Will Republicans Have The Stones To Put Uncle Sam in the Unemployment Line? [Reader Post]


The federal government is big, unwieldy and incompetent. Is there something about large organizations that by definition make them incapable of operating effectively and efficiently? No. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It employs 1.8 million Americans and another quarter of a million people in countries from China to Argentina to the United Kingdom. Wal-Mart may not be your cup of tea, but they unquestionably do a phenomenal job at what they are in business to do: Sell consumers goods they desire at low prices. One can dislike much about the firm but people are clamoring for its jobs and customers willingly give the company almost half a trillion dollars a year. This sixty five year old, nimble, effective and efficient company demonstrates that a large company does not necessarily have to be a lumbering paragon of failure.

Successful, well run large organizations come in all shapes and sizes as well: publicly traded, privately owned, for profit and not. McDonalds, Publix, Kelly Services, Red Cross, FedEx, Boy Scouts, Cargill. Google. The success of all of these companies destroys the argument that large organizations must be ineffective and poorly run.

One name you won’t find on that list is Uncle Sam. The federal government is the single largest employer in the United States. Not only is Uncle Sam the largest employer in the country, but according to a USA Today analysis published last week, federal employees earn literally double what private sector employees earn. On its face that is absurd. The government doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t create wealth. Government exists only to the extent that it can take (by threat of force) money from citizens who are subject to its jurisdiction.

The fact that federal employees earn double what private sector employees earn might make some sense if government were somehow providing something of value that it was somehow uniquely qualified to do. It doesn’t. There are few things the government does that could not be done far more efficiently and effectively by a private organization. Imagine if the Post Office was run by FedEx. Better yet, imagine if competition for the mail service were opened up to FedEx, UPS and some unknown entrepreneurs with a brilliant idea we’ve never even heard of. Imagine if Amtrak was scrapped and companies decided to provide passenger rail service based upon where passengers wanted to go and what they were willing to pay. In both of these cases and many more the services that the government is providing could be done by companies seeking to make a profit.

The profit motive is a wonderfully clarifying tool. It focuses one’s attention when deciding where to allocate scarce resources. It is of course not the only motive for which people and organizations do things, but unlike charity, support of education, helping the homeless and many other virtuous pursuits, profit generally has a measure of clarity that is unambiguous and devoid of subjective interpretation.

One typical argument in support of government inefficiency is that government does not exist to make a profit. That is true. No one begrudges the Defense Department for not making a profit and few people would want to the FBI to offer its services to the highest bidder. But most citizens do want a government that is run on a tight budget and that only spends money on what is necessary. As such the government should do only those things it must and leave the rest to the private sector. The beauty of profit is that it allows citizens to do a great deal of good, and do it far more efficiently than government. Profit allowed Andrew Carnegie to build 1,500 libraries around the country and another 1000 around the world. Profit allowed JD Rockefeller to fund Spelman College, the University of Chicago, finance the foundations of modern medicine as well as help renovate Versailles in France. Profit has allowed Bill Gates to revolutionize the global philanthropy universe by bringing business techniques to research and funding. For every one of those profiteers there are millions of Americans who write small checks from their own checking accounts to fund organizations from the Red Cross to the Boy Scouts to the United Way to their local churches and civic organizations. (And there are millions more who donate their time and energy.)

By allowing citizens to keep the profits of their efforts they can do far more to address social issues than any faceless government agency. Does anyone not recognize that the Salvation Army could probably do a better job of fighting homelessness or hunger than Health and Human Services if they had even half of HHS’s budget? Does anyone doubt that the hundreds of Catholic schools across the country or Michigan’s Hillsdale College are far better models for education than anything the US Department of Education has ever come up with or imposed? You might not like their politics but at least your kids could read and add 2 + 2. If the government took less control over citizens lives and left them with more of their own money, they would support their local churches and civic organizations who would in turn address social issues on a local and far more rational level, and probably actually make progress on solving them.

