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Archive for the ‘Privatization’ Category

It’s not often that I agree with the Washington Post, but a government-run monopoly is not the best way to get mail delivered.

Moreover, it’s not often that I agree with the timid (and sometimes reprehensible) Tory-led government in the United Kingdom, but they just put the Royal Mail into the private sector. And that’s something deserving of loud applause.

Here’s a slice of the big news from the Financial Times.

The goal of privatising Royal Mail had defeated governments for 40 years. …Even prime minister Margaret Thatcher balked at the political risk of selling off a public service that carried the Queen’s head on its stamps. This time, the legislation went through parliament.

My Cato colleague, Chris Edwards, is suitably impressed.

Here’s some of what he wrote for Cato-at-Liberty.

Britain privatized its Royal Mail in 2013, proceeding with an initial public offering of shares that raised about $2.7 billion. …privatization in Britain has been hugely successful. Prime Minister Cameron should be applauded for having the guts to build on the privatization reform legacy of Thatcher, Major, and Blair. Meanwhile on this side of the pond, Republican Darrell Issa is having trouble getting his own nominally conservative party to accept even small changes to the broken government postal system.

Not surprisingly, some folks in Washington think we should move in the wrong direction by retaining the monopoly and allowing the Postal Service to enter new lines of business.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain why the Postal Service should be unleashed – but only after getting weaned from the taxpayer teat.

You’ll notice that I took the opportunity to explain that many poor people can’t afford banking services in part because government “anti-money laundering” rules impose very high costs on banks.

And since I’ve already mentioned that I have strange bedfellows at the Washington Post and UK government on the issue of postal privatization, I may as well note that the World Bank agrees with me about the poor being disadvantaged by these ill-advised financial regulations.

Let’s close with a good cartoon by Jerry Holbert.

Postal Service Cartoon

It’s not as good as his classics about Obamacare, sequestration, big government, and Patty Murray’s budget, but obviously very appropriate for today’s topic.

P.S. In there was a contest for government stupidity, the Japanese might be front runners.

No, I’m not talking about their bizarre policy of regulating coffee enemas.

Instead, I’m baffled by the notion of government-funded dating. I’m not joking. Check out these excerpts from the British press.

The Japanese government is funding matchmaking events in a desperate attempt to boost a birth rate that has halved over the past six decades. …The support of marriage – and the active encouragement of young people to settle down – is regarded by government policy-makers as a key strategy for boosting the nation’s birth rate. …Matchmaking events organised by local authorities, where young singles are introduced to one another in romantic settings, are becoming increasingly common in areas such as rural Kochi, a prefecture around 500 miles west of Tokyo.

By the way, Japan does have a severe demographic problem.

And when you mix falling birthrates and increasing longevity with a tax-and-transfer welfare state, the results are catastrophic.

But the right way to deal with that problem is with genuine entitlement reform, not another bound-to-fail government-run version of Match.com.

P.P.S. If you like making fun of foreign governments, here are some more examples.

Taxpayer-financed friends for mass murderers in Norway.

Spending 800,000 euro to collect 25,000 euro of tax in Germany.

Giving welfare handouts to foreigners in the United Kingdom.

Remember, nothing is too stupid for government.

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Do libertarians have a sense of humor?

That’s a relevant question because many people think of us as unhappy curmudgeons, or perhaps as dorky Randians.

While I think those stereotypes are unfair, I also confess that I can only think of a few examples of explicitly pro-libertarian humor.

Libertarian Jesus scolding modern statists.

This poster about confused statists.

The libertarian version of a sex fantasy.

Since I could only find three examples, does this mean libertarians are hopelessly dour and lacking in humor?

I think the answer is “no” and I think there are two reasons to justify that response. First, libertarians are always making fun of oafish and moronic government. I like to think, for instance, that my UK-vs-US government stupidity contest contains some amusing satire.

Skeptics may respond that you can mock big government without being a libertarian, and that’s a fair point.

