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Posts Tagged ‘local government’

Since I believe in federalism and decentralization, I tend to be somewhat tolerant of stupid decisions by local governments – particularly when those choices are made thousands of miles away and I don’t have to deal with the consequences.

With this in mind, I find it rather amusing that San Francisco is now plagued by sewer smells as a result of mandates for low-flow toilets. The article doesn’t explain what rules the city imposed, but I assume they are even worse than the federal rules (if you want a good laugh about the federal law, this Dave Barry column is worth reading).

Reading the excerpt below, part of me hopes for a dry summer and that the city’s politicians all live near AT&T Park.

San Francisco’s big push for low-flow toilets has turned into a multimillion-dollar plumbing stink. Skimping on toilet water has resulted in more sludge backing up inside the sewer pipes, said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the city Public Utilities Commission. That has created a rotten-egg stench near AT&T Park and elsewhere, especially during the dry summer months. The city has already spent $100 million over the past five years to upgrade its sewer system and sewage plants, in part to combat the odor problem. Now officials are stocking up on a $14 million, three-year supply of highly concentrated sodium hypochlorite – better known as bleach – to act as an odor eater and to disinfect the city’s treated water before it’s dumped into the bay. It will also be used to sanitize drinking water.

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The showdown in Wisconsin has generated competing claims about whether state and local government bureaucrats are paid too much or paid too little compared to their private sector counterparts.

The data on total compensation clearly show a big advantage for state and local bureaucrats, largely because of lavish benefits (which is the problem that  Governor Walker in Wisconsin is trying to fix). But the government unions argue that any advantage they receive disappears after the data is adjusted for factors such as education.

This is a fair point, so we need to find some objective measure that neutralizes all the possible differences. Fortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, and this “JOLTS” data includes a measure of how often workers voluntarily leave job, and we can examine this data for different parts of the workforce.

Every labor economist, right or left, will agree that higher “quit rates” are much more likely in sectors that are underpaid and lower levels are much more likely in sectors where compensation is generous.

Not surprisingly, this data shows state and local bureaucrats are living on Easy Street. As the chart illustrates, private sector workers are more than three times as likely to quit their jobs.

This helps explain why the unions are treating the Wisconsin debate as if it was Custer’s Last Stand. The bureaucrats know they have comfortable sinecures and they are fighting to preserve their unfair privileges.

The only bit of semi-good news for Wisconsin taxpayers is that state and local bureaucrats are not as lavishly over-compensated as federal bureaucrats.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video looks at all of the data and reveals a pecking order. Federal bureaucrats are at the kings and queens of compensation. State and local bureaucrats are like the nobility. And private sector taxpayers are the serfs that worker harder and earn less, but nonetheless finance the entire racket.

The video closes with a very important point that the right pay level for many bureaucrats is zero. This is because they work for programs, departments, and agencies that should not exist.

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This blog repeatedly has chronicled the huge discrepancy between the gold-plated compensation for government employees and the meager salaries and benefits of people in the productive sector of the economy, including a video conclusively demonstrating that bureaucrats are overpaid.

This message is now resonating all across the nation. Even the New York Times, as shown by the excerpt below, now realizes that taxpayers are sick and tired of paying exorbitant taxes to finance excessive pay for the bureaucracy.

But public awareness is only a small step in the right direction. What really matters is public policy. Will the bureaucracy be downsized? Will salaries be frozen for several years? Will absurd pension plans be replaced by 401(k) systems? And what will happen to unaffordable health plans for government workers?

We’re going to see some interesting battles at the state and local level. One of the many great things about federalism is we get an opportunity to see some governments do the right thing and some do the wrong thing. And as we watch states like California descend into bankruptcy, this teaches everyone about the policies that should be avoided.

But the long-overdue day of reckoning won’t happen if Obama and the other politicians figure out how to bail out reckless state and local governments. That’s already happened once, since funneling federal money to the states was one of main goals of Obama’s failed stimulus.