The other typical defense of government inefficiency is that government employees are typically better educated and more qualified than their private sector counterparts, and hence must be paid more. That is simply false. President Obama has degrees from two of the most prestigious universities in the country yet he has shown himself to be an incompetent leader and manager. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate the maze of federal agencies can recognize that education and “qualifications” have a zero correlation with effective government. One would imagine there were lots of MBAs and lawyers on staff at the SEC over the two decades they failed to recognize that Bernie Madoff was a crook, despite numerous phone calls and letters suggesting improprieties. How long would that fraud have taken to discover if the people from whom he swindled $50 billion had had to do their own due diligence on Madoff rather than relying on the intrepid SEC? Somehow one would imagine that the damage would have been only a fraction of the final bill.

It’s bad enough when citizens see that the taxes they pay are being redistributed to those who are not sharing their tax burdens or are going to prop up banks and car companies that should have been allowed to fail, but when they see that federal employees earn twice what they do – with rock solid job security – in a government that fails at most things it pursues, they begin to question the legitimacy of government at all.

The next 30 months are going to provide Republicans with a once in a generation opportunity. When they return in January and control Congress they can either return to the big government game that they played for much of the previous two decades or they can decide to become real conservatives and return the country back to the people. Start from scratch and require every department to justify its existence. Do away with Executive Order 10988 which allowed unionization of federal workers. Put Americans back in control over every segment of their lives that is possible and that goes from Social Security to support of the poor to when they want to pay taxes (via the FairTax).

If Republicans can’t earn their conservative bona fides in this kind of an environment, when the table has been so perfectly set for them, then they deserve to be tossed on the dustbin of history as the socialist horde overruns the country and systematically destroys everything that was once great. Will they be up to the challenge? Let’s hope so.

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Excellent post, Vince!

Private companies can do anything and everything better than government can because of one simple factor. Profit. People start companies in order to make a profit, and to do so, they find the cheaper, better ways of doing things. Government doesn’t have that restriction placed on them, and what we get as citizens is bloated, inefficient bureaucracies more concerned with how they can increase their budgets than in how to do the job more efficiently.

The Constitution has spelled out, in plain language, for well over two hundred years what the federal government’s main jobs are, yet we get new, unconstitutional spending by the government annually. Too many people have accepted the premise that government is there to provide for them, and what we get is a bunch of pols, both dems and Reps, clamoring to ‘prove’ they can provide a bigger slice of pie to those they represent.

Government is not in the business of doing jobs efficiently. They are in the business of gaining power over the citizenry they are supposed to represent. It is well past time that the message needs to get sent to our elected officials that unless you do the job you were elected to do, you will be voted out. No more of these 30-40 year senators and congresspeople who care more about slopping at the public trough than standing up for principle. Vote them out. All of them if needed.

Vince … the answer is allusive.

I think the lessons being learned right now to most people are like drinking from a fire-hose. Not clear if the people are getting it, big government is just one failure stacked on the next.

After 1994 the people sat back down and did not engage. It is still an open question will they stay engaged this time.

Vince – You make some good points. However, for anything like this to happen, the GOP has to run truly conservative candidates this election and at the very least take control of the house. Reelecting the status quo from 2008 just won’t cut it.


You’ve hit the $64,000 question. There are a lot of us who are tired of voting for folks who promise to be conservatives, and then immediately capitulate on their ideals. I, like a lot of people realize that some compromise is nescessary for governing, but pandering to the other sides base is not the same as compromise. Listening to Mike Huckabee propose limiting executive pay, or John McCain propose cap and trade legislation, or Mitt Romney talk about socialized health care caused a lot of the GOP base to stay home in 2008. The shelacking at the polls the Republicans took during the last two election cycles was a direct result of this goofiness. It gave us a President Obama. I still have doubts as to whether or not the GOP leaders have received the message clearly. We will find out in starting in January of 2011. I certainly hope they did.

Good post….

One problem is that there is no real Republican Leadership on this. There are too many very senior Repubs who were part of creating the problem, and just want to go back to the status quo, with them in charge.

Unless we can get a Leader out there to articulate the messege… the Washington two step will just conitnue IMO.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics: “The analytical and technical nature of many government agencies translates into a much higher proportion of professional, management, business, and financial occupations in the Federal Government, compared with all other industries combined.”

The proportion of those types of employees in the federal government is more than double that of private companies. That goes a long way toward explaining the difference in average salaries.


“The federal government is big, unwieldy and incompetent.”

