Tag: privatization

Coping with the Legacy of Arab Socialism

Countries of the Arab Spring suffer from many economic, social, and political ills. At their center lies the unfortunate legacy of Arab Socialism, which established itself in the region during the 1950s and 1960s. One of its features, besides the ideology of Pan-Arabism and international ‘non-alignment,’ was an emphasis on government ownership and industrial planning. Far from generating prosperity and economic growth, these policies resulted in large, vastly inefficient government-operated sectors in several Arab economies. My new Cato Policy Analysis provides a sense of the magnitude of the problem and of its evolution over time:

In Egypt, for example, the share of government investment fell from around 85 percent in the late 1990s to below 40 percent in 2012. Over the same period of time, the share of government investment in Algeria doubled, from around 30 percent to above 60 percent. Throughout much of the same period, the average for lower-middle-income countries hovered under 30 percent.

Some Arab governments, most prominently Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, attempted to put in place large-scale privatization programs. However, these were perceived (and rightly so!) as attempts by the political elites and their cronies to simply seize publicly owned assets, without much regard for the future restructuring of the companies and their exposure to competition. My paper reviews the experience of privatization in other countries and tries to provide some practical lessons to policymakers in countries such as Egypt or Algeria.

First and foremost, privatization needs to be perceived as fair and transparent. Bidding should be competitive and open to a large spectrum of potential bidders, domestic and foreign. Second, private ownership of the financial sector is a requisite for successful privatization and restructuring of the rest of the economy–otherwise Arab countries risk creating a dangerous nexus of cronyism through which the state-owned banks and financial institutions would provide funding to newly privatized companies. Third, in order to avoid the danger of simply replacing government-run monopolies with privately-run ones, privatization should be far-reaching and accompanied by broad economic liberalization and opening up both to trade and investment.

Privatization is not very high on the agenda of Arab policymakers or foreign experts, and is typically eclipsed by the more immediate political concerns about the region. It is not, however, an issue that can be simply ignored.

It is a mistake to think that economic reforms can wait until Middle Eastern countries address their internal political and economic problems. There are not many examples of countries that have transitioned successfully to a representative constitutional government while maintaining economic rules that deny opportunity to large segments of the population. State ownership, accompanied by regulations that favor existing state-owned incumbents, are a critical part of the problem facing countries in the MENA region, most notably Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Yemen

The Post Office Is Broke: End Washington’s Postal Monopoly

The United States Postal Service has run up $4 billion in losses so far this year, on top of last year’s $15.9 billion deficit. Washington should get out of the mail business. 

Congress created the Post Office in 1792, turning it into an important patronage tool. Legislators also passed the Private Express Statutes, giving the government a monopoly over first class mail.  

Washington imposed fines on early competitors, including the famed Lysander Spooner. Uncle Sam continues to rigorously police his monopoly.  

The Postal Service boasts that it would rank number 42 on the list of the Fortune 500—but that is only because the other 499 companies on the list, as well as everyone else, are barred from competing to deliver mail. Unfortunately for USPS, government lawyers cannot force people to send letters. The number of pieces of mail delivered dropped from 213 billion in 2006 to 160 billion last year. 

In 1971 Congress voted to turn the post office into a quasi-private company. However, Washington preserved the monopoly, retained control over system operations, and preserved a variety of indirect subsidies. For instance, USPS is exempt from taxes, regulations, and even parking tickets.

USPS: Stuck With the Government Business Model

The U.S. Postal Service has released a new five-year plan for congressional consideration that it says would get the beleaguered government mail monopoly on sounder financial footing and thus avoid a taxpayer bailout. The plan repeats previous suggestions (i.e., workforce reductions, postal network consolidations, elimination of Saturday delivery, elimination of the retiree healthcare benefit funding requirement) and proposes an increase in the price of a first-class stamp from forty-five to fifty cents.

Whether or not it would achieve what the USPS hopes, it probably doesn’t matter given that asking Congress for greater operational flexibility is like asking a two year old to stop playing with their food. That’s why the focus should be on completely transitioning the USPS from a government-run business to a privately-run business (or perhaps businesses).

