Bring-it-on Dep’t

If Mitt Romney wants this election to be about whether we need more cops, firefighters, and teachers, Barack Obama should welcome that debate.

I haven’t seen any polling on this, but if Mitt Romney wants to make this election about whether we need more cops, firefighters, and teachers I think Barack Obama ought to accept the invitation.

Of course the real hard-core Randian libertarian Teahadis think it’s a good thing if a schoolteacher loses her job and has to become a stripper – since, after all, by definition private-sector employment is productive while public-sector employment is unproductive – but Mitt’s welcome to that 25% of the vote.

Yes, even on that framing Romney would get more than 25%; in addition to the government-haters he’d also pick up the racist-nativist-homophobe-obscurantist-theocrat vote that is now the GOP base. But that still doesn’t get him much past 40%.

In admitting that smaller government means less public services, Romney has committed a gaffe in Michael Kinsley’s sense: he has inadvertently told the truth. Romney’s less honest (or less tone-deaf) co-partisans – Scott Walker, for example – usually pretend they can cut public budgets by eliminating useless “bureaucrats.”

Here’s the Romney quote:

“He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Update Of course it’s true that there are ways of getting crime control, firefighting, and teaching done with fewer people. The police are only starting to adapt to social and technical facts (everyone equipped with a camera connected to the Net) that could allow the “crowdsourcing” of much of police information-gathering. Changing construction codes have greatly reduced the need for urban firefighters, and the Fire Department is not the best or cheapest way to provide emergency medical service. Interactive software and video can – will have to – replace much of the teaching function. In each case, we need to find a way past the Baumol Cost Disease.

But that’s all in the long run.
Today and tomorrow, fewer cops means more crime, fewer firefighters means fewer heart-attack survivors, fewer teachers means worse schools. And in the medium term those technological changes will require investments; the cost curve will bend up before it bends down.

Mitt Romney thinks the “lesson of Wisconsin” is that the American people have been conned into wanting fewer public services and bigger TV sets. He’s wrong as a matter of politics. In agreeing with them, he’s also wrong as a matter of policy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

56 thoughts on “Bring-it-on Dep’t”

  1. Why don’t states just cut other items and keep their firefighters, cops and teachers (although all three categories are typically bloated with government employee union sincures and expensive social experiments).

    Mitt needs to stick to his guns and educate the public as to the truly red hering the liberal stooge media always raise when budget cuts are discussed.

    1. Why don’t you ask your dimwit candidate? He’s the one who specified firefighters, police, and teachers. (See the quote at the jump.) I’d be interested to hear your list of “govenment union sinecures” in policing.

      1. There are or have been inappropriate spending policies with respect to the police, at least at the state level: in Massachusetts, road work and some sorts of construction require a cop on duty (paid by the contractor, but then the contractor is often paid by the state), for little apparent reason. Also in Massachusetts, cops whose job doesn’t obviously require higher education are given significant pay increases if they have it – resulting in a rash of ludicrous higher degrees whose acquisition is time consuming but not obviously beneficial to the police in any way (either in terms of job performance or in terms of personal enrichment), often for example through the Suffolk University night school.

        Now, both of these are methods used to justify higher take-home pay for the police who do a difficult job that often gets more difficult as the cops age, more difficult disproportionately to the scheduled increases in pay. These increased-pay opportunities are especially significant for more senior police with the connections to get the construction duty and who’ve learned the system and taken the time to get postgraduate degrees. But they’re not especially rational, nor especially equitable. So, yes, there are problematic issues in the way that police pay has been negotiated and constructed.

        more generally, the thing that really scares me about this current Republican jihad against public employees is that public employees have made a career choice that often involves an implicit bargain: the public employees have taken jobs that have lower pay and less chance of advancement than a similarly well educated person might get in the private sector, but with increased job security and increased retirement benefits. In effect, they’ve taken part of their pay as deferred compensation in the form of job security and pension. And now they’re being fired, which puts paid to the job security – but far worse, people who’ve accepted decades of mediocre pay in return for the promise of a good retirement are having their pension benefits retroactively slashed. How is that even legal? How is it not theft? At least twenty years ago if Mitt Rmoney’s ilk had such a plan in mind, they had to take over a company and declare it bankrupt before they could pocket the pension fund and return to their mansions. Now they’ve taken the job of doing the same to the public employees’ pension funds, with the loot being pocketed in the form of tax cuts, and without the legal figleaf of bankruptcy.