But this gives me an opportunity to list the second reason why it’s wrong to accuse libertarians of lacking a sense of humor. Simply stated, we have the ability to appreciate anti-libertarian humor. This not only shows that we have funny bones, but it also demonstrates that we have considerable confidence about the strength of our ideas.

So with that build-up, here’s an example of anti-libertarian humor I received from a fellow traveler in Illinois.

Libertarian Fire Dept

I think you’ll agree that this can be added to our collection of anti-libertarian humor.

P.S. Since I am a dorky libertarian, I can’t resist responding to the above cartoon by noting that we actually don’t need government fire departments. The folks at the Reason Foundation have been working on this issue for decades and have a study explaining the benefits of private fire departments.

But there’s a lot more evidence. Here’s what one expert wrote in 2012 for Cato Unbound.

…my town contracts out its entire fire department to the company Rural/Metro, a pioneer in privatized fire services. Their trucks are shiny, red, and full of water, just like a “traditional” fire department’s. Their firemen train just like their municipal counterparts do in neighboring jurisdictions. They respond to fire and EMS calls just like the government-run systems do. The main differences I’ve discerned are that: (1) their logo—which otherwise looks much like other fire department logos—notes the name of the company underneath the name of the town, and (2) workers are covered under a private sector 401(k) plan, so our town is not on the hook for a massive future pension payout. Neither of these differences is relevant from a service delivery standpoint.

And an article in Capitalism Magazine the same year pointed out that privatized fire protection exists in hundreds of communities.

…nearly half of Denmark’s municipalities contract with Group 4 Falck to provide firefighting and ambulance services. In America, more than 450 communities contract with Rural/Metro Corporation for fire protection service, EMS, or both. Unlike government fire services, which focus on fire response, Rural/Metro focuses on fire prevention. A former mayor of Scottsdale, Arizona, which has used Rural/Metro for more than two decades said, “Scottsdale citizens are offered a much better balance between response and prevention than is available in most communities.”

Why are so many communities looking at private options?

Most likely, it’s because unions have conspired with government officials to push labor costs to absurd levels, as humorously depicted is this somewhat off-color video.

P.P.S. Returning to the topic of humor, I have a serious request. Can anybody provide examples of self-deprecating humor by leftists?

I don’t think statists have much self-confidence in their ideas, so they probably don’t have much ability to poke at themselves, but I imagine there must be some examples.

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In an interview with Neil Cavuto earlier this month, I mocked proponents of big government for their hysterical predictions of bad things happening under sequestration. And cartoonists had a field day making the same point (see here and here).

The White House obviously wasn’t happy about the sequester, in part because they like bigger government and also because sequestration was a big defeat for the President.

Well, now the Obama Administration sees a chance for revenge and redemption. The President’s appointees, by choosing to furlough air traffic controllers, are seeking to turn air travel into something akin to a visit to the Post Office or DMV. It’s clear that the White House hopes to recreate momentum for a tax hike as an alternative to sequestration.

But they’re not exactly being subtle.

The Wall Street Journal exposes the White House’s political motivated chicanery, starting with the very important point that the FAA’s budget – even after sequestration – is as large as it was in 2010. Yet the White House is manipulating the sequester to cause the maximum amount of inconvenience for taxpayers.

The sequester cuts about $637 million from the FAA, which is less than 4% of its $15.9 billion 2012 budget, and it limits the agency to what it spent in 2010. The White House decided to translate this 4% cut that it has the legal discretion to avoid into a 10% cut for air traffic controllers. Though controllers will be furloughed for one of every 10 working days, four of every 10 flights won’t arrive on time.

The Obama Administration is pretending that it’s merely following the law, but the WSJ editorial debunks that notion.

