Tag Archives: CEO

The cost disease and the privatization of government services

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.

The Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection

(It has been a busy few weeks and I haven’t had much time for blogging).

In early December, my colleagues Chris Koopman, Adam Thierer, and I published a piece on the sharing economy and consumer protection regulation. Here is a summary.

A few days later, I was on the Diane Rehm Show talking about the sharing economy with Alvaro Bedoya (@alvarombedoya) and Nancy Scola (@nancyscola). Alvaro is the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School and Nancy is a reporter covering the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance for The Washington Post.

During the course of our conversation, Diane also spoke with Sunil Paul, the co-founder and CEO of Sidecar and with Donna Blythe-Shaw, the spokesperson for the Boston Taxi Drivers’ Association.

It was a great conversation and I very much enjoyed meeting Diane, Alvaro and Nancy.

You can listen to it here.

Also check out Adam’s comments on the sharing economy at a Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee here.

Step one in obtaining government privilege is to have a seat at the table

The weekend edition of the WSJ featured an interview with Uber founder Travis Kalanick by Andy Kessler. It offers a nice lesson in how regulatory bodies can get captured by incumbent firms. In city after city Kalanick and his team encountered regulations and regulators intent on privileging the established taxi and luxury limousine industries.

The interview touches a bit on the Uber experience with the DC Council, (which I first wrote about back in July):

…the city tried to change the law—with what were actually called Uber Amendments—to set a floor on the company’s rates at five times those charged by taxis. “The rationale, in the frickin’ amendment, you can look it up, said ‘We need to keep the town-car business from competing with the taxi industry,’ ” Mr. Kalanick says. “It’s anticompetitive behavior. If a CEO did that kind of stuff—you’d be in jail.”

In the end, the city backed away from its proposal, allowing Uber to operate without the requirement that it charge 5 times what its competitors were charging. So far so good. Unfortunately, however, the legislation that gave Uber access to the DC market also mandated that any firm wishing to serve that market be licensed. As I wrote in The Washington Examiner in December, this adds one more chapter to the story:

As tech reporter Ryan Lawler points out, the licensing requirement erects a barrier to entry for other businesses. SideCar, for example, is a West Coast service that, according to its website, “instantly connects people with extra space in their cars with those who need to get from one place to another.” It is, they say, “like a quick and hassle-free carpool.” Since these instant carpoolers are obviously not licensed, they’d be illegal in DC. That’s handy for Uber. The company managed to cross the regulatory velvet rope and, alongside taxis, obtain access to a lucrative market. But once inside, Uber put the rope back up.

The incident raises questions about how much responsibility firms bear for the privileges they enjoy. I honestly don’t believe Mr. Kalanick set out to obtain a privilege for his firm. The problem is that once he had safely passed through the maze of red tape, he hardly had an incentive to ensure that anyone following him got through. And, of course, he even stood to gain if no one did. The simple fact is that when the deal was hashed out, Mr. Kalanick was at the table while the folks at SideCar (and hundreds, if not thousands of other would-be startups) were not. This is how regulatory capture works.

Is It Time to Privatize the Occupy Protests?

The aims of the “occupy” protesters are not always clear. But I think it is safe to say that a large number of them favor public policy solutions to our problems. If the top 1% is making too much money, they’d like politicians to raise the top marginal tax rate. If banks are taking on too much risk, they’d like politicians to regulate them. In essence, if the status quo is broken—and you don’t have to be an “occupier” to agree that it is—the occupy movement would like public policy to fix it.

In Zuccotti Park, public policy has just turned against the protesters: Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered the park cleared. The problem for the protestors is that they are on “privately owned public space” which means that public policy makers can decide what happens there (HT, @JoelWWood and @Cobrown).

This is a useful reminder that if you don’t like some outcome—be it the compensation package of a CEO, or the risk profile of a bank, or the way a piece of property is being used—then making it the purview of public policy doesn’t always guarantee your preferred outcome. In fact, as public choice teaches us, public policy often favors the entrenched special interests, not the little guy.

How might the occupiers keep their protest alive? I’d recommend that they privatize it. Take it to a private piece of property. I’m sure that there is some sympathetic property owner (maybe even someone in the top 1 percent?) who would be willing to donate their land. Better yet, they could pool together and buy some land themselves? A few thousand dollars would buy a few acres in many rural parts of the country.

Blinded by the Light: Will New Jersey finally sell off its race tracks?

Today the Star-Ledger editorial board has put it bluntly, “Get N.J. out of horse racing”, and sell the tracks.

While the Meadowlands Race Track and Monmouth Park once attracted a robust audience willing to bet and spend. Today, they are losing $10 million a year, kept alive with subsidies and casino profits. This isn’t just a Garden State phenomenon – empty seats at the races reveal that tastes change. (One theory for dwindling interest in watching the races posits technology-induced ADD.) Of course, the same can be said for any sport, the arts, or entertainment – no matter how deep its cultural roots.  Bullfighting in Barcelona is on the decline.

The casino industry is no longer amused at having to foot the bill for the tracks.  They agreed to give $90 million over three years as a protectionist measure. In return, the state agreed to keep slot machines out of the racetracks. No matter what form they take, subsidies to entertainment are a bad deal. The state should not be in the business of deciding which sports and recreations get to live past their profitability. That decision belongs to consumers.

But it’s hard for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to let go. At a recent hearing its CEO likened New Jersey’s tracks to a profitable brand, like Coca-Cola. As Governor Christie has indicated, the state can ill-afford such handouts. And more than that, as the governor discovered, the breeders associations were using tax dollars to lobby the government.

Homeland Security and Federalism

Matt A. Mayer is this week’s guest on Inside State and Local Policy, where he discusses his new book, Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway. The podcast runs just over 15 minutes. Here’s a description:

Local governments have historically played a key role in homeland security that most of us living in the early 21st century wouldn’t recognize.  In this episode we discuss where and how we draw the line between homeland security functions and which are the responsibility of the federal governments and and the responsibility of state governments.

Joining us to discuss these issues  is Matt Mayer, CEO of Provisum Strategies and Adjunct Professor at The Ohio State University.  Matt served as the head of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness within the US Department of Homeland Security, and now works to help policy makers better understand how federalism is a key component of an effective homeland security strategy.  In this episode, Mayer discusses his new book, Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway, which was released earlier this month and is available at Amazon.com and other book retailers.

Matt’s bio is here. His book is an excellent analysis of how and why state and local governments can and should take leadership on many aspects of homeland security and disaster preparedness.

Subscribe to Inside State and Local Policy via iTunes by clicking here.

Why Recovery.org is moving faster than Recovery.gov

An interview with the CEO of Onvia, the private company that tracks procurement spending, and is currently one of the leading repositories of how stimulus dollars are being spent on the local level.

Two things worth noting: they are making their ARRA spending data free to the public, at recovery.org, and they coined the term “transparency barrier,” the informational wall between the federal and state and local governments.