Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oxymoron: government efficiency

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel BetterFrom The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowan (pp. 19-21):

Sometimes government outputs are worth a lot more than what we spend on them, and sometimes they are worth a lot less. The proper role of government is beyond the scope of this discussion. But still it is a general principle that the most fundamental functions of government are wroth more than the extra, add-on, or optional things that governments do.

A dollar spent on very basic police and courts and army protection is worth more than a dollar spent on refurbishing a warehouse in Minneapolis under the guise of urban renewal. A dollar spent on welfare for the poorest is more valuable than a dollar spent extending the program to better-off but still poor cases. And so on. Yet when it comes to national income accounting, and measuring GDP, we are valuing every one of these different expenditures at $1.

Over time, an increasingly percentage of what we spend on government is spent on optional rather than core services because the core services tend to have been around longer. ANother way of putting it is to say that the marginal value of added government, even if positive, falls as government grows larger. This statement is not antigovernment; it’s just common sense. …Government, at the margin, is becoming less productive.

To better measure how well we are doing as a nation, remember this about productivity:
The larger the role of government in the economy, the more the published figures for GDP growth are overstating improvements in our living standard.
…“government consumption” … commonly falls in the range of 15 to 20 percent of U.S. GDP. … If we go back to the peak time for innovation, estimated by Jonathan Huebner to have been the mid- to late nineteenth century, government at all levels was usually in the range of about 5 percent of U.S. GDP.
From the Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011:
My Summer Road to Perdition
What did I learn as a young man laboring for the Virginia Highway Department? How to work slowly to slipshod standards.
By James Bovard

Mayors, governors and congressmen are busily hyping summer jobs programs. Kids can learn a great deal from a season on the government payroll. I benefitted from my 1973 experience at the Virginia Highway Department, digging postholes, cutting brush and, best of all, wielding a chainsaw—an experience that proved invaluable for my future work as a journalist.

As a 16-year-old flag man, I held up traffic while highway employees idled away the hours.

I was assigned to a crew that might have been the biggest slackers south of the Potomac and east of the Alleghenies. Working slowly to slipshod standards was their code of honor. Anyone who worked harder was viewed as a nuisance, if not a menace.

In the following decade, I hammered federal training and make-work programs in articles for this newspaper and other publications. Studies later proved that many of the participants in the two largest programs, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (1974-1982) and the Job Training Partnership Act (1983-1997), earned less later in life than those who never received government training.

The government has always been radically incompetent at imparting job skills or good work habits. Unfortunately, as long as politicians can profit from handing out jobs and paychecks, the waste and character damage will continue.

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