This is a political pose to make the sequester more disruptive. Legally speaking, the sequester applies at a more general level known as “accounts.” The air traffic account includes 15,000 controllers out of 31,000 employees. The White House could keep the controllers on duty simply by allocating more furlough days to these other non-essential workers. Instead, the FAA is even imposing the controller furlough on every airport equally, not prioritizing among the largest and busiest airports. …ever since Al Gore launched a training initiative to increase the productivity of air traffic controllers in 1998, productivity has continued to fall. A larger workforce is now in charge of a smaller workload as the number of flights has dropped by 23%.

I didn’t realize that controllers were doing less work over time, but I’m not surprised to learn that superfluous bureaucrats at the FAA are being protected.

But the WSJ doesn’t go far enough. My Cato colleague Chris Edwards has a column in the Daily Caller that outlines the inefficiency of the FAA.

The federal budget sequester is interfering with the air traffic control (ATC) system and snarling up air traffic. As usual, politicians are pointing fingers of blame at everybody but themselves. But politicians are the ones who have strapped the ATC system to the chaotic federal budget. And they’re the ones who have insisted on running ATC as a bureaucracy, rather than freeing it to become the high-tech private business that it should be. …Last year Bloomberg reported: “More than one-third of the 30 contracts critical to building a new U.S. air-traffic system are over budget and half are delayed, a government audit concluded.

Chris then takes the logical next step and says the system should be privatized. Which is exactly what happened in his home country of Canada.

To run smoothly and efficiently, our ATC system should be given independence from the government. We should privatize the system, as Canada has done very successfully. …Canada provides an excellent model for U.S. reforms. Canada’s ATC system is run by the nonprofit corporation Nav Canada, which is separate from the government. Like any private business, it raises revenues from its customers to cover its operational costs and capital investments. The company’s financial statements for 2012 show revenues and expenses of $1.2 billion, with $125 million allocated to capital expenditures. Unlike the U.S. system, Nav Canada is self-supporting and not subsidized.

I’ve already written on this topic, citing some good analysis from Canada’s Financial Post, and the evidence is overwhelming that the private system in Canada works much better than the inefficient bureaucracy we have in the United States.

Let’s close with a Michael Ramirez cartoon. The “politics” and “waste” markings are very appropriate.

FAA Sequester

Lost in this controversy, by the way, is any recognition that sequestration barely makes a dent in the federal budget. There are some small first-year cuts in a few programs, but the wasteful behemoth known as the federal government is barely nicked.

To be more specific, the net effect of the sequester is that the burden of government spending grows by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.

So don’t pay any attention to the hyperbole and hysteria from the special interest groups in Washington. The sequester is a tiny – and desirable – step in the direction of fiscal responsibility.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Notwithstanding my next-to-last paragraph full of caveats, some people are saying I’m too soft on the Aussies. This previous post should disabuse people of that notion.

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The Economist magazine has a couple of good articles about Australia’s increasingly enviable economic status. Here’s a blurb from the first article, which outlines the pro-market reforms that enabled today’s prosperity.

Only a dozen economies are bigger, and only six nations are richer—of which Switzerland alone has even a third as many people. Australia is rich, tranquil and mostly overlooked, yet it has a story to tell. Its current prosperity was far from inevitable. Twenty-five years ago Paul Keating, the country’s treasurer (finance minister), declared that if Australia failed to reform it would become a banana republic. Barely five years later, after a nasty recession, the country began a period of uninterrupted economic expansion matched by no other rich country. It continues to this day. This special report will explain how this has come about and ask whether it can last. …With the popular, politically astute Mr Hawke presiding, and the coruscating, aggressive Mr Keating doing most of the pushing, this Labor government floated the Australian dollar, deregulated the financial system, abolished import quotas and cut tariffs. The reforms were continued by Mr Keating when he took over as prime minister in 1991, and then by the Liberal-led (which in Australia means conservative-led) coalition government of John Howard and his treasurer, Peter Costello, after 1996. …By 2003 the effective rate of protection in manufacturing had fallen from about 35% in the 1970s to 5%. Foreign banks had been allowed to compete. Airlines, shipping and telecoms had been deregulated. The labour market had been largely freed, with centralised wage-fixing replaced by enterprise bargaining. State-owned firms had been privatised. …the double taxation of dividends ended. Corporate and income taxes had both been cut.

