Posts tagged ‘Carpe Diem’

Awsome Idea, Even if it is Yale

Time to short those shares of the Teaching Company.  Yale is offering free videos of many of its introductory courses. HT:  Carpe Diem

Public Sector Unions

Readers of the site know that I do not generally join in with the Conservative bashing of unions, except to the extent that they feed at the public trough (e.g. at GM) where I will bash them equally with all other similar hogs.  Unions are perfectly acceptable associations of individuals in a free society for a generally rational purpose.  What upsets this equation is when the government attempts to intervene to tilt the playing field either towards employers or unions in their negotiations -- but this is a government intervention issue, not a union issue per se.

Far more problematic is the growing influence of public employee unions.  Union advocates talk about the need to help private unions in a power imbalance with large corporations, but talk about a power imbalance!  In the public sector, we have hugely powerful unions with absolutely no one willing to take them on.  Government leaders who supposedly should be advocates of taxpayers and pushing back against union demands are typically in bed with unions.  One might say it is a similar case to unions owning the private company in which they work, but in that case there are market dynamics that mitigate against overly high pay or indifferent customer service.  No such balancing mechanisms exist in government monopoly institutions.

There have been a lot of articles on this topic of late that I have been keeping in my reader but have not linked, so to do a bit of tab-clearing, here are some good recent articles on public sector unions.

Carpe Diem shows the direct relationship between increasing public sector unionization and public sector debt.  Chris Edwards appears to be the original source.

Chris Edwards followed up to show an inverse relationship between state management quality and unionization.

Bruce McQuain discusses the $500 billion California unfunded pension liability.  And this does not include the unfunded liabilities of all the state's cities and towns and counties, which typically don't book any liability at all for their future pension and medical commitments.

Steven Malanga on how public sector unions broke California.

The camera focuses on an official of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), California's largest public-employee union, sitting in a legislative chamber and speaking into a microphone. "We helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory," she says matter-of-factly to the elected officials outside the shot. "Come November, if you don't back our program, we'll get you out of office.'

Traditionally, public sector unions have exercised a lot of power in elections, as evidenced by this example of the success of unions in fielding winning candidates in California school board elections.   Bruce McQuain reports that the SEIU has even formed its own 3rd party in North Carolina.  Its amazing that candidates whose main platform is to shift more taxpayer resources to the pockets of government workers has success.

Finally, according to the GAO, union contracts have a lot to do with why the USPS is failing  (as labor accounts for 80% of USPS costs).  They seem to have all the labor problems GM had, except there is even less pressure to correct the problems, since after all we can't get our mail delivered by Honda or Toyota.  Here is an example:

  • USPS workers participate in the federal workers' compensation program, which generally provides larger benefits than the private sector. And instead of retiring when eligible, USPS workers can stay on the "more generous" workers' compensation rolls.
  • Collective bargaining agreements limit the amount of part-time and contract workers the USPS can use to fit its workload needs, and they limit managers from assigning work to employees outside of their crafts. The latter explains why you get stuck waiting in line at the post office while other postal employees seemingly oblivious to customers' needs go about doing less important tasks.
  • Most postal employees are protected by "no-layoff" provisions, and the USPS must let go lower-cost part-time and temporary employees before it can lay off a full-time worker not covered by a no-layoff provision.
  • The USPS covers a higher proportion of employee premiums for health care and life insurance than most other federal agencies, which is impressive because it's hard to be more generous than federal agencies.
  • If the collective bargaining process reaches binding arbitration, there is no statutory requirement for the USPS's financial condition to be considered. This is like making the decision whether or not to go fishing, but not taking into consideration the fact that the boat has holes in its bottom.

Like Me Choreographing a Ballet

I often respond to various articles that a group of politicians are going to create a strategic plan** for the local economy that this is similar to my trying to choreograph a ballet .  TJIC has similar words for this effort:

Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray plan to propose this week several ways to improve the Bay State's business climate, saying they need to be more aggressive in steering the region out of its economic malaise.

