Tag Archives: unions

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.

Some private sector pensions also face funding trouble

A new report by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC) warns that while the market recovery has helped many multiemployer pension plans improve their funding there remain some plans that,”will not be able to raise contributions or reduce benefits sufficiently to avoid insolvency,” affecting between 1 and 1.5 million of ten million enrollees.

Multiemployer plans are defined as those which unions collectively bargained for, with multiple employers participating within an industry (e.g. building, construction, retail, trucking, mining and entertainment). They are also known as Taft-Hartley plans. Multiemployer plans grew out of the idea of offering pension benefits for unionized employees in transient kinds of work such as construction. These plans have been in trouble for awhile due to a variety of factors. Many plans have taken measures by increasing contributions and in a few cases cutting benefits according to GAO. But those steps have not been nearly enough to fix the growing shortfalls.

When a PBGC-insured pension plan goes insolvent beneficiaries are only guaranteed a fraction of their benefits. Those funds come from the premiums paid by remaining plans. The projected deficit for the ailing multiemployer plans range from $49.6 billion to $79.6 billion in 2022. By contrast the PBGC reports that single employer plans fare better with the current funding deficit of $27.4 billion narrowing to $7.6 billion by 2023.

Source: FY 2013 PBGC Projections Report

 

Municipal pension news: Baltimore to offer DC plan

Earlier this month, Baltimore’s city council approved a measure to give the city’s workers a choice between a defined contribution or defined benefit plan plan. According to Pensions and Investments, new hires will contribute 5 percent of their salary to whichever plan they choose, a significant increase from the 1 percent that workers were required to begin contributing to the city’s pension system last year. (Previously, workers had not contributed to their pension). As the article notes, the choice between a DB and a DC plan is a compromise. Mayor Rawlings-Blake preferred to move all newly hired employees to a DC plan, but this was not agreed upon by unions. In total, Baltimore two pension systems have an unfunded liability of $1.4 billion on a GASB-basis.

Baltimore’s proposed reforms are a bit stronger than the plan currently considered by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, which is largely focused on filling in very daunting funding gaps in the city’s multiple plans. The Wall Street Journal reports that the mayor’s plan to raise property taxes by $250 million represents an increase of about $50 a year for the owner of a $250,000 home. And, it’s not enough to cover the gap. The state will demand an additional $600 million in annual payments for the city’s police and fire funds by 2016. In addition, Mayor Emanuel proposes benefit cuts, such as  increased employee contributions and reduced COLAs. But structural reforms aren’t being pushed too strongly, instead, the focus in Chicago appears to be a search for more revenues. Consider a proposal floated by The Chicago Teachers Union. They would like to see a per-transaction tax levied on futures, options, and stock trades processed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and Chicago Board Options Exchange.  Both the CME and Mayor Emanuel oppose the idea recognizing that it will simply drive the financial industry out of town.

 

Pension reform from California to Tennessee

Earlier this month Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers went on their second strike of the year. With public transport dysfunctional for four days, area residents were not necessarily sympathetic to the workers’ complaints, according to The Economist. The incident only drew attention to the fact that BART’s workers weren’t contributing to their pensions.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement employees will contribute to their pensions, and increase the amount they pay for health care benefits to $129/month.  The growing cost of public pensions, wages and benefits on city budgets is a real matter for mayors who must struggle to contain rapidly rising costs to pay for retiree benefits. San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed has led the effort in California to institute pension reforms via a ballot measure that would give city workers a choice between reduced benefits or bigger contributions, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Reed is actively seeking the support of California’s public sector unions for the measure that would give local authorities some flexibility to contain costs. Pension costs are presenting new threats for many California governments. Moody’s is scrutinizing 30 cities for possible downgrades based on their more complete measurement of the economic liability presented by pension plans.  In spite of this dire warning, CalPERS has sent municipalities a strong message to struggling and bankrupt cities: pay your contributions, or else.

Other states and cities that are looking to overhaul how benefits are provided to employees include Memphis, Tennessee which faces a reported unfunded liability of $642 million and a funding ratio of 74.4%. This is using a discount rate of 7.5 percent.  I calculate Memphis’ unfunded liability is approximately $3.4 billion on a risk-free basis, leaving the plan only 35% funded.

The options being discussed by the Memphis government include moving new hires to a hybrid plan, a cash balance plan, or a defined contribution plan. Which of these presents the best option for employees, governments and Memphis residents?