This chart (click for a larger image), from Economic Freedom of the World, presents a more rigorous look at this period. It shows how Australia’s economic freedom ranking had dropped to as low at 19 (out of 72 nations measured) and now is up to 8 (out of 114 nations measured). This is akin to moving from the 74th percentile to the 94th percentile.

There is also an accompanying article about Australia’s private Social Security system. Called superannuation, these personal accounts have generated tremendous results.

…most Australian workers, over 8m in total, now have a private nest-egg for their old age. No tax is paid when members withdraw from their fund; they can take all they want as a lump sum, subject to a limit, or buy an annuity. Aussies are now a nation of capitalists. At the same time the state pension system, and therefore the taxpayer, is being progressively relieved of most of the burden of retirement provision, since eligibility for the state pension depends on both assets and income. As supers take over, the provision for old folks’ incomes will be almost entirely based on defined contributions, not defined benefits. So Australia is in the happy position of not having to worry too much about the pension implications of an ageing population… The supers…have created a pool of capital in Australia that might not otherwise have existed. Collectively worth about $1.3 trillion—much the same as GDP—they have made Australia the world’s fourth-largest market for pension savings.

Australia is not exactly Hong Kong. Marginal tax rates are still far too high. The burden of government spending is lower than in the United States, but is still far too onerous. Nonetheless, the Aussies have made impressive strides in reducing the overall size, scope, and level of government interference and intervention. And this has translated into much better economic performance.

This video uses the Economic Freedom of the World index to explain why comprehensive free market reforms (like Australia) generate the best results.

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Alex Tabarrok has a fascinating article in the Wilson Quarterly about the history of bail bondsmen and their role in this privatized segment of the criminal justice system. Let’s start by excerpting some history of the system.

Bail began in medieval England as a progressive measure to help defendants get out of jail while they waited, sometimes for many months, for a roving judge to show up to conduct a trial. If the local sheriff knew the accused, he might release him on the defendant’s promise to return for the hearing. More often, however, the sheriff would release the accused to the custody of a surety, usually a brother or friend, who guaranteed that the defendant would present himself when the time came. So, in the common law, custody of the accused was never relinquished but instead was transferred to the surety—the brother became the keeper—which explains the origin of the strong rights bail bondsmen have to pursue and capture escaped defendants. Initially, the surety’s guarantee to the sheriff was simple: If the accused failed to show, the surety would take his place and be judged as if he were the offender. The English system provided lots of incentives for sureties to make certain that the accused showed up for trial, but not a lot of incentive to be a surety. The risk to sureties was lessened when courts began to accept pledges of cash rather than of one’s person, but the system was not perfected until personal surety was slowly replaced by a commercial surety system in the United States. That system put incentives on both sides of the equation. Bondsmen had an incentive both to bail defendants out of jail and to chase them down should they flee. By the end of the 19th century, commercial sureties were the norm in the United States. (The Philippines is the only other country with a similar system.)

In recent decades, however, some states have begun to restrict or ban the use of private bail bondsmen. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been good news. The cost to taxpayers rises and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system falls. Here’s another excerpt.

