Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.


Perverse Incentives

I know this chart has probably been floating around the Internet for a while, but I recently came across it, and it really made me think.

The chart lists 30 major corporations, their profits for 2011, the amount of taxes each paid that year, and the amounts they paid lobbyists. A majority of those listed  paid zero taxes on massive profits, thanks to various provisions of the tax code. Many of them actually got money back, again, courtesy of those same arcane provisions. Virtually all of them spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government; in every case, the amounts spent to influence policy far exceeded the amounts paid in taxes.

What’s wrong with this picture?

There are often sound reasons for using the tax code to encourage behaviors that benefit the greater society. If we want more energy, for example, and we recognize that the costs of exploration and the risk of coming up dry are high, it makes sense to provide a tax incentive to ameliorate that risk. If we want businesses to modernize, to invest in equipment that will make them more productive, offering them the ability to write off those investments over the useful life of the equipment is reasonable. There are many other examples.

The problem comes when the incentives bear no reasonable relationship to the behaviors they are intended to encourage–when those well-compensated lobbyists manage to persuade lawmakers to favor their clients by inserting special provisions in the law or special treatment in the tax code. In the case of oil and gas, for example, companies have not only benefitted from obscenely favorable tax provisions, but have negotiated leases of public lands on terms that have been widely criticized as giveaways.  Here in Indiana, Leucadia–a politically well-connected energy company–will benefit from a 30-year agreement with the state that effectively shields the company’s new coal gasification plant from unfavorable market conditions. 

Leucadia is hardly an isolated example. There’s a reason someone coined the term “crony capitalism.”

The well-connected and powerful have always been able to influence policy. To a certain extent, it’s an unavoidable aspect of human society. But in 21st Century America, we are dangerously close to corrupting the system, eviscerating checks and balances, and institutionalizing a caste system. Recent studies have documented America’s depressing loss of social mobility. Headlines routinely report the self-dealing of Wall Street bankers and financiers, along with the outrageous salaries and bonuses that bear no relationship to their performance. Jack Abramov, the disgraced lobbyist whose name has become synonymous with K-Street and Washington deal-making, is trying to rehabilitate his reputation in interviews sharing “chapter and verse” of influence-peddling in the nation’s capital, and the picture he paints is not pretty.

Local business-people, shop-owners, mom-and-pop enterprises and other middle-class Americans go to work every day, follow the rules, and pay their taxes when due. They don’t have agents working the halls of the legislature to get them special deals. They don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to contribute to Super-Pacs, and Citizens United didn’t free them to donate megabucks to buy a Congressman or two.

Shouldn’t the major corporations that are profiting so handsomely also be paying taxes to the country that makes those profits possible? Those companies depend upon workers educated in our public schools. They rely on our courts to enforce their contracts. Their trucks drive on roads paved by American taxpayers. Tax-supported police and fire-fighters protect their warehouses. Why do they prefer to pay millions to lobby for special advantage rather than simply using that money to pay their fair share of the costs to maintain our physical and social infrastructure?

What are the incentives that lead those who are already rich and privileged to seek even more by gaming the system?


Champions of Free Enterprise…Not

The phrase that sums up so many of the sweetheart deals our elected officials seem to favor is “socialization of risk, privatization of profit.” It’s a phrase that perfectly describes the boondoggle that is the Rockport Coal Gasification project in Southern Indiana.

I first heard about Rockport when the plant was being built, from a relative whose company has a contract to work on the construction. He couldn’t believe the waste he encountered. As he noted, however, construction managers can afford to get sloppy when they know the burden of cost overruns will be borne by the rate-payers.

Then I had lunch with an acquaintance who’s spent 30+ years in the energy business. In the course of our conversation, he referred to the deal as “crony capitalism,” and explained how it began and how it will work: When gas prices were high, Leucadia National Corporation proposed building a plant in Rockport to turn coal into synthetic natural gas. The company would then enter into long-term, fixed-price contracts to sell that synthetic gas to utilities. This would provide a hedge against volatility and escalating prices–at the time, those rising prices were thought to be inevitable. Instead, thanks to fracking and other measures taken by the gas and oil companies, gas prices plunged, and the deal didn’t look so good. The utilities lost interest.

Mark Lubbers, a longtime confidante of Governor Daniels, is CEO of Leucadia. He evidently prevailed upon the Governor to enter into a deal that will protect Leucadia from the pesky risks of that free market Republicans claim to revere. The State stepped in to buy Rockport’s gas at a fixed price for 30 years; the state will then turn around and sell it to the utilities on the open market. “Profits” from the sales will be split between the company and the state. Losses–which are far, far more likely–will be eaten by the ratepayers. In other words, you and I assume the risks. Leucadia gets the rewards.

According to The Indianapolis Star, the deal will add $1.1 billion to Hoosier energy bills over eight years.

If the financial chutzpah this deal represents weren’t enough, environmental advocates are highlighting environmental and health risks attendant to the project. Yesterday, representatives of the Sierra Club, Citizens Action Coalition and Community Action of Greater Indianapolis called on Citizens Energy to defend its ratepayers and join Vectren in objecting to the deal. (Since Indiana’s Court of Appeals recently overturned the contract between Indiana and Leucadia, on grounds not relevant to the basics of this cozy deal,  folks who object to going forward have another “window of opportunity” to derail it.)

The economic justification for high returns on investment, high salaries and big profits, is the element of risk. It’s a truism of genuine markets: No risk, no reward. When entrepreneurs invest in new enterprises, they put those investments at risk. If and when the new enterprise succeeds, they deserve to profit.  This is called capitalism, and it has produced higher standards of living than any other economic system yet devised.

I don’t know what you call incestuous arrangements like Leucadia, or all the other cozy deals where well-connected businesses get to use taxpayers as hedges against market risk.

