NYC Parents Need Actual Power

Probably only because it involved “privatizing” education, on Saturday the New York Times ran an editorial criticizing the Bloomberg administration, and new deputy schools chancellor Chris Cerf, because Cerf failed to quickly and fully disclose that until very recently he held stock in for-profit Edison Schools. Lamented the Times:

Mr. Cerf should have provided this relevant public information. It may seem like a small matter, but it adds to the perception of many parents that they are not being taken seriously, despite the creation of parent groups in every school.

“Perception”!? It’s a cold, hard fact that parents aren’t being taken seriously, and that’s because they have no serious power. Until they can take their children – and the money attached to them – out of the public school system, no public school or bureaucrat has any reason to take them seriously. Unfortunately, the Times seems to think that the solution to the problem is just for education officials to spruce the “we care what parents think” window dressing up a bit, not empower parents to leave a system that all too often holds them in contempt.

Federal Bureaucrats: Same Old Story

The Washington Post reports on a new survey of 221,400 federal workers and their pay and performance.

Among the survey findings are that only 22 percent of federal workers agreed with the statement “pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs.”

Despite eight years of Al Gore’s “reinventing government” and six years of similar efforts under President Bush, the federal bureaucracy is still a very ill-functioning “bureaucracy.” Indeed, that will always be the case. Here are some reasons why:

  • Poorly performing federal agencies do not go bankrupt, and thus there is no built-in mechanism to eliminate failures;
  • Government managers face no profit incentive, giving them little reason to proactively reduce costs. Indeed, without profits to worry about, managers favor budget and staffing increases to boost their power and prestige;
  • Without the profit motive, there is little incentive for government workers to innovate and produce better services;
  • The output of much government work is hard to measure, making it difficult to set performance goals for managers and workers;
  • Even if performance could be measured, federal pay is generally tied to longevity, not performance;
  • Disciplining federal workers is difficult, and they are virtually never fired, resulting in agencies carrying heavy loads of poor performers;
  • To prevent corruption, governments need complex and costly regulations and paperwork to carry out routine functions such as procurement;
  • Because of the frequent turnover of political appointees, many agencies experience continual changes in their missions;
  • Congress imposes extra costs on agencies in carrying out their duties, such as resisting closure of unneeded offices in the districts of important members;
  • Agencies get influenced or “captured” by special interest groups that steer policies toward satisfying narrow goals, rather than broad public interest goals;
  • The large size and overlapping activities of federal agencies makes coordination of related functions very difficult. Sadly, we saw the results of this problem with the failures of U.S. intelligence agencies to effectively communicate with each other prior to 9/11.

For these reasons, and many more, the federal government ought to radically downsized with as many functions as possible left to the private sector. See http://www.downsizinggovernment.com/

Great Moments in Government

While making my daily visit to Marginal Revolution, I saw this gem about the Census Bureau’s celebration of Return-Shopping-Carts-to-the-Supermarket month. After 20-plus years observing money get wasted by Washington, I thought I had reached the point where nothing would surprise me. But this caused even my jaw to drop. It’s bad enough that some politician or bureaucrat concocted the goofy idea. It adds injury to insult when they then squander tax dollars to promote it:

We’ve all seen them and wondered how they got there — a supermarket shopping cart, sitting forlornly along a residential street, far from the nearest grocery store. Was it a prank, or someone who walked to the store and bought more than they could carry? Either way, this is Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month — including milk crates and bread trays.

European Commission Poised to Officially Attack Switzerland for the “Crime” of Low Tax Levels

In a move that is both remarkable and disturbing, the European Commission plans to file a complaint - and threaten protectionist trade barriers - because attractive Swiss tax policies are supposedly a violation of a free-trade accord. The bureaucrats in Brussels are not arguing that Switzerland is imposing barriers against EU products. Instead, the Commission actually is taking the position that low taxes are attracting businesses that might otherwise operate in high-tax nations. The implications of this radical assertion are breathtaking. It certainly is true that a nation with more laissez-faire policy will attract economic activity from neighbors with more burdensome levels of government. But if this migration of jobs and investment is a “distortion” or trade, then the only “solution” is complete and total harmonization of all taxes (and regulations, spending, etc). If the Euro-crats succeed with this argument at the European level, it will be just a matter of time before similar cases are filed at the World Trade Organization. Look at this story from the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, but insert “U.S.” for Switzerland and you may get a glimpse of the future:

The European Commission is expected next week to make an official complaint about the practice of Swiss cantonal tax authorities giving corporate tax breaks. But the reproach is considered dubious because the Commission cannot really prove there has been any infringement of free trade. Brussels and Bern have been at loggerheads for more than a year over low corporate taxes some of the cantons use to attract new companies, including firms from European Union countries. The Swiss government has made it clear in recent months that a low tax regime is not in breach of a 1972 free trade agreement. …There may be objections from some EU Commission members but a condemnation of non:EU member Switzerland is practically certain. …The draft claims that these tax practices distort trade between Switzerland and the EU, and therefore contravene the bilateral free trade agreement. …It is also claimed that there does not have to be cast:iron proof of trade distortion. According to article 23 of the free trade accord, it is enough if a privilege “threatens to distort” trade.v…the EU specifically mentions “protective measures” in the draft complaint. The indirect threat is aimed at making Switzerland negotiate over cantonal tax practices.

Pro-Business Does Not Mean Pro-Freedom or Pro-Market

Representatives of the business community frequently are the worst enemies of freedom. They often seek special subsidies and handouts, and commonly conspire with politicians to thwart competition (conveniently, they want competition among their suppliers, just not for their own products). Fortunately, most business organizations still tend to be - on balance - supporters of limited government. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, some state and local chambers of commerce have become relentless enemies of good policy: 

…many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government. In Colorado, a coalition of property owners, conservative think tanks, anti-tax groups and small businesses fought against a ballot initiative in 2005 that was intended to gut the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (Tabor). They lost, and as a result state spending will expand by $5 billion over the next five years, costing the average family several thousand dollars in higher taxes. It was not the teachers’ unions or class-warfare liberals who spearheaded the campaign against Tabor, however – it was the Denver Chamber of Commerce. …In Virginia, the state and local chambers, along with big-business allies, have spent more than $4 million in recent years on ballot initiatives and legislative lobbying to raise $2 billion in taxes for roads, rails, buses and schools. This year they want a billion more for transportation, despite the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus, and have even threatened to run candidates against fiscal conservatives in the legislature who take a “no new taxes” pledge. …In New Jersey – home of some of the worst schools in the nation – the state chamber took out an ad with the teachers’ unions opposing a school-voucher initiative for families in inner cities. The ad was withdrawn only after pro-school reform business members hollered in protest. Last summer taxpayers revolted when Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine called for a $1.5 billion hike in the sales tax; but “the chamber and other business groups sat on their hands in order to avoid making enemies with the legislature,” notes Frayda Levin, New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity. In Oklahoma the state chamber filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to block eminent domain reform, and vowed to fight a taxpayer-led movement to enact a Colorado-style Tabor. Massachusetts? The state chamber and allied business groups oppose an income tax cut.

Proposed Hedge Fund Regulations Would Limit Options for All but the Rich

The nanny-state mentality of the Bush Administration and its appointees shows no sign of abating. The latest farce comes from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which want to prohibit all but the very wealthy from taking advantage of successful hedge fund investing. Richard Rahn comments in the Washington Times:

Financial regulation is most often justified by arguing it is needed to protect all participants from those who would engage in fraud or theft, and to protect unsophisticated investors from losing money in investments they do not understand. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be raised to as much as $2.5 million. People meeting a net liquid worth requirement are considered “accredited investors.” …Even though most people would agree it is important to try to protect “widows and orphans” from unscrupulous and/or incompetent financial promoters, there is a fine line between protecting those who need protection and denying freedom to those who don’t. Does it make sense to prohibit a person who has recently obtained a graduate degree in finance from a leading business school from buying and selling hedge funds, because he or she has not yet accumulated some arbitrary amount of wealth – while legally allowing any adult man or woman to take all of his or her wealth and go to Las Vegas and blow it at the gambling tables?