I would suggest the following principles be used to guide pension reform: a) economic accounting, b) shift the funding risk away from government, c) offer workers – both current workers and future hires – the option to determine their own retirement course and to choose from a menu of options that includes a DC plan or an annuity – managed by an outside firm or some combination.

The idea should be to eliminate the ever-present incentive to turn employee retirement savings into a budgetary shell-game for governments. Public sector pensions in US state and local governments have been made uncertain under flawed accounting and high-risk investing. As long as pensions are regarded as malleable for accounting purposes – either through discount rate assumptions, re-amortization games, asset smoothing, dual-purpose asset investments, or short-sighted thinking – employee benefits are at risk for underfunding. A defined contribution plan, or a privately managed annuity avoids this temptation by putting the employer on the hook annually to make the full contribution to an employee’s retirement savings.

Rhode Island to unionize daycare workers

Last week, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law to permit daycare workers who receive any subsidies from the state to either form a union, or join an existing union such as the SEIU. While they would not be eligible for state pensions or health benefits, and not permitted to strike, the law allows workers to collectively bargain over subsidies, training and professional development and “other economic matters.”

Daycare workers represent a target population for unions. A new law in Minnesota permits daycare workers to unionize so home providers can advocate for higher subsidy payments from the state. In New York in 2010, Governor Paterson pushed for daycare workers to pay union dues to the teachers’ unions in his 2011 budget proposal.

With Rhode Island in the mix, 17 states now permit or strongly encourage daycare workers to unionize. In the rush to unionize private business owners, the ostensible benefits – a voice in the legislature to lobby for higher state subsidies – are touted – and the costs are ignored For example, in Massachusetts, if a private daycare owner accepts clients who pay with state daycare vouchers, the daycare provider must be represented by a union and pay dues. These dues are skimmed off of the state subsidy for low-income parents which is paid directly to the daycare provider. To avoid unionization, the provider would have to turn away low-income families who receive state subsidies for childcare.

The SEIU claims unionization will improve the quality of childcare and offers economic justice for workers. But, the most dramatic result seems to be this:  where daycare workers unionize, the SEIU immediately gains a windfall of new dues transferred from a program meant to help low-income families pay for daycare, (to the tune of $28 million in Michigan, where similar legislation was recently passed).

As James Shrek writes in National Review, one of the more remarkable things about this effort is that it represents a new strategy by unions. The target group for unionization are private individuals or business owners who are also the recipients of government benefits. For instance, at one point in Michigan, a parent receiving Medicaid to care for a disabled child could receive SEIU representation. Some parents found the only result was a reduction in their monthly Medicaid payments and no representation, effectively, “forcing disadvantaged families to pay union dues out of their government benefits.”

As Shrek notes, the Minnesota law, which authorizes AFSCME to unionize in-home daycare providers, also potentially covers short-term summer camps, and grandparents watching their grandkids, or “relative care.”

Shrek asks, does this tactic represent a sign of desperation on the part of unions who are actively seeking new members to the point of organizing, “unions of one”? With a growing number of states joining the trend, it is worth watching how these laws affect those people and families that the unions are claiming to help.

 

 

 

 

Varying Priorities in Municipal Bankruptcy

On Monday Reuters reported that a federal judge has found Stockton, CA to be eligible for bankruptcy protection. This decision came despite protests from Wall Street arguing that the city had options available that would have allowed it to pay its creditors in full, such as raising taxes or cutting benefits for city employees:

Creditors have claimed a lack of good faith by Stockton in its decision to fully pay its obligation to the $254 billion Calpers system but impose losses on bondholders and bond insurers.

The expected move by the California city of 300,000 – along with Jefferson County in Alabama and San Bernardino in California – breaks with a long-standing tradition to fully repay bondholders the principal in most major municipal bankruptcies.

While both the judge and city manager Bob Deis have harshly criticized bondholders who refused to negotiate with the city before bankruptcy proceedings began, other cities have taken a very different approach to their creditors in the bankruptcy process. In 2011, the Rhode Island policymakers adopted a law that puts municipal creditors at the head of the line in municipal bankruptcy proceedings. In the state’s  Central Falls bankruptcy, the requirement to pay bondholders 100 cents on the dollar has meant that the city’s pensioners have taken steep benefit cuts, in some cases losing nearly half of their defined benefit pensions.

After Rhode Island enacted this law, the Wall Street Journal explained:

Despite the financial failure, Central Falls suddenly is attractive to some investors because the law makes them more confident about getting paid.