        1. the public employees have taken jobs that have lower pay and less chance of advancement than a similarly well educated person might get in the private sector

          If I remember correctly, this is broadly false for public employees without post-graduate degrees.

          1. I’d guess that it’s not true for those with high-school educations (though it would be interesting to check how much of this is due to erosion of the earning potential of this population over the last generation or so). This is because it was long considered bad form for the government to abuse its janitors and such, though in recent years the government has become comfortable subjecting the abuse of menial employees, often at no net savings. Still, once you’re talking about people with a bachelor’s degree I’d speculate that the top end – indeed, the top couple of quintiles – do much worse in the public sector than in the private sector in terms of annual salary. In general, the government pay scale tends to be flatter across the whole of it, lower at the top end and higher at the bottom. And it is my understanding that – contrary to some claims made on the right – once you normalize for education public-sector salaries are on average lower than in the private sector, even including those “overpaid” menial workers.

          2. Er, “subjecting” should have been “subcontracting”. Poor Swype proofing on my part.

          3. Here is one 2011 in-depth analysis of this very question, focusing on the state of Wisconsin (seems appropriate, given current events):

            http://www.epi.org/publication/are_wisconsin_public_employees_over-compensated/

            In the second part of Table 2 (addressing “total compensation”), you can see that only at the lowest end–no HS diploma–do public employees make slightly more (14% more, or $4520 more, per year), but at the higher end–bachelor’s degree and above–they make far less (25-36% less, or $20,466 to $82,075 less, per year).

            Quoting:

            “Comparisons controlling for education, experience, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and disability reveal that employees of both state and local governments in Wisconsin earn less than comparable private sector employees [and] our study shows that Wisconsin public employees [overall] earn 4.8% less in total compensation per hour than comparable full-time employees in Wisconsin’s private sector.”

            Emphasis added. Note that “total compensation” includes wages and all benefits (such as pension, leave, and health insurance).

        2. Warren,

          Having a cop in a road construction zone may seem like featherbedding, but it isn’t. It is dangerous out there for the worker bees. It’s dangerous enough when a ton-plus of car zips by at 35 mph. It’s crazy dangerous when they speed through the zone. Having a cop there slows folks down.

          I worked one summer on a highway survey crew when I was an undergrad. This was before governments started doubling speeding fines in construction zones and taking other actions to increase safety for the worker bees building the highway. I can tell you from experience, it was scary dangerous out there.

          Now, having a cop there isn’t the only way to accomplish the goal. You could place photo-enforcement vans on the ends of the zone. You could put an empty cruiser with a radar unit on the shoulder — putting a mannikin in the driver’s seat might help that. But a real cop with a radar gun is probably pretty effective.

          But you’re right on about the exchange of some salary for security and deferred compensation in pension benefits. For those of us in the academy, we also gain a good deal of autonomy with respect to our research and duty times.

        3. Even among hard-core advocates of rolling back public pensions — and I count myself among them — I don’t know anyone who wants to retroactively cut pensions.

          Shifting cost to employees, cutting prospective accruals, even shifting new employees to 401(k)s — sure. But at least in California, all except a few lunatic libertarian journalists agree that pensions already earned are money in the bank.

          1. I’m pretty sure that I recall a case going all the way to the supreme court over the retroactive cutting of public-sector pensions (the legal issue being whether it’s possible to sue, and if you have to ask how this Court ruled you haven’t been paying attention). This is a a Thing. It IS happening.

          2. “Shift cost to employees”–please be honest and call that what it really is: a request for a very substantial pay cut. Because when total compensation is cut, it is in fact a pay cut.

            The deal was cut when the employee was hired. The pension was explained and defined and yes, promised, along with details about time to vest, employee contributions, benefit level, etc. How is it justifiable to change the rules after they’ve based their career decisions on what they were told (and provided, in writing)?

            The whole public pension discussion is rather suspect, because while the money was rolling in, public employers were released from having to make contributions, and many then foolishly based their forward budgeting on that temporary reality. Suddenly, when investments were no longer pulling in great rates, and employers had to begin making their (normal!) contributions again, that was seen as some huge added expense. Actually it was just a back-to-normal expense.

            The real mistake was in allowing public employers to ever stop their contributions when the good times were rolling along (and employees never got a break from making their contributions). Employers took to believing they could have employees for far less than the actual cost of their compensation, and based their cost analyses on that faulty assumption, when it was nothing but wishful thinking. Dumb.

