Tag: privatization

Obama and Infrastructure

The President is continuing his push for the federal government to go deeper into debt in order to fund infrastructure projects. While nobody disputes that the country has infrastructure needs, the precarious nature of federal and state finances indicate that policymakers need to starting thinking outside the box. Specifically, policymakers should be looking to make it easier for the private sector to fund and operate infrastructure projects.

As my colleagues Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren have explained, the main problem with government infrastructure spending is the lack of efficiency:

More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

A lot of what the the president wishes to spend taxpayer money on – for example, high-speed rail – is of questionable economic value. Unfortunately, policymakers all too often allocate resources on the basis of politics rather than economics.

For more on this topic, interested readers should check out our essays on the Department of Transportation. Also, an essay on privatization argues that “The benefits to the federal budget of privatization would be modest, but the benefits to the economy would be large as newly private businesses would innovate and improve their performance.”

Cuban Government Will Choke the Nascent Private Sector

Following the announcement of massive layoffs in the public sector, the Cuban government published today new guidelines that will allow private employment in 178 economic activities. Among the newly authorized private occupations are masseurs, clowns, shoemakers, locksmiths, and gardeners.

However, these new entrepreneurs will face a few hurdles before enjoying the benefits of their own work. Not only must they get a government license in order to operate (according to official sources the number of permits will be capped at 250,000), but they will also have to pay high taxes. A leaked document from the Communist Party says that small businesses will pay between 10 to 40 percent of their gross income in taxes. On top of that, they will have to contribute 25 percent of their incomes to social security.

Don’t expect a thriving private sector in Cuba any time soon.

Congress Is Hurdle to USPS Reforms

National Journal reports that two key policymakers don’t support the U.S. Postal Service’s desire to eliminate Saturday mail delivery. House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano (D-NY) says he’ll be working with USPS management and the postal unions to avoid service cuts. And House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee ranking member Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced that he too opposes the move.

Chaffetz intends to introduce legislation that would instead eliminate twelve delivery days a year. Twelve days? With the USPS facing $238 billion in losses over the next ten years, it’s hard to understand why the Republican congressman is fiddling around with such small changes.

From the article:

Chaffetz said he is concerned that if the Postal Service cuts Saturday deliveries, it could end up hurting itself in the long run by creating an opening for private delivery companies. “You have got to serve your customers, or somebody else will come in and do it for you,” he said.

What private delivery companies? UPS and FedEx are allowed to compete with the USPS on express mail delivery, but the USPS has a government-granted monopoly on regular mail. In pointing out that the USPS’s reduction in services isn’t good for customers, Chaffetz unintentionally make the cases for opening up the mails to competition from private providers.

“The challenge for the Postal Service is to become more relevant to people’s lives,” he said. “They have been cutting back … and I applaud them for that. The Postal Service is also one of the few things highlighted in U.S. Constitution. They’ve got to figure out ways to cut and make it more relevant.”

Mr. Chaffetz: The Constitution gives the federal government the power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” It doesn’t say the government has to have a monopoly over the provision of mail. Nor does it say that Congress must perform this service. Today, there are better private options.

The reality is that the USPS is bleeding red ink because it is becoming less relevant to people’s lives because of electronic communication. Surely Rep. Chaffetz doesn’t want the government’s mail monopolist involved in electronic correspondence to make it more “relevant”?

A story out of Finland demonstrates why that would be a bad idea. Finland’s state-owned postal service is testing a cost-cutting idea that would have it open mail, scan it, and then send an electronic copy to a digital mailbox. The original mail would then be sealed up and physically delivered, but delivery would only be done twice a week. Fins are rightly concerned about their civil liberties being violated by the government viewing their private correspondence.

The underlying idea behind the Finnish experiment is nonetheless sound. In a competitive market for mail delivery, electronic scanning and transmittal would be a more cost-effective – and thus perhaps profitable – way of getting people their mail. This could be especially appealing for costly-to-deliver rural areas, which proponents of the USPS often cite as a reason why mail privatization is untenable.

