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Archive for the ‘Bureaucrats’ Category

I’m a long-time critic of the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, but I had no idea they would produce something as bad as the 2008 financial meltdown. It’s not easy to predict the timing and severity of a crisis.

Unless we’re talking about the ticking time bomb described in this video.

In theory, of course, state politicians and their local counterparts are supposed to set aside enough money to pay the lavish future benefits they promise their bureaucrats.

Far too often, however, that doesn’t happen. And that means the governments (to be more accurate, their taxpayers) have a big “unfunded liability.”

This racket is a good deal for the bureaucrats – who get lots of pay now and lots of promised benefits in the future. And it’s a good deal for the state and local politicians who get votes and campaign contributions from the bureaucrats.

But, as explained in a new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council, it is a fiscal disaster that is going to explode at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Unfunded state pension liabilities total $4.9 trillion or $15,080 for every man, woman and child in the United States. State governments are often obligated, by contract and state constitutional law, to make these pension payments regardless of economic conditions. As these pension payments continue to grow, revenue that would have gone to essential services like public safety and education, or tax relief, goes to paying off these liabilities instead. …Most state pension plans are structured as defined-benefit plans. Under a defined-benefit plan, an employee receives a fixed payout at retirement based on the employee’s final average salary, the number of years worked and a benefit multiplier.

There are several ways to measure the degree to which a state has dug a big hole by promising big goodies to bureaucrats.

Figure 2 shows per-capita unfunded liabilities on a state-by-state basis. Tennessee is in the best shape, followed by Indiana and Wisconsin (thanks in part to former Governor Scott Walker). Alaska has the biggest fiscal hole, along with Illinois (no surprise) and Connecticut (no surprise).

It’s important to recognize, though, that some states have more income than others.

So in addition to a per-capita estimate of pension liabilities, here’s a map showing the burden as a share of each state’s economic output. Once again, Tennessee, Indiana (the #22 is a misprint), and Wisconsin rank the highest. Alaska stays at the bottom, joined by Mississippi and New Mexico.

Let’s also give credit and blame to states that are the top 10 and bottom 10 on each map.

In addition to Tennessee, Indiana, and Wisconsin, good states include Utah, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas (honorable mention to Florida, which just missed).

Bad states are led by Alaska, with Nevada, New Mexico, Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio also being governed by particularly short-sighted politicians.

So what’s the solution for the bad states? The ALEC report gives the answer.

Ultimately, one of the best ways to solve the pension crisis is to change the way pension plans are structured. Changing from the current defined-benefit system toward a defined-contribution system for new employees will improve the health of state pension plans by giving employees full control over their retirement savings.

By the way, it’s worth noting that blue states may have a bigger problem than red states, but this is a bipartisan mess.

In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Malanga says there is plenty of blame to share.

The crisis in state pension systems is a result of decades of fiscal mismanagement. The problem, however, goes well beyond deeply indebted Illinois and New Jersey. Many state and municipal retirement funds have been on an unrelenting downward trajectory… This fiscal nightmare stems in part from politicians’ habit of increasing employee benefits while markets are booming, thereby squandering fund surpluses. …Politicians have consistently neglected to contribute to these systems even during good budgetary times, preferring to fund more popular programs. …Meanwhile, elected officials and pension administrators have endorsed overly optimistic economic assumptions that made their systems look affordable.

Let’s close today’s grim column with another way of measuring the problem.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation that shows how much money is set aside in pension programs compared to the level of benefits that bureaucrats are promised.

Looking at the data from this angle, Kentucky has the biggest hole, followed by New Jersey, Illinois (the only state to be in the bottom 10 on all three maps), and Connecticut, while the good states are led by Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

The bottom line is that some states have a very grim future, which is why even Warren Buffett is advising investors and entrepreneurs to steer clear of doing business in those places.

P.S. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid the massive unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid by moving across state lines.

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Since I’m a “right libertarian” according to the political compass test, it’s no surprise that I’m generally sympathetic to cops (notwithstanding my undesired encounters).

But with important caveats.

And it goes without saying that I want a range of reactions – from scorn to punishment – when individual police officers make dumb choices (examples here, here, here, here, here, and here).

But there’s one issue that I haven’t addressed, and it’s very relevant considering the civil unrest and rioting caused by George Floyd’s death in Minnesota – and that issues is the degree to which overly powerful police unions enable bad behavior.

Professor Alex Tabarrok explains how police officers who misbehave get special privileges not available to the rest of us.

…union contracts and Law Officer “Bill of Rights” give police legal privileges that regular people don’t get. In 50 cities and 13 states, for example, union contracts “restrict interrogations by limiting how long an officer can be interrogated, who can interrogate them, the types of questions that can be asked, and when an interrogation can take place.” In Virginia police officers have a right to at least a five-day delay before being interrogated. In Louisiana police officers have up to 30 days during which no questioning is allowed and they cannot be questioned for sustained periods of time or without breaks. In some cities, police officers can only be interrogated during work hours. Regular people do not get these privileges. …how do you think complainants feel knowing that the police officer they are complaining about “must be informed of the names of all complainants.” I respect and admire police officers but frankly I think this rule is dangerous. …In the United States if you are arrested–even for a misdemeanor or minor crime, even if the charges are dropped, even if you are found not guilty–you will likely be burdened with an arrest record that can increase the difficulty of getting a job, an occupational license, or housing. But even in the unlikely event that a police officer is officially reprimanded many states and cities require that such information is automatically erased after a year or two. The automatic erasure of complaints makes it difficult to identify problem officers or a pattern of abuse.

In an article for National Review, Theodore Kupfer has a searing indictment of police unions.

Public-sector employees who belong to unions are used to special treatment, and police officers, apparently, are no different. There are little or no private alternatives to the services schoolteachers, air-traffic controllers, police officers, and prison guards provide. Their unions negotiate directly with politicians, and can demand policies that benefit them — if not the taxpayers who foot the bill — because no elected official wants to risk a catastrophic strike. The result is a tacit, unsavory bargain in which politicians and civil servants join together to direct public funding and exclusive privileges to the most favored of all interest groups: politicians and civil servants. …This is a shame. Law-enforcement unions shape our criminal-justice policies for the worse and encourage irresponsible public spending to achieve their own ends. …police unions…insist that their members have special “bills of rights” that shield them from accountability for misconduct. With a voting base that traditionally respects first responders, such concessions can be a political winner for Republicans. But they also have pernicious effects which ought to worry conservatives not comfortable with increasing the power of the state at the expense of the citizenry. …Researchers at the University of Chicago have even found that allowing law-enforcement officials collective-bargaining rights increases the risk of misconduct.

Let’s look at an astounding example of how powerful police unions generate absurd results.

This tweet tells you everything you need to know.

If you want more information about that tragic debacle, Robby Soave is a must-read writer for Reason, and here’s some of what he wrote about the reactions of law enforcement.

It’s the story of catastrophic failure at every level of law enforcement, beginning with a corrupt and incompetent sheriff’s office warned on multiple occasions about the specific threat posed by Cruz. The Broward County sheriff’s office received at least 18 tips between 2008 and 2017 concerning Cruz. A November 2017 caller described him as a “school shooter in the making.” Despite knowing that Cruz was in possession of a cache of weapons, the sheriff’s office passed the buck… On the day of the shooting, …Officer Scot Peterson, an employee of the sheriff’s office, refused to enter the school and confront Cruz, as did three Broward County Sheriff’s deputies who had arrived on scene. These were stunning indictments of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a man who responded to accusations of corruption by comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King. …law enforcement’s spectacular failure before, during, and after the Parkland shooting should be a more pressing topic of discussion. …many of these agencies prove themselves to be wildly incompetent for reasons ranging from arrogant leadership and individual cowardice, to toxic workplace culture and shoddy internal systems.

In other words, the problem was government, not a lack of gun control.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s close with a final observation about the perverse effect of collective bargaining for cops.

I disapprove when police unions conspire with local politicians to get excessive pay and special protections (a very common outcome for other types of government employees).

And I definitely don’t like it when cops are turned into overly aggressive deputy tax collectors because of greedy local governments.

But it’s presumably far worse for society when police officers use excessive force against citizens like George Floyd and Eric Garner because unions shield them from adverse consequences.

P.S. My limited collection of police-related humor can be found here, here, and here.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on how to most effectively protest for better police behavior.

P.P.P.S. And here’s my quiz to gauge everyone’s reaction to a unique form of protest.

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Last year, I said the nation’s most important referendum was the proposal to emasculate Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (I was delighted when voters said no to the pro-spending lobbies and preserved TABOR).

This year’s most important referendum is taking place in November in Illinois, where pro-spending lobbies are very anxious to repeal the state’s flat tax.

If they succeed, the steady flow of taxpayers out of Illinois will become a torrent.

That’s because the flat tax is the only semi-decent feature of the state’s fiscal policy. If it goes, there won’t be any hope.

My buddy from the Illinois Policy Institute, Orphe Divounguy, has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the dismal fiscal and economic outlook in the Land of Lincoln.

Long the economic hub of the Midwest, Illinois has lost more than 850,000 residents to other states during the past decade. The state has been shrinking for six consecutive years and suffered the largest raw population decline of any state in the 2010s. …Growing government debt and a crushing tax burden are depressing economic growth. State spending is up, but personal-income growth is lagging. Since 2000, Illinois’s per capita personal income growth has been 21% lower than the national average. …ratings firms are paying attention. Illinois’s credit rating is one notch above junk. …Illinois’s public pension payments already consume nearly a third of the state budget, yet the unfunded liability—which the state currently pegs at $137 billion, though others put the figure much higher—continues to rise. …Since 2000, Illinois has increased pension spending by more than 500%.

Orphe then points out that politicians in the state have been raising taxes with depressing regularity.

Needless to say, that never seems to solve the problem (a point I recently made when looking at fiscal policy in Washington).

Illinois has a culture of trying—and failing—to tax its way out of its problems. In 2011 then-Gov. Pat Quinn approved a temporary tax hike aimed at making a dent in the state’s $8 billion in unpaid bills. By 2014, Illinois still had a $6.6 billion bill backlog, and lawmakers were calling for families and businesses to give up more money. Another permanent income-tax increase came in 2017, but again more taxes failed to solve Illinois’s problems. The problems, in fact, got worse. In his freshman year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law 20 new taxes and fees totaling nearly $4.6 billion, including a doubling of the gasoline tax. Now Mr. Pritzker wants a progressive income tax he claims will really solve the issue.

The bottom line is that politicians in Illinois want ever-increasing taxes to finance ever-increasing pensions for state and local bureaucrats.

This cartoon from Eric Allie nicely summarizes the attitude of the state’s corrupt political class.

To be sure, there are plenty of states that have big fiscal holes because politicians have showered bureaucrats with overly generous compensation packages.

What presumably makes Illinois unique, Orphe explains, is that retired government workers get annual adjustments that are much greater than inflation.

Which means that there’s a simple and fair solution.

Illinois taxpayers can save $50 billion over 25 years, and dollars can be freed to support their eroding public services. Policy makers can finally shrink Illinois’s pension liability by reducing the main driver of its growth: the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. Currently, the COLA doesn’t reflect any actual cost-of-living increase, since it isn’t pegged to inflation. By simply replacing the existing guaranteed 3% compounding postretirement raise with a true COLA pegged to inflation, among other modest changes, Illinois can save $2.4 billion in the first year alone. No current retiree would see a decrease in his pension check. Current workers would preserve their core benefit.

P.S. I don’t know how long this policy has existed. If it’s a long-standing policy, Illinois bureaucrats actually were net losers in the pre-Reagan era when the U.S. suffered from high inflation.

P.P.S. The ultimate solution is to shift bureaucrats to “defined contribution” retirement plans, akin to the IRAs and 401(K)s that exist in the private sector.

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I’m not a big fan of bureaucracy, mostly because government employees are overpaid and they often work for departments and agencies that shouldn’t exist.

Today, motivated by “public choice” insights about self-interested behavior, I want to make an important point about how bureaucracies operate.

We’ll review two articles about completely disconnected issues. But they both make the same point about ever-expanding bureaucracy.

First, the Economist has an article about central banks, specifically looking at how they employ thousands of bureaucrats. What makes the numbers so remarkable, at least in most of Europe, is that they no longer have currencies to manage.

Central bankers around the world have long pondered why productivity growth is slowing. …But might central banks themselves, with their armies of employees, be part of the problem? …many central banks in Europe look flabby. Although the euro area’s 19 national central banks have ceded many of their monetary-policymaking responsibilities to the European Central Bank (ECB)—they no longer set monetary policy by themselves, for instance—they still retain thousands of employees… the Banque de France and the Bundesbank each employ more than 10,000 people… The Bank of Italy employs 6,700. All told, the ECB and the euro zone’s national central banks boast a headcount of nearly 50,000. …The Board of Governors in Washington, DC, where most policy decisions are made, had about 3,000 staff at last count. When the Fed’s 12 regional reserve banks are included, the number rises to more than 20,000.

I actually wrote about this issue back in 2009 and mentioned the still-relevant caveat that some central banks have roles beyond monetary policy, such as bank supervision.

That being said, this chart suggests that there’s plenty of fat to cut.

What I would like to see is a comparison of staffing levels for countries that use the euro, both before and after they outsourced monetary policy the European Central Bank.

I would be shocked if there was a decline in the number of bureaucrats, even though monetary policy presumably is the primary reason central banks exist.

By the way, there’s a sentence in the article that cries out for correction.

Although central banks have become more important since the global financial crisis, it is not clear why they need quite so many regional staff.

It would be far more accurate if the sentence was modified to read: “…have become more of a threat to macroeconomic stability since the global financial crisis that they helped to create.”

But I’m digressing.

Let’s now look at the next article about bureaucracy.

John Lehman, a former Secretary of the Navy, recently opined in the Wall Street Journal about bureaucratic bloat at the National Security Council.

The problems that plague the NSC trace to before its founding in 1947. The White House has long sought to centralize decision-making to overcome the political jockeying that often takes place within the national-security establishment. …The NSC was established in the 1947 National Security Act, which named the members of the council: president, vice president and secretaries of state and defense. …under President Nixon…, Mr. Kissinger grew the council to include one deputy, 32 policy professionals and 60 administrators. …the NSC has only continued to expand. By the end of the Obama administration, 34 policy professionals supported by 60 administrators had exploded to three deputies, more than 400 policy professionals and 1,300 administrators. The council lost the ability to make fast decisions informed by the best intelligence. The NSC became one more layer in the wedding cake of government agencies.

Wow.

A bureaucracy that didn’t exist until 1947 and didn’t even have a boss until 1953 then grows to almost 100 people about 20 years later.

And then 1700 bureaucrats by the Obama Administration.

Needless to say, I’m sure that the growth of the NSC bureaucracy wasn’t accompanied by staffing reductions at the Department of State, Department of Defense, or any other related box on the ever-expanding federal flowchart.

Whenever I read stories like the two cited above, I can’t help but remember what Mark Steyn wrote almost ten years ago.

London administered the vast sprawling fractious tribal dump of Sudan with about 200 British civil servants for what, with hindsight, was the least-worst two-thirds of a century in that country’s existence. These days I doubt 200 civil servants would be enough for the average branch office of the Federal Department of Community Organizer Grant Applications. Abroad as at home, the United States urgently needs to start learning how to do more with less.

As always, Steyn is very clever. But there’s a very serious underlying point. Is there any evidence that additional bureaucracy has produced better decision making?

Either in the field of central banking, national security, or in any other area where more and more bureaucrats exercise more and more control over our lives?

Maybe there is such evidence, but I haven’t seen it. Instead, I see research showing how bureaucracy stifles growth, creates waste, promotes inefficiency, crowds out private jobs, delivers bad outcomes, acts in a self-serving fashion, and bankrupts governments.

P.S. The best example of bureaucrat humor is this video.

P.P.S. If you want more, we have a joke about an Indian training for a government job, a slide show on how bureaucracies operate, a cartoon strip on bureaucratic incentives, a story on what would happen if Noah tried to build an Ark today, a top-10 list of ways to tell if you work for the government, a new element discovered inside the bureaucracy, and a letter to the bureaucracy from someone renewing a passport.

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When I did this video about public-sector compensation almost 10 years ago, I focused on why it is unfair that bureaucrats get much higher levels of compensation than people working the private sector.

Today, let’s consider the economic consequences of excessive bureaucracy.

And what will make this column particularly interesting is that I’ll be citing some research from economists at the International Monetary Fund (a bureaucracy which is definitely not an outpost of libertarian thinking).

The two authors, Alberto Behar and Junghwan Mok, investigated whether nations lowered unemployment rates by employing more bureaucrats.