Every state now has some kind of pretrial services program, and four (Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin) have outlawed commercial bail altogether. …Today, when a defendant fails to appear, an arrest warrant is issued. But if the defendant was released on his own recognizance or on government bail, very little else happens. In many states and cities, the police are overwhelmed with outstanding arrest warrants. In California, about two million warrants have gone unserved. Many are for minor offenses, but hundreds of thousands are for felonies, including thousands of homicides. In Philadelphia, where commercial bail has been regulated out of existence, The Philadelphia Inquirer recently found that “fugitives jump bail . . . with virtual impunity.” At the end of 2009, the City of Brotherly Love had more than 47,000 unserved arrest warrants. About the only time the city’s bail jumpers are recaptured is when they are arrested for some other crime. …Unserved warrants tend not to pile up in jurisdictions with commercial bondsmen. In those places, the bail bond agent is on the hook for the bond and thus has a strong incentive to bring those who jump bail to justice. My interest in commercial bail and bounty hunting began when economist Eric Helland and I used data on 36,231 felony defendants released between 1988 and 1996 to investigate the differences between the public and private systems of bail and fugitive recovery. Our study, published in TheJournal of Law and Economics in 2004, is the largest and most comprehensive ever written on the bail system. Our research backs up what I found on the street: Bail bondsmen and bounty hunters get their charges to show up for trial, and they recapture them quickly when they do flee. Nationally, the failure-to-appear rate for defendants released on commercial bail is 28 percent lower than the rate for defendants released on their own recognizance, and 18 percent lower than the rate for those released on government bond. Even more important, when a defendant does skip town, the bounty hunters are the ones who pursue justice with the greatest determination and energy. Defendants sought by bounty hunters are a whopping 50 percent less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers. In addition to being effective, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters work at no cost to the taxpayers. The public reaps a double benefit, because when a bounty hunter fails to find his man, the bond is forfeit to the government.

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There are two crises facing Social Security. First the program has a gigantic unfunded liability, largely caused by demographics. Second, the program is a very bad deal for younger workers, making them pay record amounts of tax in exchange for comparatively meager benefits. This video explains how personal accounts can solve both problems, and also notes that nations as varied as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and Hong Kong have implemented this pro-growth reform.

Social Security reform received a good bit of attention in the past two decades. President Clinton openly flirted with the idea, and President Bush explicitly endorsed the concept. But it has faded from the public square in recent years. But this may be about to change. Personal accounts are part of Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposal, and recent polls show continued strong support for letting younger workers shift some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts.

Equally important, the American people understand that Social Security’s finances are unsustainable. They may not know specific numbers, but they know politicians have created a house of cards, which is why jokes about the system are so easily understandable.

President Obama thinks the answer is higher taxes, which is hardly a surprise. But making people pay more is hardly an attractive option, unless you’re the type of person who thinks it’s okay to give people a hamburger and charge them for a steak.

Other nations have figured out the right approach. Australia began to implement personal accounts back in the mid-1980s, and the results have been remarkable. The government’s finances are stronger. National saving has increased. But most important, people now can look forward to a safer and more secure retirement. Another great example is Chile, which set up personal accounts in the early 1980s. This interview with Jose Pinera, who designed the Chilean system, is a great summary of why personal accounts are necessary. All told, about 30 nations around the world have set up some form of personal accounts. Even  Sweden, which the left usually wants to mimic,  has partially privatized its Social Security system.

It also should be noted that personal accounts would be good for growth and competitiveness. Reforming a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme into a system of private savings will boost jobs by lowering the marginal tax rate on work. Personal accounts also will boost private savings. And Social Security reform will reduce the long-run burden of government spending, something that is desperately needed if we want to avoid the kind of fiscal crisis that is afflicting European welfare states such as Greece.

Last but not least, it is important to understand that personal retirement accounts are not a free lunch. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, so if we let younger workers shift their payroll taxes to individual accounts, that means the money won’t be there to pay benefits to current retirees. Fulfilling the government’s promise to those retirees, as well as to older workers who wouldn’t have time to benefit from the new system, will require a lot of money over the next couple of decades, probably more than $5 trillion.

That’s a shocking number, but it’s important to remember that it would be even more expensive to bail out the current system. As I explain at the conclusion of the video, we’re in a deep hole, but it will be easier to climb out if we implement real reform.

