Why Obama’s calls for more public-sector spending are not a good idea

posted at 12:01 pm on July 20, 2012 by Erika Johnsen

As part of his recent push to energize the economy and create jobs, President Obama (like any good Keynesian) thinks it’s a good idea to spend more taxpayer dollars on employing more teachers, police officers, firefighters, etcetera on public payrolls. The fact that state and local governments have laid off public workers, we’re to believe, is a necessarily horrible thing, and Mitt Romney is a horrible human being for suggesting otherwise.

I’m sure President Obama’s stance will win him plenty of approval with unions, but here in the real world, Obama’s suggestion is a singularly terrible idea. President Obama is assuming that (or, more likely, just neglecting to notice whether or not) these are productive jobs, but it’s perfectly pertinent to examine whether employing more teachers, police officers, and firefighters just for the sake of sheer numbers is of any benefit to society. Here’s a chart from Marginal Revolution that demonstrates precisely why:

Over the past 35 years, the number of fires in the United States has fallen by more than 40% while the number of career firefighters has increased by more than 40%…

Sounds obvious, but it’s hard to negotiate with heroes especially when they are unionized with strong featherbedding contracts.

Before you jump all over me for daring to suggest that public employees are motivated by anything other than the absolute goodness of their hearts, that’s not what I’m doing at all — what normal, rationally self-interested individual wouldn’t want a secure job with lifelong benefits and a pension for which they don’t have to pay the full costs? But unlike in the free market, in which industries are constantly forced to compete based on merit and are being continually tailored to perfectly supply society’s wants and needs to the degree to which they demand them, these unsustainable public payrolls become entrenched by law — no matter the fiscal drain on everybody else.

Just look at what’s happening in the Postal Service: As-is, the USPS has long outlived its usefulness, but we can’t agree to cut it loose from its government protections, and now they’re unable to meet their bloated obligations and pose a huge cost to taxpayers.

President Obama’s public-sector proposals are based on neither free-market signals, nor practicality, nor fiscal responsibility — just populist demagoguery, big-federal government progressivism, and a partiality for union contributions.

President Obama is concentrating on how many teachers, police, and firefighters there are. What matters more to me is whether the students in schools are learning, what the crime rate is, and how many fire-related fatalities there are. If standardized reading and math scores are increasing, homicide statistics are decreasing, and fire-related losses are diminishing even with fewer teachers, police officers, and firefighters, that could be a good thing, because it saves taxpayers money. In the private sector, increased productivity—doing the same amount of work with lower labor costs, or getting more work out of the same number of person-hours —is a goal, often achieved through technology or innovation. To President Obama, it seems like a threat.


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