            The only public pensions I would consider rolling back are the shady deals that were made in places like San Diego, and some of the more ridiculous pensions provided to high-paid managers. The vast majority of public employees (at least those in CalPERS with which I am familiar) have reasonable and modest pensions, and employees should continue to have those pensions–it is part of their compensation package to which the employees already are contributing, not some political bugaboo labeled “exploding pension costs.” Compare making payments to making no payments and obviously that will appear to be an “explosion” in costs.

            If we don’t want to pay the compensation, we should eliminate the job. But of course we still need the work to be done. Well, guess what, compensation is what is exchanged for that person’s work, and the pension is an important part of it. Pay it now as salary or pay it later as pension: that’s the real choice people refuse to see.

          3. Bruce, I am a California state employee and I DO pay into the CalPERS pension fund. A percentage is withheld from my pay every month for my pension. I am not a cop or firefighter so I don’t know if they pay in but ordinary state employees absolutely do.

            And just so you know, I have a BA degree, additional coursework in my field, and 28 years of experience. The state does not pay as well as private sector work in my field. But I wanted to do something that meant a little more, and maybe helped a little more, than generating profits for shareholders which is really the only purpose of a private business.

            And after the infallible lords of Wall Street tanked a lot of 401-Ks, that’s starting to look like a prescription for elderly people eating out of garbage cans and sleeping on the street, without some backup in guaranteed benefits.

          4. Yep, it’s a pay cut. Rough on the individual employees, without a doubt. Even rougher is being laid off because the city can’t afford you anymore.

            Look, in the fair city where I live, over the past decade, the pension cost for a firefighter has risen from circa 9 percent of salary (that’s during the “pension holiday”) to roughly 45 percent. Those are astonishing an unmanageable numbers. You can criticize CalPERS for lowering rates during boom times, but cities pay what the pension fund demands of them — in good times and bad — and if you know a person who decides to step up retirement contributions when times are flush and the markets have been booming, well, check his passport, it probably says Bundesrepublik Deutschland on the cover.

            But the other thing that happened is that around 1999 or 2000, the Legislature passed a bill allowing previously unprecedented retirement formulas — 3 percent at 50 — for public-safety employees under CalPERS. This was only thought affordable because of the dot-com boom, and the Democratic governor who signed the bill has said it was a math error. Now almost every cop and firefighter has that pension plan, and many “civilian” public employees have what the cops used to have.

            Let’s just go back to the pension formulas of the 1990s, is all I’m saying. I’d add that schoolteachers in CalSTRS never saw any change (what happened to the legendary clout of the teachers unions?) and that system’s pension formulas are widely considered more reasonable and a model.

  2. IMO “special” pension and retirement benefits should be reserved only for this engaging in hazardous work. DoD and military obviously is hazardous (people firing at you) and if you give up civilian life and benefits for 20 years, I’m fine with your pension. Police officers are (literally) in the line of fire, firefighters are (literally, in a different way) also in the line of fire. Likewise with EMT/paramedics.

    Teachers are not “in the line of fire”. DMV workers are not “in the line of fire”. Middle management at city hall is not “in the line of fire.” That’s where the public unions are going to run into trouble.

    Police and FF, sure (not that it’s the President’s job to fund those), but if you’re arguing “hire more teachers and give them pension benefits no one in the private sector gets even though there are private schools that do just fine”, well good luck with that.

    1. What part of “deferred compensation” do you not understand?

      Willard Rmoney is still being paid millions a year by Bain, money that he is taking now instead of having been bought out when he left the firm. He accepted less money then, in return for more income later. The money Bain is giving him now isnot some kind of gift from a thankful company, of the sort you feel Society ought to generously grant those who’ve stood in harm’s way, nor (I am informed) is it some corrupt bribe. The money Rmoney gets from Bain is deferred compensation, more money later in return for less earlier – much like the retirement pay a teacher gets after two or three decades of herding shrieking dribbling unthankful brats for mediocre pay.

      I realize that in the Dickensian world our current Gilded Age Republicans idolize the working class would have the grace to accept bed, board, and a pittance and at the end of their career would be turfed out to fend for themselves or perhaps impose on their surviving children; or perhaps the Gentle Folk who employed them might deign to set them up in a cottage and give them a small annual sum. Back in the modern and the real world, people make provisions for their future, paying Social Security and taking less pay in return for promises of a pension. And now the Republicans are committed to looting both of those.

      1. Exactly.

        What is it about “total compensation” and “deferred compensation” that is (apparently) so hard for so many to understand?

