Posts tagged ‘unions’

Why Reform of Police Accountability is Unlikely

It's as simple as this:  Republicans fetishize the police (like they do the military) and will always give them the benefit of the doubt.  They have this gauzy teary-eyed love of the police.  Just watch Megyn Kelly on Fox to get the idea.  Democrats are allied with public unions and will not under any circumstances take on the powerful police unions who fight any attempt at accountability tooth and nail, a behavior Democrats have become habituated to enabling for other unions like the teachers unions.

The issue is mostly about giving police accountability that matches the special powers over the use of force we give them.  But it is also about racism.  It just burns me up to have folks in power point to the business world constantly for supposed institutional racism, when in fact I witness very little if any day to day.  The one institution I see that clearly has elements of institutional racism are many police forces, but no one will touch them.

Every year there are hundreds of police shootings and the number that are determined not to be justifiable rounds to zero.  What are the odds there is a process involving humans with this small of a Type I error rate?  We are learning form cell phone cameras that the stories we used to believe from police officers about events are often total bullsh*t.  And yet still police are not held accountable even when there is horrific video evidence showing them out of control.

At the drop of a hat, at the smallest hint of a single example of a bad outcome, the government will not hesitate to impose enormous new restrictions on private individuals.  But even with the most overwhelming evidence the government will not put even the lightest restrictions in itself or its employees.

I have always shied away from my fellow libertarians on the anarcho-capitalist end of things who wanted to privatize the police force.  I always thought use of force to be a unique privilege and one dangerous to hand out to private groups.  But I am starting to see that I was thinking about it wrong.  It is a dangerous power to give to anyone, but at least if you give it to a private party someone might possibly exercise a little accountability over them.

Walter Olson has a good roundup of police and lethal force here.

Postscript:  Here is an example of what I mean:  The Obama Administration has imposed significant rules on universities to bring greater accountability to sexual assailants when it was perceived that the universities did not impose enough accountability on such predators.  I think the Administration has gone overboard in stripping away the accused due process protections and handing justice to people who will not manage the process well, but its the seriousness of this effort I want to point out.  While I don't think the Administration's actions were appropriate to colleges, they would represent an entirely appropriate response to police violence.  Someone needs to step in and enforce some accountability.

 

Kevin Drum's Sensible Thoughts on Ray Rice: Why Doesn't The Same Logic Apply to Universities?

Kevin Drum has some sensible thoughts on Ray Rice, discipline and the NFL -- "Sensible" defined in this case as largely mirroring my own:

Ray Rice committed a crime. We have a system for dealing with crimes: the criminal justice system. Employers are not good candidates to be extrajudicial arms for punishing criminal offenders, and I would be very, very careful about thinking that they should be.

Now, I'll grant up front that the NFL is a special case. It operates on a far, far more public level than most employers. It's a testosterone-filled institution, and stricter rules are often appropriate in environments like that. Kids take cues from what they see their favorite players doing. TV networks and sponsors understandably demand a higher level of good behavior than they do from most employers.

Nevertheless, do we really want employers—even the NFL—reacting in a panic to transient public outrage by essentially barring someone for life from ever practicing their craft? Should FedEx do that? Should IBM do that? Google? Mother Jones? Perhaps for the most serious offenses they should, and it's certainly common to refuse to hire job candidates with felony records of any kind. (Though I'll note that a good many liberals think this is a misguided and unfair policy.) But for what Ray Rice did?

I just don't know about that. Generally speaking, I think we're better off handling crimes through the criminal justice system, not through the capricious judgments of employers—most of whom don't have unions to worry about and can fire employees at a whim. I might be overreacting, but that seems like it could become a dangerous precedent that hurts a lot more people than it helps.

I agree 100%.  The NFL  was simply insane to venture into the role as a shadow legal system to apply punishments based on their investigation and judgement in parallel with those of the legal system.  They would have been much better off simply establishing a schedule of internal penalties that were based on the outcomes of the legal system.