Both have lifelong careers in non-business sectors (government, academia, journalism, legal, non-profit).  TJIC responds:

Asking them to design programs to better the business climate is about like asking me to design menstrual pads "“ I don't understand the sector, I don't understand the features, I don't understand the problems, and there's no way that the effects of my work will ever come back to make an impact on me.

This is reminiscent of this great comment from Kevin Williamson  via Instapundit

The good news is that, when it comes to reshaping the U.S. mortgage market [any market for that matter "” ed.], the Obama administration's top guns are bringing to bear all of the brisk, rough-'n'-ready entrepreneurial know-how they picked up in their previous careers as university professors, nonprofit activists, and holders of political sinecures.

But we are spending more and more to get this "expertise", as documented in a depressing post at Carpe Diem on the growth of government employment and salaries.  One chart out of many:

** Footnote:  About once a month we get some group lamenting that Phoenix has no master plan to create some kind of economic focus for itself.  One of the hilarious things about this is that if you go back and look, about half of the past proposals have Phoenix focusing on some super-hot industry (e.g. semiconductor manufacturing, e-commerce) that is just about to crash.  Lately, everyone has decided that Phoenix should be the center of the solar industry, because, uh, we have a lot of sun, without any particular explanation of why having a lot of sun should be an advantage in precision manufacturing and assembly of solar components.  But we are shelling out all kinds of tax breaks and subsidies for these companies to come here.  My prediction - solar will be the next ethanol.  In ethanol, increases in government subsidies caused a lot of manufacturing capacity to be built.  But subsidies could not grow as fast as capacity, and a glut resulted in a huge shakeout.  The solar boom will occur when a technology is perfected that makes solar economic without subsidies.  When that occurs, I will be the first in line to cover my roof in the new tech.

Government Picking Losers

I am done using the phrase "dangers of government trying to pick winners" because it implies that they sometimes might be successful.  They never are.  When governments choose, they choose losers.

I get a lot of pushback on this, because it seems to offend people's intuition.  They will say they know lots of good people they trust in government -- there is no way that all these smart, well-intentioned people are going to be so consistently wrong.

But the argument against government in this case (and in most other cases) is not based on the IQ or goodness of the individuals that populate it.  The argument is that even good people in groups make terrible decisions due to problems with their information and incentives.

The information problem is one that Hayek is famous for addressing.  In short, there is simply too much to know to make decisions for the entire economy.  In fact, folks with high IQ's often do especially poorly in this context, because they tend to overestimate their own knowledge and problem-solving ability.   And, even if one could be omniscient, it is still impossible to pick winners because 300 million people have different preferences and so one solution based on one set of idealized or mean preferences is going to sub-optimize for a lot of people  (remember this now that we all have to have health insurance plans on the exact same terms and coverage).

The incentives issue is perhaps an even more powerful problem.  We only have to look at the most recent health care bill and its progress through the legislative process to understand the power of incentives to shape rules and legislation in absurd ways.

Ethanol is a great illustration.  Scorned by scientists as both bad energy policy and bad environmental policy, ethanol mandates and subsidies do nothing but hurt the environment.  Ethanol generally takes more fossil fuels to produce than it replaces, it does almost nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and it creates new environmental issues with land use as well as social issues from rising food prices.  If you listed a hundred potential legislative initiatives to improve the environment and energy policy, ethanol would likely be in the bottom 10.  But never-the-less, it is consistently the number 1 legislative solution adopted by western democracies, including the supposedly science-based Obama administration.

I used to say that if we could move the first Presidential primary out of Iowa, ethanol might go away, but obviously that understated the appeal of subsidizing the agricultural industry under the thin veneer of environmental policy, as demonstrated by these nutty large subsidies in Europe.  Via Carpe Diem:

Biofuels production in Europe is heavily subsidized. Support has also been increasing in the past years and today stand at approximately EUR4 billion ($5.76B). Another way to look at subsidies is that every litre of ethanol consumed in Europe gets 0.74 EUR (about $4 per gallon) and every litre of biodiesel 0.5 EUR ($2.72 per gallon). The effective rate of assistance to biofuels (taking account of all measures of support) adds up to more than 250% for ethanol (see chart above). Biodiesel, and especially rapeseed crops, have lower effective rates of assistance (up to approximately 60%).

