Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Garbage Polluting My Feed

I've been sitting over here in China watching with detached, mild frustration at the idiotic piling-on of teachers and other public sector workers by people who just 18 months ago were bemoaning the possibility of canceling the bonuses of bankers and investment house executives who had taken TARP money. (BTW: That program just turned a profit.)

With a busy work schedule, a Russian girlfriend and some special personal projects that I've been working on I haven’t had too much time or inclination to get too fired up about what's been happening back in my homeland.

Also, I have lots of TV and movies to catch up on.

But today something changed. My friend Sandra posted a column from the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Moore in her Facebook feed and it really pushed my buttons. I'm not sure why, but it turned out to be the proverbial straw.

Something like this only contributes to the demonization of public sector workers by implying that they're well-off or that what they do is inherently wasteful and it really bothers me that people actually read this and think to themselves, "Right on!"

I started picking it apart point by point in my head and couldn’t stop my fingers from flying over the keyboard. Strap in for a wonky ride, 'cause here I go…

"Consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government… It gets worse. More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined. We have moved decisively from a nation of makers to a nation of takers."

1) The reduction in manufacturing jobs in the US has nothing to do with the "growth" of government. Comparing the number of workers in government to the number of manufacturing jobs is a red herring. One has nothing to do with the other and changes in their numbers over time explain nothing. It even has little to do with the switch from "giving" to "taking" as the entire economy has shifted to being services- and information-based. That's what happens when you get really prosperous.

So right away the entire premise of the column is flawed. But wait. There's more.

2) US population in 1960: 179 million. In 2010: 309 million. That's a 42.1% increase. Federal government workers in 1960: 1.81 million. 2009: 2.10 million. That's a paltry 13.9% jump. Clearly, the government has been adding services since 1960. Medicare. Medicaid. The Great Society programs. Yet it is growing at a VASTLY slower rate than the population as a whole. Can it possibly be that government is actually efficient? When this writer asks later, "Where are the productivity gains in government?" I would simply point to those statistics.

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story. When you discount Homeland Security (a division of government that didn’t exist before 2002 and few would argue that you can get rid of) and added Veterans Affairs workers (needed to handle the massive influx from two wars), the total number of federal workers goes down to 1.89 million in 2009 which is actually just a 4.3% increase from 1960.

In essence, almost all of the growth of the federal workforce over the past 50 years can be traced to 9/11 and the US's involvement in 2 wars. Which, I might add, were championed by the Right and certainly benefit international contracting companies and arms suppliers (not to mention mercenaries) more than they do the US economy.

"Iowa and Nebraska are farm states, for example. But in those states, there are at least five times more government workers than farmers."

3) This should be a call to arms about the ravages of big agribusiness and not of the dangers of increased government payrolls. Any small/family farmer will tell you that massive supply chain inequities and disparate populations that cluster in far-flung cities are the reason that small farms can’t hang on. That's why there are fewer farmers. But nobody who writes for the WSJ will want to talk about that. They'll just throw out those numbers to pull at your middle-America-loving heartstrings.

"Surveys of college graduates are finding that more and more of our top minds want to work for the government. Why? Because in recent years only government agencies have been hiring, and because the offer of near lifetime security is highly valued in these times of economic turbulence."

4) I don't know which survey he's talking about because he doesn't cite any, but college students haven’t traditionally looked at government work as being very promising. (That trend has been changing of late, however; many reasons are given, including a desire to serve and "give back".) It's a lot more complicated than he makes it seem.

Though he is not completely wrong. As recently as 2005, government wasn’t seen as such a great place to end up, with 57% saying that the pay and benefits weren't good enough. I wonder what happened between then and now to make a steady paycheck with health and pension plans look so good? Either some huge salary increases were enacted, or maybe it's the fact that companies simply don’t offer pensions anymore and health care is nigh-unaffordable. That seems to be more of an indictment of corporate greed during a time of record profits than of government spending.

And there was also the whole recession thing.

"Mass transit spends more and more every year and yet a much smaller share of Americans use trains and buses today than in past decades."

This is REALLY bothersome. In cities with subways ridership is at or near record levels! But, as everybody knows, the population has been growing the most in areas of the country where there are few or no mass transit options so OF COURSE "a much smaller share" of the population is using rail. What he doesn’t mention is that in places like Phoenix or Denver or Minneapolis where new light rail projects have opened in recent years (only after overcoming, in some cases, 15 years of opposition), the useage numbers are way above forecast. Build it and they will come. And economic development is not far behind. Is that wasteful?

I'm stopping there. If you read the full piece then you now that I've skipped the two other big points: That schools are crappy even though spending has gone through the roof, and that cities should explore contracting out their public safety services (police, fire & EMS) to save money. Each of those points are so inflammatory that they need posts of their own. I could go on for 20 pages about the state of American schools alone. Do they suck? On the whole, yes. Is it the "fault" of them being run by government? Of course not.

But that's another angry blog post for another slow work night.

I wish that my friends would stop reading this simplistic garbage.