Month: July 2010

New Record: Most Outlandish Critique of Privatization

This episode in outlandish critique’s comes from someone who has an impressive-sounding title — Moshe Adler, who apparently teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College.

Apparently, the city of New York uses private companies to trim trees.  Which leads us to this critique:

Possible Cause of Death: Privatization

When a branch fell from a tree at the Central Park Zoo in New York City last month, killing a 6-month-old baby and severely injuring her mother, who had been holding the infant, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared it “an act of God.” But in all likelihood it was the act of a mayor….

City officials told The New York Times that the tree in question had been pruned twice since December. But pruning requires expertise and is time-consuming. … But it is precisely because tree maintenance requires expertise and great diligence that the responsibility for it should lie within the city, and that the person responding to reporters’ questions should be a city arborist.  Initially, city officials did not even know exactly who was in charge of maintaining the tree.

As turnkey operator for over 150 parks with many trees, part of our duty is to identify “hazard trees” that present a danger to the public and prune or remove them.  We do so in close cooperation with the USFS.  I don’t know what arborists Mr. Adler talked to, but certainly they are correct that this process takes some expertise.  However, they were either incompetent, or Mr. Adler is not reporting his full discussion with them, if they said that even the best expert can reliably identify every tree or branch that is likely to fall.

We have an aggressive hazard tree program that is conducted with US Forest Service experts looking over our shoulder, and we still miss lots of trees and branches that fall.   That is because nature is complex and unpredictable and sometime inscrutable.  Whenever we have had an accident of a tree falling and damaging something, we have an expert come out and do a post-mortem, and almost every time the diagnosis is that there was no reason to believe that branch or tree was in danger.

The contractor for tree trimming therefore could be bad or could be good – this single event does not shed much light on the problem.  Since Mr. Adler is an academic at a prestigious university like Columbia, I am sure that to be so certain, he must have done a real analysis which would logically compare incident rates with falling trees either between periods in New York with both public and private operation of the tree trimming, or else compare between cities that use different methodologies.   Given this obvious analysis, it is odd that he would not share the results with us in this article – surely a professor at Columbia isn’t just trying to draw an ideological conclusion from a single data point concerning a function with which he is not very familiar.

One wonders, further, if public servants are so flawless, why someone in New York City hasn’t thought of the idea of supervising private contractors with a public expert.  This is the kind of 90/10 solution we use with the USFS, with the Forest Service getting 90% of the cost benefit of private operations while still supervising the tree trimming and removal with a tree expert from within their organization.  This strikes me as falling into the same category of many other critiques of privatization, where the failure (if there is one in this example) is one of public management of the process rather than privatization per se.

Mr. Adler is is correct, I think, to put a heavy weight on incentives.  He feels that the incentives problem makes the diligence of public employees inherently superior.  What incentive, after all, do public employees have other than to do the right thing for the public, while profit making companies will tend to cut corners to improve profits.

First, there are certainly companies that cut corners, and the great thing about a free market is that these guys tend to get weeded out through competition.  The only exception to this is in government contracting, where mindless low-bid contracting  (my private company almost never takes the low bid when we are looking for a contractor) and poor supervision give corner-cutting private companies room to thrive.  I would argue that the continued existence and use of these type companies is a government failure rather than a private one.  Incredibly, Mr. Adler seems to agree

The body that awards the contract is not a private party acting on its own behalf but officials acting on behalf of the public, and the level of vigilance is not the same as that which occurs between private parties

As to employee incentives, while in theory public employees are supposed to serve the public, in practice their incentives tend to be an awful mess.  A big part of this problem is that  they are almost impossible to fire.  Combine this with a seniority-based pay package, and there is absolutely no incentive to perform.  I laughed when Mr. Adler wrote this:

The rationale for contracting out is always the same: cost cutting. The taxpayer will save money, it is argued, because the workers of private contractors get lower wages and fewer benefits than city employees get, and because the workers of these contractors have no protections against arbitrary dismissals.

In fact, public “protections against arbitrary dismissals” in practice become public protections against any dismissals.  The difficulty, for example, in firing a NY teacher is well documented.

Further, if a tree falls and kills someone, and there is a liability claim, the taxpayer pays for it.  What do the public managers care?  In fact, you can see this in Mr. Adler’s article, the public agency’s relative indifference to this incident.  Do you really think the agency’s indifference would not translate to workers?  What super-men is Adler positing for these public tree removal jobs — their bosses are indifferent, their pay does not change if they do a good or bad job, and they can’t be fired — but they somehow have a ruthless dedication to excellence?   Has Mr. Adler never been to the DMV  (actually, if he lives in Manhattan all his life, he may not have).

If the same event were to happen in an area we manage, the claim costs me personally money.  You can bet that if we hire indifferent employees who do a bad job, they are gone, usually in weeks.  If I was stuck for years, as the public is, with every employee we made a hiring mistake on, I would have to shut down the company.

More Privatization Ignorance

Every time I hear a rant against privatization, I hardly have to wait 30 seconds before the “you will build a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful” card is played.  Jeff Tittle of the New Jersey Sierra Club does not disappoint:

Private companies could end up determining public access, use, and costs….

