2011-04-08 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Takers And Makers
by Stuart W. Mirsky

Writing in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, the newspaper’s senior economics writer, Stephen Moore, posed the question of whether we’ve become “a nation of takers, not makers.” His point was to draw attention to the somewhat surprising fact that “today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million) . . . an almost exact reversal [from] 1960.” As a former government worker myself (now retired), this struck home. I chose a career in government by accident when, after leaving college with plans to write for a living, I got married and started a family while my writing (a long, arduous haul for most start-up aspirants at best) showed no signs of taking off. When my wife repeatedly pointed this out to me, I eventually bit the bullet and got a government job to tide us over. Nearly 30 years later I retired to try my hand at writing again.

In the interim I spent long years in a variety of city and state agencies, initially at fairly low levels but eventually much closer to the top. I got to see government work from both sides of the divide. When I finally stepped down, it was from an organization where I’d had more than 450 people reporting to me and been responsible for a hundred million dollars in capital budget projects.

I had also seen, firsthand, the waste and foolishness government work too often entails.

There’s nothing inherently dishonorable or ignoble about being a government worker. In a large society like ours such work is indispensable. Someone has to run government services, regulate and enforce laws and rules, and protect and defend society from internal and external disruptions, all the while looking out for the least fortunate among us. But, as Mr. Moore, points out, there are questions of balance. A society which puts more of its resources into regulating, protecting and, of course, delivering government services than into productive activity (human beings making things others want or need) runs the risk of losing its equilibrium. That’s why the current debate over federal, state and local debt levels – and what they can do to this nation going forward – matters.

This week the Republican majority in the House of Representatives presented a proposal for the nation’s 2012 budget that restructures many of the operations and expenditures of the national government to save some $4 trillion going forward, “real money” as onetime Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen used to say. The concurrent battles in Congress over continuing resolutions to keep the government funded for the remainder of this year (since the Democratic Congress in 2010 never passed a 2011 budget!) pale in comparison. Offered by the fiscally astute Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 budget proposal addresses much more than the marginal spending issues the continuing resolutions process has been dealing with until now. It takes on national entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security which critics of the continuing resolutions process have insisted must be addressed. They’re the historic “third rail of American politics” from which both Republicans and Democrats have long recoiled. They provide benefits which many voters have come to expect and which most don’t associate with direct costs to themselves.

But the fact that government spending has gone through the roof because we’ve committed to more benefits through them than we can actually pay for somehow seems irrelevant to many voters who simply refuse to countenance even the thought of reform. Indeed, many seem to have become so used to government borrowing to pay for its expenditures that they seem to believe it can continue indefinitely. Of course it cannot.

There are consequences to profligacy, even for great and powerful nations. Ancient Rome spent itself into decrepitude and decline and, in more recent times, so did 17th century Spain and, later, the British Empire upon which the sun was never supposed to set. Being a great nation isn’t proof against decline through lassitude and fiscal incontinence.

In our own time we have evidence of what happens to profligate nations in the recent fiscal failures seen in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland (among others). Street riots, by government workers in Greece and Spain (and in England, too), no longer seem unthinkable here in light of the recent, and surprisingly acrimonious, protests in Wisconsin against that state’s efforts to rein in public worker collective bargaining and union dues collection practices. The latter, in which the state deducts union dues from each worker’s paycheck and hands the money over to the unions, effectively locks workers into the unions while assuring the unions a steady flow of funds to financially support candidates friendly to their interests and oppose others deemed unfriendly.

Collection of union dues facilitates a government’s captivity to the unions by enabling them to dominate the decision-making process concerning what must be paid for government work, effectively disenfranchising the broader electorate by granting unions excessive clout with elected officials.

Unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, quite naturally opposed to any changes that weaken their capacity to influence those responsible for employing their members, have resisted such initiatives along with proposed spending cutbacks, preferring to hold out for higher taxation to feed the government spending habit they’ve carefully nurtured which keeps them and their members flush – and other taxpayers strapped.

Politicians trying to buck this trend have felt the unions’ wrath as Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker can surely testify. Nor are judges immune. Aroused unions in Wisconsin are now using their substantial cash hoards to fund a massive effort to defeat a state supreme court justice who, they fear, will find in favor of the law, passage of which they opposed. Of course, the dichotomy between makers and takers isn’t only about government workers with an interest in keeping government spending high vs. the rest of us.

Even makers can be takers, it turns out, as we’ve learned here in the northeast where voters routinely cast the majority of ballots for candidates offering what amounts to the best cash return.

State government in New York is in a fiscal hole no less than it is in Wisconsin, yet, despite that, New York voters have repeatedly sent representatives to the legislature with but one clear mandate: Bring back as much dough as you can via funding for local projects and programs – and don’t worry about balancing the books!

In a state like New York, with some of the highest tax rates in the nation, voters seem oblivious to anything but the extent of local goodies they expect from their re-presentatives. Indeed, they barely seem to notice that their state’s inordinately high rate of taxation has an uncomfortably close correlation with the state’s decades-long loss of people, businesses and jobs. Voters have simply continued to cast their ballots for pals and cronies, for familiar faces promising them more of the same without thought for the bigger picture or state solvency. Although we constantly hear about self-interest and self-dealing among Albany’s political denizens, and about hemorrhaging budgets, the state’s voters have yet to show much interest in sending different people there to represent them.

Stephen Moore’s analysis of the shift to takers from makers in this country, since the 1960s, says much more than that we’ve flipped from being a predominantly productive society to one founded on growing government dependency. It suggests why we keep shooting ourselves in the foot, election after election, while blindly barreling down the fiscal highway toward insolvency and an increasingly worrisome national decline.

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