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Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

The real world is like a cold shower for our friends on the left. Everywhere they look, there is evidence that jurisdictions with free markets and small government outperform places with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

That’s true when comparing nations. And it’s also true when comparing states. That must be a source of endless frustration an disappointment for statists.

Speaking of disappointed statists, the real world has led to more bad news. The left-wing Mayor of Baltimore campaigned in favor of a $15 minimum wage, but then decided to veto legislation to impose that mandate. The Wall Street Journal opines on this development.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Democrat, has rejected a bill that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. She did so even though she had campaigned in favor of raising the minimum wage, which shows that economic reality can be a powerful educator. She explained her change of heart by noting that raising the rate above the $8.75 an hour minimum that prevails in the rest of Maryland would send jobs and tax revenue out of Baltimore to surrounding counties. The increase would also have raised the city’s payroll costs by $116 million over the next four years when she’s already coping with a deficit of $130 million in the education budget.

The key thing to notice is that the Mayor recognized that the real-world impact of bad legislation is that economic activity would shrink in the city and expand outside the city.

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm also points out that the Mayor was constrained by the fact neighboring jurisdictions weren’t making the same mistake.

Pugh said the bill would not be in the best interest of Baltimore’s 76,000 unemployed workers and would drive businesses out of the city to the surrounding counties. …Indeed. Raising the minimum wage would not solve Baltimore’s economic troubles, and would likely only add to them. While support for a $15 minimum wage has become something of a litmus test for progressive politicians, the true test of any politician should be whether he or she is willing to set aside campaign trail rhetoric that flies in the face of economic reality. Signing the bill would have made progressive pols and activists happy—one Baltimore city councilman called Pugh’s decision “beyond disappointing” and a minimum wage activist group said it would remind voters of Pugh’s “broken promise”—but there’s no honor in following through on a promise to do more damage to an already struggling city’s economy. Pugh’s decision to veto a $15 minimum wage bill isn’t disappointing in the least. More politicians should learn from her example of valuing economic reality over populist rhetoric.

The Mayor’s veto is good news, though it remains to be seen whether city legislators will muster enough votes for an override.

Regardless of what happens, notice that the Mayor didn’t do the right thing because she believed in economic liberty and freedom of contract. She also didn’t do the right thing because she recognized that higher minimum wage mandates would lead to more joblessness.

Instead, she felt compelled to do the right thing because of jurisdictional competition. She was forced to acknowledge that bad policy in her city would explicitly backfire since economic activity is mobile. She had to admit that there are no magic boats.

And this underscores why federalism and decentralization are vital features of a good system. Governments are more likely to do bad things when the costs can be imposed on an entire nation (or, even better from their perspective, the entire world). But when bad policy is localized, it becomes very hard to disguise the costs of bad policy.

And, as today’s column illustrates, decentralization stopped the Mayor of Baltimore from a bad policy that would hurt poorly skilled workers. Just as federalism stopped Vermont politicians from imposing a destructive single-payer health system.

Let’s close by circling back to the minimum wage.

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Andy Puzder makes a very timely point about automation.

Entry-level jobs matter—and you don’t have to take my word for it. In a speech last week on workforce development in low-income communities, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said that “it is crucial for younger workers to establish a solid connection to employment early in their work lives.” Unfortunately, government policies are destroying entry-level jobs by giving businesses an incentive to automate at an accelerated pace. In a survey released last month, the publication Nation’s Restaurant News asked 319 restaurant operators to name their biggest challenge for 2017. Nearly a quarter of them, 24%, said rising minimum wages. …The trend toward automation is particularly pronounced in areas where the local minimum wage is high.

Need more evidence?

By the way, even the normally left-leaning World Bank has research on the damaging impact of minimum wage mandates.

This paper uses a search-and-matching model to examine the effects of labor regulations that influence the cost of formal labor (notably minimum wages and payroll taxes) on labor market outcomes… The results indicate that these regulations, especially minimum wage policy, contribute to higher unemployment rates and constraint formalization…, especially for youth and women.

The research was about the labor market in Morocco, but the laws of supply and demand are universal.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, when you mandate that workers get paid more than what they’re worth, that’s a recipe for unemployment. And as the World Bank points out, it’s the more vulnerable members of society who pay the highest price.

In an ideal world, there should be no minimum wage mandates. But since that’s not an immediately practical goal, the best way of protecting low-skilled workers is to make sure Washington does not impose a nationwide increase. That won’t stop every state and local government from imposing destructive policies that cause unemployment, but the pressure of jurisdictional competition will

And when those bad policies do occur, that will simply give us more evidence against intervention. Which brings us back to where we started. The real world is a laboratory that shows statism is a bad idea.

P.S. In honor of Equal Pay Day, I can’t resist sharing this tidbit from the Washington Free Beacon.

