Marty: America is a company town

Marty Richman

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to change the way
government works is that much of American has become a company town
and the company is the government. A company town was a place where
almost everything was owned or operated by a single company, but
the term has been expanded to mean any place heavily dependent upon
a single industry or organization for its economic wellbeing.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to change the way government works is that much of American has become a company town and the company is the government. A company town was a place where almost everything was owned or operated by a single company, but the term has been expanded to mean any place heavily dependent upon a single industry or organization for its economic wellbeing.

Government has become the never-ending jobs program and source of funds. It is so big, so intrusive and so ubiquitous that it is a virtual water balloon. If you push it in here, it just pops out somewhere else. You can poke and poke, but the amount of water remains the same and no one can dare break the balloon because there is a load of political capital invested in it.

Every election we ask the public employees if they want their employer to go away or their pay and benefits to be reduced. Is it any wonder they say no or that most politicians will not touch the issue? No one who works for the company wants the company to cut back.

Even the raw numbers are impressive. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), public employment in the U.S. was 14 percent of the workforce. That translates to almost 19 million workers. Government is also a big spender; it spends more than one-third, 36 percent, of the entire U.S. GDP, $5 trillion a year at all levels.

The 14 percent government employment figure is middle of the road. Of the 26 countries surveyed by OEDC in 2006, more than half reported government employment between 10 and 15 percent. As far as the percent of GDP spent by government, the U.S. is in the lower quarter, but 11 countries are stacked between 30 and 40 perecent.

Between 1995 and 2006, most countries reduced the percent of GDP spent by their governments; Germany reduced it by 9 percent, as did the Netherlands, Canada and Norway. Even Sweden, the pattern for a social giant, cut back from 65 to 54 percent. During the same period, government spending in the U.S. as a percent of GDP fell by less than 1 percent.

Between 1990 and 2000, federal government employment actually fell by 8 percent. At the same time, counties and municipalities increased employment by 24 percent and state governments by 20 percent. That was an increase of 3.3 million public employees in 10 years outstripping the U.S. population increase by 4-percent during the same period.

Spending at the federal level accounts for 13 percent of all government spending in the U.S., the other 87 percent is spent by states, counties and municipalities and that makes them the powerhouses of many local economies and big employers. The odds are that someone in your family is counting on the government, not merely for services, but directly or indirectly for a job. Voting to reduce the government means voting against their personal interest – it’s not likely to happen barring extraordinary circumstances.

When you get the politicians alone and let them pat you down for a wire, they will tell you – strictly off the record, of course – that the current system is unsustainable. Five minutes later, they will be back on the podium saying that if you vote for their opponent’s plan to reduce government you’ll shortly be sleeping in the street.

The truth is, if we do not change something soon we’ll all be sleeping in the street.

Marty Richman is a Hollister resident.

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