Posts tagged ‘unions’

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.

Another Possible Reason for Obama's Minimum Wage Push

Obama's minimum wage push could be an honest attempt to reduce poverty, but since only a trivial percentage of the American work force earns the minimum wage, and most of those are in starter jobs rather than trying to support a family, it does not make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, it could be another cynical payoff to unions that form the backbone of Obama's political support

Organized labor's instantaneous support for President Obama's recent proposal to hike the minimum wage doesn't make much sense at first glance. The average private-sector union member—at least one who still has a job—earns $22 an hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a far cry from the current $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, or the $9 per hour the president has proposed. Altruistic solidarity with lower-paid workers isn't the reason for organized labor's cheerleading, either.

The real reason is that some unions and their members directly benefit from minimum wage increases—even when nary a union member actually makes the minimum wage.

The Center for Union Facts analyzed collective-bargaining agreements obtained from the Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards. The data indicate that a number of unions in the service, retail and hospitality industries peg their base-line wages to the minimum wage.

The Labor Department's collective-bargaining agreements file has a limited number of contracts available, so we were unable to determine how widespread the practice is. But the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says that pegging its wages to the federal minimum is commonplace. On its website, the UFCW notes that "oftentimes, union contracts are triggered to implement wage hikes in the case of minimum wage increases." Such increases, the UFCW says, are "one of the many advantages of being a union member."

The labor contracts that we examined used a variety of methods to trigger the increases. The two most popular formulas were setting baseline union wages as a percentage above the state or federal minimum wage or mandating a flat wage premium above the minimum wage.

Total Fecklessness

If a city government cannot bring itself to end something so obviously abusive as pension spiking, what hope is there of any real reforms on tougher matters?  Government employees are increasingly running government in their own favor.

After nearly three hours of contentious debate, Phoenix city leaders were so divided over how to tackle pension “spiking” on Tuesday that they ended up doing nothing at all.

They walked into the City Council chambers prepared to make changes, but after splintering into three ideological factions, voted 5-4 against a plan to combat spiking, generally seen as the artificial inflation of a city employee’s income to boost his or her retirement benefit.

Several high-profile cases have come to light, pushing the effort to eliminate pension boosting to the forefront of the council’s agenda.

Former Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos, who retired last week to lead another city, was able to apply unused sick pay and other perks to spike his pension to an estimated $235,863, the second-largest retirement benefit in city history.

Earlier this month, a subcommittee of council members proposed modest reforms that they said would reduce pension spiking and provide transparency. They said the plan treated existing employees fairly and avoided potential litigation.

But the proposal fell apart Tuesday night, when a group of liberal-leaning council members joined the body’s fiscal conservatives in voting against it, though their rationales were vastly different.

After the motion to approve the proposal failed, the meeting ended. The result, greeted by cheers from employee unions in the crowd

Good God, How Does This Help Anyone Except Perhaps Helping Government Officials Feel Powerful

Via Reason

A Paris appeals court this week ordered the French cosmetics chain Sephora to close its flagship boutique on the iconic Champs Élysées boulevard at 9pm, angering salespeople who say they have freely accepted to work until midnight for years and now risk losing their jobs.

Following a trend among other businesses on Paris's most celebrated street, Sephora began extending its opening hours in 1996. Its designer perfumes, makeup and other cosmetics were, until this week, sold until midnight between Monday and Thursday, and as late as 1am on Friday and Saturday.

Citing labour laws that restrict night-time work, France’s largest unions collectively sued the shop. An administrative court sided with Sephora on December 6, 2012, allowing the cosmetics giant to keep its exceptionally late hours on the Champs-Élysées.

However, the appeals court overturned that decision on Sunday, agreeing with unions that the store’s “normal activity” does not “make night-time work a necessarity,” as the law states.

Money for Nothing, Detroit Edition

A huge portion of Detroit's operating costs go to police and fire.  If you include retiree health care and pensions, way over half of Detroit's budget goes to police and fire**.  That is an enormous increase since 1960.

detroit-bankruptcy-spending

So one might expect the schools to suck and the streetlights to be broken (which they do and are), but you would expect great freaking fire and police coverage.  But you would be wrong.  Detroit has one of the highest crime rates in the country.  This is what you get for your money there:

If you're a Detroiter who needs a police officer, it will take 58 minutes to get help -- more than five times what it takes elsewhere in the United States...

Here are some of the other problems outlined in the bankruptcy filing:

-- Response times for Emergency Medical Services and the Detroit Fire Department average 15 minutes, which is more than double the 7-minute averages seen in other cities.

