Willie Sutton Missed a Chance

Do you send your children to private school, dread interactions with government agencies or prefer to buy a new house rather than get a building permit to renovate your existing one? If you answered yes to any of these questions, or even empathized with them, Philip Howard is the writer for you.

Over almost three decades, Howard has written more than half a dozen books surrounding the theme that common sense is being replaced by excessive regulation, which leads to under- or non-performing governments. His latest book, “Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions,” introduces the idea that some groups benefit from government under-performance even at a cost of increasing public frustration.

Howard is a lawyer, who believes that there are too many lawyers, and a student of government, especially regulation, who believes there is too much of both and that it is largely misdirected.

To his great credit, he has focused on a significant problem that is highly resistant to solutions. Why is government so inefficient especially in contrast to the private sector?

His new book explores the relationships among government employees, the unions that represent them, the elected officials that hire them (and are charged with managing them), and the public that has learned to dread the process of any interaction with those who theoretically serve them.

Wondering about the title are you?

Though it appears Mitch Ohnstad, a reporter, once asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton denies replying “because that was where the money was.” That saddens me because, for years, I liked to follow up with, “apparently Sutton had never heard of governments.”

Philip Howard has learned what Sutton had not. Governments are where the money is, and they are easily fleeced.

There is an important difference, however. Sutton took the money without rendering the banks themselves dysfunctional. The unions both take the money and stop the governmental units from functioning.

Here, it is useful to understand a distinction. Public employees themselves are not the same as the unions that represent them, and thus need to be considered separately.

Most teachers want to teach, and most firefighters want to save lives. The entity that wants to bargain for the teachers and for the firefighters wants to collect dues that it will then use to win elections both through contributions and organizational efforts. Entirely different motivations.

Each year, the union must provide each member with slightly more benefit than the cost of the union dues. Each year those benefits are stacked on top of those from the years before. Like a game of Jenga, many governmental units in the United States are in danger of toppling.

Sometimes the benefits are work rules requiring more employees to do the same job. Sometimes they are pay increases. The most pernicious are retirement benefits that either shorten careers or bloat monthly retirement packages. These are less visible to the public, but they are bankrupting cities and towns.

The process is both successful and incredibly inefficient. Union dues represent a tiny fraction of municipal employee costs in terms of stultifying work rules, bloated salaries, healthcare costs and retirement benefits, but the dues support sufficient political contributions to enable the unions to elect public officials beholden to them for their support – in essence to elect their bosses.

Few doubt that unions can organize company workers. If they go too far, the companies will go bust or move their operations away from the unionized locations. Governments, on the other hand, can do neither. Worse, governments are not spending their own money because governments have no money of their own. All they have is taxpayer money. What is the motivation of a public official to drive a hard bargain with actual or potential campaign workers and contributors?

Howard argues that elected officials cannot bargain away their authority without unconstitutionally delegating it to unelected officials.

“But most of the choices needed for effective governance have been disabled by union controls. Instead, unions have imposed restrictions and protocols that presume that there is ‘one correct way’ to deliver public services and that any deviation requires union approval.

Union disempowerment of daily management choices is not a legitimate public structure but a repudiation of the constitutional and moral imperatives of democratic governance. Although the extent of the interference varies somewhat by jurisdiction, public employee unions have disabled democratic governance in five principle ways. Public employee unions have:

1) Severed the links of accountability;

2) Rendered government substantially unmanageable with detailed rules and veto powers;

3) Made government unaffordable with opaque benefit packages and compensation manipulations;

4) Changed public policies to the harm of the public good; and,

5) Entrenched these abuses and made reform practically impossible, through organized political power.”

He would like to see these abuses challenged on constitutional grounds. Likely, this would require litigation culminating in a Supreme Court decision and presumably, as with other constitutional changes, this would require years of effort. Alternatively, a significant public awareness campaign might be required to convince taxpayers (voters) of what is being done to them.

Failing either of those, taxpayers will move out of profligate jurisdictions and some units of government will go bankrupt (states cannot do so). We are seeing the former in California and we saw the latter in Detroit. Neither is a pretty picture.

The Constitutionality argument might seem creative or novel, but, in the past, other creative or novel arguments have come to seem routine upon being absorbed.

One way or another, one hopes there will be less Willie Suttons seeking to fleece the public and bankrupt their cities and towns in inefficient ways that serve only their own interests.

13 Responses to “Willie Sutton Missed a Chance”

Sandy Murdock, January 07, 2023 at 7:16 pm said:

Having been the FAA Chief Counsel during the PATCO strike, I concur, without having read the book, with its title. Three additional thoughts: (1) Federal Unions have a great advantage over the private sector. They negotiate with their employer/agency and then if unsatisfied address their demands to Congress under the 1st Amendment. (2) Many unions are basically monopsonies. A strike, thus, is a form of hostage-taking. The public is denied an essential service (query: does this apply to a strike by the IRS workers?) (3) The most invisible impact on government employees’ accountability came from the GOOD Government movement. To attack political hires of incompetent political hacks, the Civil Service Commision, now Office of Personnel Managment, was created. One of their fundamental principles is that all decisions must be measured by some objective “facts”. Every good or bad event must be immediately committed to writing. Periodic evaluations must be based on scales of performance. Any manager, who really wants to promote competence, provides positive and/or negative feedback contemporaneously with the precipitating action. Even quarterly reports are too far attenuated from the moment of employee good or bad behavior. This system of incentives encourages employees to take no risks and avoid being dinged. Mediocrity is guaranteed. OPM’s rubric deters the good staffer from staying because she/he is unlikely to be promoted/paid/praised. Federal managers spend more time writing reports than meeting with their staff. It’s a disaster.