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Like most federal agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration is a costly bureaucracy. Its $16.4 billion budget is enormous, but that is just the direct cost borne by taxpayers. The indirect costs, such as inefficiencies imposed on the air transportation system, also are significant. This has nothing to do with the TSA, by the way. The FAA is responsible for the air traffic control system, things like airport towers and radar systems that tell planes where to fly and when to land.

The Canadians have a much better approach. They privatized their air traffic control system back in the 1990s. So instead of having to rely on a clunky and incompetent government bureaucracy, our neighbors to the north have a private company that is generating very impressive results.

Not that this should be a surprise. Other nations have made remarkable gains through privatization, including Social Security personal accounts in Chile and 30 other nations, education choice in places such as Sweden and the Netherlands, and privatized postal service in Germany.

Reforming government monopolies should be a priority in the United States. Robust economic growth requires more than just low tax rates. It means getting rid of policies that cause resources to be misallocated. Privatization is an unsettling concept for some people, in part because they’ve always assumed certain things should be run by the government. This is why international examples are so important. Canada’s 14 years of experience with a private air traffic control system clearly shows that there are very successful alternatives to inefficient and costly bureaucracies.

Here are some excerpts from a story in Canada’s Financial Post about Canada’s remarkable reform.

A once troubled government asset, the country’s civil air traffic controller was privatized 14 years ago and is now a shining example of how to create a global technology leader out of a hulking government bureaucracy. Nav Canada’s efforts have flights moving more efficiently than ever through the skies above the country. Many of the changes implemented by Nav Canada in recent years have gone unnoticed by the flying public. Certain flights are now shorter than they once were; aircraft no longer circle airports awaiting a runway; descents start further out and planes reach cruising altitudes more quickly; and flights to Asia now spend less time by jaunting over the Arctic than endlessly cruising the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. …Nav Canada estimates its efforts to modernize the aircraft navigation system in the country since it was privatized in 1996 have cut the fuel bill of airlines flying into Canada and above it by an estimated $1.4-billion collectively… Meantime, Nav Canada has won the respect of airlines for keeping its fees steady, and in some cases, like in 2006, even reducing them when it can. …John Crichton, Nav Canada chief executive, makes no bones about why he thinks his organization has been able to make these improvements and emerge as a global leader. I don’t think there’s any question that the privatization was the best thing that ever happened,” he said. “That really unleashed all the innovation.” …Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada’s chief executive, commended Nav Canada for its efforts to modernize the country’s navigation systems during a speech in Montreal earlier this year, while condemning the United States and the European Union, which still operates as a patchwork of nationalized systems, for their lack of leadership on the issue. Nav Canada also won the International Air Transport Association’s Eagle Award earlier this year for its efforts, in particular its constant consultation with the industry.

My Cato colleague Chris Edwards has more analysis, including a call to private the Federal Aviation Administration as well as some useful links.

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Here’s my debate on Larry Kudlow’s show about Social Security personal retirement accounts. 

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Using road management as an example, John Stossel explains that government does a worse job than the private sector, even at things that theoretically are a government responsibility. Part of this is because of the profit motive, to be sure, but a big reason is probably because government bureaucracies inevitably are filled with overpaid bureaucrats who understand that job security is best assured by maintaining problems rather than solving them. Stossel makes an excellent point by noting that “contracting out” is not the same thing as genuine free enterprise. But at least it means whatever government is doing (either good things or bad things) will be done for less cost and with more competence.

