Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Time to Bring Federal Oversight to State / Local Government Deals

Everybody wants good jobs (both public and private) and good public services–both have positive and immediate benefits for the municipalities securing them. However, there are also costs associated with bringing in jobs and providing public services. If these costs (even if they seem far off) outweigh the benefits, in the end everyone suffers.

It has become abundantly clear that local and state officials are (generally) either unable and/or unwilling to conduct meaningful C-B analyses when making deals with taxpayer money. They are unable to strike sustainable deals because of power asymmetries; large corporations and powerful unions have more legal clout and can out-negotiate municipalities. Furthermore, in the case of private sector jobs, a company can threaten to move to a different municipality, leading local / state officials to bid against each other in a “race to the bottom“. They are unwilling to strike sustainable deals because while benefits are realized immediately (look at the jobs / roads / services I brought!), the costs are paid gradually over time, usually long after said decision maker is out of politics.   

Two examples highlight the bad deals taxpayers are getting due to a lack of political will–subsidies for corporations and municipal budget deficits.

Subsidies for Corporations

A few months back, when NN was in it’s infancy, I picked up on a NYT article highlighting how out of control subsidies for private corporations had become in America. Here are some highlights from that post:

One form of government subsidy, which was brought to light by a recent NYT article/study, highlighted how state and local governments often engaged in bidding wars to lure private corporations to their markets. Billions in taxpayer dollars go toward subsidizing these companies operations, with NO INTENTION of ever paying the money back.

It is hard to believe such an archaic system exists in today’s modern world. Small municipalities come to the negotiating table with huge multinational corporations. A  power asymmetry exists; companies often outright lie about other municipalities bidding for their business to drive up prices. A “fight to the bottom” ensues, where each party is trying to give the best deal for the business, which on the flip side is going to be the worst deal for the taxpayer as they will be financing the subsidy. No real cost-benefit analysis goes into the decision. Politicians dedicate funding because they want the short term benefits of added employment on their record, without any long term accountability on the part of the company that receives the benefit or the politician securing the financing.

At a time when fiscal responsibility is on the agenda, how can we justify taking money from schools and public goods and giving them blindly to corporations with the hope that it ends up working out in the taxpayers benefit? How can we justify paying companies, not on a needs-based basis, and not hold them at all accountable for anything?

Municipal Deficits:

The ongoing bankruptcy of Detroit–the largest municipality to ever attempt such a bankruptcy–brought the concept of municipal waste to the forefront. However, Detroit’s problems could be seen coming from a mile away; once a symbol the strength of American manufacturing, economic decline and associated emigration have left Detroit unable to pay it’s bills. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote an excellent Op-Ed on the subject, entitled “The Wrong Lesson From Detroit’s Bankruptcy“.

Detroit’s bankruptcy makes sense, it is the combination of government excess and economic decline. Much less understandable is the story of San Jose’s municipal budget deficit:

This metropolis of nearly a million residents is the third-largest city in California, home to tens of thousands of technology industry workers, as well as many thousands more struggling to get by. Yet even here, in the city that bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley, the economic tidal wave that has swamped Detroit and other cities is lapping at the sea walls.

San Jose now spends one-fifth of its $1.1 billion general fund on pensions and retiree health care, and the amount keeps rising. To free up the money, services have been cut, libraries and community centers closed, the number of city workers trimmed, salaries reduced, and new facilities left unused for lack of staff. From potholes to home burglaries, the city’s problems are growing.

“We’re Silicon Valley, we’re not Detroit,” said Xavier Campos, a Democratic city councilman representing San Jose’s poor East Side. “It shouldn’t be happening here. We’re not the Rust Belt.”

The situation in San Jose is not anywhere near as dire as it is in Detroit or two other California cities, Stockton and San Bernardino, already in bankruptcy. But government officials and municipal bankruptcy experts across the country are watching San Jose closely because of a plan to reduce benefits — drafted by Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, and passed by 70 percent of voters in areferendum last year.

The plan is being opposed in court by unions that represent city workers and say it is illegal under state law. It would introduce a second tier for new city employees involving much lower pension and health benefits. It would also alter pension benefits for existing workers, allowing them to choose either a similar, second-tier benefits plan or to pay significantly more out of their own pockets for the benefits they had come to expect.

