My Open Question to Progressives Is Still Open

A while back I asked progressives:

Taking the government's current size and tax base as a given, is there a segment of the progressive community that gets uncomfortable with the proportion of these resources that are channeled into government employee hands rather than into actual services for the public?

No response to date.  This is not a rhetorical question.  I am honestly curious if progressives worry about the percentage of government budgets that go to government workers, or if there is a progressive argument for this (despite the fact that it seems to be starving the actual programs progressives support).

I was reminded of this when I read this article from Steven Greenhut:  (hat tip maggies farm and their links roundup)

Municipal governments exist to provide essential services, such as law enforcement, firefighting, parks and recreation, street repairs and programs for the poor and homeless. But as pension, health-care and other compensation costs soar for workers and retirees alike, local governments are struggling to fulfill these basic functions.

There's even a term to describe that situation. "Service insolvency" is when localities have enough money to pay their bills, but not enough left over to provide adequate public service. These governments are not insolvent per se, but there's little they can afford beyond paying the salaries and benefits of their workers.

As a city manager quoted in a newspaper article once quipped, California cities have become pension providers that offer a few public services on the side. It's a sad state of affairs when local governments exist to do little more than pay the people who work for them.

Not surprisingly, the union-dominated California state legislature has been of little help to local officials dealing with such fiscal troubles. The state pension systems have run up unfunded liabilities, or debts, ranging from $374 billion to $1 trillion (depending on the financial assumptions one makes). But legislators have ignored meaningful pension reform. This has forced local governments to cut back services or raise taxes to meet their ever-increasing payments to California's pension funds.

It's one thing to ignore the plight of hard-pressed cities and counties, but now legislators are trying to make the problem a lot worse. Assembly Bill 1250 would essentially stop county governments from outsourcing personal services (financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal, etc.), which is a prime way counties make ends meet these days.

 

  • Conqueror of All Foes Cheese

    Most large city public school systems apparently became mechanisms for funneling tax dollars into the members of public unions decades ago. The supposed resultant education is much harder to see. Living next door to Detroit may have warped my vision though.

  • joe

    I see two problems with progressives recognizing the problem

    1) As several have noted on multiple occassions, progressives know their votes come from the public sector unions and therefore have a strong incentive to ignore the obvious, along with the power it entails;
    2) Secondly, A lot of progressives have been blinded by the "paul Krugman Mentality" which is that all government spending is good - it has a multiplier effect which perpetually juices the economy, etc , etc. The Paul Krugman Mentality is results in a complete disconnect between reality/ Basic math/ basic logic and a religious belief system.

    I dont mean to pick on Krugman, except that he exhibits the progressive symptons to the nth degree

  • SamWah

    Government employee unions have an incestuous relationship with those they negotiate their contracts with.

  • Mercury

    Don't hold your breath.

    When tax revenues dwindled, the municipal leaders of Flint, MI put their own interests ahead of the public's to such an extent that they switched the water supply to cheaper, poison water so they wouldn't have to trim so much as one municipal, diversity councilor.

    If this low point in American public service generated any "Progressive" outrage over self-serving government employees run amok, I missed it.

    I would imagine that with new state and federal aid to clean up this disaster, the city of Flint has more money to play with and more municipal positions to fill than they've had in a long, long time. So, that's a real win-win.

  • Robert Sabatini

    I used to do consulting for struggling municipalities in Pennsylvania, and there were quite a few that existed first to pay salaries and benefits to employees and their families, retirees and those on disability, and secondly to provide for services. It becomes an elite employment program.

  • billyjoerob

    Isn't the discretionary spending part of Federal spending actually going down, as percentage of GDP? The definition of "big government" as spending is mostly unhelpful. Simply serving as an old age insurance company is not really "big government". Social Security is a massive program but it's not intrustive on individual choices or daily life. Somebody has to sell old age insurance and the Federal gov't is far more efficient than an army of shady salespeople peddling whole life annuities.

    The real spectre of "big government" is not at the Federal level but at the level of local zoning ordinances. That affects ordinary people FAR more than the Dept of Energy or the Dept of Commerce. And yet if you search the Cato website for any discussion of local zoning policy, you find only one page where they say the solution to local zoning restrictions is more sprawl. Hey great plan guys! Like that's been working great for the last fifty years.

    In conclusion, "conservatives" need a more nuanced definition of "big government" than "more spending." Not all spending is the same.

  • cc

    This is simply tribal behavior. The unions "own" the local/state governments because they are by far the largest organized voting bloc. Most other people are dispersed and incoherent issue-wise. So to the government, the employees are "us" and the public is "them".
    Furthermore, too many progressives can't believe that it is possible to run out of other people's money, even when faced with it directly. They simply deny it.

  • jimc5499

    It was my understanding that the water was not "poisoned" when it left the filtration plant. The chemicals used to purify the water were more acidic causing the water to leech lead from the pipes on the way to the faucet. Throw in the chance for one political party to blame the other and you get the "crisis" that was Flint MI. Other than that I agree with you as to why it was done in the first place.

  • JCK

    In California Assembly Bill 1250, the provisions in Section 31000.10 (a) are easily circumvented by applying the exceptions in 31000.10 (c) for most contracts, although the requirement for performance audits at the expense of the contractor by an independent auditor adds a new level of bureaucracy. If the auditor is a contractor, who then audits the auditor? And so on....