        How is it that those seeking to cash in on their earned-but-deferred compensation (employer-contributed pension dollars) and their own employee-contributed pension dollars (typically 7% or more deducted from pay) over entire careers are labeled greedy or wanting something “special”?

        This is money that was explicitly set aside by the employer and the employee, for the employee’s future. It is governed by a legal contract and pension law. It is not optional; it is owed for work that was already done.

    2. Most people who work for the DOD or in the military aren’t engaged in work that is more hazardous than that done by their civilian counterparts. I don’t think anyone is actively shooting at the military clerical workers, supply sergeants or pretty much anybody aside from front line units. Certainly, staff officers generally and flag officers specifically have pretty safe jobs. I don’t think there has been an American general KIA since the Korean War. I would have no difficulty cutting the pay, pensions and perks of our many, largely useless general staff.

      It seems to me that you’re just creating a group of people whose pay and benefits you don’t want to cut, not because their work is particulary more dangerous than that of, say, a police officer, a construction worker or the guys who maintain the roads (one of the most dangerous job there is) but rather because public employees often belong to unions that tend to support Democrats while the military is strongly Republican.

  3. Of course we need less cops, firefighters, and teachers.

    Is the crime rate not dropping? Are we employing cops just for yucks, not to do a job that there’s less of?

    Are building codes not accomplishing the same end as firefighters, at less risk to lives? So, again, a job there’s less of, and thank goodness.

    Are we ever going to be able to provide a top flight education to everybody without largely automating education?

    I realize how dependent on government employees, and especially their unions, the Democratic party has become, but that’s no reason to maximize government sector employment.

    1. “Are we ever going to be able to provide a top flight education to everybody without largely automating education?”

      I can maybe get on board with fewer police and firefighters, but fewer teachers? Really? We’re one of the worst-educated first world nations, and getting stupider.

      It bothers me when people don’t understand issues like education in a holistic sense: if the population gets stupider, it decreases economic output, negatively affects governance, social responsibility and a whole host of other issues. It reinforces plutocracy where only the rich can afford a decent education.

      I love your solution of automating education, though. We could have one teaching robot per 1000 students, with a ruler in one hand and a cattle prod in the other, spitting out factoids for America’s youth to memorize.

      1. No, no, you miss the point of automating education: You can only afford to have 1 human teacher per 15-20 students, and most of those will be mediocre because with that kind of teacher to student ratio you can’t afford to pay teachers well enough to attract the best minds. Or, for that matter, afford to deny other professions that many best minds. Best minds are a limited resource, after all.

        But robot teachers? There’s no economic reason you couldn’t have robot tutors, one to a student. Individualized attention. And when they encounter something they can’t handle, they call in the 1 top flight human teacher per 100-200 students, who will be elite, because with THAT ratio, you can afford elite.

        As long as all the educating is being done by humans, even the educational grunt work, it’s impossible for everybody to get a really, really good education. Students are too large a fraction of the population for that model to work. That will only be possible once most of the work is automated.

        1. Do you have any basis for your apparent belief that human interaction is irrelevant to education?

        2. Brett, I have a M.Ed. and could elaborate at length on how fantastically wrong you are. But I’m not going to bother, because there would be little point.

          1. “Of course we need less cops, firefighters, and teachers.”

            Given that Brett is evidently incapable of correctly using “fewer” rather than “less”, he is his own refutation of the “fewer teachers are better” thesis. Nor is it remotely clear why “we can’t afford” better qualified teachers and a lower student to teacher ratio. What Brett means, of course, is that ignorant and greedy old white people (i.e. the GOP and their teabagger stooges) prefer to wreck the system rather than repay what they owe to it. Look at what they’ve done to California, which once had arguably the finest public education system in the world. We’ve tried the dumb Republican approach of being cheap and nasty where education is concerned – and it has produced predictably bad results. We need to learn from nations that take education seriously and recognize that we have to invest over a sustained period of time to get results. Finland can do it. Why shouldn’t we? Why does the right wing have so little faith in America?

        3. automating education…afford …human teacher …you can’t afford to pay teachers well enough to attract the best minds. …robot teachers… no economic reason … robot tutors…afford …automated.

          This nincompoopery reminds me of a line from a recent address by one of my favorite writers:

          “The two great aims of industrialism — replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy — seem close to fulfillment.” — Wendell Berry

    2. Police: I have a few questions about your idea that we ought to lay off police officers as the crime rate falls. Can you please explain how you would determine the optimal ratio of police officers to the crime rate? Can you explain the sense in which there is less work for police to do when the crime rate falls? Is there a “normal” or “background” level of crime? Why are you so certain that after the layoffs you advocate, the crime rate wouldn’t increase in roughly the same ratio as the reductions in the size of the police force that was previously suppressing it?

