The current debate over deficits, job creation and, economic growth  has thrust  public employees into the spotlight and onto the hot seat.  Critics have tapped into long-held suspicions and sprinkled in new charges as well.  The indictment is familiar:  government employees are far too numerous, overpaid, receive outsized benefits, inflated pensions, lack motivation and excel only at generating red tape.  They are sustained artificially, operating as they do outside the competitive marketplace economy.  Furthermore, they produce nothing and are supported solely by tax-payer dollars.  Reducing their ranks, we are all told, will trigger an economic resurgence.  Unfortunately their cushy positions are protected and perpetuated by public employee unions, which in exchange for political and financial support can count on an unbroken succession of sweetheart contracts from elected officials.

Real jobs, the argument goes, can exist only in the profit-oriented private sector.  Since “government can’t create jobs”, or generate “wealth”, public employment, reliant upon tax revenues, can, in this view, only serve to shackle the free market private enterprise economy.

Have they really discovered the formula for economic vitality?  Recognize that individuals spend money both as consumers and as taxpayers and there is no essential distinction between paying the cashier for a purchase or having monies withheld from your paycheck, in part to compensate civil servants.  In each instance it’s costing you.  Each returns something of value.  Yes, but it’s not the same you’ll be told.  A marketplace purchase represents a choice freely made, a specific consumer demand, while a tax is an involuntary exaction levied by the government for purposes obscure.  Not a bad argument, but one not entirely convincing.  A good many, perhaps most purchases, are actually non-discretionary:  Gasoline, electric power, , insurance, tolls, mortgage, rent, interest, repairs, medicines and medical care, and drugs are hardly items you can forego.  or discover cheaper substitutes.   But can’t government just raise your taxes and extract more money from you?  It certainly can, but so do private producers every time they increase prices.  Does that not represent an arbitrary siphoning off of your money?  (There is some wriggle room here since you could try switching to a lower-priced competitor, but often, say with gasoline, apartment rentals, electricity, tolls interest, etc.; alternatives are quite limited!)

The argument that what you purchase for yourself brings greater value and satisfaction than what government workers provide and, what most people agree should provide, is a complex and subjective matter that would involve our judging the relative merits of such alternatives as police services vs. vacation getaways, flat screen TVs instead of bridge repairs, Broadway shows in place of meat inspectors or steak dinners as against environmental protection.  Is it really that obvious that private purchases should always take preference over expenditures for the general well-being?  Do people, as opposed to the government, always know what is best for them?  Is there so little we need consider beyond individual choice and personal satisfaction?

Though private consumption may appear more tangible and immediately satisfying than the general benefits provided by public workers, both are possible because people are performing real jobs.  But we’re told that government employees don’t produce anything.  Isn’t that mostly the case in the private sector as well?  We have become an overwhelmingly service economy and many of those services, e.g., those provided by tanning salons, “get-out-of-debt” programs, unqualified doctors, weight loss treatments, on-line pornographers, gambling sites, and recently, mortgage brokers, surely are of dubious value.  Remember – Government is by definition a service agency, and thus is “producing” exactly what most of the private sector is currently offering.  Do we really believe that the work of border patrol agents, Coast Guard personnel, FDA scientists, forest rangers, meat inspectors, air traffic controllers, EPA researchers, CDC doctors and Justice Department anti-gang forces is only marginally useful?  Furthermore, are bloated bureaucracies an accurate description when across the country the numbers of government employees at all levels are declining significantly?  Besides, it can be argued that since large private companies are functioning so profitably of late with far fewer employees that in the past, they must, at some previous point have been seriously overstaffed with people whose jobs were superfluous and therefore hardly “real”.  As for overly generous payments to public workers, comparably skilled employees make considerably more in the private economy than in the public, while the carefully graded salary schedules that are in effect there bear little resemblance to the eye-opening pay disparities in the private sector between upper management and line workers.  And if private sector personnel are far more desirable and productive, what is one to make of those police officers who leave to take private security jobs; or Air Force pilots who join the airlines, or state prison guards who become employees of correctional companies, or Treasury Department employees and SEC lawyers who head for Wall Street?  Are these folks suddenly transformed and revitalized by private employment?

These times call for a serious discussion of the relationship between the private and public sectors (and non-profit entities as well).  But we’re unlikely to get very far if ideological blinders cause us automatically to rush to judgment and ignore realities on the ground.


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