This structure of support and protection is not economically sustainable. It is rather close to economic madness to pursue the sort of self-sufficiency or industrial policy ambitions that have guided EU policy towards biofuels. The total cost of every unit of biofuel becomes far too high, which slows down the readiness to shift away from fossil fuels.

The biofuels policy in the European Union is a classic example of "green protectionism" "“ protectionism that is not motivated for the benefit of the environment, but which uses environmental concerns to pursue non-environmental objectives. The European Union runs an extensive policy for subsidies to biofuel production. Border protection increases the level of subsidy by giving a market support from consumers to producers. Standards are used to favour domestically produced biofuels. It is difficult to escape the picture of a policy driven by industrial ambitions rather than environmental concerns. The intention and/or the effect of Europe's policy is associated with beliefs of self-sufficiency. Obviously, trade is not considered to be an integral part of an environmental ambition to shift from fossil fuels to biofuels.

Yes, It's a Tax

Obama continues to deny that the health insurance mandate which is backed with a penalty to be collected by the IRS is a "tax."  He says "For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase."  Three responses:

  1. Asking people to take individual responsibility for their health care expenses is not a tax.  Asking them to do so via a particular method, in this case the purchase of an insurance policy rather than, say, just paying expenses as they go, is a tax.
  2. Obama might argue that since people are getting value for the policy they have to buy, there is not net tax but just a (forced) exchange of value.  But this is the classic technocratic fault, to assume that the central planner's definition of value is the same as every individuals.  But its not.  Many folks don't get value from a policy, which is why they don't buy one today
  3. Even if Obama were right in #2, he would still be wrong given the rules embedded in this bill.  Young, healthy people will be forced to subsidize the old and those with pre-existing conditions by the rules imposed on insurance companies.  These rules effectively make it impossible to charge full cost to the old and sick, so that the young and the healthy will have to pay more.  Because the young and the healthy will not see values in policies at the prices they will be paying (given these transfers), they won't value the policy with is EXACTLY why the law has to force them to buy it.  Which is why it is a tax.

John Stoessel via Carpe Diem

Competition is a "discovery procedure," Nobel-prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek taught. Through the competitive market process, we producers and consumers constantly learn things that force us to adjust our behavior if we are to succeed. Central planners fail for two reasons:

First, knowledge about supply, demand, individual preferences and resource availability is scattered -- much of it never articulated -- throughout society. It is not concentrated in a database where a group of planners can access it.

Second, this "data" is dynamic: It changes without notice. No matter how honorable the central planners' intentions, they will fail because they cannot know the needs and wishes of 300 million different people. And if they somehow did know their needs, they wouldn't know them tomorrow.

The Joy of Growth

We sometimes forget the good news.  Growth is not the enemy.  Growth, technology, trade, markets, capitalism -- these have improved the lives of more people more quickly than any number of Irish rock stars putting on benefit concerts.  Via Carpe Diem

This Has To Be An Outright Lie

Frequent readers know I almost never call statements "a lie."  I try to take the position that reasonable people can disagree without either lying.  I hate all the "Lying liars and the lies they tell their lying supporters" type books.

But I simply can find no other way to explain this statement:

"There isn't anything we could do to satisfy them in this health care bill. Nothing," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. "They are so anti-competitive. Why? Because they make more money than any other business in America today. . . .What a sweet deal they have."

I have written about this any number of times, but Carpe Diem also has the numbers at the link - health care insurers are well below average both in profit margin and return on capital, the two most common measures of profitability.  For the last couple of years, most large health care companies have made less than 5% return on sales.

The only other explanation is the neither the House Majority Leader, his staff, President Obama, or Nancy Pelosi and her staff (all of whom have echoed this same meme) have never once spent the 12 seconds going to Google finance or the Wall Street Journal to look the number up.

