Tag: benefits

Those Who “Serve” Us Celebrate

adamsThose who think that the college-educated, or soon to be so, should have more and more of their education funded by taxpayers – whether those taxpayers themselves attended college or not – are shooting off the fireworks a bit early this year, celebrating increasingly generous federal aid going into effect today.

Perhaps the most galling part of all the increasingly free-flowing aid is how much is being targeted at people who work in “public service.” Ignoring for the moment that the people who make our computers, run our grocery stores, play professional baseball, and on and on are all providing the public with things it wants and needs, to make policy on the assumption that people in predominantly government jobs are somehow selflessly sacrificing for the common good is to blatantly disregard reality.

Consider teachers, as I have done in-depth. According to 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, adjusted to reflect actual time worked, teachers earn more on an hourly basis than accountants, registered nurses, and insurance underwriters. Elementary school teachers – the lowest paid among elementary, middle, and high school educators – made an average of $35.49 an hour, versus $32.91 for accountants and auditors, $32.54 for RNs, and $31.31 for insurance underwriters.

So much for the notion that teachers get paid in nothing but children’s smiles and whatever pittance a cruel public begrudgingly permits them.

How about government employees?

Chris Edwards has done yeoman’s work pointing out how well compensated federal bureaucrats are, noting that in 2007 the average annual wage of a federal civilian employee was $77,143, versus $48,035 for the average private sector worker. And when benefits were factored in, federal employee compensation was twice as large as private sector. But don’t just take Chris’s word and data to see that federal employment is far from self-sacrificial – take the Washington Post’s “Jobs” section!

And it’s not just federal employees or teachers who are making some pretty pennies serving John Q. Public. As a recent Forbes article revealed, it’s people at all levels of government, from firefighters to municipal clerks:

In public-sector America things just get better and better. The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector’s $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

Recently, my wife and I have been watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, and I couldn’t help but make the observation: In Adams’ time, many of those who served the public truly did so at great expense to themselves, often risking their very lives and asking little, if anything, from the public in return. Today, in contrast, many if not most of those who supposedly serve the public do so at no risk to themselves – indeed, unparalleled security is one of the great benefits of their employment – but are treated as if their jobs are extraordinary sacrifices. And so, as we head into Independence Day, it seems the World has once again been turned upside down: In modern America, the public works mightily to serve its servants, not the other way around.

The “Culture of Spending” from the Mouths of Babes

Each semester, when I speak to Cato’s new employees and interns, I give them a quick discussion of some of the reasons that government tends to grow, such as the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs and what James Payne called “the culture of spending.” In his book by that title, Payne noted:

The congressman lives in a special world, a curiously isolated world that is dominated by the advocates of government action. He is subjected to a broad chorus of persuasion that incessantly urges the virtues of spending programs. Year after year he hears how necessary government programs are.

Day after day, year after year, people come to the congressman’s office with stories about why some particular government program is needed – to help their grandfather, their brother-in-law, their community – and rarely if ever does a constituent fly to Washington to urge his congressman to vote against any particular one of the myriad programs that add up to his entire income tax bill.

The Washington Post has a great illustration of this problem in the Sunday paper. The little town of Owego, New York, was excited to hear that Lockheed Martin would build the new presidential helicopter – it’s called Marine One, though fortunately for Lockheed the government wanted 23 of them – at a plant in Owego. But as the price tag ballooned from $6.8 billion to $13 billion, even politicians began to see it as an unnecessary expense. The military canceled the program on June 1. Hundreds of jobs will be lost in Owego. And as the Post writes:

An 11-year-old Owego girl, whose parents are longtime Lockheed employees, recently hand-wrote a letter to Obama. It was published in the local newspaper and quickly became a voice for her shaken community.

“Lockheed is the main job source in Owego,” Hailey Bell, now 12, wrote. “If you shut down the program, my mom may lose her job and a lot of other people too… . Owego will be a ghost town. I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here! Please really, really think it over.”

I’m sure she loves her parents and her town. And there’s no reason to expect Hailey to understand what $13 billion means to taxpaying Americans all over the country. But this is just the kind of story that members of Congress hear all the time: save my parents’ jobs, save my community, save our farms. And it all adds up to a $4 trillion federal budget with a $1.8 trillion deficit. (And by the way, if you Google “fiscal 2009 budget,” you will quickly find the Obama administration’s budget page, which somewhat oddly does not show the actual budget totals but does invite you to “Use the map below to learn more about how the President’s 2010 Budget is restoring long-term opportunity and prosperity in your state.”)