Over at the Courier Express and Postal Observer blog, Alan Robinson says that “just like all plans that came before, [the new USPS plan] started with the assumption that the Postal Service remains a quasi-governmental entity.” As a result, Robinson notes that the plan is missing two key ingredients for success that foreign posts have utilized: private capital and an expanded range of products and services.

In an essay on the U.S. Postal Service, I discuss how liberalization in other countries has enabled foreign mailers to diversify into non-postal activities:

Consultants at Accenture have found that diversification not only has a measurable impact on the performance of international posts, but that it is what ultimately distinguishes high performers from low performers. America’s relatively dynamic economy is particularly suited for the diversification opportunities that would arise under postal liberalization.

Germany’s former postal monopoly, Deutsche Post, illustrates the type of transformation possible by liberalization. Today, the private Deutsche Post World Net has changed its compensation structure, imported managers from other industries, modernized the mail and parcels network within Germany, and developed new products such as hybrid mail and e-commerce. The company now has interests in not only the traditional mail and parcels business but also express mail logistics, banking, and more.

Given that the USPS’s plan is going to be unpopular with various postal stakeholders (i.e., special interests), Alan says that they should consider the advantages of privatization:

It is clear that the business plan that the Postal Service has chosen is not the one that has worked in other countries. The plan avoids talking about either private capital or expanding the breadth of service offerings as neither is on the legislative table.    Introducing thinking about how private capital could be introduced and the product offerings could be expanded forces stakeholders to think about privatization, an idea that is nearly as unpopular as the changes that the proposed business model introduced.   However, as this brief post notes, privatization offers significant financial advantages that could reduce the operating and price changes envisions by the Postal Service’s business plan. Therefore, those who see the greatest harm from this plan need to see if the advantages of privatization could benefit their interests sufficiently to overcome long-held objections to the idea.

I think Robinson is right, but I suspect that the “stakeholders” believe there’s a good chance that Congress will ultimately come to their aid with some sort of taxpayer bailout. Therefore, it’s possible that they believe that it is in their best interest to continue fighting for the status quo. Unfortunately, the recent bipartisan federal bailouts of the financial industry and the automakers suggest that they could be correct.

U.S. Postal Service Fares Worse in Recession than Foreign Posts

A new paper from postal expert Michael Schuyler compares the financial performance of the U.S. Postal Service to foreign postal service providers. Not surprisingly, the USPS, which has lost over $25 billion since 2006 and ranks near the bottom of the Postal Index of Freedom, doesn’t fare too well.

From the paper:

[Universal Postal Union] data indicate that, in each year, the majority of posts in high-income jurisdictions were profitable. Declining mail demand was stressful, though: the share of posts reporting losses increased from less than one in ten in 2007 to more than one in three in 2010. Nevertheless, few posts lost money consistently: under 20% over the period 2008-2010 and under 10% over the period 2007-2008, which suggests most foreign posts reacted quickly and effectively to financial setbacks. The good news is that posts can adjust to change and remain financially viable. Unfortunately, USPS is among the posts with consistent losses. Further, UPU data show that, in each year, more than half the reporting posts in medium-income jurisdictions were profitable. Few spilled red ink year after year.

Schuyler says that he will explore the reasons for the USPS’s comparatively poor performance in a future paper, but notes that “A key finding will be that Congressional restrictions and pressure often deny the Postal Service the operational flexibility needed to manage its costs properly.” In a Cato essay, I discuss the problems with Congress’s micromanagement of the U.S. Postal Service and conclude that it should be placed on the path to privatization.

Another postal expert, Alan Robinson, notes Schuyler’s piece and offers additional commentary on the need for policymakers to figure out what to do with the flailing postal service. Should the USPS go back to being subsidized by taxpayers?  Or should the USPS remain a part of the federal government at all? Robinson concludes that “it is time for postal service stakeholders, and in particular its labor unions, to develop an acceptable path toward privatization.”

We Don’t Need No Art in Kansas

At POLITICO this morning we find a long opinion piece by Matt Stoller, “Public Pays Price for Privatization,” summarized as “The real infrastructure trend in America today is privatizing what is left.” If that weren’t enough to give you the flavor of the piece, the bio line tells us that “Stoller worked on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and Federal Reserve transparency issues as a staffer for Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). He is currently a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.” Say no more – except, there’s more to say.