Thoughts on Five-Day Mail

The USPS has taken the first step toward reducing mail delivery to five days a week by sending a request to the Postal Regulatory Commission. However, it will be ultimately up to Congress whether or not Saturday delivery is eliminated.

The USPS, which is in a death spiral, views the elimination of Saturday mail delivery service as a step toward regaining its financial footing. Not surprisingly, the decision is proving controversial among some members of Congress.

Here’s a better idea: give Americans the freedom to choose the mail services they want by repealing the USPS monopoly. That way consumers and businesses could choose to provide and use mail services zero days a week or seven days a week.

Online movie rental services like Netflix offer a small example. A lot of folks time their Netflix rentals so that they have movies for Saturday night. Eliminating Saturday delivery will necessarily degrade the quality of online movie rental services that people are paying for. With competition, Netflix could offer Saturday (or even Sunday) delivery through a private alternative. Perhaps there would be a surcharge, but at least consumers would be allowed to make that choice.

Supporters of the government mail monopoly regularly cite their amazement that they can drop a letter in a mailbox and it will arrive unharmed in another mailbox clear across the country. As a $70 billion operation with the largest workforce in the country, I would hope the USPS can pull off such a feat.

I find it more impressive that I can go into a grocery store almost anywhere in the country and be met with an incalculable number of choices. Take Coke products for instance. I recently made a list of the various Coke products available to me at a local grocery store. The following is just a sample: regular Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Coke, Diet Caffeine-free Coke, Coke Zero, Coke with Splenda, Coke with Lime, Coke with Lemon, and Diet Coke Plus. Don’t like Coke?  There’s a similar array of Pepsi products. Don’t like either? The grocery stores also offer pricier micro-brands with all sorts of unique flavors.

These choices reflect the awesome power of the market, which provides nearly all the goods and services people want without any direction from officials in Washington. It would interesting to see what sorts of innovations and products private mail deliverers would come up with if the government’s mail monopoly didn’t exist. Instead, Americans are stuck with a government operation whose floundering business model will require it to raise prices while simultaneously reducing its services. So much for freedom of choice.

Postmaster Indicates Need for Privatization

A recent Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s dire financial prospects found little enthusiasm for the USPS’s idea to eliminate Saturday mail service. Financial Services subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) said “serious questions need to be asked and answered,” and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) expressed concern that it would send the USPS into “a death spiral.”

The USPS is already in a death spiral due to changes in technology, high labor costs, and costly congressional mandates that have left it facing a projected $238 billion in losses over the next ten years. The USPS says dropping Saturday service would save the USPS $3 billion a year. However, the Postal Regulatory Commission believes the savings would be significantly smaller. Regardless, if the USPS stops Saturday service then private firms should be allowed to provide Saturday mail service.

Better yet, the USPS monopoly should be completely repealed and private firms allowed to deliver mail every day of the week. Interestingly, Postmaster General John Potter’s testimony inadvertently makes a case for privatizing the USPS.

Potter notes that when private businesses are losing money, they sell off assets, close locations, and reduce employment. He cites Sears, L.L. Bean, and Starbucks as recent examples of companies making cost cutting moves in the face of declining revenues. The Government Accountability Office’s testimony noted that the USPS has more retail outlets (36,500) than McDonalds, Starbucks, and Walgreens combined. Yet, its post offices average 600 visits per week, which is only 10 percent of Walgreen’s average weekly traffic.

In his testimony, Potter states:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

This is precisely why the USPS needs to be privatized and subjected to the demands of the market and not the whims of Congress. Members of congress always raise a fuss when the USPS targets postal outlets for closure in their districts.

Potter wants Congress to suspend a requirement that the USPS pre-fund its retiree health benefits. He argues that the trust fund for these payments has a $35 billion balance, which he says is enough to pay the health premiums for its 500,000 retirees through their lifetimes.