Increasing privatization means we will see more battles like privatization of Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook, or the construction of “Disney Land” in Yosemite. More state lands would be turned into country clubs, amusement parks, or cute historic themed shopping centers. We don’t want to see a historic building where Washington’s army stopped turned into a fast food shop….

The sale of naming rights creates a potential for a cultural and historical disaster. New Jersey could end up with Jello Cheesequake State Park, Jeep Liberty State Park or Fort Mott’s Applesauce State Park. This would detract from the historic significance of parks that are public assets, not corporate assets.

It just doesn’t work this way, at least not in well-managed public agencies.  Check out any of these parks here — these are all public parks that are privately managed.  All of them look natural, because they are and are required to stay that way.  In not one single contract are we allowed to, under any circumstances, determine public access or use, and in no contract can we change fees without state approval.  I suppose there are examples out there of private companies that have been allowed to build condos in what should have been a wilderness area, but is that a failure of privatization or of the government agency managing the process?  I get that Mr. Tittle does not trust the state of New Jersey to be able to structure or run these partnerships, but I wonder, given that, why he trusts them to run the parks at all?  Take this for example

The lease of Farley Marina led to scandals in which state employees got favors in exchange for illegally leasing boat slips.

That is certainly a bad outcome.  So instead of kicking out the private vendor and getting a better managed one we should, what?  Hand it back to the state agency whose employees are accepting bribes?

Private companies will emphasize the bottom line over the visitor experience.

I am sure there are ways in which these two can conflict, but I can tell you that this is a fixed cost business, and every extra visitor is therefore a treasure, financially.  Why wouldn’t a profit-making venture care about the visitor experience?  People say this kind of thing all the time in privatization discussions without even thinking about it.  Let’s fill in some other names:  McDonald’s emphasizes the bottom line over the visitor experience; Wal-Mart emphasizes the bottom line over the visitor experience; Marriott emphasizes the bottom line over the visitor experience.  Do any of these statements make sense?  In every service business I have ever heard of, the Venn diagrams of “Improves bottom line” and “Enhances visitor experience” overlap a LOT.

Some privately managed federal concessions have multiple year long waiting lists and exorbitant rates. This shift would put our parks out of reach for lower income families.

What is he talking about?   The only thing that fits this description is some of the National Park lodges.  There are waiting lists, I suppose,  because the private concessionaire is doing such a bad job and is so unconcerned over the visitor experience that they are flooded with demand (lol).  The waiting lists at these lodges are because the National Park Service will not allow expansion of the lodges (they are rightly concerned with the character of the park) and will not allow the rates to go up.  As a result, any economics book will tell you that there will be waiting lists.  In effect, the waiting lists are a result of the federal authority worrying about exactly the kinds of things  (park character and fees) that Mr. Tittle wants them to worry about.  And besides, it is totally disingenuous for the author to hint at these examples and then somehow imply that they are in any way analogous to entrance fees at state parks.  As he himself says, managing a concession within a park is totally different than operating the entire park.

Privatization in other states and at the federal level has led to increased entrance fees for camping, cabin rentals and swimming.

Incorrect.   Totally.  Privatization has led to a reduction in the cost of operation of these parks, and thus has reduced pressure on fees.  The US Forest Service, which uses a lot of concessionaires to run whole recreation areas, used to subsidize recreation fees with timber revenue.  When, through the efforts of organizations like the Sierra Club, these timber sales went away, Congress refused to fill in the gap in recreation funding and thus the USFS was forced to cease subsidizing user fees.  Had the USFS not relied on more efficient private operators, fees would have gone up more and many USFS facilities would have closed.

Because private companies can operate much more inexpensively, our rates are often lower.  In Arizona, Arizona State Parks charges $20 in the summer per car at Slide Rock State Park.  Next door at Grasshopper point, a similar day use area in the US Forest Service, we charge $8 per car.  In California, California State Parks charges $30 for a camp site with no utilities.  In the public campgrounds we operate in California, we charge no camping fee for a similar site higher than $18.   When California State Parks recently raised camping rates, they demanded that we raise the rates proportionately on the cabins we operate in one state park — we refused.  In New Jersey, Island Beach State Park charges $20 per night for no-hookup camping.  With only one or two exceptions, none of our no-hookup camp sites rent for more than $18 a night.  New Jersey typically charges $5-$10 per car for day use visits.  Across the country, we charge between $5 and $8.

There is pretty much nothing in this criticism that is not addressed in my FAQ on public private recreation partnerships, so I refer you there for more information.

New Jersey Privatization Task Force

Apparently NJ is taking a very aggressive look at public-private partnerships to help close their huge budget gaps.  Recreation was near the top of the list

Park management concession agreements: Having written numerous articles in recent months suggesting that states embrace the private operation of state parks—something relatively “new” to states, but common at the federal level—it was particularly rewarding to see the Task Force embrace the concept, recommending that the state should enter into one or more long‐term concession agreements with private recreation firms for the operation and management of all state parks. Annual savings to the state were estimated to range between $6-8 million annually, a significant sum relative to overall park spending. This is the boldest, most sweeping call for state park privatization that I’ve personally ever seen at the state level, and Gov. Christie and NJ State Parks have an opportunity to blaze a new and transformational path forward on state parks management that policymakers in every state should be watching closely.

Park Privitization Debate in New York

Len Gilroy of Reason debates in favor of park privatization in New York as an alternative to park closures in their budget crisis.