-- The police department closes only 8.7% of its criminal cases, which the filing blames on the department's "lack of a case management system, lack of accountability for detectives, unfavorable work rules imposed by collective bargaining agreements and a high attrition rate in the investigative operations unit."

-- The city's violent crime rate is five times the national average, and the highest of any city with a population exceeding 200,000.

 

** This is in large part due to the power of their unions, and their ability in elections to translate hero worship for police and fire fighters into political power that will allow them to get anything they want.  As a politician, try to stand up for sanity and you will be deluged by union ads arguing that you don't respect our men who are risking their lives for you, etc. etc.

Equal Marriage Arizona

Today I have registered as the chair of Equal Marriage Arizona.  We are seeking to place a proposition on the ballot in Arizona in 2014 to broaden the definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two persons".  We are also adding language to protect religious freedom, specifically

a religious organization, religious association, or religious society shall not be required to solemnize or officiate any particular marriage or religious rite of marriage in violation of its Constitutional right to free exercise of religion."

Our press release is here.  Gary Johnson's Our America organization has been kind enough to sponsor us, as have the Log Cabin Republican's national organization.  My co-chair in Arizona is also chair of the Arizona chapter of Log Cabin Republicans.

I suppose in an ideal libertarian world, marriage would not even be subject to state administration.  But the fact is that there are scores of provisions, from inheritance laws to financial and medical privacy laws, that give special privileges to couples who are officially married, such that it is a real equity issue that some couples are denied the ability to marry.  Perhaps there was a time when some hoped that contracts or civil unions might be an adequate substitute, but I know too many single-sex couples struggling with the deficiencies in these alternate, and deficient, marriage substitutes.

We are not seeking a referendum on sexual choices or lifestyles.  We are seeking a initiative expanding liberty by providing for equal marriage, for what could be more fundamental to personal freedom than choosing who one will marry?

More to follow.

 

PS -- I am turning off comments on this for a while, as it likely will get some media attention today.  Y'all know I traditionally have the most open comments policy on the web, moderating for spam only.  However, many people, including some in the media, still do not understand the difference between blog posts and comments, and tend to try to count political coup over the more outrageous comments.  As a minimum, since most bloggers moderate, they assume that I do as well (no matter how many times I say I don't) so that any obscene or deeply insensitive statements are assumed to be tacitly approved by me, since I did not moderate them.  Rather than moderate comments for content, I would prefer just to turn them off.

Three Cheers For Goldwater Institute Fighting Pension Spiking

The Goldwater Institute is threatening to sue the City of Phoenix in order to stop pension spiking.  According to the Arizona Republic,

State law says “unused sick leave, payment in lieu of vacation, payment for unused compensatory time or payment for any fringe benefits” cannot be used as compensation to compute retirement benefits.

State law also says that only “base salary, overtime pay, shift differential pay, military differential wage pay, compensatory time used by an employee in lieu of overtime not otherwise paid by an employer and holiday pay” may be used to calculate pension benefits.

This seems pretty explicit.  The City admits to using sick leave, vacation pay, and fringe benefit values (e.g. cars and cell phones) in the pension calculation.  So this seems pretty cut and dried.  The city is breaking the explicit letter of the law.

That Goldwater has a good case can be judged from the fairly lame defenses of Phoenix practices by local unions.  None seem to address the basic legal issue, but instead accuse Goldwater of "wasting taxpayer funds if it forced Phoenix to defend itself in court", a fairly hilarious attempt to claim the moral high ground of fiscal responsibility.

In fact, it appears that public workers believe  (and I think this is a fairly common belief) that their collective bargaining agreements trump state law.

John Teffy, a Phoenix Fire Department captain, said Goldwater should stand down.

“It seems to me that if the Goldwater Institute took the time to understand how the city works and how contracts work, they would know there is a much simpler way to address this than with (threats of) frivolous lawsuits,” Teffy said.

I did not understand this statement at first, but what I think he is saying is that since the "Contract" in his mind supersedes all laws, then the way to deal with this is through a contract renegotiation.  I think public workers see the writing on the wall and know that pension spiking is illegal, so they are hoping to handle this through a contract negotiation that just shifts this lost spiked value to workers in some other more legal form.  A great strategy for them, but a terrible one for taxpayers, who should not have to pay for the union's past illegality.

