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The cost disease and the privatization of government services

by Adam Millsap on August 12, 2015

in Balanced Budget, City Life, Economic Policy, Education, Entrepreneurship, Public Choice, Tax and Budget

Many US municipalities are facing budget problems (see here, here, and here). The real cost of providing traditional public services like police, fire protection, and education is increasing, often at a rate that exceeds revenue growth. The graph below shows the real per-capita expenditure increase in five US cities from 1951 to 2006. (Data are from the census file IndFin_1967-2012.zip and are adjusted for inflation using the US GDP chained price index.)

real per cap spend

In 1951 none of the cities were spending more than $1,000 per person. In 2006 every city was spending well over that amount, with Buffalo spending almost $5,000 per person. Even Fresno, which had the smallest increase, increased per capita spending from $480 to $1,461 – an increase of 204%. Expenditure growth that exceeds revenue growth leads to budget deficits and can eventually result in cuts in services. Economist William Baumol attributes city spending growth to what is known as the “cost disease”.

In his 1967 paper, Baumol argues that municipalities will face rising costs of providing “public” goods and services over time as the relative productivity of labor declines in the industries controlled by local governments versus those of the private sector. As labor in the private sector becomes more productive over time due to increases in capital, wages will increase. Goods and services traditionally supplied by local governments such as police, fire protection, and education have not experienced similar increases in capital or productivity. K-12 education is a particularly good example of stagnation – a teacher from the 1950s would not confront much of a learning curve if they had to teach in a 21st century classroom. However, in order to attract competent and productive teachers, for example, local governments must increase wages to levels that are competitive with the wages that teachers could earn in the private sector. When this occurs, teacher’s wages increase even though their productivity does not. As a result, cities end up paying more money for the same amount of work. Baumol sums up the effect:

“The bulk of municipal services is, in fact, of this general stamp [non-progressive] and our model tells us clearly what can be expected as a result…inexorably and cumulatively, whether or not there is inflation, administrative mismanagement or malfeasance, municipal budgets will almost certainly continue to mount in the future, just as they have been doing in the past. This is a trend for which no man and no group should be blamed, for there is nothing than can be done to stop it.” (Baumol, 1967 p.423)

But is there really nothing than can be done to cure the cost disease? Baumol himself later acknowledged that innovation may yet occur in the relatively stagnant sectors of the economy such as education:

“…an activity which is, say, relatively stagnant need not stay so forever. It may be replaced by a more progressive substitute, or it may undergo an outburst of innovation previous thought very unlikely.” (Baumol et al. 1985, p.807).

The cure for the cost disease is that the stagnant, increasing-cost sectors need to undergo “an outburst of innovation”. But this raises the question; what has prevented this innovation from occurring thus far?

One thing that Baumol’s story ignores is public choice. Specifically, is the lack of labor-augmenting technology in the public-sector industries a characteristic of the public sector? The primary public sector industries have high rates of unionization and the primary goal of a labor union is to protect its dues-paying members. The chart below provides the union affiliation of workers for several occupations in 2013 and 2014.

union membership chart

In 2014, the protective service occupations and education, training, and library occupations, e.g. police officers and teachers, had relatively high union membership rates of 35%. Conversely, other high-skilled occupations such as management, computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations, and sales and office occupations had relatively low rates, ranging from 4.2% to 6.5% in 2014. Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations were in the middle at 14.6%, down from 16.1% in 2013.

The bottom part of the table shows the union membership rate of the public sector in general and of each level of government: federal, state, and local. The highest rate of unionization was at the local level, where approximately 42% of workers were members of a union in 2014, up from 41% in 2013. This is about 14 percentage points higher than the federal level and 12 percentage points higher than the state level. The union membership rate of the private sector in 2014 was only 6.6%.

In addition to the apathetic and sometimes hostile view unions have towards technological advancement and competition, union membership is also associated with higher wages, particularly at the local-government level. Economists Maury Gittleman and Brooks Piece of the Bureau of Labor statistics found that local-government workers have compensation costs 10 – 19% larger than similar private sector workers.

The table below shows the median weekly earnings in 2013 and 2014 for workers in the two most heavily unionized occupational categories; education, training, and library occupations and protective service occupations. In both occupation groups there is a substantial difference between the union and non-union weekly earnings. From the taxpayer’s perspective, higher earnings mean higher costs.

union median wage chart

There needs to be an incentive to expend resources in labor-saving technology for it to occur and it is not clear that this incentive exists in the public sector. In the public sector, taxpayers ultimately pay for the services they receive but these services are provided by an agent – the local politician(s) – who is expected to act on the taxpayer’s behalf when it comes to spending tax dollars. But in the public sector the agent/politician is accountable to both his employees and the general taxpayer since both groups vote on his performance. The general taxpayer wants the politician to cut costs and invest in labor-augmenting technology while the public-employee taxpayer wants to keep his job and earn more income. Since the public-employee unions are well organized compared to the general taxpayers it is easier for them to lobby their politicians/bosses in order to get their desired outcome, which ultimately means higher costs for the general taxpayer.

If Baumol’s cost disease is the primary factor responsible for the increasing cost of municipal government then there is not an easy remedy in the current environment. If the policing, firefighting, and education industries are unreceptive to labor-augmenting technology due to their high levels of unionization and near-monopoly status, one potential way to cure municipalities of the cost disease is privatization. In their 1996 paper, The Cost Disease and Government Growth: Qualifications to Baumol, economists J. Ferris and Edwin West state “Privatization could lead to significant changes in the structure of supply that result in “genuine” reductions in real costs” (p. 48).

Schools, police, and fire services are not true public goods and thus economic efficiency does not dictate that they are provided by a government entity. Schools in particular have been successfully built and operated by private funds for thousands of years. While there are fewer modern examples of privately operated police and fire departments, in theory both could be successfully privatized and historically fire departments were, though not always with great success. However, the failures of past private fire departments in places like New York City in the 19th century appear to be largely due to political corruption, an increase in political patronage, poorly designed incentives, and the failure of the rule of law rather than an inherent flaw in privatization. And today, many volunteer fire departments still exist. In 2013 69% of all firefighters were volunteers and 66% of all fire departments were all-volunteer.

The near-monopoly status of government provided education in many places and the actual monopoly of government provided police and fire protection makes these industries less susceptible to innovation. The government providers face little to no competition from private-sector alternatives, they are highly unionized and thus have little incentive to invest in labor-saving technology, and the importance of their output along with the aforementioned lack of competition allows them to pass cost increases on to taxpayers.

Market competition, limited union membership, and the profit-incentive are features of the private sector that are lacking in the public sector. Together these features encourage the use of labor-augmenting technology, which ultimately lowers costs and frees up resources, most notably labor, that can then be used on producing other goods and services. The higher productivity and lower costs that result from investments in productive capital also free up consumer dollars that can then be used to purchase additional goods and services from other industries.

Privatization of basic city services may be a little unnerving to some people, but ultimately it may be the only way to significantly bring down costs without cutting services. There are over 19,000 municipal governments in the US, which means there are over 19,000 groups of citizens that are capable of looking for new and innovative ways to provide the goods and services they rely on. In the private sector entrepreneurs continue to invent new things and find ways to make old things better and cheaper. I believe that if we allow entrepreneurs to apply their creativity to the public sector we will get similar outcomes.

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