Advancing a Free Society

Government Workers and Fiscal Problems

Monday, September 26, 2011

Posner’s results are consistent with findings of little connection among the richer countries between their per capita incomes and the share of incomes spent by the government. Unfortunately, causation is hard to determine from such regressions. For example, as Scandinavian countries got richer, they raised government employment, partly by taking over much of the child-care services traditionally supplied by families. This helps explain why women in Scandinavia are much more likely than men to work for the government. A further problem with using government employment as a measure of government’s impact on an economy is that many regulatory agencies, such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the Fed and other central banks, and labor departments often have large effects on an economy through regulations that require few employees.

Public employees in Greece, Italy, in state and local governments of the United States, and government workers elsewhere are in the news in recent months not so much because of links to productivity, but rather because of connections to fiscal difficulties. Private companies typically adjust to financial problems partly by reducing employment and earnings of their employees, although such adjustments are harder in countries with strong unions and stringent labor protection legislation.

Both employment and wage adjustments are much harder for governments in difficult fiscal situations. Many of their employees are protected from being laid off by union contracts and civil service rights. It is also usually extremely difficult to cut their earnings, again partly due to restrictions imposed by unions and government rules. Government workers also take many of their benefits in the form of early retirements, and generous health benefits and incomes after retirement. These inflate current government spending when many past employees are receiving retirement benefits. In addition, as Posner indicates, votes of government employees can influence election outcomes if they are aroused by what they perceive to be unfair treatment from an incumbent political party.

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