Oh, you also won’t be surprised to learn that there was also a big pay gap in Hillary Clinton’s Senate office, as well as Obama’s White House. In reality, of course, the market punishes genuine discrimination and the pay gap is basically nonexistent when comparing workers with similar education, experience, and work patterns.

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I focus most of my ire on the federal government because bad policy from Washington is the biggest threat to our nation’s freedom and prosperity.

But we also get plenty of bad policy from other levels of government. I periodically focus on the foibles of states such as California, Illinois, and New York.

Today, though, let’s contemplate the inane policies of local government.

I’ve shared plenty of examples in the post, even to the point of putting together two contests (here and here) to pick the craziest action by a local government.

Politicians and bureaucrats in cities and towns do lots of big things that are bad, such as creating massive unfunded liabilities, providing crappy schools, turning law enforcement into back-door tax collectors, and trying to turn children into wusses.

And they do lots of small things that are bad, such as shutting down children’s lemonade stands, arresting people for saving rafters from drowning, fining people for rescuing children from savage dog attacks, leaving a dead body in a pool for two days, requiring permits to be a bum, poisoning water supplies, and paying bureaucrats not to work for 12 years.

Let’s augment these lists.

As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, here’s an example of Chicago cronyism.

A real estate venture created by President Barack Obama’s onetime boss and a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley squandered $68 million it was given to invest on behalf of pension plans for Chicago teachers, cops, city employees and transit workers… The five public pension funds haven’t made a dime on the investments they made nearly a decade ago… In fact, the financially troubled pension plans have lost most of the money they gave DV Urban… Though the pension funds lost out, DV Urban and its affiliated companies got about $9 million of the pension money for management fees.

Not that this should be a surprise. Being a Daley relative has commonly been a route to undeserved riches. And the same can be said about being an Obama crony.

Speaking of government greed, here are some excerpts from a very depressing Forbes column about shakedowns of poor people in Los Angeles.

An unbuckled seat belt caused Gloria Mata Alvarado to lose her driver’s license. When her husband was driving Mata to a doctor’s appointment for her gastritis in August 2012, her stomach began hurting. For relief, Mata adjusted her seat belt. But a police officer saw her take off the belt and cited her. …In court, Mata was ordered to pay $712, almost half the monthly income for her and her husband. (Both are on disability.) After telling the judge that she couldn’t pay the fine because of her limited means, a judge graciously reduced the fine—to $600. Unable to pay, her license was ultimately suspended. …In Los Angeles County alone, nearly 200,000 drivers had their licenses suspended simply because they failed to pay fines or appear in court. Statewide, from 2006 to 2013, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended more than 4.2 million driver’s licenses for those reasons… Throughout the Golden State, motorists are routinely nickeled-and-dimed in traffic court. Looking to raise revenue, state lawmakers slapped on additional fees and surcharges to the base fines for traffic tickets. For instance, the fine for failing to signal or running a stop sign is $35. But after all the surcharges and fees have been imposed, that fine soars to $238. Likewise, a $20 ticket for using a cell phone while driving balloons to $162, while a $100 traffic ticket for failing to carry proof of car insurance actually costs $490. Even worse, failing to pay can trigger an additional $300 “civil assessment” fee. So for many low-income Angelenos, a $20, $35 or $100 ticket can easily become $462, $538, and $815 respectively. …Notably, the courts themselves receive the collected civil assessment penalties, granting them a strong financial incentive to levy fees.

This sickens me. I hate the thought of poor people having their lives made worse because of venal and greedy government.

Especially when many (probably most) of the infractions are for things that don’t actually promote or protect public safety.

At the very least, the fines (and accompanying fees) should be slashed. Though I recognize this could result in more cities being like Detroit, which actually spends more administering parking tickets than it collects in revenue.

Maybe the answer is to levy fines based on income. If a lot of middle class and rich people suddenly experienced severe financial discomfort like the poor, that might generate enough pressure to shut down these revenue-raising scams.

Let’s now travel up the coast to enjoy a classic case of government incompetence from San Francisco.

last year, SFMTA officials excitedly unveiled the first of sixty brand new electric trolley buses purchased by the city of San Francisco. …these $1.1 million-a-piece vehicles were touted as a crucial investment in a public transit system still running buses 20-plus-years old. There’s just one problem: The 60-foot buses can’t go up San Francisco’s hills. In fact, the buses were never designed to handle our iconic hills — anything over a 10 percent grade wears down motor components. …the New Flyer buses also struggle to meet Muni’s internal acceleration standards on inclines of 5 to 10 percent — sometimes taking double the time during tests to accelerate to required speeds on the slight inclines.

But at least the buses are electric, which means they have zero emissions, so the nitwits in San Francisco can feel virtuous (though it does require them to pretend electricity magically appears from nowhere rather than emissions-producing power plants).

This story reminds me of the streetcar boondoggle in DC.

Now let’s go to another city famous for bad policy.

New York City has been padding its budget by ticketing cars that are parked legally.