The contribution of this paper is to investigate the effects of public hiring of workers on labor market outcomes, specifically unemployment and private employment. In particular, does public hiring increase (“crowd in”) private employment or decrease (“crowd out”) private employment? …It is arguably the case that a private-sector job is more desirable than a public-sector job from a public policy point of view…there is evidence that a large government share in economic activity can be negative for long-term growth because of the distortionary effects of taxation, inefficient government spending due in part to rent-seeking or lower worker productivity, and the crowding out of private investment. …Crowding out could occur through a number of channels. Derived labor demand can be affected through crowding out of the product market, possibly via higher taxes, higher interest rates, and competition from state-owned enterprises. It can occur through the labor market, where higher wages, more job security, or a higher probability of finding a public-sector job can make an individual more likely to seek or wait for public-sector employment rather than search for or accept a job in the private sector… Finally, it can occur in the education market, where individuals seek qualifications appropriate for entering the public sector rather than skills needed for productive employment

As you can see, the authors sensibly consider both the direct and indirect effects of public employment.

Yes, hiring someone to be a bureaucrat obviously means that person is employed, but it also means that resources are being diverted to government.

And that imposes costs on the economy’s productive sector.

So the real question is the net impact.

In their study for the IMF, the authors cite other academic research suggesting that government employment crowds out (i.e., reduces) private employment.

…there is prior evidence that crowding-out effects are sufficiently large to increase unemployment in a number of advanced countries. However, there has hitherto not been a thorough investigation of how public employment affects labor market outcomes in developing countries. We fill this gap in the literature by investigating the effects of public employment on both private employment and on unemployment. An important part of our contribution lies in the assembly of the dataset to expand the number of non-OECD countries… The most related and relevant work to this paper is by Algan et al. (2002), who explore the consequences of public-sector employment for labor market performance. Using pooled cross-section and annual time-series data for 17 OECD countries from 1960 to 2000, they run regressions of the unemployment rate and/or the private-sector employment rate on the public-sector employment rate. Empirical evidence from the employment equation suggests that the creation of 100 public jobs crowds out 150 private-sector jobs.

In the study, the authors look at two main measures of public sector employment.

And, as you can see in Figure 4, they look at data for nations in different regions.

They wisely utilize the broader measure of public employment, which includes the people employed by state-owned enterprises.

We have collected data for up to 194 countries over the period 1988–2011. …Our contribution to the literature includes the assembly of data on public and private employment and other indicators for a wide range of developing and advanced countries. …Definitions of “public sector” are different across countries and organizations, so we choose two definitions and generate corresponding public employment datasets, namely a “narrow” measure also referred to as “public administration” and a “broad” measure. …This dataset includes not only governmental agencies but also state-owned enterprises (SOEs). We call this the ‘broad’ measure of public employment, preserving the term ‘public sector’.

In Figure 7, they use a scatter diagram to show some of the data.

The diagram on the left is most relevant since it shows that private employment (vertical axis) declines as government jobs (horizontal axis) increase.

And when they do the statistical analysis, we get confirmation that government jobs displace employment in the economy’s productive sector.

…all coefficients indicate a very strong negative relationship between public- and private-sector employment rates. For example, 100 new public jobs crowd out 98 private job… Taken together with the unemployment results, public employment just about fully crowds out private-sector employment regardless of the definition, such that a rise in government hiring would be offset by decreases in private employment… Regressions of unemployment on public employment and of private employment on public employment, each of which is based on two definitions of public employment, find robust evidence that public employment crowds out private employment. …Public-sector hiring: (i) does not reduce unemployment, (ii) increases the fiscal burden, and (iii) inhibits long-term growth through reductions in private-sector employment. Together, this would imply that public hiring is detrimental to long term fiscal sustainability.

The final part of the above excerpt is critical.

In addition to not increasing overall employment, government jobs also increase the fiscal burden of government and undermine long-run growth.

So the long-term damage is even greater than the short-run damage.

P.S. The IMF isn’t the only international bureaucracy to conclude that government employment is bad for overall prosperity. A few years ago, I shared research from the European Central Bank which also showed negative macroeconomic consequences from costly bureaucracy.

P.P.S. While I’m usually critical of the IMF because it has a statist policy agenda, it’s not uncommon for the professional economists who work there to produce good research. In the past, I’ve highlight some very good IMF studies on topics such as spending caps, the size of government, taxes and business vitality, fiscal decentralization, the Laffer Curve, and class-warfare taxation.

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An utterly depressing statistic is that the Washington, D.C.-area is now the richest region of the country.

At the risk of understatement, that wealth is largely unearned. It’s mostly a reflection of overpaid bureaucrats, greedy politicians, fat-cat lobbyists, beltway-bandit contractors, and other insiders who have their snouts buried in the federal trough.

I’m not a fan of class warfare, but there’s one exception: It’s galling that lower-income and middle-class taxpayers across the nation are subsidizing a gilded class in Washington.

That’s the type of redistribution that should be ended first.

So what can be done to address this inequity? Is there an approach that will curtail D.C.’s entitled, self-aggrandizing elite?

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Terry Wanzek, a state legislator from North Dakota, makes the case for new legislation that would shift government bureaucracies from Washington to the hinterland.

The Hawley-Blackburn bill calls for moving Agriculture and its more than 100,000 employees to Missouri. Other departments would go elsewhere: Commerce to Pennsylvania, Education to Tennessee, Energy to Kentucky, Health and Human Services to Indiana, Housing and Urban Development to Ohio, Interior to New Mexico, Labor to West Virginia, Transportation to Michigan, and Veterans Affairs to South Carolina. …The bill’s sponsors pitch their legislation as an employment program…but the main benefit would come from putting regulators into proximity with the people whose lives and businesses they regulate. …This would be a government “of the people”—something that is lacking as the administrative state inexorably grows in Washington, D.C.

This is an interesting proposal. But does that mean it’s a good idea?

Clyde Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute is not overly impressed.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, he opines that it would backfire.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, would send the Agriculture and Education departments to their respective states. Eight other federal departments and most nondepartment agencies would also be dispersed throughout the land, often to places intended to suit their functions—for example, the Transportation Department would be sent to Michigan to be near the auto industry. …The only understandable part of this plan is conservatives’ visceral desire for revenge. People across the county can see the massive houses Washington bureaucrats and consultants occupy, walled off in single-party strongholds like Fairfax, Va. …But since when did Republicans accept the idea that the federal government ought to be a premier job creator? The GOP insisted for decades that many New Deal agencies and subsequent government bodies should never have been created in the first place, and that their red tape and interference is a dominant cause of economic inefficiency. …It will be impossible to uproot or at least prune the bureaucracy once its seeds are spread to every state. …Would legislators from the “lucky” chosen states ever have the gumption to slash funding from agencies that employ thousands of their constituents and pay them generously? The HIRE Act would tie Middle America inextricably to big progressive government, remaking America in Washington’s image.

So who is right?

I wrote about this topic back in 2016.

Part of me liked the idea, though mostly for punitive reasons.

…it wouldn’t be a bad idea. …locate some bureaucracies in the dodgy parts of cities such as Detroit. Especially departments such as HUD and HHS since they helped cause the economic misery in inner cities. And the Department of Education could be placed somewhere like Newark where government-run schools are such awful failures.

But I concluded it would be a bad idea.

Shouldn’t we focus on shutting down counterproductive bureaucracies rather than moving them? …If we move bureaucracies (whether they are necessary ones or useless ones), does that create the risk of giving other parts of the nation a “public-choice” incentive to lobby for big government since they’ll be recipients of federal largesse? Will we simply get duplication, meaning a new bureaucracy somewhere in America without ever really getting rid of the original bureaucracy in Washington, DC?

So I’m siding with Mr. Crews over Mr. Wanzek.

P.S. I’ve already identified bureaucracies that should be terminated.

Looking at this list, it reminds me that I need to make the case for the abolition of some other bureaucracies.

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The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame recognizes government employees who go above and beyond the call of duty in terms of getting over-paid or being under-worked.

Or both.

Adding insult to injury, many recipients of this award are employed by bureaucracies that shouldn’t even exist.

Today we’re going to look at the Oakland police department, which is a part of the government that presumably should exist (though Camden, NJ, shows that maybe we shouldn’t make that assumption).

The Oakland PD is notorious for being over-compensated, but one cop stands out.

Eric Boehm of Reason has the sordid details.

When Oakland, California, police officers are needed at Golden State Warriors basketball games and other special events, Malcolm Miller is the officer in charge of making those assignments. Often, he assigns himself. As a result, Miller has become one of the highest paid officers in the department. He’s earned nearly $2.5 million over the past five years—most of it overtime pay—according to data collected by Transparent California, a watchdog group.

What a scam.

It’s highly likely that Mr. Miller is a basketball fan, so he’s figured out a great racket.

He basically gets a big pile of money for going to the games.

He and his colleagues are making out like bandits.

…he’s hardly the only officer to take advantage of poor oversight and a general lack of accountability. According to the audit, 217 officers worked roughly 520 hours of overtime last year, helping to cost the department more than $30 million in overtime pay—about twice as much as had been budgeted. Over the past four years, overtime expenditures have ranged from $28 million to $31 million. Proper documentation of overtime work was lacking in 83 percent of cases, the auditors found.

Though Officer Miller might not be the worst of the group.

One officer was paid for more than 2,600 hours of overtime—equal to 108 days of round-the-clock work—in just a single year.

So how do cops get away with this scam?

Simple, they make sure to negotiate contracts that have sweetheart provisions that they can exploit.

And why does Oakland agree to such contracts?

Well, as Michael Ramirez illustrated, bureaucrat unions give lots of money to state and local politicians, and those politicians then conspire with the unions to give them contracts with the sweetheart provisions.

Let’s close by looking at an example of this kind of scam.

Perhaps the most stunning part of the audit is the explanation of a department-wide policy that allows Oakland cops to accrue 1.5 hours of “comp time” for every hour of overtime worked. When an officer cashes in that comp time and isn’t working, other officers have to work overtime to fill the gap. That creates a cascade of additional overtime pay—10 hours of overtime creates 15 hours of comp time, which some other cop has to work, earning 22.5 hours of comp time (if they’re also working overtime), and so on.

Here’s the accompanying illustration.

How ridiculous. Extra money for overtime, combined with being able to work fewer hours in the future. Which then gives other cops an opening to rack up more overtime pay.

Everyone wins…except for taxpayers.

P.S. Some bureaucrats earn admission to the Bureaucrats Hall of Fame by misbehaving. Often in very strange ways.

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When I gave readers an opportunity to select their favorite political cartoonist back in 2013, they picked Michael Ramirez.

And I can understand, given the excellent options that I shared (here, here, here, and here).

But I now think I overlooked his true masterpiece, at least if salience is an issue. The cartoon he produced on politicians and bureaucrat unions perfectly identifies the problem that has produced gaping fiscal shortfalls in so many states and communities.

Simply stated, politicians and bureaucrats have figured out how to gang up against taxpayers.

The Chicago Tribune recently opined on this horrific example.

…a controversial state law…allowed a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, David Piccioli, to become certified as a substitute teacher in December 2006 by working one day at a Springfield elementary school — and to buy pension credit for his 10 previous years working as a lobbyist. That sweet deal qualified him for a pension windfall from a teachers retirement fund that as of late 2018 carried an unfunded liability of more than $75 billion-with-a-B. Because he also draws a pension from a previous job as a House Democratic aide, Piccioli’s total pension income now rises to nearly $100,000.

Sadly, Illinois courts routinely acquiesce to this kind of scam.

…the court upheld a dubious loophole that allowed government employees who left those jobs to work for their union in the private sector to still qualify for a public pension — with payouts based on their much higher salaries in their union roles. One example: Former Chicago labor boss Dennis Gannon, who started out working for the city, was able to retire at age 50 with a city pension based on his union salary of at least $240,000. The Supreme Court upheld that arrangement too.

Perhaps those actually were correct legal decisions.

But, if so, that underscores my original point about politicians and bureaucrat union working together to fleece taxpayers.

This story underscores the unfairness of a system that provides much higher levels of compensation for government bureaucrats compared to those toiling in the economy’s productive sector.

But it also can be seen as a Exhibit A for why Illinois is a fiscal black hole. Which is, of course, why the state’s politicians are so anxious and determined to get rid of the state’s flat tax.

And this explains why productive people are leaving.

Needless to say, this won’t end well.

P.S. I’m not going to put Mr. Piccioli in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. That high honor is reserved for people who actually had government jobs for longer than one day (such as the Philadelphia bureaucrat who “earned” a $50,000 annual pension after being employed for just 2-1/2 years. As a consolation prize, I will instead offer him up as a potential candidate for Bureaucrat of the Year.

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I periodically will make use of “most depressing” in the title of a column when sharing bad news.

And new data from the Census Bureau definitely qualifies as bad news. It confirms what I’ve written about how the Washington region has become the richest part of America.

But the D.C. area didn’t become wealthy by producing value. Instead, it’s rolling in money because of overpaid bureaucrats, fat-cat lobbyists, sleazy politicians, beltway-bandit contractors, and other grifters who have figured out how to hitch a ride on the federal gravy train.

Anyhow, here’s a tweet with the bad news (at least if you’re a serf elsewhere in America who is paying taxes to keep Washington fat and happy).

Most of my friends who work for the federal government privately will admit that they are very fortunate.

But when I run into someone who denies that bureaucrats get above-market compensation, I simply share this data from the Labor Department. That usually shuts them up.

By the way, there’s strong evidence from the European Central Bank that overpaid bureaucrats have a negative impact on macroeconomic performance.

And the World Bank has produced a study showing how bureaucrats manipulate the political process.

…public sector workers are not just simply implementers of policies designed by the politicians in charge of supervising them — so called agents and principals, respectively. Public sector workers can have the power to influence whether politicians are elected, thereby influencing whether policies to improve service delivery are adopted and how they are implemented, if at all. This has implications for the quality of public services: if the main purpose of the relationship between politicians and public servants is not to deliver quality public services, but rather to share rents accruing from public office, then service delivery outcomes are likely to be poor.

Here’s my video explaining how bureaucrats are overpaid. It was filmed in 2010, so many of the numbers are now out-dated, but the arguments are just as strong today as they were back then.

But keep in mind that the bureaucracy is only one piece of the puzzle.

The D.C. metropolitan region is unjustly rich because of everyone else who has figured out how to divert taxpayer money into their pockets. That includes disgusting examples of Democrat sleaze and Republican sleaze.

Simply stated, Washington is riddled with rampant corruption as insiders get rich at our expense. No wonder many of them object to my license plate!

P.S. Here’s some data comparing the size and cost of bureaucracy in various nations.

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President Trump has proposed a one-year pay freeze for federal bureaucrats, which has reinvigorated the debate over whether compensation levels for the civil service are too lavish.

The Washington Post opines this is nothing but “government bashing,” but this chart from my former colleague Chris Edwards should be more than enough evidence to show that federal bureaucrats have a big advantage over workers in the economy’s productive sector.

And there is plenty of additional evidence that federal employment is very attractive. For instance, it’s just about impossible to get fired from a bureaucracy.

Though defenders of the civil service sometimes make the preposterous claim that nobody gets fired because bureaucrats are such good employees.

The low rate at which federal employees are fired for poor performance doesn’t prove the government accepts it but instead “could actually be a positive sign,”… A report from the Merit Systems Protection Board in effect responds to members of Congress and others who contend that federal managers don’t care, or don’t dare, to take disciplinary action because of civil service protections. “…If the agency is successful in preventing poor performance…, a small number of performance-based removals could actually be a positive sign,” MSPB said. …Of the 2.1 million federal employees in a government database…, about 10,000 are fired for either poor performance or misconduct each year. …That low rate of firing has been cited in proposals to force agencies to take action… Individual employees, too, commonly express dissatisfaction with how agencies handle poor performers among their co-workers.

I have to confess that my jaw dropped when I read this article. Maybe we should ask veterans whether they think all federal bureaucrats do a good job?

Or we can ask non-profit groups whether they think IRS bureaucrats are top-quality workers? Or ask anyone who has ever tried to navigate the federal government?

We also know that the counties where most federal bureaucrats reside are now the richest region of the entire nation.

The three richest counties in the United States with populations of 65,000 or more, when measured by their 2016 median household incomes, were all suburbs of Washington, D.C., according to data released today by the Census Bureau. Eight of the 20 wealthiest counties with populations of 65,000 or more were also suburbs of Washington, D.C.–as were 10 of the top 25. …With Falls Church City included in the 2015 data, the nation’s four wealthiest counties were D.C. suburbs.

To be fair, this data is also driven by all the high-paid lobbyists. contracts, consultants, and others who have their snouts buried in the federal trough. So the incredible wealth of the DC region is really an argument for shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

But the bureaucracy is part of the problem.

Interestingly, even the Congressional Budget Office concluded that bureaucrats are overpaid. And CBO almost certainly understated the gap, as noted in congressional testimony.