The Missing Warning Label

Zero Hedge pointed out this ad for California state bonds:

20130404_cali

 

In light of the recent Stockton bankruptcy, this should carry a warning label:  "California reserves the right to repudiate up to 100% of these bonds whenever payment of the interest or principle interferes with paying state employees the maximum possible pension benefits.  These bonds are subordinated to any promises made at any time by any politician to state employees unions, past, present, or future."

Government Prioritization Fail: Adding Staff When It Is Least Essential

Matt Welch has a good article here about a self-refuting NPR piece, which was obviously supposed to be a scare story about the loss of Sequestration money but turned out to be an illustration of just how stupid the sequestration panic was.  It's funny listening to the podcast of this episode as the NPR hosts desperately try to support the Administration position.

But one thing I thought was funny was this bit illustrating pre-sequester government staffing prioritization:

NPR's David Greene brings on Yvette Aehle, director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany, Georgia, to talk about the terrible danger that passengers will face now that Aehle's airport stands to lose its air traffic controllers:

AEHLE: Well, I don't really want to say anything is less safe. It's just a better opportunity for people to listen and to be heard and to understand where they are. And also, I'd like to point out that we don't have 24-hour tower coverage here currently. Those air traffic controllers are only directing traffic between 8 am to 8 pm seven days a week. And most of our heavy traffic is outside of those hours.

So the government chooses to staff the control tower only half the day.  But they choose to staff the tower during the 12 hours of lightest traffic, presumably because the employees wanted day jobs rather than night jobs.

As an aside, I will confess that my business of running public parks benefits from this.  The biggest management load on parks is obviously on weekends and in the evenings (in campgrounds).  Most employees of public agencies only work weekday days.  Its incredibly typical that public parks employees will take their vacations in July and August, by far the busiest months.  One advantage  (other than the obvious cost advantage) we have over public operations is that public agencies can't or won't ask their employees to work weekends and defer their vacations out of the summer time.  We are perfectly happy to hire people with very clear expectations that the job involves work on weekend and holidays.

I will give you my reminder of how to understand most government agencies:  Ignore the agency's stated purpose, and assume that it is being operated primarily for the benefit of its employees.  One will very often find that this simple heuristic is far better at explaining agency decisions than relying on the agency's mission statement  (this does not mean that there are not dedicated individuals in the agency truly, even selflessly, dedicated to the stated mission -- these two notions are not at all mutually exclusive.  Government agencies do not act badly because they are full of bad people, they act badly because their incentives cause good people to do stupid things).

Teach for America

One of the charities my family supports is Teach for America.  Among other things, we sponsor a local teacher in the program.  A bunch of our friends were kind enough to chip in with gifts for the kids in her class and my wife and I delivered them last week at the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, a charter school in South Phoenix for 5-8 graders.

The fun of delivering the presents was reduced later on finding out that at almost that same moment, another group of kids was being killed in Connecticut.  But through a strange series of articles that seemed to have used the Sandy Hook massacre as an argument for teacher unionization and against charter schools (yeah, I don't get the connection either), I found out that teachers unions hate Teach for America.  Which means that I will likely double my contribution next year.

Postscript:  Teach for America began as a senior thesis at Princeton.  Its key idea is to make teaching a viable job option, as least for a few years, for top college grads.  The program is quite selective, and combines talented highly motivated young people with a proven teaching approach.  They then drop these teachers into the public school system, often in classrooms with a high percentage of kids who qualify for school lunch programs (ie low income).

It's clear from the article that teachers union and education establishment types hate these teachers.  Since they make a contrast by calling themselves "professionals", the presumed implication is that these young people are unprofessional.  Its amazing to me that anyone who has spent even ten minutes in a room with a group of TFA teachers could be so hostile to them.  I have met many of them, and they are a consistently amazing bunch who are both smart and genuinely love their kids.

I was skeptical, and still am a bit, of the notion of throwing great teachers into a failing public school system.  They clearly help individual kids, which is why I am still behind it, but they do nothing to help the overall system.  It's like sending great engineers into Solyndra  -- at some level, it seems like a waste (though I am impressed with this particular charter school, which seems to be doing a good job with the limited resources it has -- it gets far less money per pupil than the average public school in Phoenix but does a better job given the demographic of its students).

A Really Bad Deal

In Obamacare, it was mandated that health insurance companies spend 85% of premiums on care (vs. marketing, profits, and overhead) or else they owe their customers a refund.  So if the same standard was applied to unions, how much of their dues would they have to refund?

For example, according to the most recent federal filings, the Michigan Education Association — the state’s largest labor union — received $122 million and spent $134 million in 2012. They averaged about $800 from each of their 152,000 members.