As of late 2008, in NYC you can park in front of a sidewalk pedestrian ramp, as long as it’s not connected to a crosswalk. …I’ve got a pedestrian ramp leading to nowhere particular in the middle of my block in Brooklyn, and on occasion I have parked there.  Despite the fact that it is legal, I’ve been ticketed for parking there.  Though I get the tickets dismissed, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. And that got me wondering- How common is it for the police to give tickets to cars legally parked in front of pedestrian ramps?

What the reporter discovered is shocking.

…thanks to NYC’s Open Data portal, I was able to look at the most common parking spots in the City where cars were ticketed for blocking pedestrian ramps. …What I found when I dove into the data surprised me.  To start, I found the top address where this ticket were given: in front of 575 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where over $48,000 in parking fines were issued in the last 2.5 years. … the spot, (or really spots since there are two ramps), are legal, since they are in the middle of the block, with no crosswalk.  $48,000 in tickets at a legally parked spot, and that is just the last 2.5 years.

The next top spots on the list had the same story to tell.

1705 Canton Avenue in Brooklyn, 273 Tickets, $45,045: Legal. 270-05 76 Avenue in Queens, 256 Tickets ($42,440) Legal. 143-49 Cherry Ave, Queens, 246 Tickets, ($40,590).  Legal. …I started to skip down the list.  This spot in Battery Park, ranked #16 on my list and the top spot in Manhattan, had 116 tickets ($19,140) and turned out to be legal. …I started to skip down the list faster and faster.  Take #1000 in my top list, at 1059 Virginia Avenue, where 8 tickets had been given ($1320).  It is a classic T intersection, meaning it’s legal. …I then selected 30 random spots that had received 5 or more tickets over the time period, and based on Google Maps found that all of them appeared to be legal parking spots!

The good news is that this exposé supposedly is forcing the city to stop this type of illegal ticket, so some stories actually do have a happy ending.

The next step hopefully will deal with extortionate fines for the horrible crime of…gasp…idling for more than three minutes!

But not all stories end well.

Here’s a jaw-dropping report of bureaucratic abuse from Sarasota, Florida.

At 90 years old, Marie Louise Sikorski has lived in her house on Webber Street in Sarasota for most of her life… The city found several code violations at her home. Since then, she’s racked up massive fines, which she says add up to about 150,000 dollars. As a widow receiving only 1,000 dollars a month…, she says there’s little she can do. …That’s when 30-year-old Miles came into her life. …As her neighbor, Miles heard about her situation and began to help with repairs around the home, sometimes putting in 16 hour days, all free of charge.

This sounds like a happy ending, right? A greedy local government hits a senior citizen who is too old to maintain her house with massive fines, but a wonderful neighbor steps in to save the day.

You’re probably thinking the local government then waived the absurd fines.

…the City is still not satisfied, and she says she’s still being charged 500 dollars a day. …Sarasota requires much of the work to be done by a “licensed” contractor, something Miles is not.

In other words, we get a sad end to the story because of a mix of two ugly things, routine government greed and oligopolistic government licensing restrictions. Reminds me of the disgusting actions of the local government in Montgomery, Alabama.

Last but not least, let’s close with a classic story of wasteful spending.

A local politician in Portland, Oregon, squandered tax money taking her staff to a luxury spa in Arizona for supposed diversity training.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she will close her office next week to take her six staff members to a retreat in Arizona to learn about diversity at a cost of roughly $40,000. Fritz and her staff, about half of whom are people of color, plan to spend at least 3 1/2 days in Tubac, Arizona, near the Mexican border, participating in a diversity workshop put on by a Portland-based company, White Men as Full Diversity Partners. …The program charges $4,750 per person for tuition, lodging, meals and site fees. Fritz’s office will also have to pay for the staffers’ flights to Arizona.

Though, to be fair, Commissioner Fritz is not the only Portland politician to rip off taxpayers for this type of scam.

Former Mayor Charlie Hales drew criticism for spending $56,000 to send 16 white, male city employees to a resort on Mt. Hood in 2014 for another workshop put on by the same organization. The City of Portland has spent more than $126,000 on programs and consulting from White Men as Full Diversity Partners since August 2014, according to city invoice records.

As you might expect, there are some sketchy connections between the city bureaucracy and the contractor.

Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Amalia Alarcon Morris worked as a paid associate for the diversity organization more than a decade ago… The diversity company still lists Alarcon Morris as a consultant on its website.

By the way, I fully expect that a search of campaign finance records would reveal that the owners and managers of White Men as Full Diversity Partners have recycled some of the loot they’ve received into the campaigns of Portland politicians.

The politicians win with campaign contributions. The bureaucrats win with a free vacation. The contractor wins by getting a big check.

The only losers are…you guessed it…the taxpayers!

The moral of the story, as explained by Veronique de Rugy in a column for Reason, is that governments at all levels are venal and incompetent.