That being said, I wish other writers on the Left would read Drum's column and ask themselves why this same logic wouldn't apply to colleges as well. It is unbelievable to me that Liberals of all people -- who have largely defended due process rights in the legal system for years against Conservative attempts to trim them -- would suddenly wage a campaign to substitute kangaroo courts run by university administrators in the place of normal police and judicial procedures for crimes as serious as rape.  I am historically skeptical of the legal system and the people in it, but all of these problems would only be worse trying to have a bunch of amateurs at universities setting up a parallel system.

There is certainly a problem to be solved -- though the 1 in 5 statistic is completely bogus and exaggerated -- but the diagnosis of the problem has been all wrong.  The problem is that Universities have historically created internal police forces and disciplinary processes for the express purpose of protecting their students from the normal legal system.  This is a practice and tradition that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.  And it worked fine, at least as far as I am concerned, when the University was protecting students from marijuana or underage drinking busts by town police.

But institutions develop a culture, and the culture of university disciplinary processes has been to 1.  keep the student out of the legal system and 2.  get the student to graduation.  I have friends who have been kicked out of top universities a few times, but the University in the end bent over backwards to take them back and get them over the finish line.

So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that universities approached more heinous crimes with this same culture and mindset.  And some egregious sexual assaults got swept under the rug.  Again, I think some folks are exaggerating these numbers by assuming there are tens or hundreds of these cases for every one we hear about.  But we can agree on the core fact, I think, that the typical college disciplinary culture of protecting students from the legal system has failed some victims of sexual assault.

But this is where everyone seems to be going off track.  The Obama Administration solution for this problem is to demand that universities develop more robust fact-finding and disciplinary processes for such felonies, and remove procedural protections for the accused as a way to offset the historic university culture to go to far in protecting wrongdoers.

This is nuts.  Seriously.  Given the set of facts, a far simpler solution, fairer to both accused and victims, would have been for the Obama Administration simply to demand that Universities hand over evidence of crimes to police and prosecutors trained to know what to do with it.  If the University wants to take special steps to get victims help coping with their recovery using University resources, or help victims and the accused who are University students cope with the rough edges of the legal process, great.

Postscript:  Another problem is that punishments meted out by universities are going to always be wrong, by definition.  Let's say a student is accused of rape and kicked out.  Two possibilities.  If he is innocent of the charge, then he was punished way too much.  If he was guilty, if he really raped someone, he was punished way too little -- and by the University screwing around with it and messing up the chain of evidence and taking statements without following the correct process, they may have killed any chance of a conviction in the legal system.    The current process the Obama Administration is forcing punishes the innocent and protects the truly guilty.

Police and Patents of Nobility

I don't have much to add to all the commentary on the Ferguson killing, except to say that many, many examples of police abuse of power are covered by libertarian blogs --but seldom more widely -- so it is nice to see coverage of such an incident hit the mainstream.

Defenders of police will say that police are mostly good people who do a difficult job and they will mostly be right.  But here is the problem:  In part due to our near fetishization of the police (if you think I exaggerate, come live here in Phoenix with our cult of Joe Arpaio), and in part due to the enormous power of public sector unions, we have made the following mistake:

  • We give police more power than the average citizen.  They can manhandle other people, drag them into captivity, search and take their stuff, etc.
  • We give police less accountability than the average citizen when things go wrong.   It is unusual even to get an investigation of their conduct, such investigations are seldom handled by neutral third parties, and they are given numerous breaks in the process no citizen gets.

The combination of these two can be deadly.

Ken White at Popehat writes to some of this

If you are arrested for shooting someone, the police will use everything in their power — lies, false friendship, fear, coercion — to get you to make a statement immediately. That's because they know that the statement is likely to be useful to the prosecution: either it will incriminate you, or it will lock you into one version of events before you've had an opportunity to speak with an adviser or see the evidence against you. You won't have time to make up a story or conform it to the evidence or get your head straight.

