“Takes one to know one” says the
September 24, 1992
Grousing about public employees strikes outsiders as odd in a government town, until they learn that in Springfield, a useless bureaucrat is anyone you know who has a state job that you could like to have. Springfieldians rally 'round however when outsiders sneer at state workers. Poor performance owes something to poor attitude and poor educations, sure, but it probably owes more to poor law-making and poor management. This defense of the state worker is not vigorous but it is a defense.
I was reminded while strolling about the statehouse complex the other day how much Springfield resembles an ancient Egyptian temple community. No, not the stone buildings festooned with bad art. I mean the way the city's tens of thousands of bureaucrats constitute a multifarious priesthood whose livelihoods depend on the peasants in the hinterland, whose contributions (they hope) purchase the good favor of the gods that hold sway over them.
The state worker is sometimes likened to—let us not mince words—a parasite that makes no productive contribution to the economy in return for his paycheck. The slander applies more accurately to the General Assembly, but whatever its accuracy it has been the majority view of the capital in the rest of Illinois for some time. It was voiced most recently by that mean Mike Madigan when he castigated bureaucrats living in Chatham as the real beneficiaries of the state's welfare policies.
The remark caused a stir, although I'm not sure why; the fact that so many of them work for the state is one of the nicer things about people who live in Chatham. Anyway, it shouldn't have surprised a man of Mr. Madigan's perspicacity that many of the wage-earners in a state capital might have government jobs, and indeed some 27,000 people in Sangamon County made their livings in government jobs in 1989 (including the military) out of a total of some 120,000 people employed.
If social parasitism is made a crime then state workers will end up being double-bunked. This year for the first time in U.S. history, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more government jobs (federal, state, and local) than there were jobs in all of manufacturing—18.6 million nationwide.
That trend is confirmed in the 1991 Illinois Statistical Abstract. In 1989, the total personal income in Illinois was a little over $220 billion. Of that amount only $140 billion was earned in such industries as farming, timber, and mining, manufacturing, financial services, indeed all private-sector enterprises.
Like most such statistics, this comparison is somewhat misleading. The drop in manufacturing jobs to some extent reflects improved productivity per worker, which is good. And government jobs always tend to grow in recessions while manufacturing opportunities shrink. Even so, the numbers reflect the changes that are taking place in the economy at large that bode ill.
Especially for the government worker. Big government is not a problem if you have a big economy to support it. We don't. The paper-pusher and the bean-counter and the other subspecies of Bureaucratus springfieldii may make only marginal contributions to the nation's wealth. But is a woman who counts driver's license applications any more useless than a fast-food clerk? A mall clerk? A lawyer? The fact is that hardly anyone in the U.S. does productive work anymore.
In fact, it sometimes seems as if hardly anyone works anymore, period. The income stream into Illinois in the form of so-called transfer payments, made as the government empties one pocket and fills others, has swollen to a flood. In 1989 the value of various Social Security benefits, unemployment insurance, AFDC, food stamps, veterans benefits, and government pensions (including payments made to nonprofit institutions) came to $29 billion—45 percent more than was paid out in wages and salaries to the government sector. Damned near everybody in Illinois is supported by government; the difference is that state workers in Springfield at least give some work in return.
Even these numbers don't convey the magnitude of our collective dependency on government largess. They do not include off-the-books tax subsidies such as home mortgage interest deductions and other middle-class boodle, for example. Private universities are massively subsidized by public money through scholarships, low-cost guaranteed loans, and tax exemptions.
Another example: Old people have become to the medical-industrial complex what cows and pigs and chickens are to the corn grower. The State of Illinois spends roughly $1 billion a year out of its General Funds to sustain a mere 50,000 old people in nursing homes through the Medicaid program. The old people get the benefit of the services, such as they are, but the medical industry pockets the cash. We are not taking in each others laundry, as the old economist's jape has it, but cleaning out each other's bed pans.
Entitlements payments are generally made to people whether they need them or not, and are usually tax-free. Their sole contribution to the economy is that they enable otherwise useless people to maintain their consumer spending. This helps sustain a grotesquely out-of-scale retail sector. New stores on the west side look like factories, and indeed they are in a sense; more than 23,000 people in Sangamon County made their livings in the retail trade in 1989, only a few thousand fewer than work in all of government locally.
But our money only moves around a bit before leaving our shores, like paper flushed down a toilet. Entitlements cash, like all cash, is used increasingly to buy things made in other countries, while the interest on the money the feds borrowed to make the entitlements increasingly goes either to investors abroad or to rich people here. It is a splendid economic development strategy—for Japan.
Other nation's governments spend even more than do ours, in percentage terms and sometimes even in absolute terms. The difference is that their spending is more targeted toward economically productive projects—improving transportation infrastructure, underwriting research, teaching children how to read, think, and compute. The last is especially needful in Illinois. Spiegel's, the mail-order firm, recently yanked 2,000 jobs out of Chicago in large part because of what the commentators delicately call "a problematic workforce"—the problem being that the company can't find workers able to sign their own payroll cards.
In short, our politically-driven federal system puts its money in all the least productive enterprises, and adds to the folly by borrowing money to do it. During the 1980s we did manage to manufacture one thing that other nations wanted to buy—federal debt—but lately demand even for that has fallen off with shifts in world interest rates. In economic terms, shuffling dollar bills is even more useless than shuffling papers. ●