Why the public thinks government is fat

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Polls from the PPIC are typically pretty accurate, so I have no reason to doubt the results of a recent one showing that a majority of Californnians still think government can be cut substantially without a reduction in services. It's hard to fathom; as Brian at Calitics notes,

Cuts to government expenditures mean direct cuts to services. There is simply no way to provide the same level of services for an ever decreasing amount of money. Go take a look at your local government offices and then compare it to the offices of your local bank corporate office.  There are no fancy waterfalls and lavish breakrooms offering wide selections of Odwalla and Rice Krispies, there are just a dwindling level of state employees working ever harder to keep up.  

So, while most voters strongly support raising taxes on the rich, 59 percent also think that government can easily be cut just by eliminating waste. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took office pledging the same thing, left saying there wasn't much waste left to cut. And while I fully believe that any organization that spends $80 billion a year is going to have some things in the budget that don't belong -- it's simply humanly impossible to run anything, public or private, that big without some employee sleeping in the supply room or somebody sneaking cookies on the company dime -- it's also the case that what's missing in the California budget is more important than what's being mis-spent.

Why don't people get this? Part of the reason is a 30-year concerted campaign by the right wing to convince people that the public sector is a waste of money. But part of the reason is also that the news media, by its very nature, is much more likely to report on waste in government than similar (or worse) waste in the private sector.

For one thing, it's easy: Government records are public. Figuring out how Enron, which kept its records private, stole $40 billion from the state of California is really, really hard. There's also the (correct) notion that the government is spending OUR money, so we ought to watch where it goes.

And of course, corrupt politicians like Willie Brown give everyone in government a bad name, and there are plenty of them.

But remember: The government typically spends a lot of our money on private contracts with companies that don't make their records public. How many employees of the contractors building the Central Subway are sleeping on the job, double-billing, charging fancy lunches and wasting the public's dollars? That takes a lot more digging -- weeks of investigative reporting -- and it's not the sort of stuff that can just pop up in a Matier and Ross column, the way a city worker who pulls in a lot of overtime can (and does).

I think there's also a general lack of interest in exposing corporate wrongdoing. PG&E's records are public, and all the money the company spends is OUR money (we're ratepayers, and we have no choice). But how much do you see about overpaid PG&E executives compared to how much you see about (far less) overpaid city employees? PG&E has hundreds of executives making far more than the most bloated City Hall salaries, and they all have nice pensions -- but you never hear about PG&E needing pension reform, or how the utility needs to tighten its belt to keep rates low in a recession.

When you're bombarded day after day with stories about a deputy sheriff or a nurse who works a huge amount of overtime and takes home $150,000 a year, you can't help but think that the public sector's wasting your money. But the private sector does a lot worse.

And sure, under capitalism, a wasteful private company should pay the price in the marketplace -- but we all know that a lot of the big private companies don't really compete much (see: the financial sector), and when it comes to regulated utilities like PG&E, they don't compete at all. You think ATM fees and checking account fees and all the other shit that banks hit us with isn't in part a result of waste, fraud and bloated payrolls? Isn't that my money, too?

 

 

Comments

it's not our money. So if Enron, or PG&E or any other company goes awry, then it's the shareholders who get wiped out and, indeed, that is what keeps the vast majority of companies ethical and solvent.

But with the government, it is OUR money - every penny of it. You and I are the shareholders. And if there are city, county and state workers slacking on the public dime, then we need to fire them.

Moreover, the single factor that everyone I know is as angry as all hell about is the benefits package that public sector workers enjoy. Such largesse hasn't existed in the private sector for decades. And yet here we have guys in hog heaven on the taxpayer's dime, and we're quite simply not going to tolerate it any more.

And you know what? If these packages were scaled back to reasonable levels, it might in fact not be necessary to fire any of them. Whereas, if nothing is done, there is going to very broad-based layoffs over the next few years, as the pensions deficit spirals out of control.

If shareholders want to pay a CEO twenty million a year, that's their chocie and it's their money. But 150K for some city janitor, nurse or bureaucrat is out of control. And in your heart, Tim, you know that.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

of the population in the private sector never had these benefits in the first place.

There were at one time a relative handful of jobs in the 50's where people had these benefits, when the various nations recovered from ww2 it turned out these costs were sadly not possible in the long term, running the world on good intentions aside.

Living the Greecafornia mentality is all our progressive seem able to do.

Posted by matlock on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 2:43 am

Jerry Brown is cracking down on some of the waste, getting rid of cell phones for state employees, giving the states commission on women the boot, shutting down the redevelopment commission and other symbolic actions makes people trust the government a bit more. I would be willing to vote for hirer taxes at this point, Brown seems to understand what progressive never will. I would trust Brown with my tax money far more than any of the sleazy Ammiano hacks who populate Sacramento.

What Redmond as a life long apologist for waste, redundancy, racialism, union thuggery, special interest catering and all forms of bureaucratic uselessness will never understand, is that his vision of the mommy state doesn't resonate with the masses he pretends to speak for.

Another out of touch proclamation.

Posted by matlock on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 2:35 am

People think that government is fat because government services have been restricted to a very narrow set of recipients while corruption has led to skimming off the top for the 1% and the bottom for coopted and politically connected nonprofits.

The way to buy people into an activist government is to keep government from being activist at most people and direct its attentions to problem solving and for government to actually provide honest services to most people.

So long as the 1% are able to buy off and coopt as fig leaves liberal and progressive groups, the electoral illusion continues on but only smaller, as fewer and fewer bother to participate.

So long as Rose Pak and Wilie Brown make a cottage industry of influence peddling into a luxury penthouse and subsidized below market rate condo, so long as Barack Obama lets Wall Street and big Pharma, Insurance and Real Estate run the show, I want none of activist government.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 6:23 am

Actually, the money PG&E pays its CEO is OUR money. That goes directly into the rate base. Worse, PG&E gets to claim an automatic 11 percent return on investment on almost all of its costs, including the money paid to the CEO. We pay that money because we have no choice if we want electrict power.

Posted by tim on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

about some entitlements?

Posted by matlock on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

The notion that our government is too fat and powerful is a form of socio/political anorexia.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 28, 2012 @ 10:15 am

at the state level you are for, drug laws that fill our prisons, consensual crime laws that fill our prisons, for the government telling people who they can get married to, legislation that serves certain special interests, commissions that serve a narrow special interest...

At the city level we should let whoever wins the spoils system run the show, if the SEIU can get enough flunkies in power we should all abide their dictates, if "downtown" can do it, then you are cool with that too?

On the federal level, your for a bloated military, and a security state getting it's nose in everyones business...

Posted by matlock on Jan. 28, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

I don't know how you infered all that but I suggest you put down your bong now and then.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 28, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

that you complain about?

Posted by matlock on Jan. 28, 2012 @ 5:43 pm