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Archive for December 13th, 2012

I was very critical of the General Motors bailout since it largely was designed to give undeserved special benefits to the UAW union. I’m also very down of teacher unions because they sabotage reforms that would help poor children trapped in failed government schools.

And I’m definitely opposed to the excessive pay and benefits that politicians grant to bureaucrats in exchange for votes and money from government employee unions (as cleverly depicted in this great Michael Ramirez cartoon).

So why, then, do I have mixed feelings about the recently enacted right-to-work law in Michigan?

Here’s some of what I wrote almost 25 years ago for the Villanova Law Review, beginning with my general philosophy on the role of government in labor markets.

…government should not interfere with certain personal decisions, including the freedom of employers and employees to contract freely, unfettered by labor regulations. …My position is one of strict neutrality. The government should not take side in employer-employee issues. …this is a question of property rights. If another person owns a business, I do not have a right to interfere with his choices as to what he does with his property – so long as he does not interfere with my rights of life, liberty, and property.

That’s all fine and well. Standard libertarian boilerplate, one might even say, and I’ve certainly expressed these views on television (see here, here, and here).

But then I explore some implications. If you believe in a system based on property rights and private contracts, then right-to-work laws are an unjust form of intervention.

…a property rights perspective also would reject so-called right-to-work laws which infringe upon the employers’ freedom of contract to hire only union members which is something employers may wish to do since it can lower transactions costs. …Some would argue that nobody should be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. The relevant issue in this instance, however, is not whether one can be forced to join a union, because a person cannot; if he does not like the union, he can refuse the job. The real issue is whether a business and its employees should have the freedom to choose to sign contracts which have union membership as a condition of employment.

All that being said, I’m glad Michigan just enacted a right-to-work law. I know it’s not ideal policy, but my rationale is that most government labor laws (such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Norris–La Guardia Act) tilt the playing field in favor of unions.

So until that glorious day when we get government out of labor markets, I view right-to-work laws as a second-best alternative. They’re a form of intervention that partially compensates for other forms of intervention.

A good analogy is that I don’t like tax loopholes, but I like the fact that they enable people to keep more of the money they earn. The ideal system, of course, would be a simple and fair flat tax. But in the absence of real reform, I don’t want politicians to get rid of preferences if it means they get more of our money to waste. Deductions should only be eliminated if they use every penny of additional revenue to lower tax rates.

Returning to what happened in Michigan, let’s close with an amusing cartoon that mocks Obama’s dismal record on jobs.

Cartoon Right to Work

P.S. Since I’ve written something that might appeal to union bosses, I feel the need to compensate. So feel free to enjoy some good cartoons mocking unionized bureaucrats by clicking here, here, here, and here.

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My Cato Institute colleague, Chris Edwards, put together a remarkable (and depressing) chart showing that federal bureaucrats get almost twice the level of compensation as workers in the productive sector of the economy.

Defenders of the bureaucracy (including a federal pay panel dominated by bureaucrats) claim that government employees actually are underpaid because…well…just because.

My modest contribution to the debate was to put together a chart based on the Labor Department’s JOLTS data, which shows that bureaucrats are far less likely to voluntarily leave their jobs than folks in the private sector, which is very strong evidence that they are being over-compensated.

But all this debate about pay is looking at only one part of the equation. What about the stereotype that bureaucrats don’t work very hard? Well, as anyone who’s ever visited a motor vehicles department or a post office already knows, that’s also true.

And the hard data confirm our personal observations. Here are the main findings of new research by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation, which was published in the Wall Street Journal.

…overstaffing is a serious problem in government, and the best evidence is a simple empirical fact: Government employees don’t work as much as private employees. …new evidence from a comprehensive and objective data set confirms that the “underworked” government employee is more than a stereotype. …The time-use survey’s data on work time…allow us to analyze both the number of hours individuals work during a typical workweek and the total number of hours they work during the year. …What we found was that during a typical workweek, private-sector employees work about 41.4 hours. Federal workers, by contrast, put in 38.7 hours, and state and local government employees work 38.1 hours. …Put another way, private employees spend around an extra month working each year compared with public employees.

Here’s the chart Excel generated when I entered the data in a spreadsheet. It must be nice to get paid a lot to work a little.

Bureaucrat Hours Worked

Actually, maybe it’s not a bad thing that bureaucrats are lazy. Do we really want more diligent IRS agents? More hard-charging OSHA inspectors? Do we want Fannie and Freddie regulators burning the midnight oil concocting more affordable leading rules?

I think you understand my concern.

So this brings us back to the fact that they are paid too much. This video has the gory details.

The real issue, as I state at the end of the video, is that most government jobs shouldn’t exist at all.

By the way, Biggs and Richwine include a very important point in their op-ed about the connection between the current budget negotiations and the existence of an over-paid and under-worked bureaucracy.

This fact may hold different lessons for different people, but our own take is simple: Before we ask private-sector employees to work more to support government, government itself should work as much as the private sector.

As noted above, I want government to do less, not for bureaucrats to do more, but their point is still appropriate.

P.S. Here’s a good joke about government bureaucracy. Here’s a similar joke in picture form. And we find the same humor in this joke, but with a bit more build up.

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