Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90% of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100B+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for […] Read More

Raise the Minimum Wage, or Lower the Cost of Living?

Increases to the minimum wage in California are moving closer to reality. As reported on March 30th by MyNewsLA.com, “Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis will ask their colleagues to approve spending up to $95,000 to have the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation review a series of studies of the issue performed in relation to the city of Los Angeles’ proposal to raise the minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017 and to $15.25 an hour by 2019.”

California’s minimum wage is currently $9.00 per hour. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour.

Largely lost in the debate over the “fight for fifteen” (dollars per hour) is America’s inflation adjusted minimum wage based on historical precedents. It’s an interesting topic that deserves discussion, because historical minimum wages expressed in 2015 dollars vary a great deal. Since establishing the first federal minimum wage in 1938, the amount has been adjusted 22 times. As can be seen on the chart, between 1938 and 1968 the minimum wage expressed in 2015 dollars rose steadily. In 2015 dollars, for example, the 1938 minimum wage would be $4.13, rising to $11.01 per hour by 1968. Since then, it has been in decline – in 2015 dollars the minimum wage was roughly between $9.00 and $10.00 per hour during the 1970’s, then fell to roughly between $7.00 and $8.00 from 1980 through 2009, when it was last adjusted.

Historical Minimum Wages Expressed in 2015 Dollars […] Read More

The Abundance Choice

The prevailing challenge facing humanity when confronted with resource constraints is not that we are running out of resources, but how we will adapt and create new and better solutions to meet the needs that currently are being met by what are arguably scarce or finite resources. If one accepts this premise, that we are not threatened by diminishing resources, but rather by the possibility that we won’t successfully adapt and innovate to create new resources, a completely different perspective on resource scarcity and resource policies may emerge.

Across every fundamental area of human needs, history demonstrates that as technology and freedom is advanced, new solutions evolve to meet them. Despite tragic setbacks of war or famine that provide examples to contradict this optimistic claim, overall the lifestyle of the average human being has inexorably improved across the centuries. While it is easy to examine specific consumption patterns today and suggest we now face a tipping point wherein shortages of key resources will overwhelm us, if one examines key resources one at a time, there is a strong argument that such a catastrophe, if it does occur, will be the result of war, corruption, or misguided adherence to counterproductive ideologies, and not because there were not solutions readily available through human creativity and advancing technology.

Energy, water and land are, broadly speaking, the three resources one certainly might argue are finite and must be scrupulously managed. But in each case, a careful examination provides ample evidence to contradict this claim. […] Read More

An Economic Win-Win For California – Lower the Cost of Living

A frequent and entirely valid point made by representatives of public sector unions is that their membership, government workers, need to be able to afford to live in the cities and communities they serve. The problem with that argument, however, is thatnobody can afford to live in these cities and communities, especially in California.

There are a lot of reasons for California’s high cost of living, but the most crippling by far is the price of housing. Historically, and still today in markets where land development is relatively unconstrained, the median home price is about four times the median household income. In Northern California’s Santa Clara County, the median home price in October 2014 was $699,750, eight times the median household income of $88,215. Even people earning twice the median household income in Santa Clara County will have a very hard time ever paying off a home that costs this much. And if they lose their job, they lose their home. But is land scarce in California?

The answer to this question, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is almost indisputably no. As documented in an earlier post, “California’s Green Bantustans,” “According to the American Farmland Trust, of California’s 163,000 square miles, there are 25,000 square miles of grazing land and 42,000 square miles of agricultural land; of that, 14,000 square miles are prime agricultural land. Think about this. You could put 10 million new residents into homes, four per household, on half-acre lots, and you would only consume […] Read More

Reinventing America’s Unions for the 21st Century

Critics have suggested that leaders of the labor movement suffer from economic illiteracy that has made them the architects of their own demise. The unwillingness of unions to make concessions in the face of global competition starting in the 1960’s was a major factor in Americans losing millions of union jobs. In the present day, unions push for minimum wage hikes well beyond what inflation might justify (about $9.00 to $10.00 per hour), with “fight for fifteen” campaigns which, if successful, will carry the unintended consequences of higher unemployment and accelerated small-business failures. Today only about 7% of America’s private sector workers belong to unions.

One can also make the case that unions are becoming irrelevant because much of what they fought for is now enshrined in law. Labor laws protect workers from wrongful termination. OSHA standards ensure workplace safety. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host of other social welfare programs all provide a safety net for the aged, disabled and unemployed. The Affordable Care Act, fraught with flaws that will hopefully either get repealed or replaced, at least guarantees anyone can purchase health insurance. Has the justification for unions in America largely withered away because of their successes?

What role, if any, should unions play in 21st century America?

The most difficult challenge to finding a consensus model for unions in 21st century America is the polarizing rhetoric that passes for discourse. Among pundits who are rewarded by the size of the audiences they can attract, or analysts […] Read More

How to Create Affordable Abundance in California

California has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. California also is one of the most inhospitable places to run a business in the United States. And despite being blessed with abundant energy and an innovative tradition that ought to render the supply of all basic resources abundant and cheap, California has artificially created shortages of energy, land and water, and a crumbling, inadequate transportation and public utility infrastructure.