According to union documents, "representational activities" (money spent on bargaining contracts for members) made up only 11 percent of total spending for the union. Meanwhile, spending on “general overhead” (union administration and employee benefits) comprised of 61 percent of the total spending.

The union appears to have spent nearly the entirety, or $119 million of their $122 million in dues, just supporting their leadership  (and various politicians) in grand style.  They actually had to borrow $12 million to do their job of representing their members.

By Obama's standard of good management (core activity costs = 85% of total customer dues paid) then the union should have taken only $17.4 million from their members, and owe them a $104.6 million refund.

A Quick Reminder to Swedish Workers

Apparently Swedish unions are demanding a looser monetary policy

Forget Chuck Schumer's cat-out-of-the-bag 'get back to work' comments to Bernanke, now it is union-leaders who are advising the world's central bankers. "There is a not a single reason not to lower rates" exclaims Sweden's trade union confederation to the central bank as he begins negotiations with employers on wage deals for next year. His demands (for lower rates) are "far from excessive" and he adds "should not cause inflation" as Swedish organized labor have "never called for levels that ... could not be supported economically."

Inflation and monetary debasement have always been Progressive favorites -- until, of course, they were not.  Consider the plight of the worker in Weimar Germany

By mid-1923 workers were being paid as often as three times a day. Their wives would meet them, take the money and rush to the shops to exchange it for goods. However, by this time, more and more often, shops were empty. Storekeepers could not obtain goods or could not do business fast enough to protect their cash receipts. Farmers refused to bring produce into the city in return for worthless paper. Food riots broke out. Parties of workers marched into the countryside to dig up vegetables and to loot the farms. Businesses started to close down and unemployment suddenly soared. The economy was collapsing.

It was total hell.  If a worker's family member could not find something to buy in the morning with the worker's morning pay packet, the money was worthless by dinner time.  Not to mention the incredible lost productivity of all those man-hours spent running around trying to find goods on shelves (of which we got a small taste post-Sandy, as people spent hundreds of dollars of their own time waiting in queues because the government would not let gas station owners charge them an extra $20 for scarce gasoline).

Twinkies Going Galt

Via Fox News

Hostess Brands — the maker of iconic brands such as Wonder Bread and Twinkies — is shutting down and firing 18,500 workers after one of its unions refused to end a strike even after being warned it would kill the company.

The privately-held company had reached a deal with the Teamsters, but a smaller union representing bakery workers refused to agree to concessions, prompting the mass layoffs and closing down of hundreds of plants, bakeries and delivery routes. That prompted harsh words from both the company and from Teamsters officials.

"We deeply regret the necessity of today's decision, but we do not have the financial resources to weather an extended nationwide strike," Chief Executive Gregory Rayburn said in a statement. "Hostess Brands will move promptly to lay off most of its 18,500-member workforce and focus on selling its assets to the highest bidders."

I suppose Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg are celebrating

Romney and Republican Messaging Fail

I got a lot of email that Republicans aren't libertarians and to stop complaining that they are not.  OK.  But let's look at their campaign messaging in the context of their own values.

Republicans had a golden opportunity to use the results of a natural experiment over the last four years between red and blue states.  Obama constantly harped on the fact that 3.5 million new jobs had been created on his watch.  Rather than play dueling statistics or end points in this analysis, the Republicans should have taken advantage of existing red/blue data:

Yes.  And the vast majority of these jobs were created in states like Texas which have been successful precisely because they have labor and tax policies which you, Mr. Obama, oppose.  And they have been created in industries like Oil and Gas production that you, Mr. Obama, have done your best to hinder.  All the jobs you claim to have helped to create were actually facilitated by a philosophy of government you oppose, by regulatory policy you would overturn if you could, and in industries you would prefer did not exist.   States like Texas -- with organic growth driven by private capital -- stand in stark contrast to your investments of our taxpayer money in bankrupt companies like Solyndra.   If you had had your way, Mr. Obama, few of these jobs would have been created.  Yes, this country saw some job creation, but it occurred despite your efforts, not because of them.