      Firefighters: Do building codes really perform the identical function as firefighters? If we had optimal building codes everywhere, would there really be no fires, ever? What is the formula for determining the reduction in firefighters when a specific building code is implemented?

    3. Brett: Is the crime rate not dropping? Are we employing cops just for yucks, not to do a job that there’s less of?

      Ideally, the point of having more cops should be to prevent crime, not to investigate it. Cutting police forces would reduce the amount of crime prevention we could put out, and would likely result in a net increase of crime.

      Note that while the crime rate may be dropping, we still have one of the highest crime rates in the developed world while being at the low end when it comes to police officers per capita. This would indicate that we are not exactly past the point of diminishing returns.

      Brett: Are building codes not accomplishing the same end as firefighters, at less risk to lives? So, again, a job there’s less of, and thank goodness.

      There are two basic misconceptions in this statement. The first is that the number of firefighters needed is proportional to the frequency of house fires. This is not correct past a certain point. You need to be able to cover an area so that a fire is responded to quickly and appropriately. Even if you have only one fire a year, that fire needs to be put out or contained quickly. (We’re leaving aside that the frequency of brush fires and forest fires has actually been increasing in recent years, and require much more personnel to deal with than your average residential fire.)

      The second misconception is the thought that all a fire department does is put out fires. This is also incorrect. Fire departments also engage in safety training, dealing with the messier parts of car accidents (such as cutting people out of cars that they’re trapped in), provide emergency medical care, hazmat responses, and rescue operations.

      The majority of calls that fire departments respond to are actually in order to provide emergency medical services (firefighters receive training to provide basic medical care). Because there are generally more fire stations than hospitals and because they’re distributed geographically more evenly throughout an area, they can generally arrive at the scene of an accident or other medical emergency more quickly than an ambulance. The Sacramento Fire Captain explained it thus:

      “Why do you send the big fire engine to a medical aid call?” Our Fire Engine and Truck Companies are all staffed with EMT’s and Paramedics. All of our personnel are also Firefighters! Our Fire Stations are geographically placed throughout the City and this equipment can usually get to the emergency much faster than our ambulances can. Because of the serious threat of fire and rescue emergencies, we have more fire engines and truck companies than we have ambulances.

      If your heart stops, you will be dead in about 4 minutes. All of our Engines and Trucks carry Heart Defibrillators and Advanced Life Support gear and both Paramedics and EMT’s are trained to use this life saving equipment. During a call where a person’s heart has stopped and we are administering CPR, manpower is extremely important. One Firefighter has to do the chest compressions, one has to maintain the victims airway, another has to administer the advanced life support drugs, one has to get the ambulance and its equipment ready for transport, the Captain usually has to do the documenting and taking care of the victims family and friends. The patient has to be “packaged” and loaded onto the gurney and sometimes carried down many flights of stairs to the waiting ambulance.

      It would probably be more appropriate to call firefighters emergency responders now, but “firefighter” is the traditional term, even if they fight other things more often than fire these days.

    4. Are building codes not accomplishing the same end as firefighters, at less risk to lives?

      No, no, no, Brett. You are forgetting your lessons. Building codes are bad, bad, bad. People should be free to live in substandard housing to save money on rent. They should be free to work in unsafe environments if they like. After all, everyone can judge the fire safety of a building before deciding to live or work there. The codes drive up costs and create housing shortages. Market outcomes would be superior. Etc.

      Don’t believe me? See your libertarian handbook, Chapter 1.

  4. Making up government jobs, police, fire education or whatever, only consumes tax money. We already have deficits well beyond our ability to pay. Anyone whose been to a public school these days know they are grossly overstaffed and much of the overstaffing is overpaid.

    Here in Des Moines there are dozens of “teachers” who do little or nothing. That’s at least what they say when we point out teacher/pupil ratio continues to decline and per capita (by student) education spending is around the highest in history.

    Maybe suburban police in places like Clive, Iowa don’t need paramilitary equipment. Maybe a little less traffic enforcement and a reprioritization of law enforcement resources.