  • wreckinball

    "Social Security is a massive program but it's not intrustive on individual choices or daily life. Somebody has to sell old age insurance and the Federal gov't is far more efficient than an army of shady salespeople peddling whole life annuities."

    You lost me there brother. I just went through retirement planning with my three independent financial planners. All confirmed that SS is by far the worst retirement investment I have. I would have been far better off investing my SS contribution privately. Unfortunately no choice. And the good thing about private investments? Its voluntary. Try not paying SS.

  • billyjoerob

    Yout "SS contribution" is in reality just another tax so I wouldn't get hung up on that number. As a system for insuring old age, SS is incredibly efficient. The administrative cost is minuscule. Looking at the dollars in and dollars out is a waste of time because it's all an accounting fiction.

  • Mercury

    Same difference - I'm guessing that he importance of doing that sort of analysis before switching the supply is something that should be covered in Water Supply Management 101. The point is, ensuring a safe drinking water supply wasn't even close to a top priority for the muni authorities who have the public trust and funds to ensure a safe drinking water supply.

  • johnmoore

    You forget all that we were *forced* to pay into the fund in the past, or are being forced now. Perhaps, maybe, it will pay off. But it is a bankrupt system, so the odds are not good unless one plans to die soon.

  • slocum

    Well, except that Michigan's charter schools and open-enrollment districts blew that public union deal apart in Detroit proper. Only about half of students living in Detroit are actually enrolled in Detroit Public Schools. The rest are in charters or in public schools in neighboring districts. This has resulted in a large number of school closures and teacher layoffs in Detroit.

  • slocum

    My guess is that the distance between 'service insolvency' and the real deal isn't that great -- at that point, a death spiral seems almost inevitable. Because the bang for the buck is so bad in terms of property taxes charged and actual services provided, property values will stagnate or decline. Which will hurt tax revenues, requiring more service cuts and making it even harder to pay all the pensions. Rinse and repeat.

  • Zachriel

    wreckinball: All confirmed that SS is by far the worst retirement investment I have. I
    would have been far better off investing my SS contribution privately.

    Social Security payments don't go to you, but to your parents and grandparents. If the payments went to your own retirement account, then your parents and grandparents would not receive their Social Security checks. To convert Social Security to a savings plan would require the government borrowing or taxing sufficient funds to continue paying Social Security to promised recipients, then setting more money aside for a retirement account.

  • Zachriel

    Mercury: When tax revenues dwindled, the municipal leaders of Flint, MI put their
    own interests ahead of the public's to such an extent that they
    switched the water supply to cheaper, poison water so they wouldn't have
    to trim so much as one municipal, diversity councilor.

    Flint was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers at the time.

  • Zachriel

    Taking the government's current size and tax base as a given, is there a segment of the progressive community that gets uncomfortable with the proportion of these resources that are channeled into government employee hands rather than into actual services for the public?

    Progressivism is a rather disparate group. Among the original Progressives, some argued for reform on grounds of justice, but progressivism also encompassed the "efficiency movement", which envisioned scientific and rational government to replace the corrupt system then in place. Today, many progressives see government waste as an impediment to continued reform.

    For instance, Make government great again: Overcoming anti-government bias is central to long-term progressive victory

  • slocum

    Eh, no -- it's more complicated than that. Flint was under outside emergency management. It was trying to get off the (expensive, badly managed, historically corrupt) Detroit Water & Sewer department. Plans were in place to switch to a new,. multi-municipality system being built that would pull water from Lake Huron. In the meantime, the emergency manager decided to get out of the DWS deal early and rely on an old, mostly mothballed system that sourced water from the Flint River. Which would have been OK, if they had properly added the anti-corrosion chemicals to the treated water. But they screwed up and didn't do it. Which resulted in lead leaching from supply pipes.

    Also, little known -- as bad as things were in Flint, levels of lead exposure in kids there never even came close to what they are in Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee:

    https://www.vox.com/2016/1/24/10815436/flint-water-crisis-detroit-lead-poisoning

    But somehow, the Flint situation was a crisis for the ages, while a much greater percentage of kids suffering from high lead exposure in other, bigger cities is a complete non-story.

  • brotio

    "Make government great again."

    LOL. The next time government is great will be the first time.

  • Patrick

    Warren, do you think there's a right ceiling for what percentage of government budgets should go to government workers?

    To take one of the examples of services in the quoted article, law enforcement, it seems entirely reasonable to me that the lion's share of ongoing expenditures should be paying police officers, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, court personnel, and jail personnel. I acknowledge that it should also include maintenance/repairs on buildings and police cars, fuel for those cars, utility costs for the buildings, and food for jail inmates. And almost certainly a handful of other essential costs that aren't coming to mind right now. But it doesn't seem unreasonable that all those non-personnel ongoing costs should be relatively insignificant when compared to the personnel costs.

    It's not a case of either "paying cops" or "providing law enforcement service," they're largely synonymous. And I think it's pretty similar with a lot of other public services, too--it's not a matter of "fire protection service vs. paying firefighters" or "education vs. paying teachers."

    One-time expenses are different, of course... but it makes sense to budget them differently. A city with good infrastructure and low one-time expenditures on its FY2017 budget will naturally spend much more of that budget on personnel than a city that's growing rapidly or playing catch-up by building or making major purchases.

    That said, while I don't consider myself a progressive, I certainly do "get uncomfortable with the proportion of these resources that are channeled into government employee hands" in plenty of instances. But it's the inappropriate allocations or bureaucratic bloat that concern me, much more than the raw proportions.