Nancy Pelosi once said:

I'm very pleased that our Chair of our Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and member of the leadership will be talking too about the immoral profits being made by the insurance industry and how those profits have increased in the Bush years. We all believe in the profit motive; we all want to reward success.  But having that success come at the expense of America's working families "” have that success come by withholding care, when a person becomes ill, is just not right and we're going to take this issue in a new direction.

Liberal pundit Kevin Drum, who really should know enough to look it up, once said:

It means the health insurance industry is scared that we might actually do something in 2009 and they want to be seen as something other than completely obstructionist. That means only one thing: they've shown fear, and now it's time to bore in for the kill and gut them like trouts. Let's get to it.

Bank Failures in Perspective

Bank failures in the last coupe of years, in terms of institutions as well as assets, are still well below the S&L crisis of the 1980's.  So what justifies the current nationalization of the banking sector and the short-circuiting of institutional failures and the subsequent creation of moral hazard.  Via Carpe Diem.

We're Going To Fund Health Care Reform By Cutting the Insurance Company Profits

I am not sure anyone has actually said this, but that has certainly been the implication, right?  Obama & Pelosi spends a lot of time accusing insurance companies of having profits that are too high, so I have to believe his intention is to reap cost savings by cutting into them.

I have blogged about this before, but Carpe Diem also picks up this thread, observing that health insurance companies are #86 on the list of US industries in terms of profit margins, with a ROS of  3.3%.  As Mark Perry points out, this gives them a profit of about $100 per individual policy.  Not really a very promising source of savings, is it?  But it is very scary for any industry that makes more than 3.3% profits, knowing that the Administration thinks they are making too much money and has shown a willingness to slice into profits it thinks to be excessive.

So Why Are We Benchmarking Health Care v. France?

This is awesome, from Carpe Diem:

On a purchasing power parity basis, France, Japan, and Germany would all be the poorest states in the United States, based on per capita GDP.  People on the coasts don't benchmark their education or health care spending against Mississippi, except perhaps to make the case that Mississippi is spending too little.  So why do they benchmark their spending against Germany or France.  Of course we spend more on health care per capita - we spend more than these countries per capita on everything from TV's to cars to movie tickets.

Real Options for Health Insurance

Two large drivers of high health insurance costs in certain states is 1) bans on interstate competition for health insurance and 2) state-by-state mandates for minimum coverage.  These two government actions lead to some states having remarkably higher health insurance prices than others.  Via Carpe Diem:

The average health insurance ranges from a low of $1,254 in Wisconsin to a high of $8,537 in Massachusetts, and the national average is $2,613. That kind of variation couldn't exist in a competitive market for health insurance. Interstate competition for health insurance would go a long way towards bringing health insurance costs down.

That Massachusetts model sure is doing wonders, huh?  If reimportation of drugs from Canada makes sense, why not of policies across state lines? See where your state ranks here.

How to Make a Libertarian Nuts

Show him this chart, via Carpe Diem

jobsbest

My Favorite Quote of the Day

From a Chicago Tribune editorial on the city aldermen blocking Wal-Mart construction in the city, via Carpe Diem:

Organized labor doesn't like Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart doesn't have union jobs. It just has jobs (with an average hourly wage of $12.05 in Chicago). The aldermen, of course, already have jobs. They get paid $110,556 a year and they figure that as long as they keep the labor unions off their backs, they'll keep making $110,556 a year.

Who says the City Council doesn't generate jobs? If you're one of the 50 aldermen, your unemployment rate is 0 percent. But the unemployment rate for the rest of Chicago is above 10 percent. One in 10 Chicagoans is out of work.

Choices Make a Difference

I have no problem if women want to spend four years at college studying (at their own expense) the role of indigenous women in the postmodernist Marxist movement of 1960's Paraguay, or whatever.  However, I do have a problem when these same folks later complain that their income is below average or they are under-represented in the board room.  Just peruse the top and bottom of this list at Carpe Diem

College degrees most dominated by women include library science, consumer science, social science, education, language, psychology, and gender studies.  Top college degrees most dominated by men include construction trades, engineering tech, transportation, military technologies, engineering and computer science. 

