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?