Many of my faithful readers know that I often refer to politics as “the only game in town”. By now, some will deduce my reasoning behind this statement, while others will probably remain guessing. Using figurative language is one thing, using metaphors and analogies is another; but the reality still is that political involvement means dealing with real people and tangible challenges: and that should automatically be the good parts to politics. And yet -too often in my regard- political involvement can lead to some really sad outcomes.
This morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released annual average employment data for 2013, along with rebenchmarked data for that year and the years preceding. I’ve downloaded some of the data to review trends in local government and other employment, from 1990 (the earliest year now available) to last year, for New York City and the Rest of New York State. The data show that local government employment was 23,400 (5.0%) lower in New York City in 2013 than it had been in 1990. In the rest of the state, in contrast, local government employment was 79,800 (14.6%) higher. With regard to the private sector workers that have to pay taxes to support public employees, on the other hand, if one excludes the Health Care and Social Assistance sector (which is substantially government funded) New York City had 226,100 more in 2013 than it had in 1990. The rest of New York State had 2,900 (0.1%) fewer private sector workers in 2013 than in 1990, the Health Care and Social Assistance sector aside.
While those are the changes from 1990 to 2013, however, there was a big break in the direction of things from 2009 to 2013, as compared with 1990 to 2009. The rest of the state, coming off the Great Recession lows, has been adding private sector jobs, while local government has been losing jobs. More commentary, the data and some charts may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”
Look I know that "medical marijuana" is for many a Trojan Horse, and the real goal is to legalize marijuana use for the purpose of getting high. And as a means to raise revenues to be redistributed to those who control the New York State legislature. That is, after all, where the lottery money eventually went.
Even so, I can't help but note the hypocrisy of putting a 10% tax on "medical marijuana" in the State Assembly budget, as reported by Crain's. Are not healing drugs for sick people exempt from sales taxes in this state? If so there should be no additional revenues if the marijuana is "medical." In fact, unless more people spent more time getting high, there could be less revenue as highly taxed alcohol users switch to tax-exempt pot. (The same may be said for legalizing wine in food stores -- no additional drinking, no additional revenues).
As a German economist once pointed out, while any individual business can increase its profits (and thus executive pay, if shareholders are powerless) by paying its workers less, businesses in general must turn around and sell things to those same workers to make money. As inequality rises what they gain in the labor market they lose in the consumer market, as they must cut prices to make sales or see their sales fall. The same may be said of trade – country A can only sell goods and services to country B if country B has the money to pay for it, from selling to country A or someone else. For these reasons, debt and inequality go together. Debt allows businesses to pay workers less and yet sell them more, and countries with trade surpluses to sell to countries with trade deficits. And so it has been in the United States.
The Federal Reserve released the latest data on U.S. debts, for 2013, last week. Charts, a spreadsheet and related commentary may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”
I’d like to thank the current Czar of Russia for making my job here a lot easier by proving the point that any celebration of nationalism is inherently politically, which makes discussions of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade so much easier by shoveling off from the conversation a large layer of bovine-related excrement.
Another month, another Gateway.
There are two points of view with regard to how much of the cost of subway and commuter rail mass transit, ideally, would be covered by the fare. One viewpoint is that the fare should be as subsidized as possible, or even eliminated, and that the transit system should be as dependent as on funds allocated by politicians )whose backers tend to be other, more powerful interests.) That is the point of view held by politicians themselves, who like to cast themselves as “fighting for the people” to “save the fare” while never actually coming up with the money, forcing the MTA to borrow instead. And the Straphangers Campaign, the very effective lobbyist for past transit riders in competition with the interests of current and future transit riders. And some of those affiliated with organizations like Streetsblog, who believe that transit is so morally superior, in an environmental sense, to driving that mass transit should be paid for entirely by drivers. And, contradictorily, that driving should be drastically reduced.
I, on the other hand, believe that the higher the share of subway and commuter rail transit costs that is covered by the fare, the better off transit riders will be, now and in the future. Covering costs frees the transit system from having to beg a political class that drives everywhere and believes mass transit if for the serfs. It frees the transit system from attack from those living in places with less mass transit. And it ensures the viability of the transit system, and the city’s economy, in a future characterized by shrinking public resources and lower incomes.