What do home Bible study classes, transgender bathrooms, lemonade stands, cat litter, and marijuana have in common? To the blind eye, not much—but in fact, they’re all things state and local governments are actively working to regulate. …it turns out local governments are frequently the worst offenders of all when it comes to petty tyranny. …Dozens of places, including Austin, Texas; Sacramento, California; and Thurston County, Washington, have banned supermarkets, convenience stores, and pharmacies from providing customers with free plastic bags. “Many cities restrict the economic freedom of their residents and potential migrants through minimum wage laws, business licensing, rent control, and zoning restrictions,” Mercatus Center state and local policy expert Adam Millsap explains. And many of these regulations, particularly zoning and occupational licensing laws, place a disproportionate burden on poor people and minorities.

And she points out that decentralization, while theoretically very desirable, won’t generate many benefits if misguided federal policies are replaced by bad local policies.

Many on the political right believe that the devolution of power to lower levels of government can help overcome problems created by centralized authority….In a 2014 paper, George Mason University economist Richard Wagner explored whether federalism really supports liberty. He found that devolving power to lower levels can be good for individual freedom under the right conditions—but it’s far from guaranteed.

P.S. Don’t forget to vote for Veronique in the “most influential libertarian” contest. And you don’t even need to make it a write-in vote. She’s been added to the list by popular demand.

P.P.S. I suspect most people won’t care about what’s happening with my local government, but local politicians and bureaucrats are whining about belt-tightening even though spending has climbed much faster than inflation.

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What do Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, the Hammond family, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, James Slatic, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company and the entire Meitev family have in common?

They are all victims of brutal, unfair, capricious, and evil government actions. And I challenge anyone to read their stories and not feel at least some degree of outrage at their mistreatment.

And now we’re going to add Corey Statham to the list. The New York Times has an all-too-typical report of government greed and callousness.

Corey Statham had $46 in his pockets when he was arrested in Ramsey County, Minn., and charged with disorderly conduct. He was released two days later, and the charges were dismissed. But the county kept $25 of Mr. Statham’s money as a “booking fee.” …He did get a debit card for the remaining $21. But there was no practical way to extract his cash without paying some kind of fee. Among them: $1.50 a week for “maintenance” of the unwanted card, starting after 36 hours; $2.75 for using an A.T.M. to withdraw money; $3 for transferring the balance to a bank account; and $1.50 for checking the balance. …Mr. Statham is represented by Michael A. Carvin, a prominent conservative lawyer who…said the county’s motives were not rooted in solicitude for the people it had arrested. “Revenue-starved local governments are increasingly turning toward fees like Ramsey County’s in order to bridge their budgetary gaps,” he wrote in a Supreme Court brief. …“Providing a profit motive to make arrests,” he said, “gives officers an incentive to make improper arrests.” …$25 is not a lot of money — unless you are poor. It represents almost half a day’s work at the federal minimum wage, a federal judge wrote in a dissent in another case on booking fees.

I have no idea whether Mr. Statham is a sympathetic victim. But even if he’s a total jerk, that doesn’t change the fact that people who interact with the legal system should not be subject to fines or fees without a conviction.

This is yet another example of innocent people victimized by “policing for profit,” which notoriously happens with civil asset forfeiture.

And at the risk of sounding like a closet leftist, it bothers me when poor people and rich people face the same fines. I don’t know Statham’s situation, but there are plenty of low-income people who can suffer severe financial consequences when they have an unfortunate encounter with local law enforcement. Maybe we should be like Switzerland and proportionately adjust fines based on wealth. I don’t suggest that because I want local governments to have more money. Instead, I’m thinking such a policy would both make the law more equal and give the rest of us a strong incentive to fight against thuggish revenue-raising tactics.

P.S. I’m obviously on the side of Statham’s lawyer, but I can’t resist correcting something said by Michael Carvin. I’ve never looked at the numbers for Ramsey County, but, based on nationwide fiscal data for state and local governments, I will say with 99 percent confidence that Ramsey County is not “revenue-starved.” In the interests of accuracy, Mr. Carvin in the future should refer to local politicians as being “revenue-hungry.”

P.P.S. On a separate topic, here’s a nice reminder of the difference between the private sector and the government.

A man in Pomona was upset after a postal carrier was seen on surveillance video throwing a small package on his doorstep, but a surprise hero was also captured on footage. Brian Mundy sent the video to our sister station in Los Angeles using #abc7eyewitness. In it, you see the U.S. Postal Service carrier carelessly tossing the package. Much to Mundy’s surprise, moments later, a FedEx driver – wearing a reindeer hat – is seen gently putting down two packages. That driver even picks up the small box from the USPS carrier and gently puts it on top of the rest.

It’s all on video if you click on the story link. Yes, this is just an anecdote. And, yes, I’m sure there are plenty of bad FedEx employees and wonderful Postal Service employees. I’m mostly sharing the story for amusement value.

But I suspect John Stossel was right when he explained that, as a general rule, the private sector will do a better job.