For a more, shall we say, adult view of what it means to direct federal dollars to particular areas, we might turn to an advertisement in the Durango, Colorado, Herald in 1987, which touted the Animas-La Plata dam and irrigation project  and made explicit the usual hidden calculations of those trying to get their hands on federal dollars:

Why we should support the Animas-La Plata Project: Because someone else is paying the tab! We get the water. We get the reservoir. They get the bill.

That’s the way they tell it back home, usually without putting it in writing. In public and in Washington, they say, “Without this dam, our little town will waste away. Only you can save us, Mr. Congressman.” And it’s bankrupting us.

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

Today’s column, like many of the Federal Diary columns, is about how to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of federal workers. What about the taxpayers who foot the bill? To provide some balance, the Post ought to at least have a side-by-side column entitled “Federal Taxpayers’ Diary.”

GOP Health Care Alternative: Not as Bad as Advertised

Like my colleague, Michael Cannon, I was convinced by the staff summary and general spin accompanying the Republican health care bill introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) that the bill headed, albeit more slowly, down the same road to government-run health care as expected Democratic proposals. However, a closer reading of the actual bill shows that, while there are still reasons for concern, it may be much better than originally advertised.

First, it should be pointed out that the centerpiece of the bill is an important change to the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance. The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez bill would replace the current tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,300 per year an individual worker or $5,700 per year for family coverage. This move to personal, portable health insurance has long been at the heart of free market healthy care proposals. The bill would also expand health savings accounts and make important reforms to Medicaid and Medicare.

And, the bill should receive credit for what it does not contain. There is no individual or employer mandate. (I could live without the auto-enroll provisions, but they look more obnoxious than truly dangerous). There is no government board determining the cost-effectiveness of treatment. There is no “public option” competing with private insurance. In short, the bill avoids most of the really bad ideas for health reform featured in my recent Policy Analysis.

Other aspects are more problematic. The authors still seem far too attached to the idea of an exchange/connector/portal. The summary implied that states would be required to establish such mechanism. In reality, however, the bill merely creates incentives for states to do so. Moreover, I have been repeatedly assured that the bill’s authors are aiming for the more benign Utah-style “portal,” rather than the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Massachusetts “connector.” Still, I would be more comfortable if the staff summary had not singled out Massachusetts as the only state reform worthy of being called “an achievement.”

And, if states choose to set up an exchange, a number of federal requirements kick in, such as a requirement that at least one plan offered through the exchange provide benefits equal to those on the low cost FEHBP plan. There is also a guaranteed issue requirement.

Elsewhere, there are also requirements that states set up some type of risk-adjustment mechanism although the bureaucratic ex-post option that I criticized previously, appears to be only one option among many for meeting this requirement. And, I wish the authors hadn’t jumped on the health IT bandwagon. Health IT is a very worthy concept, but one better handled by the private sector.

And, if we should praise the bill for what it doesn’t include, we should criticize it in the same way. The bill does not include one of the best free market reform proposals of recent years, Rep. John Shadegg’s call for letting people purchase health insurance across state lines.

The bills (there are minor differences between the House and Senate versions) run to nearly 300 pages, and additional details, both good and bad, may emerge as I have more opportunity to study them. But for now, the bill, while flawed, looks to have far more good than bad.

Labor’s Waxing Political Influence

It has long been recognized that many capitalists are the greatest enemies of capitalism.  They want free enterprise for others, not themselves.

Unfortunately, organized labor tends to be even more statist in orientation.  Unions now routinely lobby for government to give them what they cannot get in the marketplace.

Labor influence is greatest in the public sector.  And as government’s power has expanded during the current economic crisis, so has the influence of unions.  Observes Steve Malanga in the Wall Street Journal:

Across the private sector, workers are swallowing hard as their employers freeze salaries, cancel bonuses, and institute longer work days. America’s employees can see for themselves how steeply business has fallen off, which is why many are accepting cost-saving measures with equanimity – especially compared to workers in France, where riots and plant takeovers have become regular news.

