Tag: California

Moody’s Caves In to Political Pressure on Municipal Bonds

Moody’s has announced that it will change its methods for rating debt issued by state and local governments.  Politicians have argued that its current ratings ignore the historically low default rate of municipal bonds, resulting in higher interest rates being paid on muni debt, or so argue the politicians.

First this argument ignores that the market determines the cost of borrowing, not the rating.  And while ratings are considered by market participants, one can easily find similarly rated bonds that trade at different yields.

Second, while ratings should give some weight to historical performance, far more weight should be given to expected future performance.  Regardless of how say California-issued debt has performed in the past, does anyone doubt that California, or many other municipalities, are in fiscal straights right now?

Last and not least, politicians have no business telling rating agencies how to handle different types of investments.  We’ve been down this road before with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  During drafting of GSE reform bills in the past, politicians put constant pressure on the rating agencies to maintain Fannie and Freddie’s AAA status.

The gaming over muni ratings illustrates all the more why we need to end the rating agencies govt created monopoly.  As long as govt has imposed a system protecting the rating agencies from market pressures, those agencies will bend to the will of politicians in order to protect that status.  As Fannie and Freddie have demonstrated, it ends up being the taxpayers and the investors who ultimately pay for this political meddling.

Ray LaHood as Santa Claus

U.S. News & World Report’s columnist Paul Bedard reports that Transportation secretary Ray LaHood told him that it’s fun playing Santa Claus to states and cities around the nation.

So let’s take a look at some recent examples of DOT gift-giving with federal taxpayers’ money:

  • DOT’s Federal Highway Administration helped restore an old brewery in Petosi, Wisconsin with a $450,000 gift. That should make taxpayers want to drink.
  • Dolgeville, New York intends to use DOT stimulus money to repair sidewalks even though the village acknowledges that the new sidewalks will have to be torn up and replaced again due to impending water and sewage line upgrades. Keynes would be particularly proud of this one. Last year the city received a $1 million gift from DOT for the “installation of period street lights, trees, accent pavers, street furniture and sidewalk improvements” on the city’s Main Street.
  • The Michigan Department of Transportation plans on spending $5 million in federal DOT money on a bunch of projects that are of unquestionable national importance: cobblestone streets in Grand Rapids; exhibits at the Detroit Science Center; rehabilitating the historic Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad Engine House in the Upper Peninsula; a bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians over the Clinton River in Utica and bike racks at several locations in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

These projects might be worthwhile, but they should be paid for by the local interests who can best judge their worth.

In his 1932 book, Congress as Santa Claus, constitutional scholar Charles Warren offered a prescient warning on the dangers of federal subsidization of state and local affairs:

The continuance of this practice of shifting to the National Government responsibility for payment for matters which formerly were dealt with by individual initiative, by community cooperation, by voluntary organizations, or by local or State governments – the continuance of this practice of making drafts on the National Treasury to carry out purposes not within the enumerated or implied powers of the National Government will inevitably have two results.

So far as these Government donations consist of direct appropriations for private or local interests, they will deaden and finally destroy the eagerness or willingness of State Governments and local communities to pay for their own needs. So far as they take the shape of the so-called Federal Aid laws for local projects to be matched by local appropriations, they will have ‘a tendency to induce excessive expenditures by State and municipal governments, with top-heavy bond issues and oppressive local taxation.’

I doubt in Warren’s worst nightmares could he have envisioned the examples of DOT spending above, let alone the existence of a $90 billion federal Department of Transportation.

Los Angeles Crime Rate Declines Again Despite Complaints about Immigrants

One of the more common complaints I hear about illegal immigration is that low-skilled workers from Mexico and Central America allegedly bring with them a wave of crime and incarceration expenses, especially to southern California.

Those complaints are hard to square with the mounting evidence that immigrants, even low-skilled, illegal immigrants, are no more prone to commit crimes than native-born Americans. The latest data point comes from Los Angeles, where the Wall Street Journal reports this morning: “Violent crime in Los Angeles hit its lowest level in more than half a century last year, one of a growing number of U.S. cities reporting its streets were remarkably safe in 2009.”

I tried to connect the dots on immigration and crime in a recent article I wrote for Commentary magazine, titled “Higher Immigration, Lower Crime.” My conclusion was entirely consistent with the latest crime report from Los Angeles:

As a rule, low-skilled Hispanic immigrants get down to the business of earning money, sending remittances to their home countries, and staying out of trouble. In comparison to 15 years ago a member of today’s underclass standing on a street corner is more likely waiting for a day’s work than for a drug deal.