    This dog won’t hunt anymore but you guys just keep on saying it. Think about a postal abbreviation while you’re saying it: WI

    1. If you will allow me, Ted… “Making up government jobs, police, fire… only consumes tax money.” (In a consumption-based economy, isn’t the consumption of tax-money a good thing? Do workers in the public sector burn or bury their money, thus depriving the economy of their purchasing power and the demand for goods that represents?) “We already have deficits well beyond our ability to pay.” (Clever phrasing, but not exactly honest now, is it? You may well have added, “…beyond our ability to pay, given our present low rates of taxation which have the effect of re-distributing the national wealth to the top 1% of earners.)
      And you can’t get much lazier in your argument than relying on cracker-barrel apocrypha like “Ask anyone in Gobbler’s Knob and they’ll tell you…” or “Everyone in Mudgeville knows…” If your argument is so unassailable, can you at least give us some facts and figures so that we may give it the good ol’ college try?

      1. “Making up government jobs, police, fire education or whatever, only consumes tax money.”

        Because, as we all know, in Tedworld Inc. bridges never collapse, towns don’t need sewage systems and house fires are good for the property market. Not to mention the colossal benefit to the economy of keeping children ignorant and semi-literate. Oh the joys of banana republichood! Oh what gratitude we should all feel to Ted and his fellow Republicans for saving us from the American dream!

        1. i’ve been teaching in texas for 17 years and i’ve never taught at a campus that was even modestly overstaffed much less grossly overstaffed. understaffing seems to be the norm here. i realize that’s no less anecdotal than mr. sporer’s comment but my anecdotal data at least has the advantage of being from a first-hand witness in three different school districts.

    2. Ted, I dare you to work for a week as a teacher in an American school. You’d likely come crawling back begging for your old job. It’s hard work, and teachers don’t make a fortune.

      I’m with you, however, on the police.

  5. Theodore: Making up government jobs, police, fire education or whatever, only consumes tax money.

    That is penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking. We could save taxpayer money, sure, at the cost of a few lives here and there, and generally increased social costs (save the pay for a few cops, lose money through more robberies).

    I’m not in favor of privatizing either the police or the fire departments. Not only does working for the public good and a profit motive rarely work well together, the police in particular has powers that I believe require making them part of the government to ensure accountability to the electorate.

    Theodore: Anyone whose been to a public school these days know they are grossly overstaffed and much of the overstaffing is overpaid.

    Actually, American teachers tend to work more for being paid less than in other OECD countries.

    While the pay isn’t bad compared to what you make at McDonalds, it’s below average for someone with a college degree. Poor working conditions and low salaries are in fact why half of all teachers quit within five years of starting to teach. What we’re doing currently is starving the education sector and use cattle prods (a.k.a. standardized tests) in an attempt to manage scarcity.

    Firing those teachers that you don’t like won’t fix anything. There won’t magically be a flood of highly talented, educated people that want to work for a pittance at a school because you fired the presumed underperformers rather than, say, taking on a CS job in Silicon Valley to pay off their student loan debt. If anything, you’ll scare away more young people from becoming a teacher, driving up the student/teacher ratio. Job security (relatively speaking, it isn’t what it used to be) is about the one thing that you get out of teaching.

  6. When firefighters are reduced, response time increases, resulting in more injury, death, destruction, which matters to most people. You may think “oh what difference does a couple of minutes make?” but it can make a huge difference: a contained fire vs. total destruction; a recovered heart attack victim vs. a dead one; a 5-acre fire vs. a conflagration. Moreover, it matters greatly to insurers too, so when your proximity to fire protection changes, your homeowner’s insurance premiums inevitably rise. Meanwhile, the value of your home will also decline, because of that added risk and more costly insurance. So, to save a few dollars on your taxes, you lose more in dollars to insurance companies and in reduced home value.

    When cops are reduced, crime goes up, and when traffic enforcement is reduced, vehicle wrecks go up. You may be willing to take your chances with this, but I am not. Further, increased crime and vehicle wrecks also increases insurance premiums, and crime rate may be the biggest determinant of home values. So, to save a few dollars on your taxes, you lose more in dollars to insurance companies and in reduced home value.

    These dollar analyses don’t even speak to the needless additional suffering experienced by the victims of crime, fire, wrecks, etc. or the expense of their acute and/or chronic care.

    As Katja noted: penny-wise and pound-foolish!

    There’s an old saying about the environment that also applies to society: If you view the functional environment as a jet plane, and each species loss or environmental degradation as the loss of one rivet, it’s clear that the jet can probably keep flying with one missing rivet. But then another is lost, and another, and so on. At some point, the jet plane will come crashing to earth because it will no longer hold together.