But then there is the U.S. public sector, where the mood seems very European these days. In New Jersey, which faces a $3.3 billion budget deficit, angry state workers have demonstrated in Trenton and taken Gov. Jon Corzine to court over his plan to require unpaid furloughs for public employees. In New York, public-sector unions have hit the airwaves with caustic ads denouncing Gov. David Paterson’s promise to lay off state workers if they continue refusing to forgo wage hikes as part of an effort to close a $17.7 billion deficit. In Los Angeles County, where the schools face a budget deficit of nearly $600 million, school employees have balked at a salary freeze and vowed to oppose any layoffs that the board of education says it will have to pursue if workers don’t agree to concessions.

Call it a tale of two economies. Private-sector workers – unionized and nonunion alike – can largely see that without compromises they may be forced to join unemployment lines. Not so in the public sector.

Government unions used their influence this winter in Washington to ensure that a healthy chunk of the federal stimulus package was sent to states and cities to preserve public jobs. Now they are fighting tenacious and largely successful local battles to safeguard salaries and benefits. Their gains, of course, can only come at the expense of taxpayers, which is one reason why states and cities are approving tens of billions of dollars in tax increases.

The government’s increased power over the economy also gives organized labor a new hook to lobby for more special interest privileges.  For instance, the AFL-CIO is arguing that the federal bailout of the auto industry should bar the companies from moving factories overseas.

Explains the union federation:

The pundits and politicians inside the Washington Beltway don’t get: If the United States continues to send its manufacturing jobs [1] overseas—as [2] General Motors and Chrysler are now proposing—the result will be more low-income U.S. families.

So today, workers, economists, academics and business and union leaders, fresh from the “[3] Keep It Made in America” bus tour through the nation’s heartland, brought that message to the policymakers’ doorstep as part of a teach-in on Capitol Hill.

The 11-day, 34-city bus tour showcased the ripple effect on communities of the lost jobs in manufacturing. ([4] See video.) Today, during the teach-in, those who took part brought the stories they heard along the tour and presented principles for revitalizing the auto industry to members of Congress and the press. 

Labor officials have been making similar arguments about bank lending.  If you got bailed out by Washington, then you have an obligation to keep funding bankrupt concerns.  Never mind getting paid back, and paying back the taxpayers.

Markets are resilient, but can survive only so much political interference.  If the American people aren’t careful, they might eventually find themselves living in an economy more appropriate for Latin America than North America.

GOP Health Care Alternative: Drinking the Massachusetts Kool-Aid

Earlier this morning, my colleague, Michael Cannon, blogged a devastating critique of the Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez alternative to the Obama health plan. As he shows, while the bill has some good features (changing the tax treatment of health insurance, expanding HSAs), the good is swamped by a bizarre collection of regulation, mandates, and hidden taxes.

In fact, the bill appears to be based, in large part, on what its sponsors call “the well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care through a private system in Massachusetts.” But the Massachusetts model has failed to either achieve universal coverage or control health care costs. Rather, as I noted in this recent blog, it has led to more regulation, less consumer choice, and increased insurance premiums, while running huge budget deficits that have already led to one tax increase and are now causing the state to consider premium caps and global budgets. One wonders why congressional Republicans would want to head down that road.

Notably, Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez abandons Rep. John Shadegg’s proposal to allow Americans to buy insurance across state lines in favor of a requirement that states establish Massachusetts-style connectors. But the Massachusetts Connector has been one of the worst aspects of that state’s reform, acting as a super-regulatory body, adding new mandated benefits, restricting consumer’s choice of plans, and adding both regulatory and administrative costs to insurance. (In fact, the Connector adds its own administrative costs, estimated at 4 percent of premium costs, for plans that are sold through it.) What the Connector has not done is live up to its promise of breaking the link between employment and insurance, giving workers personal, portable insurance that they could take with them from job to job, and which they would not lose when they lost their jobs. Unfortunately, the Connector has not lived up to its promise in the latter regard. In fact, as of May 2008, only 18,122 people had purchased insurance through the Connector. That’s very little gain for so much pain.

Since there is virtually no chance that the Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez will actually be enacted, perhaps one shouldn’t get too excised about its failings. No doubt it is far superior to Obamacare. And, it is understandable that congressional Republicans want to appear as more than the “party of no.” Still, this looks like a sadly missed opportunity.

