A New Episode of Bureaucrats Gone Wild

What can be done about unaccountable bureaucrats who waste taxpayer dollars?

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.

Defined Benefit Pension Systems

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.

Public-sector Unions

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.

Republished from Dan Mitchell's blog.

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