The CBO report’s headline figure is that, on average, federal salaries and benefits are 17 percent above private-sector levels. … I would consider the CBO’s reported federal compensation premium to be on the low end… when I analyze federal employee wages using the methodology that the progressive-leaning Economic Policy Institute has used in numerous studies of state and local government salaries, I find an average federal salary premium of not 2 percent but of about 14 percent. … The CBO chose to value federal employees’ pension benefits using a 5 percent discount rate. Using that discount rate, the federal employee retirement package was found to be substantially more generous than is received by comparable private-sector employees. But…corporate pensions are not nearly as safe as federal pensions, as witnessed by pending benefit reductions for “multiemployer” defined benefit plans. Valuing federal pension benefits using a lower discount rate to better reflect their safety would find a higher overall federal compensation premium.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, the unions representing bureaucrats nonetheless try to crank out numbers showing federal employees are underpaid.

To be sure, overall compensation levels don’t tell us everything. It is important to adjust for education, skills, and other factors.

Which is why the most useful, powerful, and revealing data in this debate is produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures voluntary quit rates by industry. If there is a lot of turnover in a sector of the economy, that suggests workers are underpaid. But if there are very few voluntary departures, that suggests workers in that part of the economy are overpaid.

And the numbers from BLS clearly show that federal bureaucrats are far less likely to leave their positions when compared to employees in the private sector.

This five-fold gap is staggering. I have lots of friends who work for the federal government. Most privately confess that they know that are making out like bandits. I think I’ll send this chart to the few holdouts.

By the way, I shared the numbers about quit rates for state and local bureaucrats back in 2011. Same story, though the compensation gap isn’t quite as large and may be driven mostly by unfunded fringe benefits.

P.S. I’m much more interested in shrinking government rather than shrinking pay levels. The correct pay for bureaucrats at the Departments of TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture is zero. Why? Because they bureaucracies shouldn’t exist.

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When I first created the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, I confess that my standards were a bit slack. I awarded membership to government workers that are grossly overpaid (see here and here, for instance), but otherwise didn’t really do anything special to merit awards.

In recent years, I’ve been more judicious. I only give the “honor” to bureaucrats who go above and beyond the call of duty.

  • A new Jersey bureaucrat got almost $250,000 per year for simultaneously holding six different government jobs.
  • Figuratively screwing taxpayers wasn’t good enough for a welfare bureaucrat in Pennsylvania.
  • The civil servant at the Veterans Administration who overlooked deadly waiting lists but had…um…time on his hands for other things.

There’s even a foreign wing in the BHoF

We’re going to expand our list today, but by using a different approach. We’re going to have a poll so you can decide which bureaucrat is most worthy.

Is Darryl De Sousa the most deserving?

Federal prosecutors have charged Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa with three misdemeanor counts of failing to file federal taxes… De Sousa, 53, willfully failed to file federal tax returns for 2013, 2014 and 2015 despite having been a salaried employee of the Police Department in those years, prosecutors said Thursday. …“There is no excuse for my failure to fulfill my obligations as a citizen and public official,” he said in a statement. “My only explanation is that I failed to sufficiently prioritize my personal affairs.” …Mayor Catherine Pugh expressed “full confidence” in De Sousa. …De Sousa earned $93,104 in 2013, when he is first accused of failing to file taxes. He earned $101,985 in 2014 and $127,089 in 2015. …The Police Department routinely suspends with pay officers accused of a misdemeanors pending the outcome of the case. De Sousa remained on the job Thursday. He currently earns a salary of $210,000 a year.

Does Thomas Tramaglini merit this award?

The Kenilworth school superintendent charged Monday with defecating in public was caught in the act at the Holmdel High School football field and track after surveillance was set up due to human feces being found “on a daily basis,” police said. Thomas Tramaglini, 42, …was running at the track on the athletic fields at 5:50 a.m. before he was arrested. Track coaches and staff at Holmdel High School told the district’s resource officer that they found human feces on or near the football field and track daily… Tramaglini is also charged with lewdness and littering.

Should Donn Thompson win the prize?

Los Angeles firefighter Donn Thompson had a busy year in 2017. If his pay stubs are to be believed, he literally never stopped working. Data obtained by Transparent California…show that Thompson pulled down $300,000 in overtime pay during 2017, on top of his $92,000 salary. Over the past four years, Thompson has earned more than $1 million in overtime… To earn that much in overtime pay, Thompson would have had to work more hours than actually exist in a single year. Either the highly paid firefighter found a way to stretch the space-time continuum or something fishy is going on. …earning $302,000 at a rate of $47.40 per hour would require working more than 6,370 hours. Add that to the 2,912 hours he worked as a salaried employee, and you get more than 9,280 hours worked, despite the fact that there are only 8,760 hours in a year. …Thompson…might very well be the highest paid firefighter in American history. …During 2017, the Los Angeles Fire Department had 512 employees who cashed in with at least $100,000 in overtime pay… Thompson was one of 26 employees to get at least $200,000 in overtime pay.

This is a tough contest.

In Baltimore, I suspect ordinary people don’t get a mulligan when they commit a crime, so Mr. De Sousa’s kid-glove treatment stands out. I’m also impressed (in a bad way) that his salary soared from $93K to $210K in just five years. Nice work if you can get it.

On the other hand, Mr. Tramaglini has…um…layed down a special type of marker. Was he inspired by fellow bureaucrats from the Postal Service and Environmental Protection Agency?

But let’s not forget Mr. Thompson. Claiming to have worked more hours than actually exist is rather extraordinary. Though ripping off taxpayers apparently is a tradition for firefighters, particularly in California.

As they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

If you like making your opinion heard, my most recent poll was about which state will be the first to suffer political collapse. And my favorite poll was to pick the best political cartoonist.

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Back in 2013, I shared a poll to see who people would pick as their “favorite political cartoonist.” Michael Ramirez currently has the lead, which doesn’t surprise me when you look at options (here, here, here, and here) I provided.

But if there was a prize for the most depressingly accurate political cartoon, he also would win the prize for his depiction of what happens when state and local politicians “negotiate” compensation packages for bureaucrats.

Simply stated, politicians have a giant incentive to provide lavish benefits to interest groups that then recycle some of the loot back to elected officials in the form of campaign contributions.

But the real key to the scam is that the bill gets imposed on future generations.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has a must-read report on the giant funding gaps that this has produced in the pension plans for state and local government bureaucrats.

If net pension assets are determined using more realistic investment return assumptions, pension funding gaps are much wider than even the large sums reported in state financial documents. Unfunded liabilities (using a risk-free rate of return assumption) of state-administered pension plans now exceed $6 trillion—an increase of $433 billion since our 2016 report. The national average funding ratio is a mere 33.7 percent, amounting to $18,676 dollars of unfunded liabilities for every resident of the United States. …the personal share of liability for every resident in each state, an indicator of the severity of the taxes to be borne now or in the future by each taxpayer for promises made but not funded. In Alaska, each resident is on the hook for a staggering $45,689, the highest in the nation. Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, and New Mexico follow for the five highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

This map is the most important takeaway from the report. It shows which states have the highest per-capita unfunded liabilities.

I’m not surprised to see Alaska, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey near the bottom of the rankings. All of them were choices in my poll on which state was “most likely to collapse.”

But perhaps New Mexico, Hawaii, and Ohio should have been on that list as well.

For further background on the issue, here are some passages from a pension primer published by Forbes.

Years ago, as an actuarial student, …I remember…first, the eye-popping idea that state constitutions promised state and local employees that they could keep their existing benefits, not just for past service accruals, but for all future years of employment; and, second, the notion that it was generally accepted for public plans to be un- or underfunded… this is the story that’s repeated over and over again.  Pensions are made more generous — with high accrual rates, low retirement eligibility ages, generous cost of living provisions — as a means of providing more generous compensation to state and local employees, without actually needing to pay anything from the current year’s budget.  Costs are deferred until well after current legislators have themselves retired. …pension debt is even worse than ordinary state debts, for instance, bond issues for building up infrastructure.  Pension debt is nothing other than borrowing to pay for present-day employee salaries.

In other words, bureaucrat pensions are a scam, an opportunity for politicians to buy off a powerful voting bloc today while imposing the bill on the future.

Bureaucrats are making out like bandits, as the New York Times recently reported.

A public university president in Oregon gives new meaning to the idea of a pensioner. Joseph Robertson, …who retired as head of the Oregon Health & Science University last fall, receives the state’s largest government pension. It is $76,111. Per month. That is considerably more than the average Oregon family earns in a year. Oregon — like many other states and cities, including New Jersey, Kentucky and Connecticut — is caught in a fiscal squeeze of its own making. Its economy is growing, but the cost of its state-run pension system is growing faster. More government workers are retiring, including more than 2,000, like Dr. Robertson, who get pensions exceeding $100,000 a year. The state is not the most profligate pension payer in America… “It’s an affront to everybody who pays taxes,” said Bruce Dennis, a retired carpenter from outside Portland who earned a $54,000-a-year pension by swinging a hammer for 45 years. No one gives him extra money.

But there’s a problem with this scam.

As Margaret Thatcher famously noted, sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

And we’re getting to that point, as illustrated by this article for the Wall Street Journal. It cites what’s happening on the state level in Connecticut.

Connecticut has just 31.7% of what it needs to pay its employees’ future retirement benefits, according to state financial reports. A fund for teachers has 52.3%. Together, that adds up to more than $37 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, or about $10,300 per Connecticut resident. Connecticut’s unfunded pension liabilities resulted from nearly 40 years of politicians making promises about benefits without adequately funding them, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

And it gives an example of trouble at the local level from a city in Michigan.

East Lansing, home of Michigan State University…is struggling with almost $125 million in unfunded pension and retiree health-care liabilities, has been cutting services… East Lansing asked MSU to pony up $100 million over 20 years to help shore up the city’s underfunded pension plan. The alternative, the city said, was asking voters to approve a 1% income tax that would hit university employees and working students. After negotiations went nowhere, the city brought the income-tax proposal before voters in a referendum last November. …On Nov. 7, East Lansing residents shot down the income-tax referendum, forcing the city to debate what services to cut to save money for the pension obligations. …The city hopes to shed another 17 police and fire positions over the next two years… Altmann suggested a long list of potential cuts to make more room in the budget for increased pension payments: closing the fire station on MSU’s campus, shuttering the city’s pool, aquatic center, dog park and soccer complex, suspending bulk leaf pickup and plowing of public sidewalks and ending annual jazz, folk, film and art festivals.

This is not going to end well.

And the problem seems to get worse every year.

Doesn’t matter who is slicing and dicing the data. The numbers always look grim.

When the next recession hits, many of these simmering problems are going to explode.

P.S. In addition to extravagant and unfunded pensions, don’t forget that state and local bureaucrats (and their federal cousins) are overpaid.

P.P.S. And if you don’t believe that they’re overpaid, then please explain why they don’t voluntarily leave their jobs for positions in the economy’s productive sector?

P.P.P.S. Also keep in mind that there are negative macroeconomic repercussions when bureaucrats are overpaid.

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I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. When people ask me whether there is some sinister, behind-the-scenes cabal running Washington, I tell them that petty corruption, self interest, and “public choiceare much better explanations for the nonsensical policies being imposed on the country.

So you won’t be surprised that rhetoric about the “deep state” rubs me the wrong way. If the term simply was used to describe D.C.’s bloated, self-interested, and left-leaning bureaucracies, that would be okay. But is seems that the phase also implies some sort of secret master plan on the part of shadowy insiders.

To be blunt, the people in Washington don’t have the competence to design, implement, and enforce any type of master plan. Yes, we have a Leviathan state, but it’s much more accurate to think of Uncle Sam as a covetous, obese, and blundering oaf (as illustrated by my collection of cartoons).

That being said, that oaf is not a friend of liberty, as explained in an article published by the Federalist.

…to make a government job more like the ones the rest of us have will require the president and Congress to undo more than a century of misguided, anti-democratic, and unconstitutional laws governing the civil service. …the bulk of the civil service—2.8 million bureaucrats—has become a permanent class of powerbrokers, totally unaccountable to the winds of democratic change. …incompetence and corruption are the least of the problems with the modern civil service. With 95-99 percent of political donations from government employees going to Hillary Clinton in the last election, it looks less like a system of apolitical administrators and more like an arm of the Democratic Party. …Civil service protections…have created a system that grows government and advances left-wing causes regardless of who the people elect.

Moreover, there is a structural feature of the Washington bureaucracy that gives it dangerous powers.

John Tierney’s column in the Wall Street Journal explains the problem of the “administrative state.”

What’s the greatest threat to liberty in America? …the enormous rogue beast known as the administrative state. Sometimes called the regulatory state or the deep state, it is a government within the government… Unelected bureaucrats not only write their own laws, they also interpret these laws and enforce them in their own courts with their own judges. All this is in blatant violation of the Constitution… Mr. Hamburger, 60, a constitutional scholar…says, sitting in his office at Columbia Law School… “The government can choose to…use an administrative proceeding where you don’t have the right to be heard by a real judge or a jury and you don’t have the full due process of law…” In volume and complexity, the edicts from federal agencies exceed the laws passed by Congress by orders of magnitude. “The administrative state has become the government’s predominant mode of contact with citizens,” Mr. Hamburger says. …“The framers of the Constitution were very clear about this,” Mr. Hamburger says…”Congress cannot delegate the legislative powers to an agency, just as judges cannot delegate their power to an agency.”

George Will elaborates, noting that “administrative law” is an affront to the Constitution’s principle of “rival branches.”

…the administrative state distorts the United States’ constitutional architecture…Clarence Thomas…is urging the judicial branch to limit the legislative branch’s practice of delegating its power to the executive branch. …This subject is central to today’s argument between constitutionalists and progressives. …Today, if Congress provides “a minimal degree of specificity” in the instructions it gives to the executive, the court, Thomas says, abandons “all pretense of enforcing a qualitative distinction between legislative and executive power.” …the principles Thomas has articulated “attack the very existence of the modern administrative state.” This state, so inimical to conservatism’s aspiration for government limited by a constitutional structure of rival branches… Woodrow Wilson…became the first president to criticize America’s founding, regretted the separation of powers because he thought modern government required a clerisy of unfettered administrators. …Today we are governed by Wilson’s clerisy, but it does not deliver what is supposed to justify the overthrow of James Madison’s constitutional system — efficient, admirable government.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute adds some cogent analysis.

Although the Constitution places the federal legislative power in Congress, it is now increasingly — and alarmingly — flowing to administrative agencies that, unlike Congress, are not directly accountable to the public affected by their decisions. Unless we can find a solution to this problem—a way to curb and cabin the discretionary power of administrative agencies —decentralization and individual self-determination will eventually be brought to an end. …The framers believed that the tripartite structure of the federal government would be enough to prevent any one of the three branches from consolidating the power of government and becoming a danger to liberty. But with the growth of the administrative state, we may now be seeing exactly the consolidation of powers that Madison feared. …the judicial branch is supposed to be the final interpreter of the Constitution and thus the objective protector of the framework the Constitution ordains. But unfortunately, modern courts have generally failed to perform this role… America is an exceptional country in part because its constitutional framework has, until relatively recently, limited the government’s ability to centralize its control and restrain the nation’s diversity. If we are to avoid a dramatic over-centralization of power, the growth of the administrative state must be restrained.

In an article for National Review, Stanley Kurtz delves into the topic.

the gist of the growing conservative critique of the administrative state…focuses on a runaway bureaucracy’s threat to constitutional government. Congress has improperly delegated much of its law-making power to bureaucrats, who in turn have abusively expanded this authority. The courts, for their part, have turned a blind eye to the administrative power-grab. Meanwhile, agencies staffed by unelected bureaucrats now operate de facto courts. In effect, these agencies negate the separation of powers by simultaneously exercising legislative, executive, and judicial functions, the very definition of authoritarian rule. …governors and state legislators can be unaware of policy end-runs imposed by federal agreements with a state’s own bureaucrats. At both the state and federal levels, then, bureaucracy has broken loose and effectively turned into a national fourth branch of government. …The Founders designed our federalist system to secure liberty by dividing and disbursing power, and by ensuring that local and state governments would remain more accountable to citizens than a distant federal government ever could. In fundamental ways, however, the modern practice of conditioning federal grants on state acceptance of federal dictates undermines the Founders’ intent. …

Robert Gebelhoff of the Washington Post points out that this fight has major implications.

One of the legal issues that’s less often discussed is the role that the next Supreme Court justice will play in conservatives’ long-running legal fight to limit the size of the federal government. For decades, conservatives on the bench have been losing that war, giving way to a system of administrative law that is written, for the most part, by bureaucratic agencies. …it’s a really big deal. Over the past half century, agencies have exploded in size and power, so this debate really is about how much power the federal government should have. …Conservatives, fearful that bureaucracies are becoming an unchecked “fourth branch of government,” have decried agency deference. Just last month, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the doctrine “has metastasized,” as if it were a cancer. And back in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts warned of the “danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state…” Both Roberts and Thomas frame the issue as a threat to the separation of powers: We’re letting agencies in the executive branch dip into the powers reserved for the judicial and legislative branches. …And by allowing bureaucrats the ability to define the scope of their own jurisdiction, we let them answer questions meant to be left up to the courts. This, they argue, is at odds with the Constitution. …Conservatives fearing a powerful bureaucratic state have few legal weapons to fight it. The future of a small-government Supreme Court is bleak, and the march toward greater agency control of the law will probably continue forward.