 

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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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I’ve written (some would say excessively) about the fact that America has too many bureaucrats and that they’re paid too much.

That’s true in Washington. That’s true at the state level. And it’s true for local governments.

But since I’m a big believer in beating a dead horse, let’s revisit this issue. We’ll narrow our focus today and look solely at the issue of retirement benefits for state and local bureaucrats.

Why? Because, as explained by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, the unfunded liability for these schemes has mushroomed into a giant $5 trillion problem.

If the Actuarial Standards Board enacts recommendations from its Pension Task Force, actuarial valuations for state and local government pensions will report unfunded liabilities of over $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39 percent. The public pensions industry will hate it, but those figures are the best available measures of the costs of public employee retirement plans. …That $5.2 trillion is the number most economists would think is most relevant to considering the costs of public sector pensions. …The simple reality is that public pension underfunding is a significant problem that can only really be addressed by increasing contributions or by lower pension benefits, choices that pretty much everyone involved in the pension world would prefer to avoid.

You won’t be surprised to learn that some states are more irresponsible than others.

CNBC reports that Nebraska is the most prudent and Alaska is the worst (politicians can’t resist squandering oil revenue). Several blue states rank poorly (think Illinois, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey), but there also are red states (such as Louisiana and Kentucky) that have made very foolish promises.

In Nebraska, for example, the pension liability amounts to about $386 per person, the lowest in the nation. That compares with Alaska ($19,394 per person: the highest in the country), Illinois ($15,158 per person) and Connecticut ($14,769). The average pension shortfall in 2014 amounted to $4,383.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive table that allows readers to see which states have the biggest shortfall.

Meanwhile, Governing has an interactive map showing which states have the biggest gaps.

In other words, state and local bureaucrats have been promised a lot of money when they retire.

Much more money than is available.

And when you add Social Security benefits to the mix, as Andrew Biggs has calculated, you wind up having lots of bureaucrats enjoying very lavish levels of retirement income.

I tabulated the pension benefits paid to full-career “regular” state government employees (meaning, non-public safety) retiring in 2012. For states in which public employees participated in Social Security, I estimated the Social Security benefit the retiree would be eligible to receive. And finally, I compared total retirement benefits to the worker’s earnings immediately preceding retirement. …Mississippi paying the lowest replacement rate of 54% of final earnings. …West Virginia paid the most generous benefits, equal to 115% of final earnings, followed by New Mexico (113%), Oregon (105%), California (102%) and, yes, conservative Texas (101%).

Here’s a map that accompanied the article.

But maybe big numbers, maps and tables are too abstract.

To give some examples of how this is leading to a fiscal crisis, consider these recent news reports.

A story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Nevadans should brace for reduced services, higher taxes or both — the necessary consequence of the Public Employee Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) having badly missed its investment target last year…PERS has now missed its target over the past five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years — suggesting that another taxpayer-rate hike is on its way. Remarkably, this shortfall has occurred even though markets have nearly tripled from their 2009 lows, and currently sit at or near all-time highs. Nevada’s soaring pension costs — ranked third-highest in the nation at 9.8 percent of own-source revenue, according to 2013 data from the Public Plans Database — aren’t just due to overly optimistic investment assumptions, however. Another factor is the extraordinarily generous nature of the benefits.

A column from the Orange County Register:

…in the world of public sector pensions – among the biggest institutional investors in global markets – politicians…pretend they can count on big investment returns every year, while disregarding warning signs, mounting debts and increasingly unsustainable pension systems. We’re seeing the latest pension fund returns come in, and almost uniformly, it was a terrible year for states – and thus taxpayers. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension fund, logged a paltry annual return of 0.6 percent. …CalPERS is currently only 76 percent funded, a figure that will inevitably drop given the latest weak returns.

A report from the Portland Tribune:

Oregon’s major business groups want lawmakers to start dealing with rising public pension costs as early as the session that opens Feb. 1. Although those costs start to kick in with the 2017-19 budget cycle — 18 months away — advocates say it’s not too early to whittle down an unfunded liability projected at $18 billion over the next few decades. …projected increases in contributions to PERS, which covers about 95 percent of Oregon’s public workers, will eat deeply into what they can spend over the next several two-year budget cycles. Cheri Helt, co-chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board, says pension costs will jump from the current 16 percent of payroll to 20 percent in 2017-19, and to 25 percent in the cycle afterward. …Jamie Moffitt, vice president and chief financial officer for the University of Oregon, says rising pension costs will eat up 40 percent — about 2 percentage points — of the 5.5 percent average annual increase in tuition.

