Saturday, February 19, 2011

Public sector pay

I've been hearing over and over again that public workers are not overpaid. Yes, they make more than private-sector workers, but when you look at their educational levels, they're really underpaid.

It would take some serious econometric analysis to answer the question definitively, but my knee-jerk reaction is "nonsense." If comparing college-educated public workers to uneducated private workers is apples and oranges, then comparing college educated teachers to college educated engineers is apples and kumquats.

About half the public workers at the state and local level are teachers. Teaching requires a college degree, most private jobs don't, and so it's clear that public workers will be better educated on average than private workers.

Unfortunately, a college degree isn't by itself a good measure of education. Different majors attract students with different academic abilities. People who can do chemical engineering don't typically get education degrees. They know that chemical engineers make more, and the discipline is more intellectually challenging. The best students go into engineering, medicine, finance and the like, not education and sociology.

I've known many fine teachers, some of them with fine minds and able to do well in any discipline they choose. The performance of teachers on tests like Texas' TExES/ExCET don't create confidence that the fine teachers are the norm, though. There are way too many tenured time servers in our school systems who have the intellectual skills of a hamster and much less intellectual curiosity. They aren't underpaid.

Educational administration is another place where there are too many people making too much money. The ranks of administrators should be ruthlessly culled, the money saved put into the pockets of classroom teachers (after we've done a bit of culling there, too).

The Last Ringbearer

For you Lord of the Rings fans, there's a Russian novel written from the perspective of the losers in the War of the Rings. It's been translated into English and made available for free download. Apparently it must be free in order to avoid the wrath of the Tolkien estate, which guards its copyrights much more zealously and effectively than Sauron guarded Orodruin. Sauron as proto-scientific enlightened despot, Mordor as emerging technological state, elves as alien and backwards guardians of a feudal way of life - interesting. I haven't read it yet so won't endorse it, but I plan to download it to my Kindle if I can. Download it here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What happens in Vegas...

I heard that advertising slogan again the other day, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." I attended a conference several years ago in Yalta. One evening a game of "truth or dare" broke out in my hotel suite (I managed to luck into a suite with a living room) while I wasn't there, and when I got back I found a young Slavic scholar seated on the stomach of a sleeping attorney as she sang "on the good ship lollypop." I ordered the party out of my room, and learned the next day that the game went considerably down-hill from there, with a now well-known political scientist wandering the halls naked with his glasses perched a couple of feel lower than is customary. On the train back to Kiyiv, a normally prim and mature sociologist commented, "I guess we took a vacation from our morals."

You can't take a vacation from your morals, and what happens in Vegas doesn't stay there. It goes home with you. That's because our morals aren't a coat we can wear or take off at will, but a distillation of who we are. I'm not talking morals in the narrow sexual sense, but in the broader sense of our code of right and wrong. I don't care what you believe about premarital sex or treating sleeping attorneys like pleasure boats, but rather what you believe is the right way to behave. If you don't behave that way, it changes you. The man who abandons his morals in Vegas goes home a man who's abandoned his morals, period. If you can slip out of them, they aren't yours.

Taking a vacation from your morals is like taking a vacation from yourself, an impossibility. Leaving your indiscretions in Vegas is only sneaky and covert, not a free pass on life. The person you are in Vegas is the person you brought with you, and the person you are in Vegas is the person you take home to Iowa or Maine or Mississippi. As I think about it, that advertising campaign is a vile lie.

Las Vegas is like old age; it just lets you be who you really are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

50 Neoclassicists and a Keynesian

The problems in Wisconsin illustrate a rather difficult point for economic stimulators in Washington: They're surrounded by 50 governments that have to balance the books. There you are trying to goose the economy with Keynesian medicine, and the states are running in the opposite direction. They have to. They have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions and on the books. Spending has to be cut, and you can't make up for it with the electorate by giving everyone a tax cut.

The Federal government doesn't know whether to pursue expansionary fiscal policy or not. On the one hand they cut taxes (expansionary) and on the other hand are newly converted deficit hawks. At least by Washington standards. If I ever cut the projected growth of our household budget and tried to sell it to my wife as a budget cut, she'd laugh at me and take away my TV watching privileges. Or at least she'd block MSNBC.

Whichever policies the states are pursuing, they're emphatically not the policy Obama would like.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A couple of Valentine's Day thoughts

220 284

"All that I am is you and me; all that you are is me and you."

The numbers are perfect numbers, and better yet, they're an amicable pair. And so:

s(a) = a+b = s(b)

Okay, that one was sort of nerdy. I like the way my grandmother was "proposed to" by my grandfather. Her sister showed up at the store where she was working and said, "Nita, come home and take a bath. You're getting married."

And on that note, here's my Valentine's Day column at The Washington Times Communities.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democracy and economic stability

I heard a commentator on NPR claim yesterday that Egypt needs democracy now in order to produce greater economic growth. That assertion - democracy now, growth later - has been gaining volume, and it's problematic.

I think it much more likely that the true state of affairs is that prosperity is a prerequisite for stable democratic institutions to take root. When people are relatively poor, when they don't have jobs, and when they see prosperity around them that they can't touch, they're not going to be in a mood to support their government, whatever form that government might take. If you drop democracy into Egypt and it doesn't produce change right now, it will get brushed aside.

Russia is an example of that, twice over. The Kerensky government didn't get Russia out of WWI, it didn't produce immediate positive change, and it was swept aside. The organizational skill of the Bolsheviks make that a weaker example than the more recent democratization of Russia in 1992-5. That also failed to improve living standards and people started talking very fondly about "strong leaders" (Stalin, for example) and "forceful measures" to right the economy.

The Egyptian economy was growing at a decent clip over the last few years, but the growth was lop-sided, the poor stayed poor and the jobless stayed jobless. I don't think that democracy is a bad idea in Egyp (I think it a very good one, actually), but if it isn't accompanied by real market reform and improving living standards, it won't last. What's needed are strong institutions to protect economic liberty - property rights and courts willing to protect them, transparent government and vigorous prosecution of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, and so on. Egypt has a relatively strong civil society (something the Russians didnt') and is in a better situation than many other countries to grow democracy now, but if people think that democracy will fix anything and flourish on its own, they're badly mistaken.