The outcome of the case is expected to have a major impact on municipal budgets around the state and, perhaps, the country. If a state court rules later this year or early next year that the referendum allows San Jose to alter pension plans for existing workers, and it survives appeals, similar measures are expected to pop up elsewhere.

“These employees did nothing wrong, and their unions did nothing wrong for pushing for these benefits,” said David Crane, a lecturer at Stanford University and special adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on pensions and other issues. “Nobody forced government officials to make these promises and not fund them. And now you have some really brutal things happening to people who had counted on a certain level of retirement.” 

Cities in California are under particular pressure because it is so difficult to raise property taxes in the state, and because in 1999, at the height of the tech bubble, the Legislature voted for a huge benefit increase allowing, for instance, police officers to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salaries.

“We have this all over the state of California,” said Karol K. Denniston, a bankruptcy lawyer with the firm of Schiff Hardin in San Francisco, who is advising a number of local taxpayer groups. “There is growing recognition that there is not enough money to keep doing what they’re doing, and something’s got to change.”

As in San Jose, public employees’ unions sued. In March, a state administrative labor-law judge found that the city had failed to bargain as required with its workers. The city went ahead with the ballot-measure change, but the administrative finding portends further litigation.

Mr. Crane blames the political leadership in Sacramento, San Jose and all similarly struggling cities for failing to deal with the pension problem while it was still manageable. Mr. Reed agreed. “I have to accept my share of the responsibility,” he said. “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Now, he said, city workers must understand that the 10 percent pay cut they accepted a few years ago, in a previous attempt to right the city’s imbalance, was not sufficient to solve the problem and that deep, painful pension and retiree health care changes were needed.

State and local officials have failed their constituencies with unsustainable spending. Instead of pursuing “counter-cyclical fiscal policy”, saving when times are good to have a cushion when times are bad, these officials have used taxpayer money to show all the “benefits” that have accrued during their time in office. The end result of ignoring the costs is that during times of economic downturn–when public services and jobs are most needed–there is no money to fund these essential services.

The Federal government must step up to fill this void in the name of the interests of American taxpayers.

In terms of private corporate subsidies, the federal government has the resources to negotiate with large corporations. It also has the resources to conduct strong cost-benefit analysis and determine needs based subsidies, as opposed to a money grab under the guise of maximizing shareholder value. And perhaps most importantly, the federal government will not have to bid against any other parties, as it represents every municipality within the United States. It will be able to secure the best deal for the municipality, not the worst deal.

When it comes to public services, the federal government has the benefit of being insulated from the short-sighted demands of taxpayers. While local and state officials rely on being re-elected, an appointed federal committee should in theory be able to consider the costs and benefits of any potential deal with greater prudence.

State and local governments have failed to secure good deals for their taxpayers when negotiating with both the private and public sectors. These bad deals are systematic; they are the manifestation of short-sighted political aspirations and power imbalances. It is time the Federal government got into the business of making sure that American tax-payers are getting their moneys worth.

Federal oversight would be in public  workers best interests as well; while they may get slightly less generous benefits, they will have the comfort of knowing that the deals they have struck will not be reneged. It would also help avoid ugly litigation which pits civil society against the civil servants who serve them, and want only to receive what they were promised in the first place. 


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Conflict Watch: Austerity v. Human Rights

Original article:

“Austerity cuts in Spain could lead to the effective dismantling of large parts of its healthcare system and significantly damage the health of the population, according to a study published on Thursday.”

“The study published in the British medical Journal (BMJ) found that Spain’s national budget cuts of almost 14 percent and regional budget cuts of up to 10 percent in health and social services in 2012 have coincided with increased demands for care, particularly from the elderly, disabled and mentally ill.

The researchers also noted increases in depression, alcohol-related disorders and suicides in Spain since the financial crisis hit and unemployment increased.”

“The findings in Spain chime with other studies in Europe and North America which found budget cuts had a devastating effect on health, driving up suicides, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care.”