But sending more money to the states would be akin to providing an alcoholic with a case of booze. If House Republicans have any brains, they will make sure taxpayers in places like Texas don’t pay more to subsidize politicians and special interests in places such as Illinois.

Cross your fingers that they hold firm. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the change in the public mood. Here are a few passages from yesterday’s story in the New York Times.

Across the nation, a rising irritation with public employee unions is palpable, as a wounded economy has blown gaping holes in state, city and town budgets, and revealed that some public pension funds dangle perilously close to bankruptcy. In California, New York, Michigan and New Jersey, states where public unions wield much power and the culture historically tends to be pro-labor, even longtime liberal political leaders have demanded concessions — wage freezes, benefit cuts and tougher work rules. …a growing cadre of political leaders and municipal finance experts argue that much of the edifice of municipal and state finance is jury-rigged and, without new revenue, perhaps unsustainable. Too many political leaders, they argue, acted too irresponsibly, failing to either raise taxes or cut spending. A brutal reckoning awaits, they say. …Fred Siegel, a historian at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, has written of the “New Tammany Hall,” which he describes as the incestuous alliance between public officials and labor. “Public unions have had no natural adversary; they give politicians political support and get good contracts back,” Mr. Siegel said. “It’s uniquely dysfunctional.” …In California, pension costs now crowd out spending for parks, public schools and state universities; in Illinois, spiraling pension costs threaten the state with insolvency. And taxpayer resentment simmers.

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This post could be entitled, “So many dumb bureaucrats, so little time,” but let’s have some fun and turn it into a contest. Which bone-headed decision by a local government best exemplifies mindless bureaucracy, politically correct nonsense, and government waste?

Contestant Number One is Sgt Brian Albert of the Baltimore County Natural Resources Police, who fined two men $90 each for the vicious, horrible, nasty crime of …(please don’t faint)… rescuing a deer. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. Two hardened criminals used an inflatable raft to free a helpless animal, but they flouted the law by not wearing life jackets. Since I already did a blog post about a man being fined for rescuing a wounded deer, I guess the moral of the story is that bureaucrats don’t like Bambi.

Contestant Number Two is the Metro Police in Washington, DC, which has decided to harass random travelers by searching their bags before they board the subway. This is akin to the TSA’s mindless bureaucracy – but even worse. There surely are nut-jobs who would like to blow up Americans, but they could do that on a bus, on a crowded street during rush hour, or any other place where a large number of people are gathered. Heck, they can drive a car into a crowd. Good intelligence by the CIA and FBI is the way to stop these crackpots, not empty security theater that makes life more difficult for law-abiding people.

Contestant Number Three is the St. Paul School District in Minnesota, which has turned all schools into “sweet-free zones.” This ban also applies to salty foods, however that is defined, and deals “a blow to booster clubs and parent organizations, too, which won’t be able to sell hot chocolate, doughnuts, candy bars and cookies at school events.” I actually agree with Michelle Obama that American kids are overweight, but I also know that government intervention isn’t going to solve the problem unless we want a police state that bans video games, TVs, computers, and the other technological developments that are responsible for sedentary kids.

Contestant Number Four is Battlefield High School, in Haymarket, VA, which disciplined 10 unrepentant gang members. What did these thugs do to warrant detention? Brace yourself and make sure no children are looking over your shoulders, because these hoodlums belong to a particularly nasty group called the Christmas Sweater Club and they got in trouble for handing out miniature candy canes. One school administrator (Mrs. Grinch?)  explained that “not everyone wants Christmas cheer,” thus turning Jay Leno’s parody into reality.

So who wins the prize? I’m not technologically advanced enough to include a poll with this question, so the only thing we can really conclude is that governments do dumb things. That’s true at the national level, the state level, and the local level.

I just wish I could write like Dave Barry. He had a hilarious column many years ago that was based on various examples of government stupidity. This post is more likely to make you cry rather than laugh, which is not good at this time of year. Nonetheless, feel free to comment if you think one of these stories stands out.