I’ll close with some recent polling data about the “deep state” from Monmouth University.

Here’s a question asking whether there’s a conspiratorial version of the “deep state.”

I’m not sure what to think of the answers.

I like people to be suspicious of the federal government. But I’d much prefer them to be concerned because they’re reading my daily columns, not because they think there’s a sinister plot.

I prefer the answers to this next question. Most people presumably have never heard of “administrative law” or the “administrative state,” but they do have a healthy skepticism of bureaucratic rule.

Most of the authors cited today correctly want federal judges to fix the problem by limiting the power of bureaucrats to make and enforce law.

That would be desirable, but I’d go much further. We should eliminate almost all of the agencies, programs, and departments that clutter Washington. Then the problem of the administrative state automatically disappears.

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Time for a confession.

I routinely mock bureaucrats, but I don’t really think they are any worse than other people. Indeed, I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who work for various levels of government and they are fundamentally decent people.

The real problem is that bureaucracies create bad incentives. So even people who are generally good will be tempted to exploit rules that reward bad behavior.

And some of these folks, operating in systems with bad incentives, will morph into bad people. Heck, some of them are so awful that I elect them to the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

But it’s also important to recognize other bureaucrats – as well as the perverse rules that encourage their bad actions.

Let’s start with a cop in New Jersey who went above and beyond the call of duty, at least if the call of duty involves ripping off taxpayers.

…former Police Chief Philip Zacche…could spend the first decade of his retirement in federal prison after he admitted to stealing $31,713 from an agency that serves the city’s neediest families. Federal prosecutors said Friday that Zacche filled out phony time sheets to get paid for security work that he never performed for the Jersey City Housing Authority. …As a member of the department’s brass, Zacche pulled a six-figure salary before overtime. He earned even more by working an off-duty part-time gig as a security officer for the Authority’s Marion Gardens housing development. When he retired in June, city taxpayers had to cut Zacche a check for $512,620 to compensate him for 450 unused comp and vacation days. The 61-year-old Manalapan resident is now set to collect a pension of at least $11,946 every month for the rest of his life.

That’s a pension of more than $140,000 per year. And he gets it well before age 65. No wonder New Jersey is a fiscal mess.

Let’s also highlight a senior federal bureaucrat who specialized in exploiting immigrants to steal money.

A chief counsel at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has admitted stealing immigrants’ identities to defraud banks. Raphael Sanchez, 44, forged identity documents on his government computer to open bank accounts and credit cards in the names of seven immigrants. He racked up more than $190,000 (£135,000) in personal loans, transferred funds and card-spending during the four-year scam. …He claimed three were dependent relatives on his tax returns for 2014 to 2016. …He resigned from his role at the ICE’s Office of the Principal Legal Advisor after his crimes came to light.

I’m almost impressed by this guy’s depravity. Not only did he steal identities, but he even listed some of the victims as dependents on his tax return. That’s real chutzpah!

And notice that theft and fraud apparently are not enough to get a bureaucrat fired. Instead, he resigned.

And since we’re on the topic of bureaucrats doing bad things and not getting fired, we may as well note that the guy who sent the false alert in Hawaii is still getting checks from the taxpayers he terrified.

The worker who sent a false missile alert to Hawaiian residents on Saturday has reportedly been reassigned. The civil defence employee has been moved to another role, but not fired, according to multiplemedia reports. In a press conference on Saturday, the head of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency, Vern Miyagi, said the worker “feels terrible.” …The Post also confirmed that there are no plans to fire the employee.

Here’s a fourth example, dealing with a former Obama appointee who was unmasked for screwing taxpayers.

Vikrum Aiyer liked to commute to his government job by taxi. On at least 130 occasions over two years — the majority during a four-month stretch in 2016 — the then-chief of staff for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office called a taxi to pick him up near his home in the District. He was chauffeured across the Potomac River 10 miles or so to the agency’s headquarters in downtown Alexandria. And then…Aiyer billed the government for each ride. To escape notice, Aiyer impersonated current and former high-level agency officials, writing their names on cab receipts and vouchers he submitted to the taxi company, which then billed the government, investigators found. …Aiyer…released a statement saying he had a “misunderstanding of agency taxi rules.”

Hmmm…, I think I’ll go to the grocery store later today and slip a couple of steaks into my jacket. If I get caught leaving the store, I’ll say I had a “misunderstanding of store rules.”

The good news, at least if we’re grading on a curve, is that it only took about two years for the government to realize what was happening.

Aiyer’s unauthorized rides apparently went unnoticed for at least two years by budget officials who reviewed the invoices from Alexandria Yellow Cab, which has a contract to provide authorized taxi services for agency officials. The patent office paid the taxi company more than $4,000 for Aiyer’s rides, the report says. …For most of the cab rides, Aiyer was picked up on a street corner a tenth of a mile from his home, according to the report. But he wrote on the invoice that he was leaving from Commerce Department headquarters in downtown Washington. …investigators found…that he “used the Agency’s Cab Company account to facilitate his weekend social activity… Aiyer also racked up $15,000 in expenses on his government-issued credit card, charging for food and drink at local bars, clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners and at least one liquor store, the report said. …The report says he also misstated his educational credentials on résumés he submitted to the Obama administration, claiming to have a postgraduate degree that he did not receive.

By the way, the article mentioned that Aiyer was a technology adviser for the White House. Did he advise on how to lie on your resume and how to get taxpayers to finance one’s social life?

A common problem in most of these stories is that politicians and bureaucrats conspire together to create rules that enable bad behavior.

Government employee unions, for instance, give lots of money to politicians and then sit down with those lawmakers to “negotiate” pay and benefit packages.

Needless to say, the interests of taxpayers don’t get represented. And that’s why many state and local governments are careening toward bankruptcy.

What’s especially discouraging is how these deals often include loopholes that are designed to be exploited.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times has a very depressing exposé showing how senior bureaucrats in the police and fire departments benefited from a scam allowing them to double dip. But not just double dip. They get extra compensation and oftentimes then don’t do any work.

When Capt. Tia Morris turned 50, after about three decades in the Los Angeles Police Department, she became eligible to retire with nearly 90% of her salary. But like many cops and firefighters in her position, the decision to keep working was a financial no-brainer, thanks to a program that allowed her to nearly double her pay by keeping her salary while also collecting her pension. A month after Morris entered the program, her husband, a detective, joined too. Their combined income for four years in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan was just shy of $2 million, city payroll records show. But the city didn’t benefit much from the Morrises’ experience: They both filed claims for carpal tunnel syndrome and other cumulative ailments about halfway through the program. She spent nearly two years on disability and sick leave; he missed more than two years… The couple spent at least some of their paid time off recovering at their condo in Cabo San Lucas.

Yes, I’m sure they were “recovering” at their luxurious place on the beach.

Just like the other bureaucrats who exploited the system.

The Morrises are far from alone. In fact, they’re among hundreds of Los Angeles police and firefighters who have turned the DROP program — which has doled out more than $1.6 billion in extra pension payments since its inception in 2002 — into an extended leave at nearly twice the pay… Former Police Capt. Daryl Russell, who collected $1.5 million over five years in the program, missed nearly three of those years because of pain from a bad knee, carpal tunnel and multiple injuries he claimed he suffered after falling out of an office chair. …Former firefighter Thomas Futterer, an avid runner who lives in Long Beach, hurt a knee “misstepping off the fire truck,” three weeks after entering DROP, according to city records. The injury kept him off the job for almost a full year.Less than two months after the knee injury, a Tom Futterer from Long Beach crossed the finish line of a half-marathon in Portland, Ore.

Yes, you read correctly. His knee supposedly was so damaged that he couldn’t work, but he nonetheless runs long-distance races.

I’m beginning to think that firefighters in big cities are the most cossetted of all bureaucrats. I now understand the hostility in this video.

Here’s some background on the DROP scam.

The idea of allowing retirement-age public employees to collect their pensions while working and receiving paychecks originated more than three decades ago in tiny East Baton Rouge, La. …the goal was the opposite: to discourage older employees from staying so long that they limited upward mobility for younger workers. And it had a two-year time limit. Since then, versions of the program have been adopted by dozens of states, counties and cities across the country. The details vary — some have short terms to encourage early retirement, others have long terms to retain experience — but the central appeal for employees is constant: two large checks instead of one. …former Mayor Richard Riordan…said: “Oh, yeah, that was a mistake…it’s total fraud.” …in recent years, a growing number of jurisdictions have abandoned or drastically scaled back DROP programs because the math doesn’t work. …Instead of saving money, or remaining “cost-neutral,” the programs lead to ballooning pension costs and accusations that employees are simply double-dipping.

Needless to say, the taxpayers who finance all this aren’t treated nearly as well as government insiders.

When most Los Angeles taxpayers reach the standard retirement age, 65, they face a stark choice: keep working and collecting their paychecks or quit and start collecting Social Security, which replaces only a small fraction of annual wages for most people.When city firefighters or police officers reach their retirement age, 50, the choices are far better. They can keep working for a paycheck, they can retire with up to 90% of their salary in pension and city-subsidized health insurance for life, or they can enter DROP. For many, the choice is easy. …they keep working and collecting their paychecks for up to five years while their pension checks are deposited into a special account. …the city guarantees 5% interest on the money in the account. The city also adds annual cost-of-living raises to the pension checks to make sure they keep pace with inflation.

Disgusting.

Let’s close by speculating whether Trump will do anything to fix this mess, at least the part that occurs on the federal level.

Some pro-Trump readers sent me this story from the Washington Post and suggested it shows that the President is making progress.

…a year into his takeover of Washington, President Trump has made a significant down payment on his campaign pledge to shrink the federal bureaucracy… By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees, according to an analysis of federal personnel data… The falloff has been driven by an exodus of civil servants, a diminished corps of political appointees and an effective hiring freeze. …Federal workers fret that their jobs could be zeroed out amid buyouts and early retirement offers that already have prompted hundreds of their colleagues to leave, according to interviews with three dozen employees across the government. Many chafed as supervisors laid down new rules they said are aimed at holding poor performers and problem workers to account. …“Morale has never been lower,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers at more than 30 agencies. “Government is making itself a lot less attractive as an employer.”……Agencies have told employees that they should no longer count on getting glowing reviews in their performance appraisals, according to staff in multiple offices, as has been the case for years. Housing and Urban Development managers, for example, are being evaluated for the first time on how effectively they address poor performers.

If I was planning to die in the next month, I would probably agree with readers that Trump made progress in this area.

But as I wrote last year, the only way to successfully shrink bureaucracy in the long run is to shrink government.

Yet Trump just capitulated to a budget deal that increases spending.

I’m willing to praise this President when he does good things, but his weak record on spending almost surely is going to translate into a bigger bureaucracy over time. Though I hope I’m wrong.

Here are two final additional passages from the story that deserve some attention. Starting with an honest bureaucrat.

…some civil servants said they welcome the focus on rooting out waste and holding federal workers to high standards. “Oftentimes we run on autopilot and continue to fund programs that don’t produce the results that were intended,” said Stephanie Valentine, a program analyst at the Education Department. “You can’t keep blindly spending because that’s what we’ve always done.”

And since I’ve previously contrasted Bill Clinton’s good record and Obama’s bad record, this passage is added confirmation of my findings.

Trump already has begun to reverse the growth of the Obama era, when the government added a total of 188,000 permanent employees, according to Office of Personnel Management data. …The last time federal employment dropped during a president’s first year, President Bill Clinton was in the White House.

It’s also worth noting that the bureaucracy didn’t contract during the big-government Bush years.

I’ll conclude by circling back to my original point. Most bureaucrats are no better or no worse than the rest of us. Given the perverse “public choice” incentives inherent in government, however, the good bureaucrats often are lured into bad behavior and the bad bureaucrats frequently become scam artists and crooks.

P.S. If my conclusion was too grim and pessimistic, you can cheer yourself up with another example of bureaucrat humor.

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Perhaps because there’s no hope for genuine Obamacare repeal and limited hope for sweeping tax reform, I’m having to look outside of Washington for good news.

I wrote the other day about the very successful tax reforms in North Carolina. So now let’s travel to the Midwest.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has a very upbeat assessment of Michigan’s turnaround, though it starts by noting that many states teach us lessons on what shouldn’t happen.

…states can provide instructive policy lessons for better and sometimes worse—see the fiscal crack-ups in Connecticut and Illinois.

I definitely agree about the fiscal disasters of Connecticut and Illinois. And Michigan used to be in that group.

Former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was a progressive specialist in using the tax code to politically allocate capital, which depressed and distorted business investment. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan was the only state to experience zero economic growth. …misguided policies were arguably bigger contributors to Michigan’s slump. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan’s manufacturing grew at a third of the rate of the Great Lakes region. …In 2007 Democrats increased the state income tax to 4.35% from 3.9%. They also enacted a new business tax with a 4.95% tax on income, a 0.8% gross-receipts tax, plus a 21.99% surcharge on business tax liability. …Michigan’s economy plunged amid the national recession with unemployment hitting 14.9% in June 2009.

But Michigan has experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years.

Michigan…offers a case study in the pro-growth potential of business tax reform. …Mr. Snyder’s first major undertaking with his Republican legislature was to replace the cumbersome state business tax with a 6% corporate tax and trim the individual rate to 4.25%. Michigan’s corporate-tax ranking jumped to seventh from 49th in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate rankings. …They also reformed state-worker pensions. After the 2012 midterm elections, Republicans passed right-to-work legislation that lets workers choose whether to join unions. In 2014 state voters approved a ballot measure backed by the governor to repeal the personal-property tax for small businesses and manufacturers.

These reforms already are paying dividends.

In 2011 Michigan added jobs for the first time in six years, and it has since led the Great Lakes region in manufacturing growth. Unemployment has fallen below the national average to 3.9% even as the labor-force participation rate has ticked up. …Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen to 3.2% from 11.4% six years ago. Businesses in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids say they can’t find enough workers. Perhaps they should try recruiting in Chicago or New Haven.

As a fiscal wonk, I’m delighted by tax cuts and tax reform. That being said, I want to specifically focus on the reform of bureaucrat pensions in the Wolverine State.

It was mentioned as an aside in the WSJ editorial, but it may be even more important than tax changes in the long run. We’ll start with a short video the Mackinac Center produced to helped stimulate debate.

Here’s some of what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the recent reforms.

We’ll start with a description of the problem that existed.

For years, Michigan had been racking up pension liabilities for public school teachers that it had no money to pay for. By 2016, the state’s unfunded liability had reached $29 billion — which meant state was funding only 60% of its pension obligations. …Michigan is hardly the only state to have made this mistake. Pressured by public sector unions, state lawmakers boosted retirement benefits, using wildly unrealistic forecasts for investment returns and wage growth to justify them.

And here are the admirable reforms that were enacted.

So what did Michigan do to avoid Illinois’ fate? It embraced bold pension reforms that will protect taxpayers and provide a solid retirement benefit to teachers. …it’s shifting its public school teachers toward defined contribution plans. All new hires will be automatically enrolled in a 401(k)-type plan with a default 10% contribution rate. Teachers will still be able to opt for a traditional defined benefit pension, but one that splits costs 50-50 between workers and the state, and includes safeguards that will prevent the funding ratio from dropping below 85%.

The experts at Reason also weighed in on the topic.

Pension analysts from the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog and advocated for passage of SB 401) say no other state in the country has embraced reforms that go as far as Michigan’s. …new hires will be enrolled in a 401(k)-style pension plan, giving those workers the chance to control their own retirement planning while removing the threat of future unfunded liabilities. …What makes the Michigan proposal unique is it allows future hires to choose a so-called “hybrid” pension system retaining some elements of the old system with a provision requiring pension system to be shuttered if the gap between the fund’s liabilities and assets falls below 85 percent for two consecutive years. The mixed approach, allowing teachers to choose between a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style retirement plan, could be a model for other states to follow as they grapple with similar pension troubles.

Though the bill isn’t a panacea.

Paying down those obligations will take time—all current teachers and public school employees will remain enrolled in the current pension system and retirees will continue to collect benefits from it—but [it]…would make a big difference in the state’s long-term fiscal outlook.

Here’s a chart from the Mackinac Center showing how pensions became a growing problem. Unwinding this mess understandably won’t happen overnight.

But at least Michigan lawmakers took a real step in the right direction.

The same principle applies in Washington. Reforms to Medicare and Social Security wouldn’t change payments to existing retirees. And older workers generally would stick with the status quo.