An editorial about New Jersey in the Wall Street Journal:

New Jersey’s Senate president is in a Brando-like fight with government unions that he says are trying to extort or bribe legislators into doing their bidding. …At issue is the woefully underfunded state pension system. The teachers union wants to put a measure on the November ballot to amend the state constitution to require quarterly state pension payments of increasing amounts. …government unions have so much political sway over politicians that they often call the shots on their own pensions and benefits. …New Jersey’s public pensions are underfunded to the tune of $82 billion. Thomas Healey of the state’s bipartisan Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission notes that pensions and health care now eat up 11% of New Jersey’s budget, and without reform this will grow to 28% by 2025. …The pension commission has proposed reforms—including a shift to a hybrid retirement plan that includes features more akin to a 401(k)—but unions have blocked them. They now want voters to rewrite the state constitution so pension reform would be all but impossible.

A column about the corrupt system in Illinois:

Illinois’s government, says [Gov.] Rauner, “is run for the benefit of its employees.” Increasingly, it is run for their benefit when they retire. Pension promises [are] unfunded by at least $113 billion… The government is so thoroughly unionized (22 unions represent almost all government employees), that “I can’t,” Rauner says, “turn on a light switch without permission.” He exaggerates, somewhat, but the process of trying to fire someone is a career, not an option. …high-tax Illinois will continue bleeding population and businesses, but with one contented cohort — the Democratic political class, for whom the system is working quite well.

The crux of the problem is that most state and local governments have “defined-benefit” plans for bureaucrats, which means that taxpayers are on the hook to provide retiring bureaucrats a specific amount of benefits (not just retirement income, but other goodies such as health care) based on formulas that count years in the workforce, highest salary levels, and other factors. That may not sound totally unreasonable, but politicians realize they can buy votes by cutting deals with government unions and providing retirement benefits that are extremely generous, especially compared to what’s available for workers in the private sector.

But that’s simply one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the employers with defined-benefit plans (usually referred to as “DB plans”) are supposed to set aside money in investment funds so that there’s a growing pool of assets that can be used to pay for the lavish benefits promised to the bureaucracy. But as we’ve already learned, politicians often are reluctant to take this step. They like committing lots of future money to bureaucrats, but when putting together annual budgets, they generally can buy more votes by allocating money to things like schools and roads rather than depositing money into a pension fund.

So the net result is that there’s a big unfunded liability, meaning that the amount that politicians have promised to give bureaucrats is larger than what’s set aside in the pension funds. And to make matters worse, the pension funds usually have dodgy accounting (they assume the investments will earn more money than is realistic). Which is why the actual shortfall is about $5.2 trillion, as noted above.

Given this ticking time bomb, some of you may be wondering why the title says there’s a libertarian quandary. Surely the answer is to cauterize this fiscal wound with immediate cuts and to avoid an even bigger long-run disaster by shifting newly hired bureaucrats to a defined-contribution system such as IRAs or 401(k)s. This type of reform automatically eliminates any liability for taxpayers since retirement benefits for bureaucrats would be solely a function of contributions to retirement accounts and the investment performance of those funds (most state and local bureaucrats also are part of the Social Security system).

Yes, that is the answer, but the quandary (to add to my collection) is whether the federal government should force, or even encourage, this type of reform. Don’t state and local governments, after all, have the right to make stupid decisions?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Ed Bachrach argues that Uncle Sam should limit these suicidal policies.

The pensions of states and local governments are, collectively, trillions of dollars in the hole. This debt is crippling budgets and will dump an enormous burden on future generations. Yet state and local politicians have proven that they cannot, or will not, solve the problem. The federal government ought to step in. But how? Instead of bailing out these pensions, Congress should pass a law allowing states and local governments to reduce promised benefits—something that is now illegal under some states’ statutes or constitutions. …Many pensions allow retirement at age 55; states and local governments could mandate that benefits cannot be drawn until age 65. Payments could be capped at 150% of the median income in the local jurisdiction. Automatic cost-of-living increases that now exceed expected inflation could instead be tied to increases in the median income. …Local governments must also be required to terminate their defined-benefit plans. These should be replaced with defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s or 403(b)s… Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) proposed withholding federal aid to government entities that don’t accurately report pension funding. That would be a step forward but would not solve the problem of underfunding.

I obviously agree that there should be no bailouts, but I’m still not convinced that Washington should mandate good policy by state and local governments.

Federalism means the freedom to adopt good policy…but also the leeway to commit fiscal suicide.

Though Andrew Biggs points out that the part about accurate reporting certainly sounds reasonable.

Congress has a tremendous opportunity to require state and local government employee pension plans to accurately disclose their multi-trillion dollar unfunded liabilities. …For years, economists and government agencies like the Congressional Budget Office have called for so-called “fair market valuation,” which both more accurately calculates the value of public pension liabilities and accurately tells those plans that taking more investment risk doesn’t make their plans cheaper. …there’s legislative language already written: Rep. Devin Nunes’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA), which has a number of Congressional co-sponsors including House Speaker Paul Ryan, would require state and local plans to accurately disclose their liabilities using fair market valuation. The federal government would respect state and local rights by not forcing any changes to how pensions are funded, but Nunes’s plan would require that state and local governments to tell the public – including people thinking of purchasing municipal bonds – how much they really owe to their pensions.