The reason for these policy failures is because the people who run California are the public sector unions who control the machinery of government, the career aspirations of government bureaucrats, the electoral fate of politicians, and the regulatory environment of the business community. To make it work, these unions have exempted government workers, along with compliant corporations and those who are wealthy enough to be indifferent, from the hardships their policies have created for everyone else.

Here’s just a taste of what California’s middle class, too rich to qualify for government handouts and too poor to be indifferent, has to endure compared to the rest of the United States:

CALIFORNIA’S PREMIUM, 2014 – HIGH PRICES FOR THE BASICS

It’s not hard to estimate how these premiums, 13% for gasoline, 42% for electricity, and 72% for homes, translate into the necessity to work and earn tens of thousands of dollars more each year in order to live in California instead of almost anywhere else in America. As for the tax and regulatory environment, respected […] Read More

California’s Green Bantustans

One of the core barriers to economic prosperity in California is the price of housing. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Policies designed to stifle the ability to develop land are based on flawed premises. These policies prevail because they are backed by environmentalists, and, most importantly, because they have played into the agenda of crony capitalists, Wall Street financiers, and public sector unions. But while the elites have benefit, ordinary working families have been condemned to pay extreme prices in mortgages, property taxes, or rents, to live in confined, unhealthy, ultra high-density neighborhoods. It is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, but instead of racial superiority as the supposed moral justification, environmentalism is the religion of the day. The result is identical.

Earlier this month an economist writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Mark J. Perry, published a chart proving that over the past four years, more new homes were built in one city, Houston Texas, than in the entire state of California. We republished Perry’s article earlier this week, “California vs. Texas in one chart.” The population of greater Houston is 6.3 million people. The population of California is 38.4 million people. California, with six times as many people as Houston, built fewer homes.

And when there’s a shortage, prices rise. The median home price in Houston is $184,000. The median price of a home in Los Angeles is $530,000, nearly three times as much as a home in Houston. The median price of […] Read More

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street

Taken at surface value, there ought to be minimal identity of interests between these three special interests. But if you follow the money and power instead of the rhetoric and stereotypes, you will find this unhealthy alliance is alive and thriving. For example, unions use “greenmail,” the threat of a lawsuit on environmentalist grounds, to block developments until the businesses involved concede to union demands. Once they back down, the environmental problem magically disappears.

California’s much vaunted high-speed rail and delta tunnel proposals are also examples of the unhealthy rapprochement between unions (public and private) and environmentalists. Because the construction unions, God bless ’em, want thousands of good new construction jobs, and the only big projects that are environmentally correct are these monstrosities. The unions have a choice – fight the environmentalists in order to lobby for public works that actually yield economic benefits to society, or enjoy their considerable support for a couple of misguided mega-projects.

Beyond obvious examples, how unions, environmentalists, and America’s overbuilt financial sector collude – often unwittingly, does not lend itself to emotionally resonant, simple narrative. It can’t be expressed in a few declarative sentences. But because this web of collusion is stunting the economic growth of America and systematically destroying its middle class, it is a story that must be told. Here are some points that all exemplify the chain of cause and effect, linking the interests of public sector unions, environmentalists, and Wall Street.

Public sector unions demand, and get, over-market compensation and […] Read More

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles

The title of this post expresses what is probably the greatest example of a monstrous hypocrisy – that public employee unions, and the pension funds they control, are supposedly helping the American economy, and protecting the American people from “the bankers.” Overpriced “bubble” assets caused by banks offering low interest rates hurt ordinary working people in two ways – they cannot afford to buy homes, and they are denied any sort of viable low risk investment opportunity. But without an endlessly appreciating asset bubble, every public employee pension fund in the United States would go broke.

The inspiration for this post is a guest column published on April 27th in the Huffington Post entitled “The Real Retirement Crisis,” authored by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. The totality of Weingarten’s column, a depressing plethora of misleading statistics and questionable assertions, compels a response:

Weingarten writes: “America has a retirement crisis, but it’s not what some people want you to believe it is. It’s not the defined benefit pension plans that public employees pay into over a lifetime of work, which provide retirees an average of $23,400 annually…”

Here we go again. This claim is one of the biggest distortions coming out of the public sector union PR machine, and despite repeated clarification even in the mainstream press, they keep using it, faithfully counting on low-information voters to believe them. “An average of $23,400 annually.” Not in California. In the golden state, public employee pensions average […] Read More

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy

One primary reason California has the highest cost-of-living (and cost of doing business) in America, combined with a crumbling infrastructure, is because California’s construction unions have allied themselves with environmental extremists and crony “green” capitalists, instead of fighting for what might actually help their state.

California’s construction unions ought to take a look around the rest of the country, where thousands of jobs are being created in the energy industries – really good jobs – doing something that actually helps ordinary people. Because the natural gas revolution unleashed in North Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio is creating thousands of jobs in those states at the same time as it lowers the cost of energy for consumers who struggle to make ends meet.

More generally, construction unions should remember that it is not only how much their own members earn that matters, but how much things cost everyone. If things cost less, you can make less yet enjoy the same standard of living. When unions fight for high paying jobs on projects that are useless, they only help themselves. When they fight for projects – such as natural gas development – that lower the cost of energy, they are helping everyone.

The California Public Policy Center released a new study this week entitled “The Benefits and Costs of Oil and Gas Development in California,” written by Dr. Tim Considine, an energy economist with the University of Wyoming. In the study, Considine estimates the […] Read More