California Illustrates Need to Revive Federalism

The state of California recently received $60 million in U.S. Department of Labor stimulus funds to upgrade its 23 year-old unemployment benefits system. But according to the Associated Press, California is yet to spend $66 million it received from Labor in 2002 to upgrade its system. The price tag isn’t whopping by federal standards, but it is another reminder of the need to return to fiscal federalism.

Apparently, the Department of Labor couldn’t care less:

The federal government has no plans to sanction or fine California for not completing the original technology upgrade. The Labor Department said it was more concerned that new stimulus funding is used in a way that will allow more workers to qualify for unemployment assistance.

At the same time, California’s unemployment insurance fund is $7.4 billion in the red, which has forced it to “borrow” $4.7 billion from the federal government. According to an editorial in the Oakland Tribune, California increased the generosity of its unemployment benefits when the economy was healthy, but now that the economy is stagnant spendthrift policies are creating a fiscal crisis.

Alan Reynolds reminds that the federal stimulus package “bribed states to extend benefits — which have now been stretched to an unprecedented 79 weeks in 28 states and to 46 to 72 weeks in the rest.” When you subsidize something you get more of it—federal subsidies prompt more state subsidies to the unemployed, which generates more unemployment. Alan concludes that “the February stimulus bill has added at least two percentage points to the unemployment rate.”

California’s unemployment rate of 12.5 percent is the state’s highest since the end of the Great Depression. Once again we see that when the line of responsibility between federal and state government is blurred, the result is more of both and poor policies compounded.

California Grubbing

Kids often have a tremendous sense of entitlement. Well, there are a lot of kids in California colleges — and running them.

You probably have heard about the University of California Regents voting yesterday for a 32-percent tuition hike over the next two years. Not surprisingly, many students are angry, some enough that they were arrested protesting outside the Regents’ meeting.

Now, a 32 percent hike over two years isn’t small. But here’s the thing: California has typically charged students very little relative to both state taxpayer funding and national averages. As you can see in the chart below, which uses data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, net per-pupil tuition revenue (meaning revenue from tuition minus any state financial aid) in California has hovered around $1,200 over the last 25 years, and has only gone up about $18 per year. Meanwhile, state taxpayers have been shelling out around $7,300 per pupil per year. So state taxpayers have been furnishing the vast majority of funding for California college students, and students have done very little to make up the vast gulf between what they pay and what taxpayers shell out.

How does California compare to the rest of the nation? On average for all states, net per-pupil revenue from students has risen from just about $2,000 to $4,000, putting the ever-growing average around $3,000, or close to three times what Golden State students have been furnishing. Funding from state and local taxpayers, meanwhile, has been just slightly lower nationally than in California.

So California students have been getting a heck of a deal, which is no doubt one among many reasons the state is on fiscal life support. Sooner or later bills come due, and that has left the state little choice but to make students pay more for the education of which they are by far the biggest beneficiaries.

Naturally — but still shamelessly — students are acting like victims now that the decrepit gravy train is slowing down a bit.  Unfortunately, the adults in charge of California colleges are also naturally — but perhaps even more shamelessly — stoking student anger so that they don’t have to do things that make their jobs less pleasant.

Despite the utterly unsustainable taxpayer funding for higher education that California has doled out for decades, for instance, UC president Mark Yudof had no qualms about declaring that:

We’re being forced to impose a user tax on our students and their families. This is a tax necessary because our political leaders have failed to adequately fund public higher education.

Last I checked, what a customer pays for a service is called a “price” not a “tax.” A tax is what has been used to make taxpayers bear by far the biggest part of California’s higher education burden while students have furnished but a token amount. And please don’t give us the “failed to adequately fund” line. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has been happily trotting out that disproven dreck in a grab for federal taxpayer dollars at the same time it has been discovered that he’s been pushing millions of dollars intended for academics and other purposes to Berkeley athletics.

It’s hard enough to accept the underfunding bit when the data clearly show it not to be the case. It’s even harder when college leaders spend their precious dollars on water polo and golf.

It’s time in California for the adults to stop acting like kids, and for the kids to start paying their share. But don’t get your hopes up, at least in higher education. It seems that no one there is without a shameless sense of entitlement.

Lies Our Professors Tell Us

On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by the chancellor and vice chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in which the writers proposed that the federal government start pumping money into a select few public universities. Why? On the constantly repeated but never substantiated assertion that state and local governments have been cutting those schools off.