The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunes Mandate-Price-Control Bill

Today, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) announced that they will introduce a health care reform bill. If my reading of the bill summary is correct, their bill would:

  • Mandate that states create a new regulatory bureaucracy called a “State Health Insurance Exchange,”
  • Mandate that all plans offered through those exchanges meet federal regulatory standards,
  • Mandate “guaranteed issue” in those exchanges,
  • Mandate “uniform and reliable measures by which to report quality and price information,”
  • Impose price controls on those plans by prohibiting risk-rating,
  • Launch a government takeover of the “insurance” part of health insurance, by means of a “risk-adjustment” program intended to cope with the problems created by price controls, and
  • Fall just short of an individual mandate by setting up (mandating?) automatic enrollment in exchange plans at “places of employment, emergency rooms, the DMV, etc.” – essentially, trying to achieve universal coverage by nagging Americans to death.

Needless to say, I am troubled.

The bill summary is self-contradictory. On the one hand, it lists “No Tax Increases” as a core concept. Do its authors not know that imposing price controls on health insurance premiums imposes a tax on healthier-than-average consumers? And where do they think the money for “risk-adjustment” payments will come from? Heaven?

The bill sponsors seem to want to cement in place the monopoly regulation that currently exists at the state level – when they’re not encouraging Congress to take over that function. Have they abandoned their colleague Rep. John Shadegg’s (R-AZ) proposal to allow for competitive regulation of health insurance?

And if Massachusetts created an “exchange” on its own, why do other states need federal legislation?

The bill includes some ideas for which I have more sympathy, like its tax-credit proposal and expanding health savings accounts.

But the above provisions would sow the seeds of a government takeover of health care – so much so that The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is salivating:

The word of the day is “convergence.” That – and that alone – is the definitive message of the conservative health reform alternative developed by Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). For now, some of the key provisions are about as clear as mud. The plan’s changes to the tax code, in particular, are impossible to discern. So I’ll do another post when I can get some clarity on those issues. The politics, however, are perfectly straightforward.

A superficial read of the Patients’ Choice Act – which I’ve uploaded here – would make you think you’re digging into a liberal bill. A fair chunk of the rhetoric is lifted straight from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. “It is time to publicly admit that the health care system in America is broken,” begins the document. “Health care is not a commodity in the traditional sense,” it continues. “States should provide direct oversight of health insurers to make sure they are playing by fair rules,” it demands. The way we pay private insurers in Medicare “wastes taxpayer dollars and lines the pockets of insurance executives,” it says. Elsewhere, it praises solutions that have worked in several European countries.”

And though it’s still too early to say how the policy fits together, it’s clear that many traditionally Democratic concepts have been embraced. To put it simply, the plan wants to encourage a version of the Massachusetts reforms – which it calls a “well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care” – in every state. There are some differences, of course. The plan doesn’t have an individual mandate. It doesn’t have an obvious tax on employers. But it strongly endorses State Health Insurance Exchanges. And that, for Republicans, is a radical change in policy.

This idea – present in every Democratic proposal but absent in Arizona Sen.John McCain’s plan – would empower states to create heavily regulated marketplaces of insurers. The plans offered would have to “meet the same statutory standard used for the health benefits given to Members of Congress.” Cherrypicking would be discouraged through risk adjustment, which the PCA calls “a model that works in several European countries.” The government would automatically enroll individuals in plans whenever they interacted with a government agency and states would be able to join into regional cooperatives to increase the size of their risk pool.

In essence, Coburn, Burr, and Ryan are abandoning the individual market entirely. Like Democrats, they’re arguing that individuals cannot successfully navigate the insurance market, and they need the protection of government regulation and the bargaining power that comes from a large risk pool. This is literally the opposite approach from McCain, who attempted to unwind the employer-based insurance and encourage families to purchase health coverage on the individual market. The core elements of this plan, in other words, make it the same type of plan Democrats are offering. A plan that enlarges consumer buying pools rather than shrinks them. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect a Blue Dog Democrat to propose. And it’s further evidence that the argument over health reform is narrowing, rather than widening. And it’s narrowing in a direction that favors the Democrats.

UPDATE: After discussions with Sen. Coburn’s staff, I happily issued a few corrections. Still, concerns remain.