But what if a police officer shoots someone? Oh, that's different. Then police unions and officials push for delays and opportunities to review evidence before any interview of the officer. Last December, after a video showed that a cop lied about his shooting of a suspect, the Dallas Police issued a new policy requiring a 72-hour delay after a shooting before an officer can be interviewed, and an opportunity for the officer to review the videos or witness statements about the incident. Has Dallas changed its policy to offer such courtesies to citizens arrested for crimes? Don't be ridiculous. If you or I shoot someone, the police will not delay our interrogation until it is personally convenient. But if the police shoot someone:

New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the shooting, said such interviews hinge on the schedules of investigators and the police officers they are questioning. Sgt. Damyan Brown, a state police spokesman, said the agency has no set timeline for conducting interviews after officer-involved shootings. The Investigations Bureau schedules the interviews at an “agreeable” time for all parties involved, he said.

Cops and other public servants get special treatment because the whole system connives to let them. Take prosecutorial misconduct. If you are accused of breaking the law, your name will be released. If, on appeal, the court finds that you were wrongfully convicted, your name will still be brandished. But if the prosecutor pursuing you breaks the law and violates your rights, will he or she be named? No, usually not. Even if a United States Supreme Court justice is excoriating you for using race-baiting in your closing, she usually won't name you. Even if the Ninth Circuit — the most liberal federal court in the country — overturns your conviction because the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence, they usually won't name the prosecutor.

Also see Kevin Williamson.

VA Scandal Proves My Contention: The Only Government Health Care Cost Reduction Ideas are Rationing and Price Controls

I feel like I was way ahead of the pack on May 1 reminding everyone that the Left until recently held up the VA as a model for government health care.  I pointed to articles by Kevin Drum and Phil Longman in 2007, but since then others have highlighted articles by Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein that made the same point.  Klein said:

If you ordered America's different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration.

Paul Krugman said

Well, I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system's success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn't just pay the bills in this system -- it runs the hospitals and clinics.

No, I'm not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.

Supposedly, the reason for this success according to Drum and Longman was that ever-popular Lefty magic bullets, electronic medical records and preventative care.  On medical records:

"Since its technology-driven transformation in the 1990s...the VA has emerged as the world leader in electronic medical records — and thus in the development of the evidence-based medicine these records make possible." Hospitals that joined Longman's "Vista network" (his name for the VA-like franchise he proposes) would have to install the VA's electronic medical record software and would "also have to shed acute care beds and specialists and invest in more outpatient clinics." By doing this they'd provide better care than any current private network and do it at a lower cost.

On preventative care:

How is a supposedly sclerotic government agency with 198,000 employees from five separate unions outperforming the best the private market has to offer? In a word: incentives. Uniquely among U.S. health care providers, the VA has a near-lifetime relationship with its patients. This, in turn, gives it an institutional interest in preventing its patients from getting sick and in managing their long-term chronic illnesses effectively. If the VA doesn't get its pre-diabetic patients to eat right, exercise, and control their blood sugar, for example, it's on the hook down the road for the cost of their dialysis, amputations, blindness, and even possible long-term nursing home costs....The VA model is that rarest of health care beasts: one with a perfect alignment of interest between patients and providers.

Neither of these have ever proven in real life to actually lower costs in anything but tiny pilot programs, and there is a lot of reason to believe that while preventative care can improve health outcomes, it tends to increase costs.

I have said for years that at the end of the day, the only ideas government planners have for cost control are rationing (which leads to queuing) and cost controls on things it buys from private markets, like doctor time (which leads to shortages and more queuing).  This is why every health care system that offers free care to all comers, whether it be socialist systems in other countries or the VA or even an urban emergency room, has long queues.

In fact, the situation, as I think we will find at the VA, is worse.  Not only is the old pie being allocated differently (shifting from price-sensitivity to queue tolerance) but the pie of available supply is likely getting smaller as resources are consumed by government red tape and price controls drive suppliers out of the market.  The next stories will be about the staggering waste of money on red tape in the VA system, and the stories after that will be about a few VA users jumping the queue because of political connections.

This stuff is so inevitable that it was all addressed years ago in my three part series of Obamacare.  In that series, the issues were not failing exchanges and the mess we have seen so far, but the issues we are more likely to see over the long term.  The VA is merely a preview, but we shouldn't have needed a preview because we could have looked at countries like England.  Of course, if the media had any desire to honestly tell these socialized medical stories we would not get fawning profiles of the horrendous system in Cuba.

My Forbes series:

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.