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Charles D. Ellison Headshot

Where Do People Think Gov't Workers Come From?

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Public rancor directed at government workers is a bit confounding. It's on all levels: state, local, federal. Much of this particular election cycle has been spent bashing the government worker, blaming civil servants for everything from budget calamities to impending Greece-like insolvency which will afflict our kids in a not-so-distant future. In tight races such as the gubernatorial race between eBay Founder and CEO Meg Whitman (R) and lifetime politician and current Attorney General Jerry Brown (D), the pitch against government workers has reached an unusually high decibel range. Nationally, activists from tea party stalwarts to Republican rank-and-files egging on hard red state voters wave the banner for smaller government, including plans to dramatically cut government payrolls as a way to deflate bloated deficits.

Demonizing government workers, especially teachers and unionized public sector bureaucrats, is the newest political fad. In a recent Washington Post poll, 52% of Americans believe federal government workers are paid more than they deserve. Elated, conservative candidates are sure to latch on to this in the next round of talking points; if they take the House, Republican leaders will use it as an excuse to shut government down during the coming budget impasse. But, politically, it's playing with fire. Economically, it upends some pretty basic, common sense fiscal logic that could, potentially, worsen an unemployment situation that can't get any worse unless it's an official depression no one wants to announce.

And, it's a bit baffling considering over 15% of the national workforce is in the public sector. Which begs the question: where do people think government workers come from?

It's a valid query. If you go along with full throttled red rage, you might think government workers are as automated as the wired robotic arms on manufacturing assembly lines, mindless automatons devoid of blood and cartilage. Public safety workers, police and firefighters, are typically left out of that assessment, hence the somewhat demeaning, yet common snowstorm practice of distinguishing "non-essential" from "essential" government employees. Sometimes, I think many of us believe government workers are pulled from breeding grounds similar to the human battery farms in a scene from The Matrix.

Still, when a good size of your national workforce - not including contractors who pull loot from government procurement - is on the public trough, everyone is fairly essential. Which is why all candidates and elected officials who get elected and come in as hard charging, take-no-prisoners government reformers get schooled quick on some tough lessons. Those who don't, risk political doom at the polls. I get the feeling New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who happily role-plays fictitious Garden State mob boss Tony Soprano, is slowly figuring this out.

In the California Governor's race, the GOP nominee proposes a mass layoff of 40,000 state workers as a way to cut budget fat. That sounds easy. Clearly, in formulating this master plan, she probably missed the fact that California's state workforce is comprised of 330,000 likely voters. How cutting 40,000 workers from state government won't contribute to California's already high unemployment rate and smash state revenues into oblivion is a Rubik few can explain. Even the state's Austrian-born Republican Governor gets that, opting for furloughs instead. No surprise she's flipped script rather quick and exempted emergency workers - police and firefighters - from her proposal to transition state workers from their pension plan to a more volatile 401(k) scenario. Real surprise here that Whitman (despite spending $140 million of her own cash) is trailing Brown by an average of 5 points. She's actually energizing the public sector voting base against her.

Current, and possibly outgoing Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty discovered this the hard way in a recent primary in which he lost his bid for a second term. Or: maybe he didn't discover anything new given this new write-in movement he quietly backs. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute recently found that the unemployment rate in the city doubled under his watch - from 6% in 2008 to over 12% in 2010. Or, in human numbers: 19,000 people in 2008 to a mind-staggering 40,000 people in 2010. This is in a city of 600,000. While the recession can be blamed for most of that, there is some basic math in that calculus showing rather gleeful axing of local government employees and teachers by his Administration contributed to it.

It's amazing to watch politicians casually forget public workers vote or that they are acutely aware of the political landscape - in Fenty's case, he forgot D.C. is not a state and that Maryland and Virginia tie the nation's capitol into an interconnected regional economy. While he dismissively cut his workforce, thinking that the nearly 40% of his workforce that lived outside of D.C. wouldn't impact his re-election chances, he didn't care to think that, perhaps, folks who live outside of D.C. can still contribute to and volunteer for the opposition. Not to mention they have family and friends within city limits, too.

Public workers are taxpayers and voters, too, so it's odd how candidates steamroll government employees in their talking points and speeches as if this isn't the case. It's comical how they think their own employees don't hear them blasting them on every note, publicly berating their own employees as if they can muscle budgets, trash pick-ups, unruly kids and clogged traffic on their own. Plus, last I checked, government workers eat, gas their cars and pay bills, too. They fuel whole local and state economies. They use their money, too, to buy lunches from corner delis and restaurants or they shop at the local mall. As a matter of fact, they buy houses and cars, too. And, others who work for those businesses rely on public sector employees as economic drivers just as much as they rely on private sector employees. That's 15% of the working population that also helps drive the 75% of the economy that is consumer-based.

No wonder that local and state jurisdictions continue to see revenues drop after every round of layoffs.

Yet, civil servants are used as political footballs and vilified as if their money doesn't contribute to the economy or their property taxes don't help sustain tax revenue. Yes: it's true that we need to find a quick way to fundamentally re-shape public pension systems. And, we also need to compel a combination of stronger oversight, fiscal prudence and better performance from those who must preserve our public trust.

But, it's also common sense that when you eliminate government workers, you're increasing your unemployment rate. Thereby increasing unemployment benefits; thereby reducing tax revenue; thereby placing an even greater strain on public services; thereby inflating local, state and federal deficits; thereby triggering social unrest if all of that remains unattended to.

It's not so much an attempt to defend the government worker. It's simply the introduction of a practical argument that politicians should pay closer attention to rather than getting caught up in the moment. So, really, it's about time folks spill their cups of hater-ade and find a way to embrace their public sector neighbor. After all, elected officials are government workers, too.

-- CHARLES D. ELLISON

(originally appeared in Politic365.com)

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