Arnold Kling  

Government Workers

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Iain Murray tries to count how many there are.


When we add up the true size of the federal workforce -- civil servants, postal workers, military personnel, contractors, grantees, and bailed-out businesses -- and add in state- and local-government employees -- civil servants, teachers, firefighters, and police officers -- we reach the astonishing figure of nearly 40 million Americans employed in some way by government. That means that about 17 percent of the American labor pool -- one in every six workers -- owes its living to the taxpayer.

Foseti tries to describe how they function.

people are not used to thinking about working environments in which employees cannot be fired. This situation changes the employment dynamic in many ways. Outside of the government, a "boss" is in charge. However, once the power to fire employees is removed, how is it possible for a boss to really be in charge? In a sense, this creates a situation in which the employees are - in reality - in charge.

Thanks to Moldbug for the pointer. Read the whole thing. I can't resist some more excerpts.

The defining feature of the bureaucracy is lack of accountability. It's very hard to understand the complex ways in which the total absence of accountability affects an organization.

And

I've seen more people come from industry to government than go the other way. Why would leave a well-paid job from which I can't get fired and which doesn't require me to work that hard? It's not hard for me to find a job that would increase my salary by 20% or so, but I'd have to work 50-100% more and I could be fired.

I think Foseti would agree that the political layer of the bureaucracy is different. They work long hours, and they burn out. Whether they have real power is another question entirely. Foseti is among those who would argue that it is the permanent employees who have the power.

I look at something like reform of public schools in D.C. through that lens. Did Michelle Rhee have real power? Everybody knew that she was going to leave eventually. Given that the vast majority of teachers survived her reign, then it is fair to guess that the D.C. school system will not show any lasting effects from her reforms.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Peter writes:

Aren't professors at state universities government employees? Can they get fired? Is it really true that government workers can't get fired? I would agree that the government sector employs more people than is optimal. However, the argument you present is hyperbole and wrong.

The most corrupting (and wrong headed) part of government spending is not the services that it provides but the transfers that it makes.

Andrew T writes:

"Firing" people from the military is not uncommon. In fact, people in military service can be "let go" or demoted for reasons that are probably not as common in the private sector workforce. Additionally, there are occasionally mass firings (for lack of a better phrase). This is when the military gets above a ceiling of personnel (either self-imposed, or Congressionally imposed) and holds boards to determine who will be allowed to remain in service. This seems like it is not too different from a manufacturer having layoffs during hard economic times.

Contracts with the government actually provide more flexibility. If you need less government contractors ... terminate the contract. Some contracts will have termination clauses that may make termination a poor economic option, in which case you can choose not exercise options (if the contract even has option years). Maybe this could be an option for a district looking for creative ways to hire teachers ... hire private teaching firms to populate schools with teachers or even run an entire school.

Government civilians are admittedly more difficult to fire, but it is not impossible. On an individual level, documentation needs to be kept in order to justify the action. At a larger political level, the Air Traffic Controllers did not survive Reagan's mass dismissal of them in the 1980s when they went on strike. Everyone knew Reagan was leaving eventually as well. With this type of mass firing situation, I believe it depends on the determination and options of the political authorities. Are they willing to take the risk of firing a large number of government employees who are providing some service to other constituents (or at least are perceived to be doing so)?

fundamentalist writes:

I've been encouraging my children to get jobs in the federal government for all of those reasons.

James Oswald writes:

I work for the federal government, and it is true that federal workers can be fired, it is very difficult to do so. There was one guy who did literally no work, no answered emails, no reports, nothing. It took about 6 months to fire him. You don't have to work hard, but you do have to at least keep up appearances - answer emails, turn in a report or two every so often. The easiest way to get fired is ethical violations. If you are overtly racist or are caught taking bribes or something like that, you're gone. Older workers usually are not worth firing for lack of performance. If you have a long history of good performance appraisals, you can coast for a few years before retirement.

Peter writes:

What compounds the firing problem is the fact that large chunks of the Federal workforce is union and most of the bureaucratic non-union management comes out of the ranks meaning they are effectively union sympathizers. Couple that with executive orders mandating increases in union power it is near impossible to fire anyone. I'm a mid-level manager (GS-13 type) in a union shop and I have employee's that haven't did a thing in years and still we can't get rid of them. As James said, you are only getting fired if you screw up the big stuff and most federal employee's are smart enough not to.

Show up on time, respond to any correspondence from management in the maximum time possible under the CBA, and if asked to actual work or get a negative rating during review claim lack of training coupled with past practice and threats of ULP's. If miraculous put on a union-approved PIP meet the minimal requirement and revert to old behavior after a year. Wait out any unsympathetic results-oriented manager as they will transfer within two or three years as a result frustration with the union. Don't worry about management going to senior management as they are all in the union pockets as a result of political cronyism as is the NLRB. You can go thirty years with great pay, great benefits, and not do a damn thing. This is what is wrong with the government.

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