart

OK, to go along with the bad study in the last chart, I will offer up a terrible chart.  From Kevin Drum:

Drum uses this chart to hammer home the point that the current deficit is Bush's, rather than Obama's fault.  I have absolutely no problem with blaming Bush for all variety of stupid spending and handing him a share of the blame for the Federal debt.   Even using this bad chart (more in a moment), I think Obama gets a lot of the blame, though.  The highlighted bars don't really substantially move the debt until 2009 and after, on Obama's watch.   His complete lack of any effort to take on the rising debt, to pare back past spending programs (or wars, or whatever) has been unparalleled.  In fact, I think it is his absolute indifference to deficit spending and the debt levels that saddles him with a lot of the blame.

Anyway, back to the chart.  Notice that these are just a few of the many components of Federal spending, all of which are increasing in this period.  Picking out which ones "caused the debt" is not a neutral procedure.  Money is fungible.  One could just as easily substitute rising Medicare and Social Security costs (or education funding or transportation funding or government employee salaries) for any of the bars above and be just as correct.  Even if one wanted to just look at Bush actions, one would reasonably need to include the debt associated with the costs of Medicare part D, something left off this chart presumably because Drum supports that particular spending.    All this chart does is demonstrate the biases or preferences of the author, showing us which categories of spending the author most opposes (or which the author feels Obama can't be blamed for, like the down economy).

By the way, the chart's construction actually worse than this, because the chart is only "public debt" rather than total debt (for example debt bought in QE is no longer public debt).  If one looks at public debt, the total number should have crossed 100% some time in the last year, rather than the 70% or so in the chart.   So there are a lot of other things, presumably that the author likes, that are also causing total debt to rise.  But these are hidden, because presumably the Fed only buys debt created by the good spending, and the public buys all the debt created by the bad spending.

Finally, my suspicion is that some of these numbers are just plain wrong.  The chart implies Fannie, Freddie, and Tarp are only going to cause a total of 1% of GDP in debt, or about $160 billion.  That is WAY below the loss numbers that Fannie and Freddie have already acknowledged, with more to come.

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