I’ll go along with big and unwieldy, but not with incompetent. If you want to see marginal results at grossly inflated prices, turn the work of public employees over to private contractors.

When private contractors perform public work, the taxpayers frequently get less value for their money. That’s because profits become a big part of the equation. A desire to maximize profit doesn’t automatically produce greater efficiency. It just as often produces maximized corner-cutting and substandard products.

The phrase good enough for government work originally meant that a product was good enough to pass rigorous standards. It doesn’t necessarily mean that to the short-term employees of a private contractor who have been hired at the lowest possible cost, or to the contractor who is obsessively focused on his profit margin.

By the way, in a moribund economy where it will take the increased demand driven by increased consumer spending to snap us out of it, what would be the likely effect of putting millions of well-paid government employees in the unemployment lines?

And what would it likely do to the future job prospects and wages of unemployed private-sector workers, to suddenly find themselves in direct competition with millions of former government workers who often have higher levels of education and greater levels of techincal expertise?

The phrase good enough for government work originally meant that a product was good enough to pass rigorous standards

This is sarcasm… right?

I don’t know what history you know… but my father used this phrase all hiis life… and…. “I don’t think it means what you thinka it means…”

@ Greg. Considering that most government employees are in regulatory positions usually at counter purposes to getting the job done, getting them out of the way of business would certainly be a step in the right direction.

@Romeo 13, Your father was spot on.

Greg, when you say ‘private contractors’, you must mean ‘union’. Betcha you live in a union state. Otherwise your statements would sound as foolish and baseless to you as they do to us.

Romeo13, #8: “This is sarcasm… right?”

Nope, not at all. I recall reading somewhere that the phrase originated during the WW2 era, when US industry was gearing up for the demands of war materials production. “Good enough for government work” had to do with the necessity to meet much stricter tolerances, to work to higher standards, etc. Before, you might have been putting together engines and bodies for Chrysler cars; now you’re suddenly assembling motors for B-29s, riveting together airframes, assembling bombsights or artillery shells. Lives depended on what you were doing. What was good enough before isn’t good enough now. Using the phrase in the ironical way it’s frequently used today would have been worse than unpatriotic. It would have seemed unthinkable.

There was a very similar phrase in the UK having to do with their wartime industrial standards: Close enough for government work. It also implied great precision and care, as opposed to sloppy pre-wartime indifference.


And what would it likely do to the future job prospects and wages of unemployed private-sector workers, to suddenly find themselves in direct competition with millions of former government workers who often have higher levels of education and greater levels of techincal expertise?

I don’t know that one can say that is unequivocally the truth. Many services, if privatized, would demand certain experience levels, some gained through public sector and some through private sector jobs. And, what’s more, considering the number of unemployed, I’m sure they would welcome any chance at getting a job, regardless of the number of people in direct competition with them for that job or jobs.

@Greg 12

Well, my Father, a WWII Vet would disagree with you.

Government work in WWII was notorious for its shoddy workmanship, and poor design… there was a reason they called the Sherman Tank a Ronson (after the lgihter)… and heck we lost Liberty ships to simple storms all the time…

Not sure what history you are reading… but I just was talking to my Mom… who was a teenager in WWII, and she does not agree with your definition of what that phrase meant…

@Delh, #9: “Considering that most government employees are in regulatory positions usually at counter purposes to getting the job done, getting them out of the way of business would certainly be a step in the right direction.”

You might want to reconsider that proposition the next time you board a commercial airliner. I, for one, feel better knowing that my safety isn’t entirely in the hands of those who were primarily concerned with maximizing their profit margins.

Much of what government accomplishes is largely invisible and taken almost entirely for granted.

@Romeo13: I guess I’ve heard a different story. My late father worked in a Detroit tank plant as a welder until he was old enough to join the AAF, at which point he was turned into a B-25 bomber pilot. Later in life he worked in a plant that machined precision jet aircraft parts, and later still managed a factory that built the electron guns for television cathode ray tubes. All of his life he was a man obsessed with the competing demands of production and precision.

Some people might have given the phrase an ironical turn when they noticed higher standards often weren’t being met. I don’t think that was because the government wasn’t setting high standards. It was because of the speed and scale of the industrial effort that was needed for national survival.