But proposed entitlement reforms would lead to substantial long-run savings as younger workers are given the freedom to participate in new systems.

 

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I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which state have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people is those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

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While most of my disdain is reserved for the federal government in Washington, I periodically share horror stories about foreign governments and state governments.

And today we’re going to add to our collection of bone-headed policies by local governments.

In some past cases, the examples captured systemic flaws. In other cases, we looked at specific bad examples. Today, we have an interesting mix.

We’ll start with an example of bad policy that is easy to mock. It focuses on the predatory interventions by a town, as illustrated by this story from Alabama.

Teens in Gardendale are in for a rude awakening this summer when it comes to cutting grass. According to the city’s ordinance, you must have a business license. Teenagers have been threatened by officials…to show their city issued license before cutting a person’s lawn for extra summer cash. Cutting grass is often one of the first jobs many have in the summer. But a business license in Gardendale costs $110. And for a job, just for a couple of months, that can be a bit extreme.

What’s really disappointing about this story is that adults are ratting out the teenagers.

I can understand that they’re irked that they pay the license fee while the kids don’t, but that’s still wrong.

“One of the men that cuts several yards made a remark to one of our neighbors, ‘that if he saw her cutting grass again that he was going to call Gardendale because she didn’t have a business license,” said Campbell. …Mayor Stan Hogeland said when operating a business for pay within the city limits, you must have a business license.

Hey, Mr. Mayor, I have a better idea. Get rid of licensing rules and give freedom a try.

If your residents want to freely contract with each other, let them. Whether they’re kids or adults.

Makes me wonder if Gardendale is one of those places that puts the boot of government on the necks of kids who set up – gasp! – unlicensed lemonade stands?

If so, I imagine Daniela Earnest and Julie Murphy can offer the mayor some useful advice.

Now let’s shift to an example of local government abuse that is more troubling. And apparently more systemic.

A column in the Washington Post reveals that local governments try to make families pay if their kids wind up in the legal system, even if they’re ultimately declared not guilty of any offense.

In dozens of one-on-one meetings every week, a lawyer retained by the city of Philadelphia summons parents whose children have just been jailed, pulls out his calculator and hands them more bad news: a bill for their kids’ incarceration. Even if a child is later proved innocent, the parents still must pay a nightly rate for the detention. Bills run up to $1,000 a month… The lawyer, Steven Kaplan…is paid up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee, including the mayor.

I haven’t given any thought to whether families should cough up money if kids are found guilty and then incarcerated.

But I find it to be outrageous that bills are sent to families when the kids are found to be not guilty.

And let’s be honest. Such a policy is not about criminal justice. It’s about figuring out new ways of pillaging people to finance bureaucracy.

To add insult to injury, most of the families are poor, so it’s very difficult to collect revenue. Indeed, very little money is collected after paying the lawyer.

Because these parents are so often from poor communities, even the most aggressive efforts to bill them seldom bring in meaningful revenue. Philadelphia netted $551,261 from parents of delinquent children in fiscal 2016.

And when you look at the consequences for poor families, it’s hard to think this is a good policy. Especially if the kid isn’t convicted of any crime!

When parents fail to pay on time, the state can send collection agencies after them, tack on interest, garnish 50 percent of their wages, seize their bank accounts, intercept their tax refunds, suspend their driver’s licenses or charge them with contempt of court.

Here’s an example from the west coast.

When Mariana Cuevas’s son was released from a California jail, after being locked up in a juvenile hall for more than 300 days for a homicide he did not commit, the boy’s public defender, Jeffrey Landau, thought his work was done. The case had been dismissed; his client was free. But at a celebratory dinner afterward, Cuevas, a Bay Area home cleaner, pulled out a plastic bag full of bills and showed Landau that the state had tried to collect nearly $10,000 for her child’s imprisonment. …In fiscal 2014-2015, Alameda County, which contains Oakland, spent $250,938 collecting $419,830 from parents. An internal county report called that “little financial gain.”

This is astounding. Trying to pillage a poor family for $10,000 when the kid didn’t commit the crime. If you care about decency and justice, this may even be worse than civil asset forfeiture.

Let’s close with another example of easy-to-mock local government.

The New York Post reports that the city is largely incapable of getting rid of incompetent teachers. So they’re paid to sit in a room and do nothing.

In one of the “reassignment centers,” 16 exiled educators sit in a city Department of Education building in Long Island City, Queens, including a dozen packed into one room — where they do virtually no work. They listen to music, do crossword puzzles, chat — and as this exclusive Post photo reveals, doze on the taxpayer’s dime. The rules forbid beach chairs and air mattresses, but not nap time. The teacher sprawled on the floor, pulled a wool hat over his eyes to shut out the fluorescent lights and slept. Others prop up two chairs to recline or just lay their heads on the table. …the city denies the existence of the derided holding pens. “There are no more rubber rooms,” DOE officials told The Post last week, saying reassigned staffers are given “administrative duties.” …The DOE refused to say how many removed teachers and other tenured staffers remain in limbo, but sources estimate 200 to 400 get paid while awaiting disciplinary hearings. Their salaries total $15 million to $20 million a year. …They mainly just kill time to get through a six-hour, 20-minute day. “I’m so exhausted from being in this place doing nothing,” one said. Several teachers on the payroll have been benched for up to five years due to a stunning bureaucratic breakdown.

Yes, this is bureaucratic breakdown.

But if you really want to understand the story behind the story, the real problem is that the unions representing government employee unions give a lot of money to politicians. Those politicians then turn around and “negotiate” contracts that provide excessive pay to regular bureaucrats and absurd protections to bad bureaucrats.

In this case, bad teachers are removed from the classroom, but it’s very difficult to fire them. So they get paid to do nothing.

P.S. Of course, that reminds me of the standard joke that most bureaucrats get paid to do nothing. There’s even a video version of that joke.

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I wrote just yesterday that it’s tough to be a libertarian because “public choice” means never-ending pressure for bigger government.

But the good part of working in public policy as a libertarian is that I never lack for topics. Simply stated, governments do so many foolish things (not just in Washington, but also overseas, as well as state governments and local governments) that I have a target-rich environment for analysis and commentary.

But sometimes there’s a personal motivation. I’m a resident of Fairfax County in Virginia, and my profligate local government levies a very onerous property tax on my house.

And what do I get in exchange? The lion’s share of the county budget goes to government schools, but that doesn’t benefit me since I found those institutions inadequate and put my kids in private schools.

The other major line item in the budget is police and fire protection. I’ve been fortunate to never need those services, but I recognize that they have value. But this still leaves the question of whether I’m overpaying or underpaying for the theoretical benefits I’m receiving.

If this story from the Washington Post is any indication, it’s the former rather than the latter.

One Fairfax County firefighter tripled his salary to more than $270,000 with overtime pay. A county police officer took home $175,000… A fire captain pocketed $163,000 in additional compensation, more than many of his colleagues make in a year. The eye-popping figures have prompted Fairfax County supervisors to review overtime pay and other compensation for employees as the county faces a budget squeeze. …more than 1,700 county employees who are not department heads earned more than $100,000 in 2016, according to county figures.

Needless to say, the unions representing these bureaucrats pushed back.

Public safety unions and officials strongly pushed back against the idea that overtime pay might be excessive, saying that some employees must work extra hours because of staffing shortages… Some were also rankled because many public safety employees have endured pay freezes in recent years and earn far less than many residents in one of the nation’s most expensive counties. “They are complaining about guys who are working overtime trying to make the median income for the jurisdiction,” said Joseph Woloszyn, president of the Fairfax County chapter of the Police Benevolent Association.

It’s certainly true that Fairfax is a rich county, driven in large part by the overpaid federal workforce, along with the various contractors, lobbyists, cronyists, and other insiders who have their snouts comfortably buried in the federal trough.

Given how all this unearned wealth distorts the local labor market, I have no problem with the idea that cops and firefighters presumably need to be paid more than the national average. After all, employers should pay what’s necessary to attract a sufficient number of qualified individuals to fill appropriate jobs.

This doesn’t mean, however, that 1,700 bureaucrats should be getting six-figure salaries. Or that police and fire departments are the right size.

Though I admit that this excerpt makes me wonder.

…the Fairfax County fire chief…said his department has been dealing with a chronic shortage of firefighters. Currently, he said, the department has 56 vacancies, forcing some to work shifts as long as 48 hours or be recalled to work each day.

In any event, I should count my lucky stars that I don’t live in Orange County, California, where the average firefighter is obscenely overpaid.

The bottom line is that firefighters and cops do real jobs and those jobs involve some danger. But that doesn’t mean they should be over-compensated.

P.S. And if you want good nationwide data on firefighters, here are some jaw-dropping numbers.

…vehicle fires declined 64 percent from 1980 to 2013. Building fires fell 54 percent during that time. When they break out, sprinkler systems almost always extinguish the flames before firefighters can turn on a hose. …as the number of fires has dropped, the ranks of firefighters have continued to grow — significantly. There are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them. …Firefighters responded to 487,500 structure fires across the United States in 2013, which means each of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments saw just one every 22 days, on average. And yet, taxpayers are paying more people to staff these departments 24-7. As a result, the amount of money shelled out for local fire services more than doubled from 1987 to 2011, to $44.8 billion, accounting for inflation.

For what it’s worth, I very much suspect that the numbers in Fairfax County would match the nationwide data.

So it’s likely that firefighters (and cops) in Fairfax are overpaid. But it’s even more likely that there are too many of them given the possible dangers.

P.P.S. If you think libertarians are doctrinaire and impractical about firefighting, you’ll like this picture.

P.P.P.S. If you think firefighters are overpaid, you’ll like this video.

P.P.P.P.S. I don’t want to neglect police officers, so here’s some humor about a compassionate Pennsylvania cop and a Texas police exam. And here’s what to do if you need cops in a hurry.

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Every so often, I share an image that is unambiguously depressing. Usually because it suggest that freedom is slowly eroding.

I now have another addition to that depressing list.

Just as the Minneapolis Federal Reserve has an interactive website that allows users to compare recoveries and recessions, which is very useful for comparing Reaganomics and Obamanomics, the St. Louis Federal Reserve has an interactive website that allows users to compare national and regional economic data.

And that’s the source of today’s depressing chart. It shows median inflation-adjusted household income for the entire nation and for the District of Columbia. As you can see, the nation’s capital used to be somewhat similar to the rest of the nation. But over the past 10 years, DC residents have become an economic elite, with a representative household “earning” almost $14,000 more than the national average.

By the way, I put quotation marks around “earning” in the previous sentence for a very specific reason.

There is nothing wrong with some people accumulating lots of wealth and income if their prosperity is the result of voluntary exchange.

In the case of Washington, DC, however, much of the capital’s prosperity is the result of coercive redistribution. The lavish compensation of federal bureaucrats is a direct transfer from taxpayers to a gilded class, while the various lobbyists, contractors, cronyists, politicians, and other insiders are fat and happy because of a combination of direct and indirect redistribution.

I should also point out that the entire region is prospering at the expense of the rest of the nation.

By the way, some people will be tempted to argue that rising income levels in DC are simply a result of gentrification as higher-income whites displace lower-income blacks. Yes, that is happening, but that begs the question of where the new residents are getting all their income and why the nation’s capital is an increasingly attractive place for those people to live.

The answer, in large part, is that government is a growth industry. Except it’s not an industry. It’s increasingly just a racket for insiders to get rich at the expense of everyone else.

P.S. To close on a semi-humorous note, some cartoons are funny even if the underlying message is depressing.

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When I write about poorly designed entitlement programs, I will warn about America’s Greek future. Simply stated, we will suffer the same chaos and disarray now plaguing Greece if we don’t engage in serious reform.

Ideally sooner rather than later.

But when I write about state governments, perhaps it would be more appropriate to warn about a Brazilian future. That’s because many American states have made unaffordable and unfunded promises to give lavish benefits to retired bureaucrats, a topic that I’ve addressed on numerous occasions.

And why does that mean a Brazilian future? Because as Greece is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a bloated welfare state, Brazil is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a pension system that treats bureaucrats as a protected and cossetted class. Here are some excerpts from a sobering report in the Wall Street Journal.

Twenty years before Michel Temer became president of Brazil, he did something millions of his compatriots do, at great cost to the country’s coffers: He retired at age 55 and started collecting a generous pension. Delaying that moment until age 65 is at the center of Mr. Temer’s proposed economic overhaul. …making that happen is seen as a make-or-break test of whether the government can get its arms around mounting economic problems like rising debt, low investment and a stubborn recession now entering its third year. New pension rules are considered central to fixing an insolvent system.

It’s easy to understand why the system is bankrupt when you read the details.

…some retirees receive pensions before age 50 and surviving spouses can receive full pensions of the deceased while still drawing their own. The generosity of Brazil’s pension system is legendary—and, economists say, troubling as the country’s fertility rate plummets and life expectancy climbs. João Mansur, a long-time state legislator in Paraná state, served as interim governor there for 39 days in 1973, a stint that qualified him to retire with a $8,000 monthly pension. …Other former public workers who retire not only reap nearly the same income they got while on the job, but also see their checks get bumped up whenever those still working in the same job category get raises. …Retirement outlays will eat up 43% of the $422-billion national budget this year. …Demographics are playing against a generous system created in great part to bridge Brazil’s infamous social gap. Official statistics say there are 11 retirees for every 100 working-age Brazilians; that will rise to 44 per 100 by 2060.

Fixing this mess won’t be easy.

Brazil’s constitution must be amended to allow its pension system to be restructured… Mr. Temer has already been forced to make a series of major compromises, including exempting state and local government employees from the overhaul. …legislators have sought to further water down Mr. Temer’s proposals, by for instance maintaining the lower retirement ages for women and dragging out the transition from the old social-security regime to the new one.

In other words, Brazilian politicians are in the same position Greek politicians were in back in 2003. There’s a catastrophically bad fiscal forecast and the only issue is whether reforms will happen before a crisis actually begins. If you really want to be pessimistic, it’s even possible that Brazil has passed the tipping point of too much government dependency.

In any event, it appears that legislators prefer to kick the pension can down the road – even though that will make the problem harder to solve. Assuming they ever want to solve it.

Which is exactly what’s happening at the state level in America.

Consider these passages from a recent Bloomberg column.

Unfunded pension obligations have risen to $1.9 trillion from $292 billion since 2007. Credit rating firms have begun downgrading states and municipalities whose pensions risk overwhelming their budgets. New Jersey and the cities of Chicago, Houston and Dallas are some of the issuers in the crosshairs. …unlike their private peers, public pensions discount their liabilities using the rate of returns they assume their overall portfolio will generate. …Put differently, companies have been forced to set aside something closer to what it will really cost to service their obligations as opposed to the fantasy figures allowed among public pensions. …many cities and potentially states would buckle under the weight of more realistic assumed rates of return. By some estimates, unfunded liabilities would triple to upwards of $6 trillion if the prevailing yields on Treasuries were used.

But this looming disaster will not hit all states equally.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation which shows a tiny handful of states actually have funded their pensions (in other words, they may provide extravagant benefits, but at least they’ve set aside enough money to finance them). Most states, though, have big shortfalls.

The lighter the color, the bigger the financing gap.

To get a sense of the states that have a very good economic outlook, look for a combination of zero income taxes and small unfunded liabilities.

South Dakota (best tax system and negative pension liability!) gets the top marks, followed by Tennessee and Florida. Honorable mention for the state of Washington.

And is anyone surprised that Illinois is tied for last place? Or that Connecticut and New Jersey are near the bottom? Kentucky’s awful position, by contrast, is somewhat unexpected.

P.S. Brazil’s government may kick the can down the road on pension reform, but at least they added a spending cap to their constitution.

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As Ronald Reagan pointed out many years ago, Washington is a company town. But rather than being home to a firm or industry that earns money by providing value to willing consumers, the “company” is a federal government that uses a coercive tax system to provide unearned wealth to various interest groups.

And the beneficiaries of that redistribution zealously guard their privileges and pay very close attention to any developments that might threaten their access to the public trough

Federal bureaucrats are particularly concerned whenever there is talk about spending restraint. They get lavishly compensated compared to folks in the private sector, so they definitely fret whenever something might happen to derail their gravy train.

A recent segment on a local station in Washington, DC, focused on their angst, and I provided a contrary point of view.

Needless to say, my friends who work for the federal government generally don’t agree with my assessment.

Some of them have even told me that I’m off base because the federal workforce is remarkably efficient. Indeed, several of them even sent me an article from the Washington Post that claims the number of bureaucrats hasn’t changed since the late 1960s.

They claim this is evidence that the bureaucracy has become more efficient.

But they’re wrong. The official federal workforce may not have changed, but research from the Brooking Institution reveals that this statistic is illusory because of a giant shadow bureaucracy.

George Will’s latest column is about this metastasizing hidden bureaucracy.