“If we can find someone selling, we will be a buyer” of Central Falls bonds, says Matt Dalton, chief executive of Belle Haven Investments, a White Plains, N.Y., firm with $800 million in municipal-bond investments under management.

The difference in legal climates for bondholders in Rhode Island and California unsurprisingly fosters different attitudes from creditors.  Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan explains the dangers of cutting off a city’s access to credit by failing to pay bondholders in full:

“I think the unions ought to be scared stiff. This could be a lot worse than just the pensions. What about government bonds? If government bonds can also be restructured, who will buy them?

“The city and the state all issue tax anticipation bonds to meet their payrolls, but if those can be restructured, no one will buy them. Think about what that means for libraries, parks, street paving, police. It will all be on the line.

While cities on both coasts are facing insolvency in their efforts to meet their obligations to their employees and their creditors, they vary in their approaches as to who is first in line for scarce tax dollars.

What’s Good for General Motors May be BAD for the Country

Marketplace recently did a segment on the federal government’s announcement that it was getting out of the car business and would be selling off its stake in GM over the next two years. Marketplace reporter Nancy Marshall-Genzer first turned to Cato’s Dan Ikenson who noted that taxpayers would likely “need to assume a loss of $15 to $20 billion.”

Then, she turned to Sean McAlinden of the Center for Automotive Research who believes that taxpayers will break even.

“Is he math-challenged?” she asks. Not when you “look beyond the bailout cost” and consider that the bailout meant government ended up spending less on unemployment checks, that it got more income-tax revenue from auto industry employees, and “Then there’s the trickle-down effect.” To wit:

Without GM, auto parts suppliers would have struggled. Maybe gone under themselves. The carmakers use many of the same suppliers, so assembly lines at Ford would have ground to a halt. Dealerships would have suffered too.

A few things to note:

First, I love that she uses “trickle-down” in the way it should be used: in reference to a top-down government policy that transfers wealth from the taxpayer to well-to-do firms in hopes that the transfer will eventually “trickle down” to the little guy. I’ve long felt that if there were any justice in the English language, policies such as these would be called “trickle-down economics.” More commonly, of course, it is across-the-board tax cuts that don’t transfer wealth but instead abstain from taxing that go by the name “trickle-down.”

Second, as long as we are looking “beyond the bailout cost” let’s also look beyond the “trickle-down” effect (which I find dubious, but I’ll leave that to another day) and consider some additional negative consequences of a bailout. In my paper on government-granted privilege, I catalogue a host of problems that may arise when government bestows favors on particular firms or industries. These include:

  1. Less competition, yielding higher prices for consumers and less economic surplus
  2. X-inefficiency (i.e. higher production costs)
  3. Lower quality goods and less innovation
  4. Rent-seeking (people invest valuable resources asking for bailouts)
  5. Unproductive entrepreneurship (entrepreneurs busy themselves thinking of new ways to obtain bailouts instead of new ways to create value for customers)
  6. Moral hazard (firms are incentivized to make mistakes when they know that mistakes might entitle them to a bailout.
  7. Loss of innovation and diminished long-run economic growth
  8. Increased short-run macroeconomic instability
  9. Increased cronyism, which can erode social trust and diminish the legitimacy of both government and business

You can read my paper for arguments and citations for each of these claims (though this appropriately-titled paper is a good place to start).

Now let me add two more problems that are specific to the auto bailout:

  1. In choosing to give the union’s Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association greater priority than claims by other unsecured creditors such as suppliers and unsecured bond holders, the Administration’s auto bailout overturned a bedrock principle of bankruptcy law (namely that those creditors with similar claims be treated equally). My Mercatus colleague, GMU Law Professor Todd Zywicki, has written about this with the Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk here, and here. It isn’t clear yet at this point what sort of precedent this will set. But if unions were the winners here, generality and the rule of law seem to have been the losers.
  2. The auto bailout seems to have radically shifted the Democratic Party’s position on the relationship between government and business. As Timothy Taylor pointed out in October, there was a time when Democrats openly mocked Republicans who claimed that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” There was a time when Democrats believed that social safety nets were supposed to catch individuals who were down on their luck, not the firms at which these individuals happened to work. As Luigi Zingales points out in A Capitalism for the People, the Democratic Party’s one-time antagonism to business sometimes proved a healthy check on Republicans who too often confused being pro-market with being pro-business. Now that Democrats, too, think that their job is to help corporate America, there is effectively no organized political check on crony-capitalism.