    The same is true of society. The rivets are: our crumbling infrastructure; reductions in police and fire protection; shortened school years and increased class sizes; reduced regulatory enforcement of nuclear and chemical safety; more jobless who still need money to survive; malnourished children who permanently lose brain potential through malnutrition; more sick and disabled people who can no longer work; teachers dispirited by continual attacks and salary reductions; destruction of pensions for elders–at some point the jet plane will come crashing to earth because it will no longer hold together–and we will officially be a Third World nation.

    Maybe that works for you, but it’s my worst nightmare.

  7. [Sorry for double post; fixed for formatting readability…]

    When firefighters are reduced, response time increases, resulting in more injury, death, destruction, which matters to most people. You may think “oh what difference does a couple of minutes make?” but it can make a huge difference: a contained fire vs. total destruction; a recovered heart attack victim vs. a dead one; a 5-acre fire vs. a conflagration. Moreover, it matters greatly to insurers too, so when your proximity to fire protection changes, your homeowner’s insurance premiums inevitably rise. Meanwhile, the value of your home will also decline, because of that added risk and more costly insurance. So, to save a few dollars on your taxes, you lose more in dollars to insurance companies and in reduced home value.

    When cops are reduced, crime goes up, and when traffic enforcement is reduced, vehicle wrecks go up. You may be willing to take your chances with this, but I am not. Further, increased crime and vehicle wrecks also increases insurance premiums, and crime rate may be the biggest determinant of home values. So, to save a few dollars on your taxes, you lose more in dollars to insurance companies and in reduced home value.

    These dollar analyses don’t even speak to the needless additional suffering experienced by the victims of crime, fire, wrecks, etc. or the expense of their acute and/or chronic care.

    As Katja noted: penny-wise and pound-foolish!

    There’s an old saying about the environment that also applies to society: If you view the functional environment as a jet plane, and each species loss or environmental degradation as the loss of one rivet, it’s clear that the jet can probably keep flying with one missing rivet. But then another is lost, and another, and so on. At some point, the jet plane will come crashing to earth because it will no longer hold together.

    The same is true of society. The rivets are: our crumbling infrastructure; reductions in police and fire protection; shortened school years and increased class sizes; reduced regulatory enforcement of nuclear and chemical safety; more jobless who still need money to survive; malnourished children who permanently lose brain potential through malnutrition; more sick and disabled people who can no longer work; teachers dispirited by continual attacks and salary reductions; destruction of pensions for elders–at some point the jet plane will come crashing to earth because it will no longer hold together–and we will officially be a Third World nation.

    Maybe that works for you, but it’s my worst nightmare.

  8. More crimes are being committed? Hire more police! Fewer crimes are being committed? Hire more police! More buildings are catching fire? Hire more firemen! Fewer buildings catch fire? Hire more firemen!

    I guess this makes sense, if you think hiring police and firemen is free.

    1. You’re committing two fallacies here. First of all, you’re assuming that the number of crimes and fires is a useful primary metric for the number of police officers and firefighters needed. In practice, you want something more akin to what in sports you’d call “zone coverage”. You want buildings to be within a certain minimum distance of an appropriately staffed fire station. You want enough police officers to maintain an appropriate presence within an area. Even low-crime Tokyo has a considerable police force.

      Second, you are assuming that everyone is like yourself and just wants to religiously resize government for the sake of resizing government (just in the opposite direction of what you desire). I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’m not for increasing government without reason (I would, in fact, like certain useless government cruft to be reduced or eliminated). However, I want government agencies that we need as a society to be sufficiently well-staffed so that they can do their job effectively. If you’re doing something, you should do it right. And police and fire departments and teachers are not government cruft; they are (or at least, should be) part of the bedrock of a modern society, essential for its well-being.

      As a result, I think we could use more police officers because our crime rate, while it may be falling, is still abysmally high compared to other countries with a comparable level of wealth, and increasing the number of police officers has been shown to help in reducing crime rates. (I also think other effective measures are to reduce the level of poverty in our society and be less aggressive with respect to incarceration.) I would definitely not want to reduce the number of police we have below current levels — we already have a low number of cops per capita as is. Switzerland and Sweden may have fewer police per capita, but they also have considerably less poverty to deal with.

      1. You know what your fallacy is? You’re doing “benefit” analysis. The starting point of “benefit” analysis is the question, “Does this have benefits?”. Which is fine. The problem with “benefit” analysis is that’s the ending point, too. Cost doesn’t figure into it.