…government has prudently become stealthy about how it becomes ever bigger. In a new Brookings paper, …government expands by indirection, using three kinds of “administrative proxies” — state and local government, for-profit businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Since 1960, the number of state and local government employees has tripled to more than 18 million, a growth driven by federal money: Between the early 1960s and early 2010s, the inflation-adjusted value of federal grants for the states increased more than tenfold. …“By conservative estimates,” DiIulio writes, “there are about 3 million state and local government workers” — about 50 percent more than the number of federal workers — “funded via federal grants and contracts.” Then there are for-profit contractors, used, DiIulio says, “by every federal department, bureau and agency.” For almost a decade, the Defense Department’s full-time equivalent of 700,000 to 800,000 civilian workers have been supplemented by the full-time equivalent of 620,000 to 770,000 for-profit contract employees. …the government spends more (about $350 billion) on defense contractors than on all official federal bureaucrats ($250 billion). Finally, “employment in the tax-exempt or independent sector more than doubled between 1977 and 2012 to more than 11 million.” Approximately a third of the revenues to nonprofits (e.g., Planned Parenthood) flow in one way or another from government.

When you add it all together, the numbers are shocking.

“If,” DiIulio calculates, “only one-fifth of the 11 million nonprofit sector employees owe their jobs to federal or intergovernmental grant, contract or fee funding, that’s 2.2 million workers” — slightly more than the official federal workforce. To which add the estimated 7.5 million for-profit contractors. Plus the conservative estimate of 3 million federally funded employees of state and local governments. To this total of more than 12 million add the approximately 2 million federal employees. This 14 million is about 10 million more than the estimated 4 million federal employees and contractors during the Eisenhower administration.

In other words, the federal budget has expanded and so have the number of people with taxpayer-financed jobs.

By the way, there’s nothing theoretically wrong with a government bureaucracy using non-profits or contractors. Assuming, of course, that both the agency and the person are doing something productive.

And that was the point I tried to make it the interview. I don’t care whether the Department of Agriculture or Department of Education is filled with official bureaucrats or shadow bureaucrats. What I do care about, however, is that they are part of an agency that should not exist.

And the same is true for the Department of Energy, Department of Labor, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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Having lived in the Washington area for more than three decades, I have many friends who work for the federal government. Most of them will privately admit that they are very lucky since federal salaries and benefits are considerably higher than what they could earn in the private sector. And they’ll also admit that there’s lots of featherbedding, inefficiency, and waste where they work.

While I like my buddies, I don’t think it’s fair that taxpayers around the nation (particularly those with modest incomes) are sending so much money to Washington to subsidize overly generous compensation packages for a bloated federal bureaucracy.

So I’m pleased that President Trump announced a hiring freeze yesterday.

President Trump on Monday ordered an across-the-board employment freeze for the federal government, halting hiring for all new and existing positions except those in national security, public safety and the military. In the two-page order, Mr. Trump said the directive was a stopgap way to control the growth of government until his budget director recommends a long-term plan to significantly reduce the federal work force through attrition.

But keep in mind this is just a tiny step in the right direction.

First, it only addresses part of the problem.

For instance, most bureaucrats are at the state and local level, often carrying out mandates, regulations, and spending of the federal government.

The Wall Street Journal put together a good summary of the situation back in 2014.

When you include state and local governments, it’s clear where the public civilian workforce has been growing in recent decades. Local governments, in particular, have boomed from 4 million employees in the 1950s to over 14 million today. In the mid-1950s, state governments employed half as many people as the federal government. Today, state governments employ nearly twice as many.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

Moreover, federal employment numbers don’t include the gigantic “shadow bureaucracy” of government contractors.

And exactly how many people are technically private employees but actually get their pay from federal taxpayers? Well, because the federal government is so big and bloated, we don’t have an exact number.

Indeed, as reported by Government Executive, there’s not even an official inexact number.

How many contractor employees does the federal government rely on, at what cost per person, and how does that compare with the cost of assigning the same task to a full-time hire? When asked by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., ranking member of the House Budget Committee, the Congressional Budget Office took a shot but left the $64,000 question unresolved. “Regrettably, CBO is unaware of any comprehensive information about the size of the federal government’s contracted workforce,” the nonpartisan analysts wrote in response. “However, using a database of federal contracts, CBO determined that federal agencies spent over $500 billion for contracted products and services in 2012.”

But we do know that it’s a very big number. An outside expert crunched the data and concluded that there are 5-1/2 contractors for every federal bureaucrat.

Second, the real issue is that the federal government has accumulated far too much power and is involved in many areas that either belong in the private sector (Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc) or should be handled by state and local governments (Department of Transportation, Department of Education, etc).

In other words, as I explain at the end of this video, the correct pay for many federal bureaucrats is zero, for the simple reason that their jobs shouldn’t exist.

This is why I explained a few days ago that the real goal for the Trump Administration should be program terminations. The new hiring freeze is good, to be sure, but it’s largely a symbolic gesture.

And that’s not going to solve our very big problem.

P.S. Though the problem is even bigger in Europe.

P.P.S. A study from the European Central Bank found that excessive pay for bureaucrats undermines entire economies by breaking the link between compensation and productivity.

P.P.P.S. If you want to some bureaucrat-themed humor to make all this bad news more palatable, these posters and this video are the place to start. And if you want more, here’s a joke about an Indian training for a government job, a slide show on how bureaucracies operate, a cartoon strip on bureaucratic incentives, a story on what would happen if Noah tried today to build an Ark, and a top-10 list of ways to tell if you work for the government. I also found a good one-liner from Craig Ferguson, along with some political cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Henry Payne, and Sean Delonas.

P.P.P.P.S. I laughed when I read about this, but it’s more gross than funny.

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More than two years ago, I shared a couple of humorous images showing the languorous lifestyle of lazy bureaucrats.

While those images were amusing, they didn’t really capture the true nature of bureaucracy.

For a more accurate look at life inside Leviathan, here’s a video showing an unfortunate woman trying to get a permit from a government agency.

It should probably be accompanied by a trigger warning lest it cause flashbacks for readers who have been in the same situation.

Very well done, I think you’ll agree. I especially like the subtle features of the video, such as the bureaucrat’s competitive desire to show his coworker that he won’t let a mere citizen prevail. And the part at the end showing the disappointment by all the bureaucrats also was a good touch.

Sadly, the story in the video isn’t just satire.

First, there are many absurd rules that require people to get permission from bureaucrats in order to work. All those laws and rules should be repealed. If consumers value certification and training, that can be handled by the private sector.

Second, it does seem as if bureaucrats relish the opportunity to torment taxpayers. I recall having to make four trips to the DMV when helping my oldest kid get his learner’s permit. Each time, I was told an additional bit of paperwork that was required, but at no point was I told all the forms and paperwork needed. Hence I had the pleasure of waiting in lines over and over again.

Though I did learn as time passed. By the time my last kid needed his permit, it only took two trips.

Since we’re on the topic of bureaucrat humor, regular readers know about the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Well, just as the Baseball Hall of Fame has a committee that looks back in time to find players who were overlooked and deserve membership, we need something to recognize deserving bureaucrats who somehow escaped my attention.

And if we travel back in time to 2013, John Beale of the Environmental Protection Agency clearly can make a strong case that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

The EPA’s highest-paid employee and a leading expert on climate change was sentenced to 32 months in federal prison Wednesday for lying to his bosses and saying he was a CIA spy working in Pakistan so he could avoid doing his real job. …Beale told the court…that he got a “rush” and a “sense of excitement” by telling people he was worked for the CIA. …He perpetrated his fraud largely by failing to show up at the EPA for months at a time, including one 18-month stretch starting in June 2011 when he did “absolutely no work,” as his lawyer acknowledged in a sentencing memo filed last week.

Though, in his defense, he wasn’t goofing off all the time.

He also spent time trying to learn about new ways to hinder the private sector.

…he used the time “trying to find ways to fine tune the capitalist system” to discourage companies from damaging the environment. “I spent a lot of time reading on that,” said Beale.

For what it’s worth, he probably spent most of his time figuring out how to bilk colleagues.

Nor was that Beale’s only deception, according to court documents. In 2008, Beale didn’t show up at the EPA for six months, telling his boss that he was part of a special multi-agency election-year project relating to “candidate security.” He billed the government $57,000 for five trips to California that were made purely “for personal reasons,” his lawyer acknowledged. (His parents lived there.) He also claimed to be suffering from malaria that he got while serving in Vietnam. According to his lawyer’s filing, he didn’t have malaria and never served in Vietnam. He told the story to EPA officials so he could get special handicap parking at a garage near EPA headquarters. …Beale took 33 airplane trips between 2003 and 2011, costing the government $266,190. On 70 percent of those, he traveled first class and stayed at high end hotels, charging more than twice the government’s allowed per diem limit. But his expense vouchers were routinely approved by another EPA official

Not surprisingly, the EPA took years to figure out something was amiss.

After all, why care about malfeasance when you’re spending other people’s money?

Beale was caught when he “retired” very publicly but kept drawing his large salary for another year and a half.

Heck, I’m surprised the EPA’s leadership didn’t award themselves bonuses for incompetence, like their counterparts at the VA and IRS.

P.S. Here’s a new element discovered inside the bureaucracy, and a letter to the bureaucracy from someone renewing a passport.

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Last year, I shared some remarkable research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development about the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

The economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy looked at data from its member nations (primarily Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim), discovered that the countries with bigger government experienced less growth, and concluded that there would be much more prosperity if those nations merely reduced government modestly.

So you can imagine what sort of numbers that study would have generated if a few jurisdictions with genuinely modest-sized government, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, were part of the data.

But that’s a separate issue. Today’s topic is about a study from another international bureaucracy. The European Central Bank has new research looking at the impact specifically of excessive pay for government bureaucrats. Here are the key findings from the nontechnical summary at the beginning of the paper.

…there are benefits from government wage bill reform that go beyond the objective of fiscal consolidation. …a rationalisation of government wages and employment policies can generate favourable labour market effects in the medium to longer term through competitiveness and efficiency gains. Competitiveness gains materialise through the spillovers effects of public wage moderation on the determination of private sector wages. …An important aspect of the debate on public wage bill restraint concerns how long such policies can be sustained over time. …Additional margins of short-term adjustment include the moderation of still high public-to-private wages gaps, or a possible continuation of the downsizing trend in public employment, depending on the country-specific situation. …Finally, the paper argues that reforms affecting public sector personnel are most effective and have more sustained effects when the measures implemented are of a structural nature… Some examples are…measures to streamline the size and scope of government.

Wow, an international bureaucracy writing about the economic benefits that accrue if policy makers “streamline the size and scope of government.” Be still, my beating heart!

If you’re a policy wonk, you’ll like the fact that the study is filled with lots of interesting data and charts.

…aggregate data show that the euro area government wage differential with respect to the private sector increased from 20% in 2007 to 25% in 2009, and subsequently fell to 23% in 2014.

Here’s the relevant chart. The blue line, which links to the left axis, shows the degree to which bureaucrats are overpaid compared to the private sector. For the past 10 years, the “pay premium” has been in the 20 percent-25 percent range.

This problem of excessive pay for the bureaucracy has been a growing problem.

…general government compensation of employees grew faster than nominal GDP over the whole 2007-2014 crisis period

Though once the “austerity” era began about 2010, there was a bit of reform to bureaucrat compensation (in Europe, “fiscal consolidation” mostly meant higher taxes, but some spending restraint), particularly in nations that were forced to make changes because investors were becoming increasingly reluctant to lend them more money..

Here’s a chart showing bureaucrat pay as a share of GDP, with the blue bar showing the amount of economic output consumed by government workers in 2010 and the yellow dots showing the level in 2014. Some countries increased the relative burden of bureaucrat compensation and others reduced it, but what strikes me as noteworthy is that Germany and the Czech Republic deserve praise for keeping the burden low (honorable mention for Luxembourg and Slovakia) while Denmark stands out for being absurdly extravagant.

For a longer-term perspective, at least with regards to the size of the bureaucracy, here’s a table showing the share of the population getting a paycheck from government. Fascinating data. I especially like the columns on the right, which show that Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom deserve credit for reducing over time the amount of bureaucrats relative to the private sector. The nations that have moved farthest in the wrong direction, by contrast, are Greece (gee, what a surprise), Spain, Portugal, and Finland.

Now let’s get to the meat of the study, which looks at the economic impact of less bureaucracy.

The authors cite some of the existing academic research, much of which focuses on the degree to which excessive pay for the public sector causes economy-wide distortions that make nations less competitive and result in slower growth. Basically, excessive pay for bureaucrats forces private employers to increase pay as well, but in ways that aren’t sustainable based on underlying levels of productivity.

A seminal work Alesina et al. (2002) found that reducing public wage expenditure generates reductions in private wages per employee, which improves competitiveness, increasing profits, investment, and economic growth. …A key argument is that public wage restraint may set in motion a labour market adjustment through the inter-linkages with private wages. …The literature has found robust evidence of significant interrelations between public and private sector wages per employee. A wealth of recent empirical papers provides evidence of a direct causal relationship between these variables. …The empirical literature tends to find that public employment crowds-out private sector employment.

But when fiscal pressures force politicians to cut back on the excessive pay for government employees, this enables the private sector to have pay levels that are consistent with sustainable long-run growth.

The authors share some of their new findings.

…the recent consolidation period has contributed to some competitiveness gains in the euro area, in view of the evidence provided on the partial correction of the public-private wage premium. …Overall, the restraint in public wages directly reduced unit labour cost (ULC) growth in the euro area during the 2010-2014 period. …The existence of distortions in public-private wage gaps…can be particularly harmful for competitiveness given that public sector activities are concentrated in non-tradable sectors, which are less exposed to international competition. …There is evidence that the recent public wage restraint has driven the partial correction of the existing positive public-private wage premium in the euro area.

The authors close by discussing some policy implications.

Well-designed government wages and employment policies and reforms may generate overall economy competitiveness gains and increase the efficiency of the labour market. …public employment adjustments can affect GDP and total economy employment positively if there are large inefficiencies in the government sector… In addition, if a public pay gap exists, the latter positive effect of public wage restraint becomes amplified as labour market inefficiencies are also reduced.

This is helpful research. It’s not often that a government bureaucracy releases a study showing that overpaid bureaucrats hinder overall economic performance.

Though I hasten to add that the study only looked at the macroeconomic effect of excessive pay. As I argue near the end of this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the additional problem is that various bureaucracies are engaging in activities that are economically harmful. In the case of the United States, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and Department of Housing and Urban Development would be just a few examples of agencies where programmatic spending surely is more damaging that bureaucrat compensation.

The good news is that the ECB study also recognizes the need for structural reform. That’s why there was a reference to the need to “streamline the size and scope of government.”

The bad news is that politicians don’t care about this consensus.

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Yesterday I shared some very good news about Brazil adopting a spending cap.

Today, I also want to share some good news, though it’s not nearly as momentous.

Indeed, it’s not even good news. Instead, it’s just that some bad news isn’t as bad as it used to be.

I’m referring to the fact that the nation’s capital region used to be home to 10 of the nation’s 15-richest counties.

That was back in 2012, and I viewed it as a terrible sign that the DC area was packed with overpaid bureaucrats, oleaginous rent seekers, and government cronies, all of whom were enjoying undeserved wealth financed by hard-working taxpayers from the rest of America.

Well, now for the “good news.”

Terry Jeffrey has a column for CNS News about the current concentration of wealth in the national capital area.

The four richest counties in the United States, when measured by median household income, are all suburbs of Washington, D.C., according to newly released data from the Census Bureau. …Of the Top 20 richest counties in the nation, nine are suburbs of the city that serves as the seat of a federal government that in fiscal 2016 taxed away $3,266,774,000,000 from the American people, spent $3,854,100,000,000, and ran a $587,326,000,000 deficit.

The reason this awful data is good news (relatively speaking) is that the DC region is now home to “only” nine out of the 20-richest counties rather than 10 out of the 15-richest counties.

Here’s Terry’s list, which I’ve augmented by highlighting the jurisdictions that are home to many of the bureaucrats, lobbyists, and other insiders that are living on Easy Street thanks to the federal leviathan.

I also awarded a star to Los Alamos County in New Mexico since that’s another jurisdiction that has above-average income because of Uncle Sam.

To be sure, not every private-sector worker in these rich counties is a cronyist, lobbyist, or rent seeker, so it’s difficult to accurately say what share of the income and wealth in these various counties is earned and how much is a transfer from government.

But we can say with confidence that the bureaucrats who are over-represented in these jurisdictions get a lot more compensation than their counterparts in the private sector. Chris Edwards has been relentless in his efforts to document excessive pay for bureaucrats.

Since we’re on this topic, let’s enjoy some additional bits of data about the cushy life of our bureaucratic overlords.

In addition to lavish pay, federal employees also receive gold-plated benefits. Most of the money goes for pensions and healthcare, but you’ll be happy to know the feds have also figured out more creative ways of pampering the protected class.

