As I was reading the March 2, 2009 edition of the Des Moines Business Record this morning, I was surprised to read the editorial section “Iowans offer ideas on budget”. The gist of the article is that the Democrats and Republicans are soliciting ideas for ways to save money. The general tone seemed to be that Iowans have some good ideas, and express some doubt as to whether the legislators would actually listen to them.
Now, this isn’t a political blog, it’s about security (as well as nature, technology, business and mythology… but mostly about security). The hardest thing about working in security is that it’s impossible to be perfect. In many cases, one has to look at the problem and pick the least horrible solution. If you’re really really lucky, you can align technology and security with the business goals and work towards a common goal. Mostly though, it’s about looking at tradeoffs.
Reading this list of suggestions is a wonderful exercise in this type of thinking. Let’s take a look at the tradeoffs around what seems to be passing for “prudent thinking” among today’s Iowans.
“Set up toll booths on the interstate highways. One variation: Only charge out-of-state drivers.”
The intent here seems to be to raise revenue for the state by leveraging our interstate system which, if I recall, was largely funded by Federal dollars. Assuming that it is even legal to do this, is it wise to effectively to institute a tax on mobility? For years I’ve heard concerns about the “brain drain” in Iowa. Do you really think that smart kids will stick around in a state that actively hampers their movement?
Also, even if it’s only a tax on out-of-state drivers (which has some implementation difficulties), is it a good idea to make it economically worthwhile for truckers and travelers to re-route through Minnesota or Missouri?
Lastly, how would we pay for all the toll booths?
“Suspend maintenance of bicycle trails for a year and concentrate on the roads and sidewalks instead”
Right. We are living in a state with increasing numbers of people who are out of work. With a growing population who can’t afford to repair failing vehicles. Where pollution is on the rise and gas prices are expected to follow soon. And lastly, where obesity and heart disease are leading health concerns… and the solution is to take away the bike paths?
We’d be saving tens of dollars now and then paying thousands of dollars to repair the ecological damage and deal with the health impact.
“I am a 30-year DOT (Iowa Department of Transportation) employee. … There are far too many do-nothing positions in the DOT that could easily be eliminated, saving millions of dollars.”
I’m all in favor of efficiencies, but I have to wonder how shifting millions of dollars from minimally productive work towards unemployment benefits would be a net gain for the state. Maybe, it might make a bit more sense to turn the “do-nothing positions” into “do-something positions” instead?
“Audit the recent tax returns of the upper 10 percent of Iowa’s taxpayers.”
This logic only holds up if you believe that the upper 10 percent of Iowa’s taxpayers are crooks. In fact, if you’re in the upper 10 percent, you’re likely NOT a crook. The crooks would be the ones who find the loopholes to appear in the lower 90 instead. The really big crooks would be the ones that have managed to not show up on the tax rolls at all.
I suspect that this suggestion would result in a lot of busywork for the auditors and, in the end, would result in MORE crooks getting away, not boosting the state’s coffers.
“Establish a whistle-blowers committee to reward everyone who reports waste of public money.”
Um, reward them how exactly? With public money? With tax credits? Who pays for the committee?
I think I have some waste to report.
More seriously, security is all about checks and balances and there ought to be a good way to report such wastes. Personally, I think that reporting such things to the media and our elected officials is working pretty well.
“The salaries of Iowa’s elective officials are generally the second or third highest (compared with the seven surrounding states), and the judges are consistently the second highest. … The salaries need to be reigned in.”
Suppose I’m the CEO of a large company make $500,000 a year and am engaged in some sort of illegal business practice. Suppose this practice puts you out work and you have to sue me. Now suppose that you have very little money, and your only hope at economic survival is for justice to be served.
Now suppose the judge makes so little that I can spend ten percent of my yearly income ($50,000) to bribe the judge to rule in my favor. Suppose I could spend less than one percent of my yearly income ($5,000) and give “campaign contributions” to our elected officials to change the laws in my favor.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather live in a society where our elected officials and judges are as hard to corrupt as possible. If this means paying them more, then by all means, let the dollars flow.
“A 10 percent pay cut for every state employee making a salary of more than $100,000.”
OK, so there’s something magical about the $100,000 figure. I can understand that. I can also understand how people that make substantially less can be upset that many people are making more than that. However, the thing to remember is that people don’t tend to just step into such jobs. Such a high salary is often the result of years of hard work and compromise in other areas of their life. A sudden drop in salary from $100,000 to $90,000 is a really good way to tell employees “you’re not valued here and you should go back to the private sector where you could both be valued and make around $200,000”.
The follow-on question to ask here is whether or not we could afford to replace all of the $100,000 workers at the state, and what that would cost. I bet it’d be a heck of a lot higher than the savings that we would get by cutting their salaries.
“Stop allowing state employees to drive state vehicles to and from work.”
As I understand it, such a perk is one of the reasons that state employees accept lower salaries than the private sector. If we take them away, are we prepared to raise their salary to compensate? Are we prepared to replace them entirely should they leave?
Also, might it not make sense to encourage people to drive the state vehicles as often as possible? The more ethanol consumed the more our farmers make. The more cars that need repair, the more work the dealerships make. The more cars we buy, the more the car factories make.
“I recently read that the state wants to provide ‘diversity’ training to all 21,000 state employees at the cost of $250,000. Surely the state can come up with a better way to spend $250,000.”
The United States of America was founded on immigration (along with other, less pleasant realities). No one person can do everything, and no one culture can be the best at everything. Immigration provides for an inexpensive workforce that is also often skilled in special ways. Immigrants will often make the tradeoff of a lower salary for a better (or different) way of life. Some will work hard at multiple low-wage jobs simply to provide a better life for their children. In short, immigration is a wonderful thing and an often-overlooked driver for our economy.