Stoller notes, among much else, that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback just turned over arts funding to the private sector, making Kansas the only state without a publicly funded arts agency.” Don’t reel in horror; the cited Los Angeles Times article has already done it for you: “The governor erased state funding for arts programs, leaving the Kansas Arts Commission with no budget, no staff and no offices.” One imagines there will now be no art at all in Kansas.

Not surprisingly, Stoller extols the giant public works of the New Deal and after, which petered out in the 1970s, he says, after which “international competitiveness and environmental costs drove the logic of cost reductions into our political order. Today, we are still living in the Ronald Reagan-Paul Volcker era of low taxes, low regulations, low pay, low spending and high finance.” It seems not to have occurred to Stoller that perhaps the prior absence of “the logic of cost reductions” in our political order might have contributed to why, as he says, “the New Deal coalition melted in the 1970s.”

Art aside – that’s an easy case for defunding – Stoller does go on to criticize much of the “privatization” that’s taken place since – starting with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He’s right there: These “private-public partnerships” are fraught with peril, not least by giving privatization a bad name, something he doesn’t consider. The idea of “public goods” is not meaningless, but the definition has to be strict, as economists know, and the means for privatizing ersatz “public goods” have to be clean. Given the vast public sector before us, we’ve got years of privatization ahead. Let’s hope it’s done right.

Postal Vision 2020

Postal Vision 2020 is a conference scheduled for June in Arlington, VA, that will discuss the U.S. Postal Service’s long-term prospects in our increasingly digitized world. Here’s how the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe frames the gathering:

As mail volume continues to plummet and more Americans use the Internet to pay bills and keep in touch, Google executives, social media experts and some of the most passionate tech evangelists are planning to meet in Crystal City in mid-June to sort out how to save and remake the nation’s mail delivery service.

That sounds like a good group for discussing ideas on how to “remake the nation’s mail delivery service” given that the USPS is the antithesis of companies like Google. Creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and competitive are words that one would associate with Google—not the government’s mail monopoly. However, should these folks be getting together to discuss saving the USPS? That notion strikes me as akin to having Henry Ford come up with ideas on saving the horse and buggy.

As I discuss in a Cato essay on the USPS, the socialist mail enterprise cannot survive in its current form—at least not without a reintroduction of taxpayer subsidies. The USPS’s revenue base has been irrevocably undermined by the growth in digital communications, and congressional micromanagement makes sufficient cost-cutting extremely difficult. Thus, I would argue that the goal should be to create a market for postal services rather than to “save” the USPS:

Policymakers resistant to reform often depict the USPS as a “national asset” that “binds the nation together.” But these days, it’s the Internet and our telecommunications networks that bind families and businesses together across the nation. It’s time to let go of the nostalgia for the USPS and bring America’s postal services into the 21st century with privatization, open competition, and entrepreneurial innovation.

Unfortunately, the sclerosis at the USPS is a reflection of the sclerosis in Congress. As Chris Edwards and I have repeatedly discussed with each other, it is incredibly difficult for Congress to think outside the box on policy. One reason is that because the federal government has become so massive, policymakers have little time to devote to big ideas like transforming the USPS. That, of course, assumes that policymakers are interested in such big ideas. For many members of Congress, interest in the USPS doesn’t go much further than franking privileges and naming post offices.

Air Traffic Control: Too Important for Government

The government’s air traffic controllers have been sleeping on the job, watching movies rather than guiding planes, and misdirecting the First Lady’s plane over Washington. There have been soaring numbers of airplane near misses caused by ATC errors over the last year.

Yesterday, the president said that federal government technology systems are “horrible” “across-the-board,” which isn’t good news for citizens hoping that the Federal Aviation Administration’s computers will land them safely.

The government’s air traffic controllers are very highly compensated, but they are unionized and they work for a mismanaged bureaucracy. The federal ATC system has had serious labor and management problems since the 1960s. And the president’s comment on technology rings true with regard to ATC – the FAA has had huge troubles for decades efficiently implementing new technologies. And things could get worse as air traffic volumes rise and the FAA struggles to implement next generation ATC systems.

The solution is privatization, as discussed in this essay and these blogs. Privatization promises better management, a more disciplined workforce, more efficient financing, better technology, and safer skies.

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