…a variety of federal agencies in a number of locations provide “free” yoga classes to employees. But these classes are not free; since 2013, they have cost taxpayers over $150,000. The State Department spends $15,000 for yoga in the nation’s capital. A yoga instructor in from Berkeley, California is paid $4,000 a year from the Department of Agriculture’s Research Service. Of course, the Department of Energy…has gotten in on taxpayer financed yoga; but for $11,000 annually they also offer pilates at a California location. …The Railroad Retirement Board spends $11,000 annually for yoga classes for office workers at its Chicago headquarters.

And many federal bureaucrats have figured out how to enjoy another fringe benefit of federal employment.

The federal government is full of people pulling in six-figure compensation packages who spend their days…watching porn on government computers… One compulsive porno-phile over at the EPA was watching so much porn that it caught the attention of the Office of the Inspector General — i.e., he was watching so much porn that a federal official noticed — and when the OIG investigator showed up to see what the deal was, you know what that EPA guy did? He kept right on watching porn, with the OIG inspector in his office. At the FCC, bureaucratic home of the people who enforce such obscenity laws as we have, employees routinely spend the equivalent of a full workday each week watching porn. Treasury, General Service Administration, Commerce — porn, porn, and more porn. Of course nobody gets fired. Nobody ever gets fired. …Federal employees, according to OIG reports, also spend a great deal of time browsing online-dating sites (apparently without much success) and shopping.

By the way, the jab about “nobody gets fired” isn’t 100 percent accurate.

But if you want lots of job security, then latch on to the federal teat.

Federal workers are far more likely to be audited by the IRS or get arrested for drunk driving than they are to be fired from the civil service payroll for poor performance or misconduct. The odds are one-in-175 for the IRS audit and one-in-200 for the drunk driving arrest, while the odds for a fed to be fired in a given year are one-in-500, according to the Government Accountability Office. …Private sector workers face just the opposite situation. They have a roughly one-in-77 chance of being involuntarily terminated — the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t distinguish between fires and layoffs — in a given month.

By the way, bureaucrats are sometimes forced into early retirement as “punishment” for misbehavior.

All things considered, though, we serfs shouldn’t complain too much.

After all, would it be proper to grouse about a group that does superlative work?

In the ranks of the federal government, 99 percent are really good at their jobs — and almost two-thirds exceed expectations or do outstanding work. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which also found that 78 percent of high-level civil servants — those in GS grades 13 through 15 — were given top performance scores of outstanding or fully successful….The glowing picture of everyone in calendar year 2013, the most recent data available to auditors, is…good news for federal agencies.

In reality, of course, these glowing performance reviews are highly suspect.

…a more likely reality to many in and outside of government. Rather than so many federal workers being exceptional, the system for rating them isn’t working right. …Federal workers themselves have long complained in annual surveys that their agencies do not deal with poor performers, hurting morale and efficiency. Lawmakers complain that it is nearly impossible to fire these employees, but bills to take away some of their their rights to appeal bad reviews have languished in Congress. …“Apparently the federal bureaucrats grading one another think virtually everyone who works for the government is doing a fantastic job,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement. “But given the dysfunction we’ve seen throughout the federal government over the last several years, that can’t possibly be true,” Miller said.

Of course it’s not true.

Misbehavior and malfeasance at bureaucracies such as the IRS and VA doesn’t prevent high ratings and generous bonuses. Instead, it’s almost as if doing the wrong thing is a job requirement.

Isn’t big government wonderful?

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I’m not a fan of federal bureaucracies and I don’t like the undeserved wealth of the Washington, DC metro region.

So I’m very open to ideas that would address these problems.

Paul Kupiec of the American Enterprise Institute suggests, in a thought-provoking column in the Wall Street Journal, that one possible solution would be to move federal bureaucracies out of Washington.

Donald Trump pledged to rebuild America’s troubled inner cities, “drain the swamp,” and restore Americans’ confidence in their government. The president-elect can deliver on these promises by moving federal government agencies out of the nation’s capital and closer to the citizens they serve in cities like Detroit, Cleveland or Milwaukee.

He points out that two bureaucracies are currently looking to build new headquarters.

The FBI’s current headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover Building, was built in 1975. It is now too small to meet the FBI’s needs, and it requires major repairs. The specifications for a new FBI headquarters include 2.1 million square feet of office space with access to adequate transportation. The construction budget alone is about $2.5 billion. …The Labor Department is also looking for a new headquarters… The new building could be as large as 1.4 million square feet and, if costs are similar to those proposed by the FBI, the building budget alone would exceed $1 billion.

So why, he asks, don’t we locate those headquarters in places that would benefit from federal redistribution?

…consider what relocating the FBI headquarters to Detroit would do. Moving 11,000 FBI employees would hardly make a dent in the D.C. economy. Over 275,000 people—over 14% of the workforce—are federal-government employees, according to the Office of Personnel Management. In contrast, 11,000 well-paid federal government jobs and $2.5 billion in construction spending would provide a significant boost to the Detroit economy, where less than 2% of the workforce are federal employees.

Here’s the basic argument.

With modern communications technology, there is no reason that the FBI’s new headquarters, or the headquarters of other federal government agencies, must be located in the nation’s capital. The concentration of federal agencies in a single area increases the potential for a breakdown of government services in the event of a terrorist attack… Reducing risk is but one benefit. It would also be healthy for the country to more broadly distribute the wealth and power of federal-government agencies across the nation.

And Kupiec points out that it’s not fair that the DC-metro region gains such disproportionate benefits from overpaid bureaucrats and fat-cat consultants.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 11 of the 20 richest U.S. counties—including the three richest counties—are in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Incomes near the national capital are bloated not only by generous federal-government payrolls, but also by “Beltway bandit” consultancy firms that provide contract services to federal agencies. It is little wonder that many Americans view the federal government as a money machine for bureaucrats and political insiders.

Here’s the most persuasive argument for moving government departments to other spots in America.

Taxpayers would save money if bureaucracies were built and operated outside of DC.

Many towns and cities across America would welcome the economic development and stability that accompanies a well-paid federal-agency workforce like the FBI or the Labor Department. The expense of managing the federal government should be used to spread wealth beyond the nation’s capital and revitalize the economies of America’s ailing cities. Moving agencies out of Washington will also save millions of dollars because the costs of acquisition, building maintenance and housing for federal employees will shrink outside of the Washington bubble. In 2016 federal employees in the D.C. area receive a 24.78% premium over the base federal pay scale because they work in a high-cost region, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Part of me likes this idea, especially since the burden on taxpayers presumably would decrease.

But I confess to being conflicted on the issue. Here are my concerns.

  • Shouldn’t we focus on shutting down counterproductive bureaucracies rather than moving them? Whether based in Detroit or DC, departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Energy, Education, and Transportation shouldn’t exist.
  • If we move bureaucracies (whether they are necessary ones or useless ones), does that create the risk of giving other parts of the nation a “public-choice” incentive to lobby for big government since they’ll be recipients of federal largesse?
  • Will we simply get duplication, meaning a new bureaucracy somewhere in America without ever really getting rid of the original bureaucracy in Washington, DC?

Though maybe if I was in charge of the process, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

I could locate some bureaucracies in the dodgy parts of cities such as Detroit. Especially departments such as HUD and HHS since they helped cause the economic misery in inner cities.

And the Department of Education could be placed somewhere like Newark where government-run schools are such awful failures.

As for other federal bureaucracies, I’m wondering whether seasonal switches would be possible? Maybe stick them in North Dakota in the winter and Brownsville, Texas, in the summer?

Any ideas from readers on this libertarian quandary?

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I routinely grouse about the heavy economic cost of red tape.

I’ve also highlighted agencies (such as the EEOC) that seem especially prone to senseless regulations.

And I’ve explained why private regulation actually is a very effective way of promoting health and safety.

Today, let’s get specific and look at the Food and Drug Administration. This bureaucracy ostensibly is supposed to protect us by making sure drugs and medical devices are safe and effective before getting approval, which seems like it might be a reasonable role for government.

But the FDA routinely does really foolish things that undermine public health. The likely reason is that the bureaucracy has a bad incentive structure. As Professor Alex Tabarrok has explained.

…the FDA has an incentive to delay the introduction of new drugs because approving a bad drug (Type I error) has more severe consequences for the FDA than does failing to approve a good drug (Type II error). In the former case at least some victims are identifiable and the New York Times writes stories about them and how they died because the FDA failed. In the latter case, when the FDA fails to approve a good drug, people die but the bodies are buried in an invisible graveyard.

This video from Learn Liberty looks at some data on how the FDA’s Type II errors have led to thousands of deaths, but mostly focuses on whether people and medical professionals should have the freedom to makes choices different from what the FDA has officially blessed.

It’s also worth mentioning that the process of drug approval is jaw-droppingly expensive, as Professor Tabarrok noted in another column.

It costs well over a billion dollars to get the average new drug approved and much of that cost comes from FDA required clinical trials. Longer and larger clinical trials mean that the drugs that are eventually approved are safer. But longer trials also mean that good drugs are delayed. And the more expensive it is to produce new drugs the fewer new drugs will be produced. In short, longer and larger trials mean drug delay and drug loss.

The FDA bureaucracy can’t even approve things it already has approved. There was a big controversy a few months ago about the EpiPen, which is a very expensive device that auto-injects medication to people suffering severe allergic reactions.

But the device is only costly because the FDA is hindering competition, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Epinephrine is a basic and super-cheap medicine, and the EpiPen auto-injector device has been around since the 1970s. Thus EpiPen should be open to generic competition, which cuts prices dramatically for most other old medicines. Competitors have been trying for years to challenge Mylan’s EpiPen franchise with low-cost alternatives—only to become entangled in the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory afflatus. …the FDA maintains no clear and consistent principles for generic drug-delivery devices like auto injectors or asthma inhalers. …injecting a kid in anaphylactic shock with epinephrine…is not complex medical engineering. But no company has been able to do so to the FDA’s satisfaction.

Research from the Mercatus Center reveals that the FDA imposes ever-higher costs and gets ever-higher budgets, but also how the bureaucracy fails to deliver on its obligation to facilitate innovation.

The expense of putting drugs and devices through this system is almost unimaginable. The cost of bringing low- to medium-risk 510(k) medical devices to market averages $31 million, $24 million (75 percent) of which is dedicated solely to attaining FDA approval within an average of about six months. Any significant improvement to the device requires reapplication. For higher-risk medical devices where there may be significant health gains, the costs are about $94 million, $75 million (80 percent) of which is dedicated to attaining FDA approval. For drugs, the situation is much worse. It costs an average of $2.6 billion simply to get a drug through the FDA process and onto the market. This does not include postmarket monitoring, the terms of which are laid out by FDA upon approval. These costs have increased from about $1 billion between 1983 and 1994. …we continue to increase the funding and authority for FDA and assume that we will somehow boost innovation in medical products (drugs and devices) despite the growing obstacles. This has not happened. …Congress continues to increase funding for FDA through both the general fund and industry user fees…with the hope that performance goals and additional funding would increase FDA’s performance and lead to an increase in innovations. …but FDA finds strategic ways to narrowly meet each goal while frustrating the original goal of improving health outcomes through innovation.

By the way, the FDA also does really bone-headed things. I’ve previously written about the bureaucracy’s war against unpasteurized milk (including military-style raids on dairies!). Now the bureaucrats think soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to get cigars.

The Wall Street Journal has the details of this silly nanny-state intervention.

You might think GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan have enough to worry about with Islamic State and the Taliban. But it turns out they’ve also got a problem called the Food and Drug Administration. In August a new FDA rule went into effect that forbids tobacco makers and distributors from handing out free samples. Some companies that have been donating cigars to service members for decades have now stopped for fear that this is now illegal. The FDA nuttiness has attracted the attention of Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 14th district, which includes “Cigar City,” or Tampa. She has introduced a bill to “reinstate the tradition of donating cigars to our military members to provide them with a taste of home while deployed.” Her press release notes that cigars are the “second-most requested item” from troops overseas. …cigars for service members is in question because it’s a proxy for the political war on tobacco, but the first casualty is common sense. The FDA’s bureaucrats are happy to have U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines dodge bullets overseas but they’re horrified they might relax by lighting up a stogie.

But the nanny-state war against soldiers enjoying cigars is downright trivial compared to the deadly impact of the FDA’s attack on vaping.

Jacob Sullum of Reason outlines some of the horrifying details.

The Food and Drug Administration’s e-cigarette regulations, which took effect last week, immediately struck two blows against public health. As of Monday, companies that sell vaping equipment and the fluids that fill them are forbidden to share potentially lifesaving information about those products with their customers. They are also forbidden to make their products safer, more convenient, or more pleasant to use. The FDA’s censorship and its ban on innovation will discourage smokers from switching to vaping, even though that switch would dramatically reduce the health risks they face. That effect will be compounded by the FDA’s requirement that manufacturers obtain its approval for any vaping products they want to keep on the market for longer than two years. The cost of meeting that requirement will force many companies out of business… All of this is unambiguously bad for consumers and bad for public health. Yet the FDA took none of it into account…the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act…gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, a category to which it has arbitrarily assigned tobacco-free e-cigarettes, even when they contain nicotine that is not derived from tobacco or no nicotine at all. …A brief that 16 advocates of tobacco harm reduction filed last week in support of Nicopure’s lawsuit notes that the cost of the FDA’s regulations will far outweigh their benefit if they cause even a small percentage of vapers to start smoking again or deter even a small percentage of current smokers from switching. That’s because of the huge difference in risk between e-cigarettes and the conventional kind (at least 95 percent, according to the Royal College of Physicians)… The FDA acknowledges that its regulations might also harm public health by retarding the substitution of vaping for smoking. But it does not include that cost in its analysis, deeming it too speculative. The FDA literally assigns zero value to the lives of smokers who would have quit were it not for the agency’s heavy-handed meddling.

Oh, I suppose I also should mention that FDA red tape is responsible for the fact that Americans have a much more limited selection of condoms than Europeans.

I’m sure there’s a good joke to be made about the bureaucrats screwing us in ways that interfere with us…um…well, you know.

Let’s wrap up with some tiny bits of good news. First, Arizona’s Goldwater Institute has been remarkably successful in getting states to adopt “Right to Try” laws that give seriously ill people the right to try investigational medications.

Sadly, those laws will have limited use until there’s also reform in Washington. Fortunately, there’s some movement. Here’s a video from a congressional hearing organized by Senator Johnson of Wisconsin.

Here’s a second item that sort of counts as good news.

If there is one silver lining to the dark cloud of FDA incompetence, it’s that the bureaucrats haven’t figured out how to criminalize those who use drugs for “off-label” purposes (i.e., for reasons other than what was approved by the government). A good example, as reported by the New York Times, is a tooth desnsitizer that’s only been recently approved by the FDA (after being available for decades in nations such as Japan), and already dentists are using it to fight cavities.

Nobody looks forward to having a cavity drilled and filled by a dentist. Now there’s an alternative: an antimicrobial liquid that can be brushed on cavities to stop tooth decay — painlessly. The liquid is called silver diamine fluoride, or S.D.F. It’s been used for decades in Japan, but it’s been available in the United States, under the brand name Advantage Arrest, for just about a year. The Food and Drug Administration cleared silver diamine fluoride for use as a tooth desensitizer for adults 21 and older. But studies show it can halt the progression of cavities and prevent them, and dentists are increasingly using it off-label for those purposes. …Silver diamine fluoride is already used in hundreds of dental offices. Medicaid patients in Oregon are receiving the treatment…it’s relatively inexpensive. …The noninvasive treatment may be ideal for the indigent, nursing home residents and others who have trouble finding care. …But the liquid may be especially useful for children. Nearly a quarter of 2- to 5-year-olds have cavities

Since I’m not familiar with the history of the FDA, I wonder whether the bureaucrats have ever tried to block medical professionals from using drugs and devices for “off-label” purposes.

Let me close with one final point. Our leftist friends aren’t very interested in reforming the FDA.

Instead, they argue that the big problem is greedy pharmaceutical companies and suggest European-style price controls.

That could save consumers money in the short run, I’m sure, but it would gut the incentive to develop new medications.

One expert looked at the Rand Corporation estimates that such policies would lead to a decline in life expectancy of 0.7 years by 2016. He then crunched the numbers and concluded that the aggregate impact would be worse thing to ever happen. Even worse than the brutality of Mao’s China.