The states on the coasts benefit from this more than Iowa, because they’re easier to get to. As such, they’ve developed a culture that is perceived as more welcoming of others than the Midwestern states. “Diversity Training”, as dumb as it sounds, is intended to counter this perception.
Like it or not, Iowa has a branding problem. If we want to be the fast-moving, accepting, challenging environment that I’ve been hearing about. You know, the state that won’t drive all the kids away after college, we have to change the perception. If such training lets us attract just five young people earning $50,000 a year (or ten at $25,000), we’re making progress.
“Use more videoconferencing, rather than sending state employees to meetings that require driving and overnight stays.”
I actually like this one. Iowa has a wonderful distance-learning solution with the ICN. That could be leveraged to reduce travel and overnight stays, and save money across the board.
What I like most about it is the phrasing “use more”, as opposed to “require” or “use only”. There are certain areas where face-to-face meetings are often most effective. We should not have to give up effective meetings and trainings to save money. We should simply use the technology where it makes sense to do so.
“Eliminate most mowing along roads and highways.”
Wow. Just wow.
I grew up in the country. I’m used to unmown ditches where the weeds and grasses use our prairie soil to reach truly amazing heights. I love nature. I love the sound of the tall grasses rustling in the breeze. I love animals. I love deer. I do not love hitting them when I’m moving at 70mph. I’m also not a fan of rats, ticks and opossums.
We mow along roads and highways for a reason. Public safety should not be compromised to save a few bucks. Besides the salaries that we would save would, again, be converted directly into unemployment benefits.
Surprisingly, there’s no suggestion for the one logical step towards a budget shortfall. Taxes will have to go up. No one likes paying taxes, but if the alternatives are:
- Driving away interstate commerce
- Having an unhealthy population and environment
- Laying off tons of people
- Producing busywork for tax auditors
- Spending money to track where our money went
- Having corruptible judges and congresspeople
- Driving away the high performers
- Owning a fleet of never-used state vehicles
- Driving away energetic immigrants who could jumpstart our economy
- Increasing interstate deer-related fatalities and intra-city disease
I’ll gladly pay more.
Luckily, I live in a representative democracy that, like security, is based on checks and balances. I trust my representatives to do what is best for the state. And they, in turn, trust me not to vote them out if they decide to make unwise cuts to produce short-term gains that will cause larger long-term losses. After all, it was that sort of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.
And we’ve all learned our lessons, right?
Borneo is a fascinating place. It is a land of edible birds nests, dragon’s blood and gold. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the parachuting cats (pages 29 and 31 are best, or, if you prefer, there’s a boring version.) But as much fun as the cat story is, I’d like to talk about ants instead. Ants, lizards, and the economy.
The news about the US economy isn’t all that good… depending on what “good” means. I personally have my doubts as to whether ever-increasing growth is a good thing. When that happens in a population like Borneo, we call it an epidemic (malaria) or an infestation (rats). When it happens in a person, we call it cancer. When it happens in the stock market, we call it “business as usual”. Methinks that there’s a misunderstanding somewhere, but I’ll let the economists handle that.
As I look at the news over the Internet and I hear from my friends, I’m seeing companies failing and people being laid off/let go/fired. Whatever terms you want to use, it’s pretty awful for people whose jobs are on the line, as they are in a position where they don’t have control over their own lives (much as if they were fighting malaria or cancer, actually). It is not surprising that the phrase “job security” would be bandied about right about now. For years I’ve been told “there’s no such thing as job security” and that I should “work to put myself out of work”. This doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, but when you get down to it, it’s all about control. In a lot of businesses, the bosses are in control and the employees do what they’re told. In others, the bosses and the employees work together to build something better. The former model is hierarchical and the latter model is cooperative.
Which brings me directly to ants and lizards.
See, in an ant society, you have very strict roles. The queen’s job is to lay eggs. The drones’ job is to mate with the queen, which sounds like a nice job, but they then have to die (always read your employment contract). Then you have the workers which, well, work. Then, some species will also produce soldiers who protect the nest. The model works well, and the ants are able to build very complex structures and societies within it, but the queen has all the control.
Lizards, in contrast, just sorta hatch and spend the rest of their lives eating things and laying about on rocks. Each lizard has their own autonomy and is in control of their respective lives. No one talks much about lizard edifices. Outside of science fiction and Minnesota, no one talks much about lizard societies.
But you know, they should… because the lizards are winning.
Recent developments on the fire ants vs lizards front has led to lizards evolving longer legs and faster speed. In contrast, the ants on Borneo are blowing themselves up. As with much in live, it all comes back to Borneo.
See, in Borneo, the ants are required to be suicide bombers because each suicide also takes out one invader. Taken as a whole, allowing harm to come to a few workers here and there keeps the colony safe and stable. Seems a bit like laying people off to keep the company afloat, doesn’t it? In contrast, the lizards who have learned to run away from threatening ants have survived and become successful enough for them to produce children that are even faster. They can escape the ants. They might even be able to escape parachuting cats (short version here if you skipped the earlier links).
It seems that, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have a choice to make. You can be an ant and lay your job on the chopping block to help out your company, or you can be a lizard and scurry from project to project, moving so fast that the other ants can’t keep up. Your company may or may not survive, but if you’re fast enough and good enough, you’ll likely land on your feet (like a parachuting cat, actually).
Security is an active pursuit. Your IT systems won’t stay secure if you just lock things down and then ignore them. Your job won’t stay secure if you sit around and hope for things to get better. Your business won’t stay secure if you wait for an outsider to fly over your island and drop cats on you.
Now is the perfect time to be a long-legged lizard.