This Week in Economic Freedom

It’s been a promising week for supporters of freer markets as several states and municipalities have taken steps toward deregulation and consumer choice. Here’s a roundup of some new developments:

1. Washington state is making headlines by being the first state (and first place globally) to legalize recreational marijuana. This policy change comes after recent polls indicate that most Americans favor legalizing marijuana. Of course what remains to be seen  is how the federal government will respond to this change in state law. The U.S. Attorney General’s office has issued a letter stating that marijuana remains illegal under federal law in these states and under the Obama administration the office has aggressively prosecuted medical marijuana dispensaries that are legal under states’ laws.

2. In Michigan right to work legislation looks poised to pass. The change would make it legal for employers to pay workers who choose not to be union members. James Sherck explains the political calculus behind this potential policy change:

Republicans have large majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Until now, however, Governor Rick Snyder has insisted right to work was not on his agenda. But today he changed his tune and called for the legislature to pass the bill — Snyder’s support removes the last obstacle to right to work passing in Michigan.

How did this happen? For one, unions badly miscalculated. They tried to amend the state constitution to preemptively ban right to work and attempted to elevate union contracts above state law. Michigan voters roundly rejected the proposal, but the debate put the issue on the public’s agenda.

Unsurprisingly, Michigan unions strongly oppose this change and are currently rallying against this potential change.

3. In Washington, DC City Council took two steps toward greater economic freedom. On Tuesday, the DC Council passed legislation allowing Uber, a popular sedan service which customers use their cell phones to book, to continue operating in the city. The new legislation legalizes “digital dispatch” and permits this new type of service that fits between taxis and traditional car services. Uber still faces legal challenges in San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, New York, and Chicago. Also on Tuesday, DC joined its neighbors Maryland and Virginia with legal Sunday liquor sales. As is so often the case with regulation,  many liquor store owners supported the status quo of mandatory Sunday closings. Store owners testified that they appreciated the mandatory day off and worried that the policy change would allow competitors to cut into the profits of stores that choose to close on Sunday.

New video explores source of union influence in politics

The Moving Picture Institute and Reason TV have partnered on a new video that explores how public sector unions affect political outcomes. Many public sector employees are required to pay union dues, and these dues are in turn used to sway political outcomes.

As the video explains, teachers who want to teach in public schools often don’t have the option of keeping their union dues instead of funding political causes. This helps to explain the union’s incentive to grow the public sector workforce, even if the growth in spending does not result in improved outcomes for taxpayers.

The video does a clear job of explaining that the problem is not individual public employees, but rather the incentives facing the unions that they are required to belong to. This incentive structure at times leads union officials to support their own best interests even ahead of their members’. This was demonstrated in Chicago last fall when the Chicago Tribune revealed that 23 retired union officials receive benefits nearly three times greater than what the city’s typical retirees make, at the expense of not only taxpayers, but also the public employees they represent.

 

Governor Quinn’s pension reforms: constitutionally bold, but is it enough?

 

On Friday, Governor Quinn proposed the most drastic pension reforms to date in Illinois. To meet the funding gap in the pension system, which on an actuarial basis is reported at $83 billion, the Governor will offer workers a choice between higher annual contributions to the system or the loss of health care benefits and a reduced pension.

The measures reflect the growing pressure the pension system is placing on general revenues. In FY 2008 Illinois contributed six percent of its revenues to the pension system. In FY 2013, the state must contribute 15 percent of general revenues or $5.2 billion to keep the system afloat.

Employees who accept the terms will contribute 3 percent more to their pensions, have a reduced or delayed COLA upon retirement and in some cases be required to retire at age 67 (up from the current 65). However, any pay increases would continue to count for the purpose of calculating benefits. Employees who refuse the terms and continue under the current plan will lose their health care benefits and their pay increases will not count towards their pension benefit calculation.

Considering the legal framework of Illinois’ pension plan, which constitutionally guarantees workers’ pension benefits, Governor Quinn’s reforms are quite bold. The proposal offers a kind of “constitutional test” to the system and could set a legal precedent in the state for pension reform. It is a sure bet that public unions will take legal action against the measures.

If they are adopted, will Quinn’s new proposal be enough to fill the funding gap? On a market basis, Illinois’ unfunded pension liability is several times larger than reported. We calculate it is closer to $173 billion, so mathematically speaking, no. However, the plan confronts current employee costs and shows a new willingness to tackle the problem. Up until now pension reform in Illinois has only affected new hires.