Growth sector

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted March 1998

If one thing appeared certain in the aftermath of the string of Republican gubernatorial victories all across the country in the opening years of this decade -- writes Jonathan Walters in the February edition on Governing, the monthly bureaucrats' trade magazine -- it was that state work forces were going to be radically downsized.

Back in 1991, Gov. George W. Bush had just taken office in Austin, complaining that "Texas state government has more employees than the state of New York," while California Gov. Pete Wilson, not content with a three-year hiring freeze, was vowing actual cutbacks, including a 10 percent reduction in state middle management personnel.

But it hasn't happened, reports the monthly magazine.

From 1990 to 1996, the state government work forces in California and Texas didn't contract, Walters reports, they actually expanded, "by about 6 percent under Wilson and more than 15 percent under Bush, whose state actually lengthened its lead over New York in the size of its work force."

Furthermore, "Local governments ... have been staffing up at twice the speed of state government."

Leading the pack was fast-growing Nevada, where "local government employment has exploded, up 44.6 percent" (during a period when Clark County's population grew by about 48 percent.)

Labor economist Samuel M. Ehrenhalt tells reporter Walters that the main catalysts for the leap in state payrolls are population growth, the passage of an endless stream of new laws by state legislators -- requiring more police, more inspectors of every sort, and most of all more prison cells -- and "new responsibilities flowing from the federal government."

At the local level, the equation is simpler: teachers and cops.

In Nevada, "the pace-setter has been Clark County," the magazine reports, "home of Las Vegas and new home to roughly 4,500 people a month during much of the decade," leading to the now-famous statistic that the county should really be adding one new elementary school every month.

But "Because a lot of public employment is now being contracted out," reports Elliott Sclar, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute and author of "The Privatization of Public Service," "the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers probably significantly understate the extent to which public employment is up."

In the end, the pragmatic effects of growth seem to have a much greater impact on the beefing up of bureaucracies than any stated conservative ideology.

"If you look at states that are identified in the popular mind as being the most skeptical of government -- in the South and West -- that's where most of the growth is taking place," labor economist Ehrenhalt told the magazine, while the sluggish economy of New York state made it the only place where both state and local government employment rolls actually dropped from 1990 to 1996.

Finally, the standard circular rationale for all this is dutifully provided by Donald F. Kettl, a professor of politics and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin: "No matter what your enthusiasm for contracting out, you still need people back at the store to manage the contracts," the good professor smiles. In other words, the only problem with trying to down-size government, is that you end up needing to hire more people -- permanently -- to supervise the downsizing.

But that's true, of course, only if we allow the bureaucrats to get away with defining "privatization" in a way that still leaves them supervising the provision of all the "services" in question.

The Soviets used to consider food distribution "too important" to leave up to the fickle, profit-driven private sector ... resulting in endless lines and chronic shortages. Yet, by comparison, the "inefficient" American supermarket system seems to work just fine -- and we didn't do it by "contracting out supermarket services" to private companies closely supervised by government "public food contract managers," either.

State and local governments are growing far faster than can be justified by mere population growth. By its very nature, a bureaucracy will suck more and more of our lifeblood until we grow just as sluggish and decrepit as New York, where both rent-controlled "private" buildings and outright government public works thrown up by Al Smith and F.D. Roosevelt in their frenzies of tax-and-spend socialism 70 years ago are now actually abandoned and demolished, years of "deferred maintenance" having left them beyond repair.

And the problem won't be solved until we acknowledge that there are some things government licenses, and regulates, and inspects, and does ... that we would be better off going to back to doing for ourselves.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at vin@lvrj.com. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.




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