Haven Pell, January 08, 2023 at 9:06 am said:

Thank you for taking the time to comment, Sandy. Your experience and expertise add much to the story. Much appreciated.


JAMES WILBUR SCHUTZE, January 08, 2023 at 11:46 am said:

I don’t disagree with anything here, but I would like to add an additional perspective. My own view is the product of my lifetime as a journalist covering local government.
I don’t think you can put the entire blame for disastrous money leakage (and it is disastrous) on the worker bees. They only get away with robbing the till because ownership allows it.
In a democracy, the directors who represent ownership are the elected officials. Two things typically go wrong there. Most elected officials want to be loved. And few of them can count above a million.
Any amount that exceeds a million dollars become infinite, inexhaustible and magical. People who have never touched dollar
amounts above a million in their own lives actually get a kind of high just naming the amounts.
It might sound like I’m describing a kind of inherent defect that can only be remedied by abandoning democracy, but I don’t believe that, in part because the only thing that follows democracy is even more brutal kleptocracy.
The money leakage can only happen and persist in a context of crappy opaque accounting.
If the voters could see the leakage, quickly, simply, at a mouse click, they would act.
The remedy is at our fingertips, and the heroes will be CPAs and programmers.
Almost any national company, a damn barbershop chain for example, has software snd reporting that would blow your average customer unit of government sky high if people could see it.
Meanwhile most of local government limps along with ancient creaky patched up DOS software. And why?
I am absolutely convinced that the lifer administrative class knows full well that QUICKEN BOOKS is their mortal foe.
Bad software is the deep bush where the lifers can hide. Good software and deep penetrating transparency is, in their view, unarmed nakedness.
I say keep democracy, show me the money.


Haven Pell, January 08, 2023 at 12:23 pm said:

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jim. I certainly had no intention of conveying the impression that I was laying all of the blame at the feet of the worker bees. Any of the blame? Perhaps. The tiny motivation of a year’s union dues multiplied by the number of employees gives those who collect the dues a powerful incentive to keep Quickbooks as far away from the accounting system as possible. More employees = more dues payers. Transparency, as you suggest, just makes the flaws clearer to the “owners” (we taxpayer/voters). I feel like we agree in principle and in most of the details. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


Sellers Mckee, January 08, 2023 at 1:00 pm said:

Arguing for accountability in a relativistic world? Good luck. “Money, money, money, makes the world go round”


Haven Pell, January 08, 2023 at 1:23 pm said:

It appears your pessimistic outlook has been rewarded over many decades, centuries even. I am a fan of Herb Stein, once and maybe still, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Debt and continued borrowing of 40% of annual expenditures cannot go on forever. Might be useful to explore what happens when it stops.


Sellers McKee, January 08, 2023 at 2:18 pm said:

I prefer to think about my outlook as a realistic view of the perfidious nature of big government. I’m woke to it!


Sellers McKee, January 08, 2023 at 1:49 pm said:

To clarify, “in a world suffering under the delusion of relativism.”


james burke, January 08, 2023 at 5:37 pm said:

With regard to our present, unfettered, bureaucratic morass I can only think of Lord Keynes’s pithy remark; “In the long run, we are all dead.”


JAMES WILBUR SCHUTZE, January 08, 2023 at 8:26 pm said:

Not entirely sure I understand how accounting is relativistic, but I bet I’m missing the point.


Sellers McKee, January 09, 2023 at 10:45 am said:

Hi Jim. My point is (was) that nobody gives a damn. There is no good, no evil, no God. Grab what you can while you can, or as Burke quoted Keynes above, “we’ll all be dead soon anyway.” If there is no Judgement, who cares? The correct term was relativism, not relativistic, which I understand refers to Einstein’s theories. In the end it’s about money and power.

In a somewhat related aside, Haven should perhaps write an article about the “defund” movement and its consequences: I understand Portland, OR is offering new police recruits a $25K signing bonus. DC is less at $20K and New York is the cheapskate at $15K. So they made a political point at the expense of the taxpayer and vulnerable communities. To what end? Who pays for this idiocy? Politicians? ANTIFA, the MSM? Nope, we do. My guess is that the mass police resignations over the last two or three years included far more good officers than bad ones. In fact, it is practically guaranteed that that’s true. Human nature has a way of kicking you in the ass. Anyway, the examples of bad governance are legion. Quicken Books to the rescue? Stay well.


Haven Pell, January 09, 2023 at 6:56 pm said:

Thanks for your observations everyone. I can add very little except as to returning to writing about politics. That is a non-starter except on rare occasions. In this case it was reviewing a friend’s book.


JAMES WILBUR SCHUTZE, January 09, 2023 at 8:22 pm said:

I prescribe Quickbooks strictly for others. I tried it once for myself and gave up.


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