GREG: you represent a party who try to demolish the reputation of businesses;
DO you think they would put their customers in danger willingly, when this is the source of their revenues; IT’s inconsiveble, how clear the government show their agenda,
to cease power for them alone, and driving the AMERICANS to bankrupcy.

I think that those CONSERVATIVES who will be ELECTED will bring new stimulation to the party and the REPUBLICANS also
WE should stay confident and refrain from attacks toward any one on this side of the fence,from now on, because, it could be taken adversivly, by some who are still unsure where to go,
THERE is some experts in the REPUBLICAN party also that will remain there and they need not
being put down: we have to remember that the next PRESIDENT

: “DO you think they would put their customers in danger willingly, when this is the source of their revenues?”

Not only would some; some have done. A classic example would be the American tobacco industry. Another would be the manufacturer of pickup trucks equipped with “saddle-bags” gas tanks, which remained in production even after they knew they represented a serious fire issue. It was cheaper to settle after accidents than to correct the design. How many police officers were killed because of a similar problem with Crown Victoria gasoline tanks? How many prescription drugs have gone to market, only to be pulled later when serious safety issues came to light? Worrisome indications were there all along.

A focus on profits frequently tempts industry to overlook or understate possible dangers. That’s why we need regulators who don’t let consideration of potential profits or losses become part of the regulatory process.

GREG: hi, IS NT IT what they call LOBBYIST to get away from too much regulations,
or to acquire licenses on new businesses ecetera?

I figure lobbyists and elected government officials are to blame. Not career civil servants, who for the most part do their work on behalf of the American public as best they can.

GREG, THANK YOU, YOU have A good point there. bye

That was an excellent post, Vince; however, you might consider whether you can produce 180 to 200 pages on this subject. It was a good read that can be expanded. Ten pages a day and a week to edit, think about it.


Maybe you heard that version from someone who read VP Gore’s book, “Common Sense Government”, as he was waxing poetic about pre-1900 building standards the government had in place.(pg91)…except that the government (particularly the federal government) had little to no building standards at all back then.

It has never been used to describe anything “good” until he went and changed it….as progressives are wont to do.

To wit:
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs 2002.

Close enough for government work and good enough for government work
sufficiently close; done just well enough.
Alludes to the notion that work for the government is not done with care or pride.
I didn’t do the best job of mending your shirt, but it’s close enough for government work.

: Interesting. Here’s a take similar to what remember hearing:

“The genesis of the phrase goes back to the World War II era when the country’s industrial complex became the military-industrial complex. Shipbuilders, airframe assemblers, automotive corporations, and other companies united with the government in the war effort found themselves needing to meet new sets of specifications–military specifications, or Mil-Specs. These Mil-Specs were more strict and precise, requiring parts to be made with closer tolerances and higher degrees of quality than similar parts made for commercial use. Hence, during the quality control and inspection processes, an engineer might find a part intended for commercial use that was of particularly high quality and declare, “This one’s close enough for government work.”

“Sometime during the past 50 years, the phrase took on the opposite meaning. Turned around, it now is used derisively to imply that if the work is for the government, it doesn’t need to be exact–just “close enough.” As with the similar (but reverse) metamorphosis of the phrase “Made in Japan,” exactly how and when the meaning got turned around is unclear.”


No original source is mentioned. I suppose it might be one of those stories that, once told, goes viral. If Al can invent the internet he can surely invent a new bit of oral history. Since I can’t find a supporting reference, I’ll concede the point.

The reasons for the changed implications of “Made in Japan” are far more obvious to me. I have personal remembrances of “Made in Japan” being synonomous with the cheapest sort of junk products, and clear recollections of the point when that was obviously no longer the case.

Don’t get your hopes up on a Republican congress to cut spending and down-size government.

They’ll fold up like a lawn-chair the minute Obama starts the Clinton-like “these cuts are hurting widows and children…”. We saw it in ’95 and we’ll see it again in 2011.

Better the Republicans don’t gain the House and Senate. Just cut the Dem leads to bare majorities and block everything Obama does.

Then in 2012 when the economy is even worse in the shi**er we can hang the entire thing on the Dems and win the presidency and congress. 😛