…let me put this in context. In 2060 there will probably be 420 million Americans and 523 million Europeans. And suppose that whatever changes we make in drug regulations today last for one human lifespan, so that everybody has a chance to be 55-60. So about a billion people each losing about 0.7 years of their life equals 700 million life-years. Since some people live in countries outside the US and Europe [citation needed] and they also benefit from First-World-invented medications, let’s round this up to about a billion life-years lost. What was the worst thing that ever happened? One strong contender is Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which ineffective agricultural reforms and very effective purges killed 45 million people. Most of these people were probably already adults, and lifespan in Mao’s China wasn’t too high, so let’s say that each death from the Great Leap Forward cost what would otherwise be twenty healthy life years. In that case, the worst thing that has ever happened until now cost 45 million * 20 = 900 million life-years. Once again, RAND’s calculations plus my own Fermi estimate suggest that prescription drug price regulation would cost one billion life-years, which would very slightly edge out Communist China for the title of Worst Thing Ever.

I guess the bottom line is that the FDA is a typical regulatory agency, both incompetent and expensive. But if the statists have their way, things could get a lot worse.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules such as the FDA’s war on vaping, I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark. And here’s some clever anti-libertarian humor about deregulated breakfast cereal.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, hopefully today’s column drives home that red tape can have terrible consequences for human health. And don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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My main problem with bureaucrats is that there are too many of them (because government is too big) and that they are paid too much (almost twice the level of compensation as workers in the private sector).

But even the government was the proper size (America’s Founders had the right idea on that issue) and even if pay levels were more reasonable, that wouldn’t solve all problems. There’s also the issue of making sure that bureaucrats work hard and don’t cause trouble, something that is a big problem in government agencies and departments because of policies that make it virtually impossible to fire anybody.

I recently explored the issue of how to deal with bad bureaucrats and noted that civil service rules have the effect of shielding ” slackers, trouble makers, and other undesirable employees.”

We have an example from Oklahoma that is a perfect (in a rather disturbing way) illustration of this phenomenon.

A community is wondering why a teacher who is accused of lewd acts with a child is still getting paid. State agents arrested 48-year-old Shelley Jo Duncan, accusing her of having inappropriate contact with a 14-year-old boy. …messages detail the pair’s plans for future sexual encounters, including Duncan allegedly texting the boy she would give him “oral sex with a cough drop in her mouth.” ….The Tishomingo Public Schools Superintendent Ken Duncan, who is Duncan’s husband, said that she is entitled to her pay while she is suspended. “The district has been instructed by legal counsel, per the Teacher Due Process Act governed by Oklahoma statute, that the teacher is entitled to compensation during her suspension,” Duncan reportedly said during the meeting.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Why isn’t sexual contact with a child an immediate cause for termination? I can’t imagine that private employers would have any tolerance for this kind of behavior.

To be sure, the rule of law is vitally important. If there are legal procedures for dealing with bad bureaucrats, they should be followed. So, in this specific case, perhaps Ms. Duncan’s husband is correct and that she should be paid.

But this is why I wrote earlier this month that “there needs to be a much tougher approach when contract negotiations take place.” Simply stated, politicians like to curry votes from powerful interest groups, so contract negotiations between governments and government unions generally are a sham. All too often, the politicians and unions conspire against taxpayers.

This is why pay levels for bureaucrats tend to be exorbitant. It’s why pensions are so extravagant (and a fiscal nightmare, as I wrote just yesterday). And it’s why civil service rules protect deadbeats and sketchy people.

Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between identifying a problem and solving a problem. It doesn’t really matter if we can identify the “public choice” incentives that lead to bad decisions in government if we can’t then figure out the policies that counteract those bad incentives.

Yes, this is why a no-tax-increase position should be a no-brainer. And this is another piece of evidence why the natural profligacy of all governments should be constrained by spending caps. But even I will admit that those are macro-type solutions that only indirectly make it harder for politicians and bureaucrats to misbehave.

On that depressing note, I guess all that’s left is for us to decide whether Ms. Duncan deserves to be in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. For what it’s worth, I think we have to wait before making that decision. If she (and perhaps her husband) can manipulate the rules and get paid for 12 months while doing nothing, even though she was caught red-handed (or perhaps we should say Altoid-mouthed) for misbehaving with a child, she’ll deserve membership. And if you think that’s asking too much, don’t forget that a bureaucrat in India managed to get paid for more than two decades even though he stopped showing up for work.

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America’s main long-run retirement challenge is our pay-as-you-go Social Security system, which was created back when everyone assumed we would always have a “population pyramid,” meaning relatively few retirees and lots of workers.

But as longevity has increased and fertility has decreased, the population pyramid increasingly looks like a cylinder. This helps to explain why the inflation-adjusted shortfall for Social Security is now about $37 trillion (and if you include the long-run shortfalls for Medicare and Medicaid, the outlook is even worse).

But Social Security is not the only government-created retirement problem. State and local governments have “defined benefit” pension systems for their bureaucrats, which means that their bureaucrats, when they retire (often at an early age), are entitled to receive monthly checks for the rest of their lives based on formulas devised by each state (based on factors such as years employed in the bureaucracy, pay levels, contributions, etc).

Unlike Social Security (which has a make-believe Trust Fund), these pension systems are supposed to be “funded” in the proper sense, which means that money supposedly is set aside and invested every year so that there will be a big nest egg that can be used to pay benefits to future retirees.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. In reality, politicians like promising big retirement benefits to government bureaucrats, but they oftentimes aren’t willing to actually set aside the money needed to fund the nest egg. After all, it’s more fun to spend the money appeasing other interest groups (state and local bureaucrats don’t approve of underfunding, but their retirement benefits generally are seen as a contractual obligation, so they don’t have much incentive to lobby for honest accounting).

The net result is that every retirement system for state government workers is underfunded. How far in the red? That’s a hard question to answer because you have to make long-run assumptions about the investment earnings of the various pension funds.

But the answer is going to be a big number regardless of methodology. According to a new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the shortfall is enormous.

When state pension funds are examined through the lens of a more realistic valuation, pension funding gaps are revealed to be much larger than reported in official state financial documents. This report totals state-administered plans’ assets and liabilities and finds nationwide total unfunded liabilities to be $5.59 trillion. The nationwide funding level is a mere 35 percent, which is one percentage point lower than two years ago. Combined across all states, the price tag for unfunded pension liabilities is now $17,427 for every man, woman and child in the United States. …Taxpayers are on the hook for the legal obligation to cover the promised benefits of traditional, defined-benefit pension plans. …When unfunded pension liabilities are viewed as shared debt placed on each individual, Alaska, where each resident is on the hook for a staggering $42,950, tops the list. Ohio and Illinois follow for the highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

Here’s a map from the report. It’s bad news if your state is dark blue. And if your state is gray, your burden is relatively low.

Though keep in mind that these numbers are not adjusted for state income.

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky get bad scores, but they probably are in even deeper trouble that lower-ranked states like California and New Jersey where per-capita income is higher (yes, the cost of living is lower in those southern states, but that doesn’t matter since the relevant comparison is per-capita income vs per-capita pension liabilities.

The ALEC report is more pessimistic than other estimates, but that’s because they use more cautious assumptions about the potential investment earnings of the various pension funds that manage money for state and local bureaucrats.

State Budget Solutions uses a more reasonable valuation to determine the unfunded liabilities of public pension plans. Given that many plans’ assumed rates of return are too high and invite risk, State Budget Solutions uses a more prudent rate of return, rather than the loftiest goals of money managers. This study uses a rate of return based on the equivalent of a hypothetical 15-year U.S. Treasury bond yield. …. State Budget Solutions is not alone in calling attention to the flawed accounting practices of state agencies. A recent study released by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Pension Debt: United States Public Employee Pension Systems, also suggests that states use unrealistically high rates of return to discount their pension liabilities. The study found that pension debt totals $4.8 trillion, a finding similar to this report.

A new study from Pew isn’t nearly as pessimistic, but it still shows a huge gap.

The nation’s state-run retirement systems had a $934 billion gap in fiscal year 2014 between the pension benefits that governments have promised their workers and the funding available to meet those obligations. …This brief focuses on the most recent comprehensive data from all 50 states and does not reflect the impact of weaker investment performance in fiscal 2015, which averaged 3 percent. Performance has been even weaker in the first three quarters of fiscal 2016. …Total pension debt is expected to be over $1 trillion for state plans, an increase of more than 10 percent from fiscal 2014. When combined with the shortfalls in local pension systems, this estimate reaches more than $1.5 trillion for fiscal 2015 and will likely remain close to historically high levels as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Here’s a visual from the report showing how the fiscal outlook for state pension systems has deteriorated over the past 15-plus years.

Equally troubling, most states are heading in the wrong direction.

…this brief shows that 15 states currently follow policies that meet the positive amortization benchmark—exceeding 100 percent of needed funding—and can be expected to reduce pension debt in the near term. The remaining 35 states fell short; those performing the worst on this measure typically had the largest unfunded pension liabilities.

Here’s the chart from the study. As you can see, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Illinois are falling deeper in the red at the fastest rate.

Kudos to New York and West Virginia, by the way, for being the most aggressive in trying to address long-run problems.

Moody’s Investor Services also has a new report on pension shortfalls. Here are some of the highlights, or perhaps lowlights would be a more appropriate word.

Total US state aggregate adjusted net pension liabilities (ANPL) totaled $1.25 trillion, or 119% of revenue in fiscal 2015, Moody’s Investors Service says in a new report. The results, based on compliance with new GASB 68 accounting rules, set a new ANPL baseline and are poised to rise for the next two fiscal years as market returns fall below annual targets. “The median return for public pension plans in FY 2016 was 0.52% compared to an average assumed investment return of 7.5%,” Moody’s Vice President — Senior Credit Officer Marcia Van Wagner says. “We project that aggregate state ANPL will grow to $1.75 trillion in FY 2017 audits.” Moody’s new report also introduces a new “Tread Water” benchmark, which measures whether states’ annual contributions to their pensions are enough to keep the unfunded net liability from growing. …there were several states whose pension contributions were notably below the Tread Water mark, including Kentucky (Aa2 stable), New Jersey (A2 negative), Illinois (Baa2 negative), and Texas (Aaa stable). …The states with the highest pension burdens — measured as the largest three-year average ANPL as a percent of state governmental revenue — were consistent with previous years. Illinois topped the list with pension liabilities at 280% of total governmental revenue, followed by Connecticut (Aa3 negative) at 209%, Alaska (Aa2 negative) at 179%, Kentucky at 162%, and New Jersey at 157%.

Wow, it doesn’t matter what report you look at, or what methodology is being used, Illinois, New Jersey, and Kentucky are a big mess (Alaska’s numbers also are awful, but the state – within certain limits – can use energy tax revenues to cover much of its shortfall).

So what’s the solution to all this mess? As I noted a couple of months ago when sharing other grim numbers about state pension systems, the answer is to, 1) stop promising excessive benefits to bureaucrats (and stop giving them excessive pay as well), and 2) switch to “defined contribution” plans so that workers have their own piles of money and the underfunding problem automatically disappears.

P.S. I’ve already granted the “Politician of the Year Award” to the President of the Philippines, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and the President of France, which probably means I should have a “Politician of the Month Club” instead. And if the Award is expanded, the politicians from the Solomon Islands obviously would be good candidates for the honor.

There was a public outcry in the Pacific island nation in May 2015, when a parliamentary commission voted to exempt MPs’ earnings from tax. …now the Court of Appeal – the Solomon Islands highest court – has said that MPs can benefit from tax-free salaries after all. It ruled that while the policy may be unpopular with the public, it’s still legal.

Living off taxpayers while paying no tax. Who do they think they are, IMF or OECD bureaucrats?

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What are the main problems with government bureaucrats?

Is it that they’re paid too much? Given that they get far more compensation than workers in the economy’s productive sector, that certainly true.

Is it that there are too many of them? Well, we have lots of bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist, such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc. So that’s true as well.

But there’s another possible answer. People employed by government take advantage of preferential rules in ways that should get all decent people upset.

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm tells us about a cop who successfully mugged taxpayers in Paterson, New Jersey.

Despite not having to show up for work since June 2007, Manuel Avila received periodic increases in pay, managed to double his monthly pension and qualified for free healthcare for the rest of his life at the expense of city taxpayers. Avila qualified for all those benefits while spending the past nine years on paid leave from the Paterson, New Jersey, police department because he was under investigation for having sex with a female prisoner at the city’s jail.

Wow, go fishing every day, get pay increases, a fat pension, and free healthcare. Where can I sign up for that deal?

Government, of course.

And let’s not overlook sex with a female prisoner, which gives a whole new meaning to the notion of fringe benefits. Reminds me of the Pennsylvania bureaucrat who came up with the clever idea of trading welfare benefits for sex.

But the story is actually more disturbing (at least from the perspective of taxpayers) than you think.

It gets worse, though, because that crime would never have happened if Avila’s bosses hadn’t already been trying to give his retirement benefits a little boost. …Avila—apparently with plenty of help, or at least an abundance of people willing to look the other way—was able to boost his annual pension to about $70,000 from an estimated $32,000 if he had been forced to retire in 2007 when a police psychiatrist recommended removing Avila from the force. “But instead of forcing Avila out of the police department, city law enforcement officials decided to allow him to stay on the job for another six months so he could reach a critical pension milestone of 20 years, the court records show,” the Paterson Press wrote. While there, he was charged with sexually assaulting a female prisoner. Those charges were dropped in 2010 after the city paid an undisclosed amount of money to the accuser as part of a settlement, but Avila remained on paid leave from the department until finally retiring this year.

This is galling. If Mr. Avila misbehaved and was declared unfit, why wasn’t he immediately terminated?

And now that we’ve learned about this scandal, why aren’t the officials who enabled this ripoff being fired?

At the risk of repeating myself, the answer is government.

There are two broader policy lessons from this scandal.

First, the use of “defined benefit” pension systems for bureaucrats should be discontinued. By way of background, these “DB” plans promise workers guaranteed monthly payments based on formulas including factors such as years worked and highest pay levels. There is no reason why DB plans can’t be feasible and successful (indeed, the Netherlands has a private Social Security system based on this model), but politicians at the state and local level repeatedly have demonstrated that they are incapable of operating this type of system, both because they promise lavish benefits (on top of overly generous pay levels) as a means of buying political support (using our money) from government workers and because they then don’t set aside enough money to finance the generous benefits they have promised. That system may be good for getting reelected in the short run, but it’s also why there’s a multi-trillion dollar shortfall that is contributing to deep fiscal problems in states such as Illinois and California. To stop from going deeper in the red, states should switch to “defined contribution” plans, which work similar to the IRAs and 401(k)s that are now prevalent in the private sector.

Second, something needs to be done to curtail the power of government unions. It’s not just that they conspire with politicians to get excessive pay for bureaucrats, but they compound that damage by also insisting on rules that make it very difficult to discipline or terminate problem employees. In the private sector, employees generally work “at will,” which means they can be fired without reason (this is one of the reasons the United States is near the top in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking. In government, by contrast, slackers, trouble makers, and other undesirable employees are shielded from this discipline. And that results in cases (such as the example discussed above) that are bad for taxpayers and bad for government. I don’t know if this means that unions should be prohibited (as even President Franklin Roosevelt believed), but surely one lesson to be learned is that there needs to be a much tougher approach when contract negotiations take place.

P.S. Let’s shift to a different topic. I’ve written many times about the gap between intentions and results in government. It’s very common to see politicians vote for laws that (at least in some cases) they think will help people, but they fail to recognize the indirect or second-order effects of government intervention.

Now we have another example. Almost all politicians will agree that it’s a good idea to prohibit child labor in poor nations. But what if poor families don’t have any better options? Could it be that government intervention will hurt the people who are supposed to be helped?

According to the World Bank (not normally a hotbed of libertarian thought), the answer is yes.

The study explores the law that increased the minimum employment age from 14 to 16 in Brazil in 1998, and uncovers its impact on time allocated to schooling and work in the short term and on school attainment and labor market outcomes in the long term. The analysis uses cross-sectional data from 1998 to 2014… The estimates show that the ban reduced the incidence of boys in paid work activities by 4 percentage points or 27 percent. …The study follows the same cohort affected by the ban over the years, and finds that the short-term effects persisted until 2003 when the boys turned 18. The study pooled data from 2007 to 2014 to check whether the ban affected individuals’ stock of human capital and labor market outcomes. The estimates suggest that the ban did not have long-term effects for the whole cohort, but found some indication that it did negatively affect the log earnings of individuals at the lower tail of the earnings distribution.

So the bottom line is that lower-skilled workers missed a chance to earn money when they were young and they then suffered income losses over time as well.

Bastiat certainly wouldn’t be surprised by this outcome. And if the lower-skilled workers understood how they were hurt, I’m sure that they wouldn’t feel very grateful to politicians for their “compassion.”

P.P.S. This reminds me of the “sweatshop” controversy. The left wants to ban factory work in the developing world because they don’t understand or appreciate that such jobs are a great opportunity when nations are at a certain stage of development.

P.P.P.S. This isn’t the first time that the World Bank has produced good research. In 2014, the bureaucrats released a good study showing how high tax rates facilitate corruption. And in 2012, they issued a study explaining how large public sectors undermine prosperity.

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