Metro New York’s mass transit ridership has been booming. The condition of its infrastructure hasn’t been this good for 80 years. Significant improvements in the quality of the transit experience continue to be added, most recently with the “Bustime” system. And yet the metro area’s mass transit network, and thus its economy, may face a bleak future. As I noted in this post, for 20 years, the city and state governments (and the generations their politicians represented) have been unwilling to pay for the ongoing replacement and renewal of the transit (and road) infrastructure. They have borrowed for it instead. And as a result, younger generations face a choice between ending ongoing renewal and replacement, and allowing the system to deteriorate until its eventual collapse (the path the New York City Housing Authority is on), or paying twice – once for their own obligations, and a second time for the obligations shirked in the past.
We got into this situation because Generation Greed insisted on an “everybody wins” deal for itself, with big fare cuts relative to inflation, pension increases for unionized employees, tax revenues diverted to other things, and soaring payments to contractors for MTA projects. Getting out of this situation is still possible, but it would require sacrifice across the board. Although it is probably a waste of time, given that the same politicians backed by the same interests are still in charge, I’ve decided to write about what some of those sacrifices could be, starting with a contribution by the City of New York.
In my prior post, I noted that from 2007 to 2012 overall U.S. inflation was 10.7%, and the average annual pay of most Downstate New York workers increased just 8.0%. Wall Street pay fell. But based on data from the National Transit Database (NTD), the total operating cost per employee work hour for MTA component agencies increased by 15.2% for Metro North, 15.5% for the Long Island Railroad, 21.8% for the NYC subway, 24.8% for New York City Transit buses and 4.8% for MTA Bus, the former private bus companies in New York City. Mostly due to soaring retirement costs thanks to pension enhancements retroactively granted in the past but not paid for at the time, and past pension underfunding. That’s the bad news.
Now for the really bad news. Those operating costs, as measured by the NTD, do not include soaring interest payments on MTA bonds. As of this January, the MTA has $32.8 billion in debt outstanding, of which $2.5 billion is variable rate, according to information on its website. Little of that debt has been incurred to expand the system to new areas and riders, which might result in more tax and fare revenues. Most of the money has been borrowed to merely pay to replace buses, subway and rail cars, and other components of the transit system as they wear out. The MTA even borrows for painting under its capital plan. In the most recent MTA capital plan, the cost of this type of this (in reality) maintenance spending was about $4.4 billion per year. Nearly all of it was borrowed. And with the interest on past debts (along with the retirement benefits) soaking up more and more of the MTA’s annual revenues, no one knows where the money to maintain the system for the next 30 years (while the existing debt is paid off) is going to come from. And no one in politics wants to talk about it. Further commentary and a spreadsheet are on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”
In my prior post, I examined the cost of MTA and other New York metro area transit services in 2012. In this post, I’ll examine the trends in those costs during the 2007 to 2012 period, a time when most Americans and most New Yorkers were struggling with the Great Recession and its aftermath.
The data shows that while private sector workers have struggled, with wage gains below inflation, transit costs have soared far in excess of inflation. The result has been fare increases, service cuts, and increases in subsidies. Based on other information I have compiled for other public services, the cost of retired transit workers probably accounts for the majority of the rising burden on taxpayers and transit riders, as shown by operating costs (the soaring cost of debt service is another factor related to the capital plan). As transit workers demand even more, it is worth reviewing how much the transit systems have already taken. Commentary and a series of charts may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”
Another real estate bubble is underway, thanks to low interest rates, and the MTA’s real estate-related taxes are temporarily up as well. And as has been the case for 20 years, everyone related to state and local government wants to grab money from the MTA’s future – a future that includes an almost completely unfunded capital plan, starting next year, that would consist mostly of ongoing normal replacement.