Instead of this clear kind of message, we get a bunch of wonky stuff about tax deductions vs. tax rate changes.  Heck, even if you told me I had to run my campaign on the single plank of eliminating tax deductions, I could have done a better job.  I saw this part of the debate that Romney supposedly won.  His explanation was lame.  What about this instead:

This country over the past several decades has increasingly become plagued by cronyism.  Whether it be Wall Street bankers or public employees unions or casket sellers in Louisiana, everyone wants to try to convert influence with the government into taxpayer money for themselves.  We have to end this.  And a good place to start is with the tax code.  Every special deduction and tax credit in the tax code is a giveaway to some special interest.  At best it is a misguided attempt, like the money we wasted in Solyndra, of politicians to try to pick winners and losers, to say that one kind of spending is somehow better than another.  At worst, these deductions are a crony giveaway.  Sure, it's  eliminating these deductions will help reduce the deficit.  But even more importantly, eliminating them would be an opening shot in the war to take cronyism and corporatism out of Washington.

Government Spending Ratchet

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

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

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

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

A Good Reason To Get Obama Out of Office

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

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

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

Thank you for sharing, Governor.

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

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

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

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

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

Insane Reverse-Privatization at the Arizona DMV

Arizona has always had a pretty intelligent rule that driving schools that have been certified by the state can actually give kids their written and driving tests.    They get a certificate they take to the DMV where they then get issued the physical license.   Kids who can't afford the school can certainly go into the DMV to take the tests, but since our DMV is swamped with insane waits, it is nice to have an alternative.

Until now.  Apparently, for reasons that entirely escape me except perhaps to pander to state employees' unions, all kids must now take their tests, written and driving, at the DMV.  So, the DMV's solution to insane waits is to... increase demand on their services.  Awesome.  Sounds eerily similar to Obamacare's solution to ER waits.

Some Privatization Updates

I just wrote three new articles for the Privatization Blog.

The first looks at which types of public decisions should stay public in a privatization effort

The second looks at implementation issues and learning in privatization

The third acknowledges that privatization efforts can fall into cronyism, but points out that generally in these cases the public alternative falls into the same behaviors.  A great example is prisons, where privatization is derided by folks like Think Progress for the lobbying the prison companies do both for contracts and harsher laws, but they never acknowledge that public prison unions have demonstrated the same behaviors and for much longer.

Bid Rigging for Municipal Asset Management

Rolling Stone Magazine has an good story on the conviction of a number of banks and brokers on charges of bid-rigging, specifically on contracts for short-to-medium term management of municipal bond cash accounts.  Apparently brokers were paid by certain banks to be given a look at all the other bids before they made their final bid.  The article focuses mainly on the ability of winning bidders not to bid any higher than necessary, though I would suppose there were also times when, given this peek, the winning bidder actually raised its bid higher than it might have to ace out other bidders.

This is classic government contracting fraud and it's great to see this being rooted out.  I am not wildly confident it is going to go away, but any prosecutorial attention is welcome.

But I am left with a few questions:

  • It seems that government contracting is more susceptible to this kind of manipulation.  Similar stories have existed for years in state highway contracting, and the municipal bond world has had accusations of kick-backs for years.  Is this a correct perception, or is the rate of fraud between public and private contracting the same but we just notice more with the government because the numbers are larger, the press coverage is greater, and the prosecutorial resources are more robust?
  • If government contracting of this sort is more susceptible to fraud, why, and how do we fix it?

The latter is not an academic question for me.  I run a company that privately operates public recreation areas.  I bid on and manage government contracts.  Frequently, a major argument used against the expansion of such privatization initiatives is that past government outsourcing and contracting efforts have been characterized by fraud and mismanagement.  The argument boils down to "the government has so many management problems that it can't be trusted with contracting for certain services so it needs to operate those services itself."

The only way to reconcile this view is to assume that private actors are more likely to act fraudulently and be dishonest than public employees.  If this were true, then the public would be safer if a public management process of questionable ability were applied towards public employees rather than outside private contractors, because those who were being managed would be less likely to take advantage.  And certainly there are plenty of folks with deep skepticism of private enterprise that believe this.

However, I would offer that only by adopting an asymmetric view of what constitutes fraud would we get to this conclusion.  Clearly, banks colluding to shave a few basis points off municipal asset returns is fraud.     As the author of the Rolling Stone piece puts it several times, the crime here is that the public did not get the best market rate.  So why is, say, elected officials colluding with public employees unions to artificially raise wages, benefits, and staffing levels above market rates not fraud as well?  In both cases insiders are manipulating the government's procurement and political processes to pay more than the market rates for certain services.

This is Bastiat's "seen and unseen" of the privatization debate.   Yes, the world is unfortunately littered with examples of government procurement fraud.  This is often cited as a reason for maintaining the status quo of continued government management of a diverse range of services.  But what we miss, what is unseen, is that these government services are often run with staffing levels, work rules, productivity expectations, and pay rates that would constitute a scandal if uncovered in a division of a corporation, particularly if the workers were spending a lot of money to make sure the manager handing them this largess was able to keep his job.