As I point out in the following, unpublished letter to the editor, that is what we in the business call “a lie:”

It’s unfortunate that officials of a taxpayer-funded university felt the need to deceive in order to get more taxpayer dough, but that’s what UC Berkeley’s Robert Birgeneau and Frank Yeary did. Writing about the supposedly dire financial straits of public higher education (“Rescuing Our Public Universities,” September 27), Birgeneau and Yeary lamented decades of “material and progressive disinvestment by states in higher education.” But there’s been no such disinvestment, at least over the last quarter-century. According to inflation-adjusted data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, in 1983 state and local expenditures per public-college pupil totaled $6,478. In 2008 they hit $7,059. At the same time, public-college enrollment ballooned from under 8 million students to over 10 million. That translates into anything but a “disinvestment” in the public ivory tower, no matter what its penthouse residents may say.

Since letters to the editor typically have to be pretty short I left out readily available data for California, data which would, of course, be most relevant to the destitute scholars of Berkeley. Since I have more space here, let’s take a look: In 1983, again using inflation-adjusted SHEEO numbers, state and local governments in the Golden State provided $5,963 per full-time-equivalent student. In 2008, they furnished $7,177, a 20 percent increase. And this while enrollment grew from about 1.2 million students to 1.7 million! Of course, spending didn’t go up in a straight line – it went up and down with the business cycle – but in no way was there anything you could call appreciable ”disinvestment.” 

Unfortunately, higher education is awash in lies like these. Therefore, our debunking will not stop here! On Tuesday, October 6, at a Cato Institute/Pope Center for Higher Education Policy debate, we’ll deal with another of the ivory tower’s great truth-defying proclamations: that colleges and universities raise their prices at astronomical rates not because abundant, largely taxpayer-funded student aid makes doing so easy, but because they have to!

It’s a doozy of a declaration that should set off a doozy of a debate! To register to attend what should be a terrific event, or just to watch online, follow this link.

I hope to see you there, and remember: Don’t believe everything your professors tell you, especially when it impacts their wallets!

Fire! Fire! Fire!

fireIt’s summer again, which means it is the time of year for the obligatory photos of wildfires in Southern California. This particular fire, known as the Station Fire, nearly doubled in size in the last 24 hours from 98 to 164 square miles. So far, it has burned at least 18 buildings and cost the lives of at least two firefighters.

The fire began in the Angeles National Forest, and Congress will no doubt respond by giving the Forest Service even more money to suppress such fires in the future. In fact, as I show in my Cato Policy Analysis, The Perfect Firestorm, the Forest Service has, in effect, a blank check to put out fires.

It freely uses that blank check. It has so far spent about $14 million fighting the Station Fire, which supposedly threatens 12,000 homes. But it has also spent $2.5 million on Oregon’s Canal Creek Fire, which is less than half a square mile in size and does not threaten any homes or other structures. Better safe than sorry — as long as you have a blank check.

Southern California forests are extremely fire prone — their natural fire regime is to completely burn over every 50 to 100 years. Building homes in such an area might seem foolish, so naturally there have been calls for “fire plain zoning,” similar to flood plain zoning, that would restrict such construction.

FlintridgeIn fact, properly designed homes and landscaping can easily withstand such fires. Most homes destroyed by wildfires are ignited either by burning embers landing on flammable roofs or by the radiant heat from trees or   grasses burning nearby.  Building homes with nonflammable roofs and eves, and landscaping with well-tended lawns and a minimum of flammable trees essentially makes homes fireproof.

Most civilian deaths from wildfire take place during evacuations, not from the fire itself. Homes that are designed to withstand wildfires are known as “shelter-in-place” homes because the residents will be safer in the homes than trying to evacuate.

In 2007, CBS News reported that a fire swept through two San Diego suburbs built to shelter-in-place standards, and “not one home was even touched by flames.” Perversely, the reporter concluded that people should not be allowed to build to those standards because it would just encourage them to live in fire-prone areas.

In reality, the lesson is that it would be a lot less expensive to promote shelter-in-place construction standards and retrofitting and then simply let the fires burn at their normal frequencies. The homes would be safe, the forests would be “natural,” and fewer firefighters would be at risk.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Simple: money. The Forest Service gets a blank check for putting out fires, but almost no money for helping people fireproof their properties. So it continues to spend billions on fire suppression, mainly to protect people’s homes, when a lower-cost strategy is readily available.

Photo credit: MB Trama and DisneyKrazie on Flickr.