Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Appreciation of Public-Sector Workers

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[CORRECTION: In my post below, I wrote that "I have never worked for the federal government." Professor Dorf reminded me that I was once (from August 2002 - July 2003) a federal judicial clerk. I regret the error.]

In my latest FindLaw column, published yesterday, I discuss the attacks on public employees (some attacks being quite literal and deadly, although the thrust of the article is about rhetorical attacks) that have become distressingly common in the past few years. Public-sector workers (those dreaded "bureaucrats") have never been wildly popular, of course; but it seems fairly clear that they are coming in for an extra drubbing during the current economic disaster. It is a pretty ugly tactic, essentially turning middle-class people against other middle-class people by insinuating that government workers are overpaid and under-worked, at the expense of Real Americans. It is no wonder that there actually have been some violent attacks; and it is in some sense surprising that things have not (yet?) become much worse.

Here, I want to discuss two unrelated strands from the FindLaw column. First, I will add a thought about a recent NYT op-ed by David Brooks, to which I refer in the column. Second, I will expand a bit on improvements in the user-friendliness of various public agencies over the past few decades.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I have written disparagingly of Brooks's work in the recent past.) Even so, I continually fight a furious battle with myself, trying not to spend too much time on Brooks and his twice-weekly silliness. I lost that battle again this week, but I at least managed to minimize the time spent in my FindLaw column on his latest nonsense. Specifically, Brooks wrote a column last week claiming that public-sector employees -- through their ever-so-evil unions -- have made it financially impossible (through high wages and benefits) for governments to engage in long-term investments of the sort that I strongly approve.

As I point out in my column, this is simply a ridiculous argument. There is absolutely no reason to believe that labor costs have been the decisive factor in any public investment decision. Indeed, many potential public investments are huge winners on a cost-benefit test -- even taking into account existing labor costs. That we have not engaged in such investments has everything to do with anti-deficit hysteria, and nothing at all to do with supposedly-overpaid public employees.

In the final edit of my column, I did force myself to cut out the following: "Admittedly, using Brooks as an example might be a bit unfair. As a general matter, his columns display a rather disturbing lack of analytical rigor. As a specific matter, he claims in the column referenced above that the political contributions from public-sector unions distort the political process, but a week later, he argued that political contributions have no meaningful effect on the political process. Notwithstanding Brooks's specific limitations, however, this general attempt to blame public employees for the country's problems is hardly limited to one fatuous columnist." Having cut those sentences from the column, I only wish that there were some other venue in which to publish them. Hmmm.

More to the broader point of my FindLaw column, one of the issues that I discuss is the general improvement over the last few years in the user-friendliness of government agencies. In the column, I mention the U.S. Postal Service. Compared to, say, twenty years ago, the user experience at the Post Office is like night and day. Even with inadequate funding, they have gone from a system with hours-long lines and employees who would reject parcels for even the slightest deviation from packing guidelines, to one with much shorter lines and employees who will often sua sponte re-tape packages without charge. Post offices now also sell competitively-priced ancillary items, such as packing tape and regulation-sized boxes.

Given the problem of confirmation bias, of course, people generally do not give credit even when reviled agencies get their acts together. If one spends any time in a line at a post office, or if one sees more than one postal employee on the premises who is not currently staffing a window, the usual complaints about postal workers can be heard among those in line. Yes, any personal inconvenience is annoying; but there has been a huge improvement in the public's experience with this agency. Even so, some libertarian groups continue to use the Post Office as their go-to example of government gone awry: "Do you want health care to be run with the efficiency of the Post Office?" An honest comparison between the Post Office and the average HMO might well come out in the Post Office's favor.

With my background in tax law, I also find it interesting to see what has changed with regard to the customer orientation of the IRS. Again, the change over the last decade has been striking. The only good thing to come out of the 1998 IRS restructuring law, in my opinion, was the Taxpayer Advocate Service. This ombudsperson (currently the wonderful Nina Olson) and her staff continually provide taxpayers with assistance in getting their problems solved, and she more generally identifies issues both large and small that the IRS should fix, to the benefit of all taxpayers.

A separate Taxpayer Advocacy Panel was created by a 2002 law. Just today, it issued a report showing all of the ways that it has identified customer services problems and improved them. Naturally, any such honest effort to identify problems and solve them involves exposing the remaining flaws to the public. No one would claim that the IRS -- or any agency (public or private), run by human beings -- is close to perfect. Yet the improvements have been substantial, and they have not been undertaken in the face of "market forces." It is just a matter of better management, focused on improving the public's inherently fraught experience with the tax-collecting agency.

Of course, improving things still further just might require hiring more public employees.

I have never worked for the federal government (or for any state or local government, other than as a professor for a state university). I thus have no particular personal interest in defending the honor of public employees. I do, however, know dangerous scapegoating when I see it. Attacking government workers is certainly not going to solve our current economic problems. In any case, the people who work in our public agencies deserve our respect.


egarber said...

A few points:

1. I think this kind of scapegoating is mostly a creation of the professional political class. On the ground, I don't get the sense that it resonates with average people. I live in a conservative area, and people are generally respectful about modes of employment. In fact, right now I think there may be an opposite dynamic at play: people are glad others are employed. Otherwise, that would be one more person competing for the scarce jobs that are available right now. So viewed through the prism of everyday life, it's not really an issue, imo.

2. I think it's also important to understand that for a lot people, it's not a backlash against government jobs per se; it's more about the federal character of it. I know several right-leaners who don't have much of a problem with local /state public sector efforts to say, provide universal healthcare coverage. And these folks also fully support public school teachers in their communities.

So it's instructive to make a distinction between those who advocate a stricter brand of federalism and free-market libertarians. Conservatives aren't monolithic in how they view government.

3. It seems to me that Brooks misses a key point about investments. In any enterprise, you need qualified people to execute capital improvements. In IT for instance, firms typically put their best people (the highest paid) on crucial projects. In other words, there is a correlation between decent pay and product quality.

If we cut federal pay or benefits, the government won't be able to attract skilled workers, which means those public investments will essentially be like a black hole. Ironically, that's what many conservatives already think about government; but it's only realized if we adopt what they preach -- lower federal wages, draconian cuts, etc.

Maybe there's a "starve the beast" dimension here as well – perhaps a “cripple the beast” aim. It's possible that conservatives know that respectable compensation results in better quality; however, since many want to see government fail, it makes more political sense to push for the opposite. I'm not that cynical in characterizing motives, but it's at least worth throwing out there.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

For what it's worth, the only off-line comment I've received regarding this FindLaw column was from a county-level worker, who was very grateful that anyone would come to the defense of public-sector employees. Even so, I'm heartened by egarber's descriptions of what he sees in Georgia.

Much more importantly, egarber nails it perfectly with his comment that, in government hiring, you can't skimp on quality. And I see no reason to reject the cynical explanation that he describes.

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