“‘If no corrective measures are implemented, this could worsen with the risk of increases in HIV and tuberculosis — as we have seen in Greece where healthcare services have had severe cuts — as well as the risk of a rise in drug resistance and spread of disease,’ said Helena Legido-Quigley, a lecturer in Global Health at LSHTM who worked with McKee.”

“In a book published in April, researchers said around 10,000 suicides and a million cases of depression had been diagnosed during what they called the “Great Recession” and the austerity measures that have come with it across Europe and North America.”

This is Spain we are talking about here–a high income, EU country. Perhaps incomes are too high, as unemployment remains above 27.2% (and 57 % for people under 25). Since Spain is a Euro country, it cannot devalue it’s currency to bring its wages back to a competitive level, it must pursue painful “internal devaluation”–a mixture of austerity and structural reform that has a contractionary effect on the economy in the short-run (especially when the fiscal-multiplier is >1, as evidence suggests it currently is).

This is of course unacceptable. Fiscal constraints did not stop large scale financial sector bailouts or military expenditure, but when it comes to financing social programs needed for governments to fulfill their basic human rights obligations there is suddenly no money available. Clearly governments around the world have their priorities out of order.

Unemployment, especially long term unemployment and youth unemployment, has a corrosive effect on society. In America, people are outraged over 8% unemployment, can you imagine a rate 300% higher? 700% higher!? There is literally Great Depression level unemployment in Spain and Greece, now 5 years after the Great Recession began.

The corrosive impact of unemployment creates a vicious cycle of human suffering. A lack of demand leads companies to lay workers off. Lower output leads to less tax revenue for the government, and global economic factors made resources scarcer, driving up borrowing costs. Governments, unable to borrow  money at reasonable rates, must slash social programs and government employment.

The unemployed, increasingly pessimistic, turn to risky behavior, including prostitution and drug use. This in turn leads to greater unfulfilled health needs, including untreated mental disorders. Long term unemployment, drug use, physical and mental illness all deteriorate worker skills, making them increasingly dependent on shrinking government resources. Stigmatization, the idea that the unemployed and homeless are that way because they are lazy or bad, becomes self-fulfilling.

Anti-social behavior becomes the norm, and before long even those who were not directly affected by the economic downturn begin to experience the realities of general societal degradation–increased crime and reduced personal security. Taken to it’s extreme, austerity in the face of a depressed economy lays the groundwork for protracted social conflict (PSC).   

The problem here is that social programs are being cut precisely when people need them the most. Fiscal policy should be counter-cyclical. When times are good, a prudent nation will save money for a rainy day. This is what President Clinton was attempting, and had President Bush’s “starve the beast” tax and military policies not bankrupted America, our national debt would be much lower today.

But America is seen as a safe haven, allowing debt to be rolled-over sustainably despite a high debt/GDP ration. If anything, Obamacare is evidence that the U.S. government is moving in the direction of greater public service expenditure.

This is not the case in Europe. Due to a lack of fiscal integration, peripheral EU countries (the GIPSI countries) suffered from higher interest rates (nobody wanted to lend to them as them scrambled to rescue a failing banking sector) leading to a “sovereign debt crisis”. The European Central Bank eventually decided to play the “lender of last resort” role, but on the condition that economically crippling austerity measures are passed.

It has always been clear that austerity programs have adverse human rights implications. The programs that are cut go predominantly to the most vulnerable people–human rights violations tend to compound one another.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, Europe is not heading for anarchy and regular unchecked violence in the streets. However, in some areas protests have already become the norm, and such a future is not impossible to foresee especially if the combination of depression-level unemployment rates, anti-social behavior, and crippling austerity persists.

Recently, the IMF admitted it was wrong about its the impact it believed austerity would have in Greece. This lesson will be painfully learned in many other countries unless something is done to fix this mistake (ending austerity conditions in order to unlock bailout loans). Admitting you made a mistake is the first step towards redress and accountability–it is past time governments were held accountable for their human rights obligations, in both the developing and developed world.

Only when human rights obligations are fulfilled can we achieve sustainable human development and economic growth, predominantly through the real and creative economies (as opposed to unsustainable economic development based on “financialization“).

However, this is only the first step, now international economic institutions have to “put their money where their mouths are” and make up for the needless suffering caused by general incompetence.

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