Yes, the public lost several basis points on its investments when it did not get the market rate of return from cheating bankers.  But it loses as much as 50% of every tax dollar sent to many state agencies because it does not get market rates (and practices) for state labor.

Lame Constitutional Argument of the Day

Via unions in Indiana

The Indiana union's lawyers contend that the right-to-work law interferes with the union's free speech rights by stifling the collection of money that helps pay for its political speech.

"In this case, the state of Indiana restricted a channel of speech-supporting finance," the union brief maintains. "The Union legitimately utilizes dues money collected through the agency shop provisions in its collective bargaining agreements, in part, to finance political speech The Indiana Right to Work law prohibits agency shop agreements, and that prohibition restricts a channel through which speech-supporting finance might flow."

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.

The Union Problem

I have always defended private unions on the ground that workers have a freedom of association just as much as anyone else.  I think the government has tilted the playing field in the union's favor too much, but I will leave that aside for today.  I will also leave aside the problem of public unions, where there is no one really representing the taxpayer on the other side of the table in negotiations (many politicians in union states owe their jobs to union support).

Leave all of that aside.  The economic problem with unions tends to be that they are such a conservative (little c) force in an economy that needs dynamism to grow and expand wealth.  Here is a great example:

The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.

Bob Samuels, the president of the union, says this effectively gives the union veto power over any online initiative that might endangers the jobs or work lives of its members. “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.

I have said for a long time that negotiations for pay and benefits (in private unions) tend to be the least problematic union activity (different story in public unions, where the relationship to management is not adversarial).  Longer term, union imposed work rules and restrictions tend to be much more costly.  The reason I think is that corporate executives can easily value the difference between various pay and benefits packages, but have a hard time valuing flexibility and dynamism.  If union rules cut off potential future as-yet-unknown growth and cost reduction efforts, the cost of these rules can be huge but equally they can be almost impossible to value (more like options pricing than straight cost-benefit).

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.

"Livability" Means Sitting in Traffic

Via the anti-Planner, comes this amazing slide from a presentation by the city of Omaha on their new initiative for "Livable Transportation" (ppt presentation).   Ray LaHood recently asked that all transportation authorities include "livability" in the next round of their 5-year transportation plans.

What does "Livability" even mean?  Well, I was not sure.  This is one of those vague happy-sounding words that give liberals a hard-on in the context of government programs but generally just end up being an excuse for the exercise of state power at the expense of individual choice.

But in this case we don't have to guess, because in the presentation linked above we have the following as the first slide in the presentation, defining livability in this context:

I kid you not -- the two key steps in livable transportation are apparently increasing delay in auto commutes and increasing the cost of auto commutes.   Wow, that certainly sounds like something that will make my life better  (on the bright side, it strikes me as a goal that the generally-incompetent government can actually achieve).

Of course, the issue is not really about livability, but about the imposition of a few intellectuals' disdain for cars on the rest of us.

And if you want to look for the financial incentives, the size of government per passenger-mile of commute is maximized with rail mass transit.   First, this is because rail is simply more expensive than driving -- way more expensive - - per passenger mile in any Western city like Omaha, even when all the costs of driving are considered.  Second, with rail, the government nationalizes things like driving and maintenance that you do yourself or are done by private actors, and brings them in-house to be performed by powerful government unions.

Postscript: Left unsaid in any of this presentation is how increasing commute delay leads to keeping  jobs and businesses in the lower left.  That strikes me as a non sequitur of epic proportions.

Greece: Where Default is, err, the Default State

One might think a line like about Greek finances was printed just this week

What followed could only be described as a comic progression of populist pandering [and] the spread to the national economy of a series of parasitic labor unions and cabals

But in fact it is describing Greek conditions circa 1944.

A while back I observed that the difference between Greek and US finances is that the US needs to return to a spending level circa 2007, while Greece has no similar default state of relative fiscal sanity it can return to.  This article in Finem Respice reinforces this premise by discussing the absolute insanity of Greek fiscal management before and after and even during WWII, which was characterized by all the exact same problems that have driven the current crisis.  Good background reading.

Greece, then as now, was dominated by an expensive public sector funded insufficiently by a tax system that did not work.  As may happen soon, Greece was not able to borrow, so all they could do was print money and inflation soared.  Only one man was able to stop the inflation, and I won't spoil the ending by the humorous way he did so.