P.S. By the way, advocates of limited government don’t experience many victories, but there actually was a very good reform of the pension system for federal bureaucrats during the Reagan years. Yes, federal bureaucrats are still over-compensated, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Yet another example of how Reaganomics was a success.

P.P.S. Shifting to bad news (or laughable news), the hacks in California tried to argue that lavish pensions for bureaucrats boost the economy. Andrew Biggs does a great job of debunking this nonsense.

The California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) issued a report in July claiming that its benefit payments to retired government employees in 2013-2014 “supported 104,974 jobs throughout California and generated more than $15.6 billion in additional economic output.” …To reduce pension benefits for public employees, the study implies, would harm the overall California economy. …This study is nothing short of propaganda that wouldn’t get a passing grade in a freshman economics course. …the CalPERS study lacks one important component, called “counting both sides of the equation.” It needs to count economic costs as well as economic benefits. …CalPERS doesn’t create money out of thin air. Every single dollar of CalPERS benefits comes from a dollar that taxpayers or government employees contributed to the program or from the interest earned on those contributions.

Sounds like the bureaucrats at CalPERS should be working for the Congressional Budget Office.

P.P.P.S. The focus of this column is on the inherent instability of defined-benefit pension plans for bureaucrats, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the underlying issue is that bureaucrats are ripping off taxpayers. Here are some blurbs from a Reason report by Eric Boehm on how this scam works in California.

If public service truly is a sacrifice, then join me in shedding a tear for the 20,900 public workers in California who pulled down more than $100,000 in retirement benefits during 2015. …Leading the way for 2015 was Michael Johnson. The former Solano County administrator received a $388,407 pension last year. …Rounding out the top three are Stephen Maguin, a former Los Angeles County Sanitation District general manager who pulled down $340,811 in 2015 and Joaquin Fuster, a former UCLA professor who got a pension worth $338,412 last year. …Curtis Bowden, a former member of the California Highway Patrol…retired all the way back in 1947, which means he’s been collecting pension checks for 68 years, after working just 5.3 years for the state. He got $24,800 from CalPERS in 2015.

Wow, I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Getting an annual pension of nearly $400K after being a country bureaucrat or working for just a bit over five years and getting 68 years worth of retirement checks?

Seems like both of them should be part of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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My biggest complaint about government employees is that they work for bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist. As far as I’m concerned, they may be the most wonderful, conscientious, and hard-working people in the world, but we shouldn’t have a Department of Housing and Urban Development or a Department of Agriculture, so these folks – by definition – are getting dramatically overpaid (i.e., anything about $0).

My second main complaint is that bureaucrats are overpaid relative to their counterparts in the private sector. About twice as much when you include the value of both wages and benefits.

The unions representing bureaucrats sometimes try to argue that this isn’t true, but I always point out the data on voluntary quit rates, which are much higher in the private sector compared to government. Needless to say, this is because folks who get cushy government jobs know they’ve won the employment lottery and have very little desire to switch to the private sector (where, as Dan Aykroyd explained in Ghostbusters, “they expect results”).

A third complaint is that politicians can’t resist catering to the unions that represent government employees, which means not only excessive compensation but also absurdly inefficient rules designed to protect loafers, scroungers, and con artists in the bureaucracy.

Let’s review the example of Queon Jackson. As reported by the Boston Globe, he’s pocketed a lot of money while doing absolutely nothing.

A former acting headmaster in Boston, placed on paid leave more than three years ago amid an investigation into credit card fraud, collected $375,000 in pay during his absence.

In the private sector, employment often is a tenuous situation. You can be fired “at will,” which means for just about any reason.

But unions strike deals with compliant politicians (from the perspective of elected officials, bureaucrats are a special interest group with lots of voters and lots of campaign cash) to provide so-called employment-protection rules for government employees.

And these rules make it very difficult and very expensive to deal with bad bureaucrats.

And it seems that Mr. Jackson meets that definition.

Jackson’s case reflects the thorny issues school systems face when union-protected employees are under federal investigations that drag on for months or years without charges being filed. Jackson, who was classified as an assistant director at the time of his paid leave, is a member of the school system’s union for midlevel school administrators, and the school system would have had to establish just cause to fire him. Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said…The choice…comes down to this: Either put the person in a low-profile desk job and face a potential public backlash, or fire the employee and run the risk of a lawsuit.

Here’s why Jackson got in trouble.

The school system originally placed Jackson on leave in February 2013, after learning the Secret Service was investigating him for an alleged role in fraudulently obtaining credit and then not paying the bills. But Jackson had contended that he was victimized by someone who stole his identity in an attempt to buy a car.

Though he already had a shady background when he first entered the bureaucracy.

In 2000, a few months before the district hired Jackson as a teacher, he admitted to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty in a drug case and a domestic abuse case that required him to take an anger-management course. That type of plea is commonly used by defendants to avoid a criminal record. …Jackson, who was a state social worker at the time, was charged with possession with intent to distribute counterfeit drugs.