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Since I’m involuntarily forced to finance National Public Radio, I guess I should be happy that free-market views occasionally are allowed on air. Click here to listen to a segment where I talk about earmarks, “phonemarks,” and special interest corruption in Washington.

The risky part of a pre-recorded interview is that you never know what the journalist will use. If the person interviewing you is biased, they can use a quote out of context to make you appear stupid, or use an incomplete quote to distort the meaning of your words. That did not happen in this case. The NPR interviewer, at least to my ear, was quite fair.

I wish the segment had been longer, however, so I could have explained why even “honest” earmarks are wrong. Let’s say that Congressman Smith or Senator Jones inserts an earmark, or makes a phonemark, to get funding for a sewer system. It’s quite possible that such a request is completely untainted by corruption (other than the run-of-the-mill practice of trying to buy votes with other people’s money).

But that doesn’t make it right. One of the reasons why federalism is such a good idea is that money is much more likely to be spent wisely is if it is raised at the state and local level and people at those levels decide how it should be allocated.

This doesn’t mean there is no corruption, insider deal-making, or special-interest shenanigans. That’s an inevitable part of government. But federalism at least makes it easier for people to monitor how their money is being spent – and to escape if they think their state or local government is going overboard with bad behavior.

In other words, centralization of government is a bad idea. This is why big government in Washington is worse than big government at the state and local level. And it’s why big government from the European Union in Brussels is worse than big government in Rome, Berlin, or Stockholm.

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The South Los Angelos City Council is not satisfied with the culinary choices of the people of South Los Angelos. While consumers have been voting one way with their wallets, the City Council has voted to use government force to override their preferences.

How many fast food eateries does one area really need? The Los Angeles City Council thinks South Los Angeles and South East Los Angeles need new choices as these regions face an over-concentration of such restaurants.

“This is not an attempt to control people as to what they can put into their mouths. This is an attempt to diversify their food options,” said councilmember Jan Perry.

Perry’s new plan bans new so-called “stand alone” fast food restaurants opening within half a mile of existing restaurants.

This is an argument straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Plenty. Government does not offer diversity; markets do. Compare the diversity you see in any private industry, such as automobiles or cell phones, with that in more heavily regulated sectors, such as education and mail delivery.

Are we really supposed to believe that, in exercising control over the availability of goods, they are not attempting to influence how those goods are consumed? Please, councilmember Perry, you’ll have to do better than that. Of course you are trying to control what people eat.

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Management of roads used to be the business of local governments – that is, until the federal government dangled its grant money over the states as leverage.  Now, thanks to this usurpation of authority, we have stories like this:

…[T]he Federal Highway Administration is ordering all local governments — from the tiniest towns to the largest cities — to go out and buy new street signs that federal bureaucrats say are easier to read.

The rules are part of a tangle of regulations included in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

The 800-plus page book tells local governments they:

— Should increase the size of the letters on street signs from the current 4 inches to 6 inches on all roads with speed limits over 25 miles per hour. The target date for this to be completed is January 2012.

— Install signs with new reflective letters more visible at night by January 2018.

— And whenever street name signs are changed for any reason, they can no longer be in ALL CAPS.

Why is the federal government ordering local governments, already strapped for cash, to waste millions on unnecessary sign changes? This might have something to do with it:

Whether or not requiring cities and towns to replace all their street signs improves safety, it would undoubtedly be a windfall for the multi-billion-dollar-a-year sign industry.

The American Traffic Safety Services Association — which represents companies that make signs and the reflective material used on them — lobbied hard for the new rules.  And at least one key study used to justify the changes was funded by the 3M Corporation, one of the few companies that make the reflective material now required on street signs.

Contrary to the claims of statists, it is big government, and not free markets, which favor big business. Without a centralized authority capable of making such dictates, rent seeking sign makers would have had to successfully lobby every local government in the nation to achieve this same payout, a feat they would not have been able to accomplish.

Hat-tip: Open Market

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