Even so, the Transit Workers Union wants raises for past years, over and above the 8 percent increase they got in the recession. The Long Island Railroad unions are threatening to strike. The contractors and their unions are turning East Side Access into a perpetual bonanza. Staten Island wants more special deals to pay lower tolls, and the suburbs want more special deals to pay less in dedicated MTA payroll taxes. The Governor has taken some of those dedicated taxes, only collected in Downstate New York, for the state’s general fund, to be spent in Upstate New York. The MTA recently announced lower fare increases. And everyone thinks its fine because the MTA could always just borrow more and more and more. While Generation Greed continues to do what it does, I have compiled some facts about the financial transit situation based on the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. Those facts are discussed in the next two posts, on “Saying the Unsaid in New York,” where spreadsheets can be attached and charts inserted.
The New York Post reports, without checking if it is true or thinking about it much, that Park Slope is the most adulterous neighborhood in the city. "Park Slope, Gramercy Park and Tribeca are the top Big Apple neighborhoods for cheaters, according to the adultery-promoting matchmakers at AshleyMadison.com. The site claims it has 840,300 members in the five boroughs, Long Island and southern Westchester County. Park Slope in Brooklyn has 10 percent of the local unfaithful, according to the Web site." This news was picked up by a blog. “A couple summers ago, we had some fun at author Amy Sohn’s expense, after she wrote a rather tame article about how all of her Park Slope friends were sluts and dope addicts, despite a lack of much sex or drugs. But, if the New York Post, is to be believed, Park Slope really is full of slutty spouses, because the neighborhood leads New York in most members registered to married person affair website Ashley Madison."
Ten percent of 840,030 is 84,000. The population of Park Slope is about 84,000. Including the infants.
Now year after year I put up numbers, which happen to be true, that often fly in the face of at least some of what the MSM and various political actors have to say about our city and state, but no one is interested. It is pretty clear that journalism today is about what people are interested in, and the facts don't get in the way of of a good story.
In preparation for the release of the employment phase of the 2012 Census of Governments, I downloaded some Employment and Wages data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics last weekend. According to the data, if one excludes the high-paid Finance and Insurance sector the average annual pay per private sector worker increased 6.1% in Downstate New York from 2008 to 2012. The inflation rate for the period was 6.6%, meaning that in “real” dollars average annual pay fell. This confirms the American Community Survey data I cited earlier in this post, showing most New Yorkers have gotten poorer. For the same period, most unionized city workers received 8.0% wage increases, and those represented by the United Federation of Teachers received a retroactive pension increase that, for those who benefitted, was worth far more. And yet they want even more money for those years, at the expense of those unrepresented people who would have to pay for it.
So we are going to find out what being a “progressive” means today. The original progressives, a century ago, were against the abuse of ordinary people and the common future by those who had gained concentrated power in our institutions. Not only the corporate “trusts” busted by Teddy Roosevelt, but also the political machines with their patronage workers providing poor services. Progressive Democrats wanted more fair and effective government so it could do more things. Progressive Republicans wanted more fair and efficient government so it could do the things it must do at a lower cost. Back then progressives weren’t people who thought that instead of having just some people get ahead of others at their expense by manipulating the business world, additional people should be able to get ahead of others at their expense by manipulating state and local government. That was Tammany Hall. The public employee unions, contractor organizations, and unions representing workers employed by contractors, have taken its place. And if there are any reductions in public services, and any tax increases that don’t go exclusively to additional services, and/or any increases in public compensation beyond what most other New Yorkers are receiving, what was once machine politics will now be “progressivism.” That will be true even in another recession. Additional commentary, and a spreadsheet, can be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”
Mayor Bill DeBlasio accused Mayor Bloomberg of mortgaging the city’s future by not paying its unionized employees more money before he got there. But that is not so. Did Mayor Bloomberg not settle the contracts so he could cut taxes? No, Mayor Bloomberg increased taxes, including an 18.0% property tax increase that we were promised would go to better schools. Schools that Bill DeBlasio and ever other candidate for Mayor except Christine Quinn said were not better, despite a big increase in per student spending. Sales taxes were increased. State income taxes were increased. Did Mayor Bloomberg not settle the contracts so he could reduce fees? No, fees were increased. Did Mayor Bloomberg not settle the contracts so he could hire more public employees and increase services? No, because the number of public employees has gone down.
So where did all that money that should be already be going to unionized public employees, according to Mayor DeBlaiso, actually go? You know where.
PETE SEEGER (1997): Today I'll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a 'hard-driver' and not a supremely cruel misleader.