Sorry, but I cannot imagine any possible restructuring of society and the economy where the first list is more valuable and has higher income potential than the second list.

I'm Sure This Is Not In Any Way Relevant To Recent Events

Via Carpe Diem, comes this September 30, 1999 NY Times story:

In a move that could help increase home ownership rates among
minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is
easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from
banks and other lenders.

The action, which will begin as a
pilot program involving 24 banks in 15 markets -- including the New
York metropolitan region -- will encourage those banks to extend home
mortgages to individuals whose credit is generally not good enough to
qualify for conventional loans. Fannie Mae officials say they hope to
make it a nationwide program by next spring.

Fannie Mae, the
nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under
increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage
loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock
holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.

In
addition, banks, thrift institutions and mortgage companies have been
pressing Fannie Mae to help them make more loans to so-called subprime
borrowers. These borrowers whose incomes, credit ratings and savings
are not good enough to qualify for conventional loans, can only get
loans from finance companies that charge much higher interest rates --
anywhere from three to four percentage points higher than conventional
loans.

''Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of
families in the 1990's by reducing down payment requirements,'' said
Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae's chairman and chief executive officer.
''Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch
below what our underwriting has required who have been relegated to
paying significantly higher mortgage rates in the so-called subprime
market.''

Demographic information on these borrowers is
sketchy. But at least one study indicates that 18 percent of the loans
in the subprime market went to black borrowers, compared to 5 per cent
of loans in the conventional loan market.

In moving, even
tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on
significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during
flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run
into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue
similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's.

''From
the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift
industry growing up around us,'' said Peter Wallison a resident fellow
at the American Enterprise Institute. ''If they fail, the government
will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed
out the thrift industry.''

Those heartless free marketing guys at the AEI -- always predicting doom every time we open our hearts to poor people.  Bailout?  What ridiculous scare-mongering.

Economic Impact of Gas Prices

Are gas prices high or low by historical standards?  That seems like a nutty question, with prices at the pump cracking $4.00 a gallon, but one can argue that in terms of household pain, gas prices are nowhere near their historical highs.

Economist Mark Perry, at his blog Carpe Diem, shows that gas prices are far from their highs as a percentage of household income:
Gas

I thought the analysis could be taken one step further.  Mr. Perry was generous enough to send me his data, and I added a fourth piece of data to the analysis:  the average passenger vehicle MPG by year, as reported at the BTS here.  The MPG data set is spotty, and required some interpolation.  Also, data since 2004 is missing, so I assumed 2004 MPG's for more recent years (this is conservative, since the long-term trend would indicate fleet MPG's probably improved since 2004). 

From this data I was able to create what I think is a slightly improved analysis.  The key for households is not how much it costs to buy 1000 gallons, but how much it costs to buy the gas required to drive their typical annual miles.  Using 15,000 as an average driving miles per year per person, we get this result:

Gas_prices_2

So, while I too think paying $4 for gas is not my favorite way to dispose of my income, in terms of average household pain created, gas prices are quite far from their historic highs.

Let's Get These Guys to Run Health Care

From the New York Post via Carpe Diem and TJIC:

For
seven hours a day, five days a week, hundreds of Department of
Education employees - who've been accused of wrongdoing ranging from
buying a plant for a school against the principal's wishes to
inappropriately touching a student - do absolutely no work.

The
Post has learned that the number of salaried teachers sitting idly
waiting for their cases to be heard has exploded to 757 this year -
more than twice the number just two years ago - at a cost of about $40
million a year, based on the median teacher salary.

The city pays millions more for substitute teachers and employees to replace them and to lease rubber-room space.

Meanwhile,
the 757 - paid from $42,500 to $93,400 a year - bring in lounge chairs
to recline, talk on their cellphones and watch movies on portable DVD
players, according to interviews with more than 50 employees.