But it sure as hell isn’t capitalism.


Welfare Dependent

Since the Romney campaign is making welfare recipients a central focus of their advertising barrage, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the identity of those who are–pardon the vulgarity–“sucking at the public tit.”

Common Dreams has published a list of entitlements, and who gets what. According to their analysis, social welfare programs cost taxpayers some 59 billion dollars a year. Corporate welfare, on the other hand, costs us much more.

What do they count as corporate welfare? Well, fossil fuel industries get more than $70 billion dollars annually in subsidies–most of which goes to the oil and gas sector. Another $58 billion a year is lost to the Treasury by reason of tax “deferrals” for off-shore profits. Taxing capital gains at 15% rather than at the rates imposed on wage and salary income costs another $59 billion, while hedge fund managers are able to avoid some $2.1 billion in taxes each year due to something called “carried interest.” (I have absolutely no idea what that is, but then, I’ve never been a hedge fund manager, never represented one when I was a practicing lawyer, and never even played one on TV.)

And those are just a few of the garden-variety, built-into-the-system subsidies. The bank bailout cost us $700 billion. And while most of that was apparently paid back–and we really did have to avert a global meltdown–the terms of those “loans” could have been less favorable to the banksters and more protective of the rest of us.

When I read these numbers, I was dubious about their accuracy. Everyone seems to be playing fast and loose with the facts these days, and Common Dreams is a liberal-leaning organization. So I did some research, and  found verification in an unlikely place–Forbes Magazine. Here’s a quote from a Forbes article on the deficit:

Among the most outrageous expenditures is corporate welfare. Desperate businesses now overrun Washington, begging for alms. Believing that profits should be theirs while losses should be everyone else’s, corporations have convinced policymakers to underwrite virtually every industry: agriculture, education, energy, housing, manufacturing, medicine, transportation, and much more.

My Cato Institute colleague Tad DeHaven has published a new study, “Corporate Welfare in the Federal Budget,” on business subsidies, which he figures to cost about $100 billion a year. Slashing corporate welfare obviously won’t balance the budget—which is why middle class and defense welfare also have to go on the chopping block. However, cutting business subsidies would be a good start to balancing the budget. Moreover, going after corporate welfare is essential to create a budget package that the public will see as fair.

Not every subsidy is bad policy, of course. There are sound reasons for encouraging some new enterprises, or saving endangered ones. (I’d argue that rescuing the American automobile industry averted catastrophic economic losses.) But those reasons need to be publicly vetted, debated and justified. Right now, we have ample reason to believe that most corporate welfare is the result of cozy dealings between  campaign donors, lobbyists and legislators. There’s a reason it’s called “crony capitalism.”

Before we nod approvingly at the self-righteous candidates who are beating up on those “shiftless” poor folks, maybe we should take a closer look at the other end of the income spectrum. Maybe we should look at the well-fed and prosperous folks who are so un-self-aware that they don’t even recognize that they are just as dependent on welfare as the people they like to diminish and scorn.


TIFS as Crony Capitalism?

I’m on the mailing list of the libertarian Cato Institute (and the Republican and Democratic parties, among other strange bedfellows). I am fond of Cato–not because I agree with them on very many issues, but because–unlike the Republican Party–they are intellectually consistent. So I was very interested to receive a (snail mail–no link) report titled “Crony Capitalism and Social Engineering: the Case against Tax-Increment Financing.”

For those of you unfamiliar with TIFs, the concept is fairly simple. In order to induce development of projects that would not otherwise be economically viable (sometimes called the “but for” test, as in “but for the economic assistance, the project wouldn’t be built), the municipality caps the property taxes at the rate being paid prior to the new development, and plows the added taxes into the development for a period of time, in order to bridge the gap.

The Executive Summary makes several points:

1) By diverting the “extra” tax dollars generated to the project, those dollars are lost to the schools, libraries, fire departments and other urban services. In a sense, those services are also subsidizing the development. (To which proponents of TIF financing would respond, yes, but if the project would not otherwise get built, and if the abatement ends after a reasonable period of time–after which those urban services do receive the extra income–everyone benefits.)

2) Studies have shown that cities are not really applying the “but for” test. Many of these projects would have been built without the extra help. (Whoops!)

3) The new developments impose added costs on schools, fire departments, etc., so other taxpayers are either subsidizing the added burden imposed by the development until such time as the abatement ends, or getting reduced services during that time.

4) No matter how well-intended these programs, officials will often give in to the temptation to use TIFs as a vehicle for crony capitalism, providing subsidies for developers who in turn provide campaign funds to those same officials.

The Cato report has other problems with TIF financing, primarily because it is often used to support denser in-city developments over suburban low-density ones. In my opinion, that’s an argument FOR rather than an argument AGAINST–as the techies might say, that’s a feature, not a bug. But it is hard to argue with their other criticisms.

This is what makes policymaking so difficult. If  TIFs are used as originally intended–and used selectively–they can be a very useful tool.  When I was in city hall, in the early days of their use, I was a proponent. But at that time, TIFs were being used by urban governments to level the playing field–to compete with the lower costs of suburban development. Over the years, the tool has been adopted by smaller bedroom communities like Carmel and Greenwood–and developers have learned to play “let’s make a deal,” in essence turning TIFs into bargaining chips. One result has been that the “but for” test is history. And when the “but for” test was gone, so was the original justification for the program.

Unfortunately, selective use of TIFs has gone the way of the “but for” test. Here in Indianapolis, if news stories are to be believed, the Ballard Administration is proposing to turn the whole urban core into TIFs. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But not much.)

It’s just further evidence that the Cato report is correct when it notes that TIFs have “become a way for city governments to capture taxes that would otherwise go to rival tax entities such as school or library districts.”