Tag: compensation and benefits

Cannon’s Second Rule of Economic Literacy

…appears at the end of this a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Washington Post:

After quoting a scholar who expresses the economic consensus that the rising cost of employer-purchased health benefits “means lower wages and salaries,” “New study shows health insurance premium spikes in every state” [Nov. 17] immediately contradicts that consensus by stating, “employers are attempting to shift health costs onto their workers” by “asking employees to shoulder a larger share of the premium.”

If workers bear the cost of employer-paid health benefits in the form of lower wages and salaries, then increasing the employee-paid portion of the premium is not a cost-shift.  Workers would have borne those costs either way.

Employers cannot shift to workers a cost that workers already bear.

See Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy.

Postal Service Announces $8.5 Billion Loss

The U.S. Postal service has announced a net loss of $8.5 billion for fiscal 2010. Since 2006, the USPS has lost $20 billion, and the organization is close to maxing out its $15 billion line of credit with the U.S. Treasury. Although the USPS has achieved some cost savings, they haven’t been enough to overcome a large drop in revenue due to the recession and the greater use of electronic alternatives by the public.

The USPS is required to make substantial annual payments to pre-fund retiree health care benefits. Last year, Congress allowed the USPS to postpone $4 billion of its fiscal 2009 into the future. However, Congress did not provide similar relief on this year’s required payment of $5.5 billion.

Critics of the retiree health care pre-funding requirement argue that no other federal agencies or private companies face such obligations. The argument is largely irrelevant for two reasons. First, the federal government’s financial practices are nothing to emulate. Second, very few private sector workers even receive retiree health care benefits.

In 2008, only 17 percent of private sector workers were employed at a business that offered health benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees, down from 28 percent in 1997. The actual number of private sector workers receiving these benefits is even lower as not all employees employed at the 17 percent of businesses that offers retiree health benefits are eligible to receive them.

The retiree health care benefit pre-funding requirement has become a rallying cry for the postal unions, as any threat to USPS solvency is a threat to the excessive compensation and benefits they’ve been able to extract from the postal service for their membership over the years.

Policymakers should properly view the retiree health care benefit as a symbol of postal labor excess, which continues to weigh the USPS down like an anchor. Therefore, they should avoid allowing the USPS to further postpone these payments into the future, which could lead to a taxpayer bailout. Instead, policymakers should recognize that the USPS’s financial woes require bolder action: privatization.

Government Mail Loses $3.8 Billion

The U.S. Postal Service reported that it lost $3.8 billion last fiscal year and that it expects to lose $7.8 billion this year. The loss occurred despite cost-cutting measures and legislation that allowed the USPS to forgo $4 billion in required payments to pre-fund retiree health benefits.

From the Associated Press:

The post office has been struggling to cope with a decline in mail volume caused by the shift to the Internet as well as the recession that resulted in a drop in advertising and other mail. Total mail volume was 177.1 billion pieces, compared to 202.7 billion pieces in 2008, a decline of almost 13 percent. For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 the agency had income of $68.1 billion, $6.8 billion less than in 2008. Expenditures were down $5.9 billion to $71.8 billion.

The recession and the rise in electronic communications are generating huge financial problems for the lumbering government monopoly. Despite its efforts to reduce headcount, the USPS remains overburdened by a costly and heavily unionized workforce. As I noted previously:

The average USPS worker earns $83,000 per year in compensation, which is considerably more than the average U.S. worker. And the Government Accountability Office recently noted that ‘compensation and benefits constitute close to 80 percent of USPS’s costs — a percentage that has remained similar over the years despite major advances in technology and the automation of postal operations.’

Radical reform is needed, but I suspect that Congress will just paper over the problems for now and also continue allowing the agency to defer funding its retirement obligations:

The post office is required to make an annual contribution of about $5 billion to pay in advance for medical benefits for future retirees. Congress reduced that by $4 billion for 2009, but that change was for one year only. The agency’s independent auditor, Ernst & Young, questioned whether the post office would have enough money to make the next payment on Sept. 30, 2010, when $5.5 billion will be due.

This will just kick the can down the road. It shows that even when Congress gets something right – as it did with making the USPS pre-fund its retiree health benefits – it lacks the will to see it through when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, the Europeans continue to make progress toward deregulating their national postal services and allowing for competition. Unfortunately, it seems that Congress only looks to Europe for guidance on expanding the welfare state.