Paul Pillar

Anti-Government Ideology Riding High

Reflections upon reading in a single (this Sunday's) edition of the Washington Post several items that on the surface may not seem related but have a common thread:

Nouveau riche in Great Falls: The letters to the editor contain several comments on an earlier feature article in the Post about the wealthy life styles of some in the Washington suburbs who have made their fortunes with businesses selling services to the federal government. One letter-writer expresses indignation about the “obscene remuneration received by people doing the federal government's work” and speaks disparagingly about a lack of credibility on the part of the government. Another points out that this may be the federal government's work, but it is the private sector, not the federal government, that is doing it and receiving the obscene remuneration. The latter writer notes—in a comment that is consistent with my observations, as a former manager in the federal government, of how reliance on contractors has ballooned in recent years—that before certain administrations and legislators “began demonizing the federal workforce in their attempts to 'shrink' the federal government,” much of the work in question “was done in-house, by federal workers—for much less money.”

Not all jobs in Texas are created equal: Rick Perry's declaration of his presidential candidacy immediately stimulated much comment, both pro- and anti-Perry, about the job-creating “economic miracle” in Texas for which Perry claims credit. His main theme in the claim is that jobs were created because he knows how to keep government out of the way. “The fact is, government doesn't create jobs,” said Perry in a speech earlier this month. “Government can only create the environment that allows the private sector to create jobs.” What candidate Perry doesn't mention is that during his decade as governor, government employment in Texas has grown more than twice as fast as private sector employment there—a reflection of the demand for public services from a growing population. During the most recent three and a half years (the period including the recession), private sector jobs in Perry's state declined by 0.6 percent while public sector employment increased 6.4 percent.

Bachmann and those overpaid federal employees: In his “Fact Checker” feature, Glenn Kessler awards two Pinoccchios to another GOP presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, for using misleading language in suggesting that President Obama was responsible for pay raises given to senior civil servants in the Department of Transportation when in fact the raises occurred under George W. Bush. Besides the duplicitous language, the other thing to note is how the candidate sees political advantage in criticizing the pay raise with no reference whatever to the nature of the officials' work, how it compares with remuneration for comparable work in the private sector, or anything else other than they are government employees and their pay went up.

Professionalism vs. commodities: Andrew Bacevich has an opinion piece pointing out the flaws in a proposal from the Defense Business Board (a panel of corporate executives who advise the Pentagon's civilian leadership) to scrap the current military pension system in favor a 401(k)-type plan. The fundamental problem with this idea, notes Bacevich, is that it ignores the whole concept of military professionalism, which involves a professional ethic important for, among other things, keeping the military officer corps apolitical. The proposed change in the retirement system would “commodify” military service and treat those who both handle the most destructive power on earth and, as an inherent part of their profession, place their own lives in danger as no different from “workers at any GM plant or your local Safeway.”

Discarding Keynes (and more): An article by Greg Ip describes how “the economic ideology of the Republican Party has changed in recent years in an important and little-appreciated direction”—the rejection of what had been the consensus broadly shared since the Great Depression that the government has a vital role in using fiscal and monetary policy to smooth out the ups and downs of the business cycle. The new Republican ideology (actually, a throwback to some pre-Depression positions) is that an active macroeconomic role by government only makes things worse by generating uncertainty among firms and investors. As Ip points out, adherents of this ideology “almost surely have it wrong.”

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