The more fundamental problem is the existence of this generous benefit to begin with. Potter notes that private companies aren’t subject to a pre-funding mandate. But the vast majority of private companies don’t even offer retiree health benefits. The GAO also points out that the USPS retiree benefits are generous even by government standards:

USPS pays a higher percentage of employee health benefit premiums than other federal agencies (80 percent versus 72 percent, respectively). In addition, USPS pays 100 percent of employee life insurance premiums, while other federal agencies pay about 33 percent.

Potter naturally wants more flexibility in dealing with the USPS’s excessive labor costs. The average postal employee receives $83,000 a year in total compensation. Employee pay and benefits constitute 80 percent of the USPS’s cost structure, which despite increased automation has remained the same since the 1960s. But so long as the USPS remains a government enterprise, it’s hard to imagine Congress standing up to the postal unions and giving management the labor flexibility it desires.

Finally, Potter wants the USPS to have more freedom when it comes to pricing and getting into new lines of business:

We also need the ability to expand our products and services, and ensure prices for our Market-Dominant products are based on the demand and cost of each individual product.

“Market-Dominant” is an Orwellian way of saying “Government Granted Monopoly.” Again, if the Postmaster wants mail prices to have an economic rationale, then the USPS needs to be privatized so that the market can efficiently set prices. Further, the USPS has a poor track record when it comes to expanding into services not protected by its monopoly. Plus it would be competing against the private sector on advantageous terms due to its status as a government enterprise.

What Potter wants – and needs – is something that only the private sector can provide. If the Senate hearing is any indication, Congress has no present plans to relinquish its control over the dying government monopoly. Instead, the USPS will likely continue to bleed red until policymakers run out of band-aids and are finally confronted with the choice of either privatization or direct taxpayer funding.

Federal Transportation Follies

The 2009 stimulus bill gave the U.S. Department of Transportation $50 billion to distribute to the states for highways, roads, and bridges. A House bill passed in December would add another $28 billion. According to Washington folklore, spending on infrastructure is always good because it’ll create jobs and spur economic growth. However, three recent examples are a reminder that the government often does a poor job of allocating resources.

First, an Alaska legislative audit concluded that the state should not have spent federal transportation money building a road to the site of the proposed “Bridge to Nowhere,” which was canceled after a national outcry. Alaska kept the federal money originally earmarked for the bridge, and then-Governor Sarah Palin agreed to spend $26 million of it on the road despite the fact there was no bridge.

Second, the Department of Transportation is supposed to exclude “unethical, dishonest, or otherwise irresponsible” parties from receiving federal funds. But according to a report from DOT’s inspector general, the average case took DOT officials “300 days to reach a suspension decision and over 400 days to reach a debarment decision.” For example, Kentucky awarded $24 million in transportation stimulus money to companies with officials under review by the Federal Highway Administration for bribery, theft, and obstruction of justice. The FHA took 10 months to review the companies before ultimately suspending them, but Kentucky had already given the companies the money.

Third, a Tennessee television station analyzed the state’s use of federal transportation stimulus money and found that it “spent an average of $161,500 per job created and that some paving jobs, which were temporary, cost taxpayers more than $1 million each.” The station interviewed a construction company that had been busy during the summer when it had federal money. Now its trucks are idle and the workers it hired have all been laid off.

Randal O’Toole says that “The best test of infrastructure value is whether users are willing to pay for it.” There’s almost no connection between infrastructure projects funded by federal taxpayers and the typically local users. Leaving infrastructure projects to state and local governments to fund would make more of a connection. Privatization, which would utilize tolling and other user fees, would be even better.

Federal Wages Fly High

Yahoo News is highlighting the story “10 Jobs With High Pay and Minimal Schooling.” Topping the list: air traffic controllers, who work for the federal government.

These workers make sure airplanes land and take off safely, and they typically top lists of this nature. The median 50% earned between $86,860-142,210, with good benefits. Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service, or after 25 years at any age.

Huge salaries and retirement after 20 years – sweet deal!

Air traffic controllers seem to provide a good illustration of my general claim that federal workers are overpaid.

I don’t know what the proper pay level for controllers is, but I do know that we should privatize the system, as Canada has, and let the market figure it out.