Returning to the current situation, it’s not clear from the story, but I gather investigators from the Secret Service didn’t have enough evidence to nail Jackson, so the school system had no choice but to not only keep him on the payroll, but also to give him a new position.

Now Queon Jackson…is back. …The school system quietly cleared Jackson to return to work on May 9 and gave him a desk job at the agency’s headquarters and the title “special assistant.” The move ended a paid leave of three years and three months, during which he did no work for the school system. …He is receiving an annual salary of about $120,000, equivalent to what he made as a school administrator.

Though he apparently hasn’t been a model employee since his return.

Jackson has been accumulating many absences over the last two months, missing at least 16 days, including seven without pay, according to a Globe review of payroll records. The tally doesn’t include time he took off in mid-July.

Oh, by the way, Jackson is just one of many bureaucrats who get this strange form of paid vacation.

Boston’s school system currently has 34 employees on paid leave.

I shudder to think what the nationwide number looks like, but apparently there are tens of thousand federal bureaucrats getting paid leave. You can see a couple of strange examples by clicking here and here.

The bottom line is that Mr. Jackson isn’t special. Lots of bureaucrats get to scam the system because union contracts protect dodgy employees. So he doesn’t merit membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, but it’s still outrageous that taxpayers in the productive sector pay extra tax to subsidize this nonsense.

If you like humor about overpaid government employees (and you’re paying for it, so you may as well get some enjoyment), here’s a great top-10 list from Letterman and here’s a cartoon about the relationship of bureaucrats and taxpayers. Looking through my archives, I also found 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, and these two posters. There’s also a good one-liner from Craig Ferguson, along with this political cartoons from  Henry Payne.

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In 2014, I was outraged that more than 80 percent of senior bureaucrats at the Veterans Administration were awarded bonuses, even though this is the bloated bureaucracy that caused the death of many veterans by putting them on secret waiting lists. This, I argued, was a perfect example (in a bad way) of federal bureaucracy in action.

In 2015, I put together a version about bureaucracy in action at the local level, noting that the number of firefighters has climbed by 50 percent since 1980, even though the number of fires has declined by more than 50 percent during the same period.

This year, let’s look at the overseas edition of bureaucracy in action. Our story comes from Italy, where there’s been a government shutdown. Though only in the town of Boscotrecase. And not because of an Obamacare-style budget fight, but rather because a bunch of the local bureaucrats got arrested for routinely skipping work.

The mayor of a small town outside Naples had to shut down most municipal offices after police arrested 23 of his staff in the latest revelations of absenteeism in Italy’s public sector. Staff were filmed clocking in and then leaving to go about their personal business or using multiple swipe cards to register absent colleagues, police said, in scenes that have become familiar after numerous similar scandals. A police video showed one man trying to tamper with a security camera and then putting a cardboard box over his head to hide his identity before swiping two cards. Police arrested around half of all employees in the town hall offices of Boscotrecase following a weeks-long investigation that they said revealed 200 cases of absenteeism involving 30 people. …four major town hall departments had been closed on Tuesday due to a lack of staff. Those arrested, accused of fraud against the state, included the head of the local traffic police and the head of the town’s accounting department. The workers, whose arrest comes amid a government crackdown against absenteeism, have been suspended from work for between six and 12 months and risk eventual dismissal.

What I want to know, of course, is whether the bureaucrats were suspended with pay or without pay.

If it’s the former (which would be my guess), how will their lives be any different? They’ll be goofing off at home while getting overpaid!

No wonder Italy is in a death spiral.

P.S. The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is comprised of specific government employees who have perfected the art of slacking (such as the Italian doctor who legally worked only 15 days in a nine-year period). That being said, I’m tempted to give adjunct membership to the entire local government of Boscotrecase.

P.P.S. Switching topics, the unpalatable choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton does have a silver lining. It’s generated this clever make-believe announcement from the British Monarch.

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:

In light of your failure to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except North Dakota, which she does not fancy). Your new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

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1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’ ‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters, and the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’ Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. (look up ‘vocabulary’).
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2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as ”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’
——————-
3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.
—————–
4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using lawyers, psychics or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not quite ready to be independent. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, then you’re not ready to be a sovereign nation.
———————-
5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
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6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.
——————–
7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.
————–
8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.
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9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer. They are also part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.
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10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie MacDowell attempt English dialect in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed with a cheese grater.
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11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer.
Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).
———————
12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their deliveries.
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13. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.
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14. An inland revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).
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15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers, and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus strawberries (with cream) when in season.

Reasonably clever. Reminds me of the somewhat un-PC humor a British friend sent me on how different countries respond to terrorism.

By the way, I’m not sure the part about needing a permit to carry a vegetable peeler is a joke. After all, we’re talking about the country where you need an ID to buy a teaspoon.

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