Free enterprise does everything better. Why? Because if private companies don’t do things efficiently, they lose money and die. Unlike government, they cannot compel payment through the power to tax. Even when a private company operates a public facility under contract to government, it must perform. If it doesn’t, it will be “fired” — its contract won’t be renewed. Government is never fired. Contracting out to private enterprise isn’t the same thing as letting fully competitive free markets operate, but it still works better than government. Roads are one example. Politicians call road management a “public good” that “government must control.” Nonsense. In 1995, a private road company added two lanes in the middle of California Highway 91, right where the median strip used to be. It then used “congestion pricing” to let some drivers pay to speed past rush-hour traffic. Using the principles of supply and demand, road operators charge higher tolls at times of day when demand is high. That encourages those who are most in a hurry to pay for what they need. …for years there was a gap in the ring road surrounding Paris that created huge traffic problems. Then private developers made an unsolicited proposal to build a $2 billion toll tunnel in exchange for a 70-year lease to run it. They built a double-decker tunnel that fits six lanes of traffic in the space usually required for just two. The tunnel’s profit-seeking owners have an incentive to keep traffic moving. They collect tolls based on congestion pricing, and tolls are collected electronically, so cars don’t have to stop. The tunnel operators clear accidents quickly. Most are detected within 10 seconds — thanks to 350 cameras inside the tunnel. The private road has cut a 45-minute trip to 10 minutes.

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There are legitimate reasons for local governments to own land, but surely it doesn’t make sense for them to hold on to surplus acreage. Better to get that land back in private hands, where it will be used for some productive purpose. This is why the downturn does have a silver lining. A handful of local governments are so anxious for more property tax revenue that they are going out of their way to make extra government-owned land available to private owners at rock-bottom prices. Ideally, they should have privatized their holdings years ago, but better late than never. Here’s a blurb from the New York Times about this development.

Give away land to make money? It hardly sounds like a prudent scheme. But in a bit of déjà vu, that is exactly what this small Nebraska city aims to do. Beatrice was a starting point for the Homestead Act of 1862, the federal law that handed land to pioneering farmers. Back then, the goal was to settle the West. The goal of Beatrice’s “Homestead Act of 2010,” is, in part, to replenish city coffers. The calculus is simple, if counterintuitive: hand out city land now to ensure property tax revenues in the future. …Around the nation, cities and towns facing grim budget circumstances are grasping at unlikely — some would say desperate — means to bolster their shrunken tax bases. Like Beatrice, places like Dayton, Ohio, and Grafton, Ill., are giving away land for nominal fees or for nothing in the hope that it will boost the tax rolls and cut the lawn-mowing bills. …Officials acknowledge that the benefits sound modest, in the thousands of dollars annually, but say the revenue is needed. “What is the value of a lot to us if it’s empty?” said Tom Thompson, the mayor of Grafton, where an offer of 32 city-owned lots, promoted with a television advertising campaign, has quickly led to eight takers so far. “This is strictly financial — a way to go upstream from the trend.” In Dayton, officials are offering thousands of vacant, foreclosed or abandoned properties under certain conditions for nominal fees — $500, in many cases, to cover the cost of recording fees or $1,200 if the city must initiate tax foreclosure proceedings. The prospect of city savings on mowing fees alone is enormous: each year, Dayton spends $2 million to cut grass on the properties.

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There’s a controversy in Texas because the State Board of Education has mandated the inclusion of certain materials in textbooks. This has elicited howls of protests from the left, which generally has controlled how some issues are portrayed. Since I don’t want leftist propaganda being pushed on kids, I’m mildly sympathetic to the Texas educrats, but the best way to solve the controversy is school choice. As Jeff Jacoby explains for the Boston Globe, education in America should be more like religion. This means getting rid of one-size-fits-all monopoly schools operated by the government:

“Throughout American history,’’ writes Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute, “public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people.’’ Political fighting is neither rare nor anomalous: In the course of just one school year, 2005-06, McCluskey tallied almost 150 reported cases of public-school conflicts. There were bitter battles that year over Darwinism-vs.-intelligent-design in Pennsylvania and Kansas, heated fights over books about Cuba in Florida, and an emotional dispute in California over the portrayal of Hindus in history texts. In Lexington, Mass., a teacher’s decision to read a story celebrating gay marriage to her second-grade class without first notifying parents triggered a fight that ultimately wound up in federal court. Again and again, Americans find themselves at war with each other over public schooling. Yet furious conflict over religion in this country is almost unheard-of. Why? Why don’t American Catholics and Protestants angrily attack each other’s views of clerical celibacy or papal infallibility? Why is there no bitter struggle between Orthodox and Reform Jews to control the content of the Sabbath liturgy? Why don’t American atheists clash with American believers over whether children should be taught to pray before going to sleep? …The answer is no mystery. America is a land of religious freedom, in which people decide for themselves what to believe and how to worship. No religion is funded by government. Elected officials have no say in the doctrine of any faith or the content of any religious service. Religion flourishes in America because church and state are separate. And it flourishes so peacefully because no one is forced to support anyone else’s faith, or to attend a church he isn’t happy with, or to bring up children according to the religious views of whichever faction has the most votes. Religion is peaceful because it is government-free. Liberate the schools, and they too would be at peace. Taxpayer-funded, one-curriculum-fits-all schooling makes conflict inevitable. There would be far less animosity if parents were as free to choose how and where their children learn as they are to choose how and where they worship. Separation of church and state has made America an exemplar of religious pluralism and tolerance. Imagine what separation of school and state could do for education.

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Do my eyes deceive me? Has you-know-what frozen over? Something strange clearly has happened in the universe, because the Washington Post’s editorial page has published a very sensible piece about the Postal Service, noting the system is fundamentally unsound and stating that privatization is the only realistic long-term option:

Approaching the limits of its federal credit line, the USPS must change drastically or go bust. …Postmaster General John E. Potter…has acknowledged the scope of that challenge, and last week he proposed new product lines, efficiency improvements and workforce attrition to generate $115 billion in revenue or savings between now and 2020. But that’s not even half the projected losses. To really transform, the Postal Service needs congressional action. Some 26,000 of the Postal Service’s 32,000 post offices lose money. …There is only so much that can be accomplished without tackling the item that accounts for 80 percent of the Postal Service’s expenses: labor costs. To be sure, 50 percent of postal workers come up for retirement in the next decade, and that will help cut costs. But attrition has its limits. Management and labor must aggressively tackle uncompetitive wages, benefits and work rules — including no-layoff clauses that cover most personnel. …Given the state of technology, privatization is probably the only long-term solution for the USPS. But it is so saddled with legacy costs that no investor would touch it. If Congress gives management the tools it needs to meet the crisis, and if management uses them effectively — two big ifs, we admit — the Postal Service will have a chance to get its house in order and one day attract private capital, as European postal services have done.

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A weird headline for a blog post, to be sure, but that’s the implication of this report from Brazil. Older men are marrying young ladies, who then become eligible for decades of government pension payments when their husbands die. This is apparently so common that it has become a large fiscal drain and politicians feel pressure for reform. It is highly unlikely that Brazil’s politicians will choose the right reform, but hope springs eternal. Perhaps if they pop some little blue pills before the debate, they’ll be willing to do something…um…manly, such as personal retirement accounts:

The widespread tendency in Brazil for men to remarry women several decades younger — called the “Viagra effect” — is undermining the country’s pension system, researchers warned Tuesday. The report, by Brazil’s National Social Security Institute (INSS), showed that a trend of men in their 60s marrying women half their age was leaving a big pool of young widows collecting benefits for much longer than anticipated. “The social security system was planned so that the wife receives her husband’s pension for only 15 years or so. With growing life expectancy and remarriages with much younger women, benefits today stretch out over 35 years,” the author of the study, Paulo Tafner, explained to AFP. He said the younger-wife phenomenon was commonly called the “Viagra effect.” …Of the separated men, 64 percent of those aged over 50 remarry women younger than them. In the 60-64 age range, the proportion is 69 percent. And the marked preference is for women aged 30 years younger. …Under current laws, when a retired man dies, his wife continues to receive his full pension until her own death. According to the INSS, 94 percent of pensions go to women. “This is a grave and serious challenge for the future of the country, and it’s going to require a reform of the pension system,” Tafner said.

 

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