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Brinkmanship

Don’t you just love it when government agencies are threatened with outright budget cuts, or reductions in the rate of increase in their program budgets? I don’t, and here is why. Every single time I see this happening, whether it be at the school district level or at the state level or at the national level, the following scenario plays out.

(1) For whatever reason, the agency is finding itself in financial trouble. When it comes to school districts and states, I would argue that this is largely a result of many local and state government agencies being wholly owned subsidiaries of the public sector unions. One tactic these agencies and unions engage in is during a tight budget battle, or during contract negotiations, the unions agree to some more “responsible” current budget practices in exchange for sweetheart pension and other retiree benefit deals. Those deals are popular because they do not seem to cost taxpayers anything today, and they guarantee a level of benefits that no one in the private sector would ever be able to generate, and those benefits are fully vested (i.e. they are payable and guaranteed even if the agency declares bankruptcy) and are paid for out of future tax obligations.

(2) The agency, and the unions that largely staff it and the other entities that rely on it for support (such as local contractors) tell us the world will end if there are any cuts whatsoever to their budgets. This is despite the fact that for most of them, their real budgets have expanded well beyond the rate of inflation and population increases for their areas.

(3) The bureaucrats and their supporters then wield a public weapon that no private agency could get away with, and that no legitimate government ought to be engaging in. It is brinkmanship of the highest order. Faced with these cost saving measures, the agencies threaten to close or eliminate the most visible, dramatic and appreciated service or amenity that they are responsible for. When school districts need to tighten their belts, “Out go the best Math Teachers!” When states are forced to tighten their belts, “We will HAVE to close your beloved Letchworth State Park.” Or when the national government finds itself in this situation, “All of the most important highways will crumble AND we will close the Grand Canyon.”

(4) Then the agencies will make the worn-thin taxpayer feel guilty for complaining about ever increasing property-tax bills, about an ever-increasing extension of fees and service charges into all aspects of our lives as they propose to shut down facilities and services to frustrate the largest number of people.

So, governments are busy handing out lavish benefits to politically connected groups. They are hard-wired to expand their administrative employment relative to the people actually on the ground producing public goods. They funnel billions of dollars into special programs for auto companies, green energy companies that do not produce green energy, and so forth, all the while allowing your highways to crumble, your national parks to decay, your national capitol to become run down and so forth. ┬áThis would be unconscionable for a private agency. Faced with tight budgets, a private business would do everything in its power to stretch its dollars, to make sure its customers would feel the smallest impact possible, that way it would avoid creating a slippery slope of producing worse service, frustrating customers, losing more money, making service worse, losing more customers and money … until they are out of business. ┬áThis public sector brinkmanship tactic is irresponsible, tasteless and common. I would support a larger government that honestly and responsibly produces real public goods for its citizens. But that is not the government we get, and until I see a demonstrated record of honesty, fair dealing and seriousness, my default view cannot be charitable.

The ultimate irony is, of course, that the unions will accuse those of us who care about responsible government of endangering the public, and hating small children, old ladies and highway safety. But of course, by engaging in this kind of brinkmanship and not taking care of the public goods they are charged with taking care of, with the plentiful funding they already have, they are the ones who are actually endangering the public and hurting children. After all, I have a hard time remembering when private school teachers walked out of their classes en mass to protest at the state capitol. I have a hard time remembering when Disney threatened to shut down its best attractions, or its park entirely. How can it be that people who are overtly arguing for fatter paychecks and cushier retirements can get away with accusing others of putting the public interest at risk?

One Response to “Brinkmanship”

  1. TheBidiBo says:

    They do it because it works every single time.

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