        1. Oh look, another non-response from Brett using words he doesn’t understand! I don’t know whether my heart can take any more “surprises” like this!

          1. i’ve decided to start labeling comments like this one of brett’s as fttt (failing the turing test).

        2. Brett,

          This is exceptionally enigmatic, even for you. Still, if you have done this “value free” cost vs. benefits analysis that you decry others for avoiding, could you share with us what is the optimal number of police officers, firefighters, teachers and other “parasites” our society should have and how did you arrive at that number?

    2. Actually, the number of full-time police employees was just about the same in 2010 as in 2007, and about 2% higher than in 2002.

  9. Mitt, Brett and the rest of the boyz (aren’t they always boyz?) dash out simplistic boiler plate like, “We can’t afford…” and, “Why should I have to pay those lazy…”. Then everybody who gives a rat’s butt wastes time composing a well thought out response that makes sense so Mitt and the boyz can swat that down with, “Do we really need the government to…?”. and we’re off to the races again.
    Truth is we really can afford… or more the point we can’t afford not to… and those people aren’t lazy… and we really do need the government to…
    I let Mitt, Brett, the boyz and all the well meaning people here to fill in what the … is because we all really do know what all that is and the boyz are just jivin’.
    Police, fire fighters and teachers? Come on boyz, if you ever had a house fire you know you don’t want to get voice mail. I could go on but you boyz really do know. Don’t you? You know. We know that you know. And you know that we know that you know. Who do you think you’re jivin’?

  10. this set of comments has been a tour-de-force of bellmorian failure to pass the turing test followed by a flurry of refutations which are either dismissed or ignored by the bellmore.

    i think anomalous has nailed it and i second tim’s motion.

    1. I wonder whether we could get bellmoresque into the dictionaries as a synonym for “trollish, witless, tedious, intellectually dishonest and grotesquely self-aggrandizing”?

      1. reading between the comments, brett apparently has quite a reputation from this blog and at obsidian wings.

  11. Poor Brett is getting lambasted mercilessly around here. He just got slammed for kvetching about organic food at his local super market on Mark’s post about peanut butter.
    Almost makes me feel guilty about all I said back up the line. Almost.

  12. Every time someone pulls out the “we can’t afford…” canard, I’d like the readers to imagine a country where the gini coefficient had remained unchanged for the past 40 years, or, where median wages had kept pace with productivity. Would people feel nearly as unable to afford a decent society if their take-home pay was typically $1000-1500 a month higher?

  13. The problem here is not that people want to cut public services. They don’t. They want the services. They just don’t want to pay for them. I’m a state employee and when I’m not here due to my once per month unpaid furlough days, the people who usually deal with me are quite upset and they won’t deal with whoever’s covering my desk.

    Re cutting the police force — we just had an incident in a suburb in my area where the cops responded to a call about a large-scale brawl. While they were trying to deal with that, they got another call — a homeowner was fighting with a prowler. There were not enough cops to get to the second call, the homeowner, before the prowler beat him to dath.

    Re cuts to other public services — the last malpractice case I daalt with was about a nurse called away from one patient to deal with another emergency. The ER did not have enough nurses due to budget cuts. While nurse was coping with Patient #2, the original patient fell into anaphylactic shock and was seriously brain damaged by the time he was resuscitated.

    Budget cuts have costs. I suspect Brett has never been called upon to pay those costs.

  14. I’m not so sure the crime rate is falling. Are they counting all the new crimes, like my LinkedIn that probably got hacked? How do you know we haven’t just added new kinds of crimes that aren’t in the stats, since no one is bleeding?

    I think we need a *whole lot more* government, frankly. We just aim it at the wrong things, like making new departments like DHS.

  15. This neat little Xtian rant against safety, security, and health – please, let’s just start calling it what it is – has implications possibly not directly addressed by the cogent posts above. To argue against the very people – police, firefighters, teachers, and nurses – that collectively ensure our safety, security, health, and well being… some, maybe those who can think it through, instinctively recognize this as ignorant and stupid. No explanation needed. What’s more insidious is the forcing into social discourse of a knee-jerk narrative (see: Bellmore) that erodes functional faith in the commons, that there are some things that are in their being intrinsically good for our society. (Of course, if Thatcher got it right, for modern conservatism there IS no society.) Which maybe brings it to clarity – that theocratic Xtians will put our safety, security, health, and well being at real risk in order to serve their ideological ends (and masters).
    Again – conservatives will put your safety, security, health, and well being at risk. They have stated this in no uncertain terms.

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