Conservative moral relativism on public employment, explained in two newspaper articles | WisCommunity

Conservative moral relativism on public employment, explained in two newspaper articles

Poor Rick Esenberg. The entire premise of his blog on public jobs -- that, hey, economically speaking they're not really jobs -- effectively gets shot down by a page one story in the very same issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which his blog is reprinted.

Esenberg, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty honcho and an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University Law School, is a Journal Sentinel "community" columnist and an operand over at the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

In his blog, Esenberg pooh-poohed a professor's quoted concern that Wisconsin recently has lost a total of 18,800 government jobs, thus shrinking the state's economy.

Esenberg says that these public jobs must be paid for by taxes (and, he forgot to mention, various government fees on individuals and businesses). He says cutting the jobs frees up those public dollars for other purposes and therefore this is all just a sort of zero-sum game.

But flip from the opinion pages to the Journal Sentinel's front page and we are told an entirely different story. A big headline there today trumpeted the apparently disturbing news that congressional mandates might whack the US defense budget by half a trillion dollars.

"Unless Congress and the White House can agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit," the article read, "Wisconsin stands to lose more than 11,000 jobs from military spending cuts scheduled to begin in January."

The story goes on to explain that so-called automatic "sequestration" cuts in military spending would directly affect private employment in the state. Defense contractors would get less work, and while the federal budget deficit would be trimmed, state economies around the country would suddenly fare worse.

Zero-sum game, indeed.

So, if you try to believe both accounts, then: Cutting state government jobs and spending would be good for Wisconsin's economy, but cutting federal jobs and spending would be bad news for that same economy.

Actually: No. Back in Esenberg la-la land, we are given to infer that all the money saved by those 19,000 lost in-state public-sector jobs is being returned to taxpayers. Au contraire. Some of it, in Scott Walker's first budget, was redistributed to businesses in the form of broader tax credits and grants. Some of it was redeployed to other programs. And some of it was spent doing the same work in other, more expensive ways (see below).  

[img_assist|nid=115461|title=Esenberg|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=0|height=0]Indeed, Walker's first budget was the biggest ever signed into law by any Wisconsin governor. Furthermore, some local property taxes and state taxes on lower-income citizens have increased despite Walker's targeted cost-cutting and local government property tax freezes -- which weren't really freezes.

Beyond all that, Esenberg's argument ignores the economic utility of those lost 19,000 state jobs. If the state just stopped doing all the work that those jobs handled, then less would get done, which might entail higher costs later as, for example, infrastructure wore out sooner. Meanwhile, more kids are taught by fewer public school teachers, an economic opportunity cost that will show up in the next generation of state workers. And so on.  

Worse, the state increasingly has shifted the work in question to private consultants through outsourcing. Numerous studies, including several by state government itself, show that not only is that outsourcing greatly on the upswing, the cost of using the private sector is often noticeably greater than cost of the public employees who are no longer around. In other words: This is not really a zero-sum game.

Shrinking government may or may not save tax dollars -- it all depends on how efficient state government is. Outsourcing is inefficient and it is on the upswing. Meanwhile, to the extent less gets done in the way of public works, from highways to education to environmental protection and much more, future public costs surely will go up, unless government at that later point shrinks some more.

And that amounts to letting our public investments in a higher quality society spiral on down in the name of penny-pinching and short-term political platitudes.


July 29, 2012 - 8:05pm