WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2016 — A friend recently pointed me to some quotations from Thomas Jefferson. The most striking was from a letter that Jefferson penned to Spencer Roane on March 9, 1821: “The multiplication of public offices, increase of expense beyond income, growth and entailment of a public debt, are indications soliciting the employment of the pruning knife.”
Are we there?
Federal employment hasn’t grown that much in the last 40 years. In 1962, non-military federal employment totaled just over 2.5 million; by 2012, it had grown to 2.76 million, a 10 percent increase. Military employment shrank during that period, from 2.84 million to 1.55 million, a 45 percent cut. Our military, like the private sector, has become much more productive and efficient as a result of technology.
If we assume that the rest of the government has become more productive as well, federal growth has outpaced the gains obtained during the fastest growth in productivity in the history of man, plus some. We must have a lot to show for it, right?
From 1981 until 2010, U.S. Department of Education spending grew from $16 billion to $39 billion in constant, 1981 dollars. The result? In 2014, the only super power in the world ranked 24th out of 65 countries in reading literacy and 17th out of 40 countries in overall educational performance.
“Czars” hold offices that are given authority from the president; their names, for the most part, are not submitted to the Senate for approval. The appointment of czars began in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, which created 11 of them. From that time through Bill Clinton, administrations averaged just over three czars. George W. Bush had 33, and Barack Obama, 38.
Our government is so efficient that a 2013 inquiry by the Daily Caller determined that no one in the federal government knows how many agencies there are, including the OMB and the GAO. In spite of that, overall federal employment is down. Expenses must be down as well, right?
In 1962, federal spending was $106.8 billion and the national debt was $302.9 billion.
In 2014, federal spending was $3.5 trillion, more than four times the 1962 budget when adjusted for inflation, and the national debt was $17.8 trillion. Unfunded federal liabilities are over $200 trillion.
Yes, Mr. Jefferson, I think we may have a problem.
What is the solution? Shall we turn the problem over to the politicians who created it, the ones who believe that holding the line on spending means keeping the rate of spending growth the same as in the prior year? Shall we ask the federal bureaucrats to look for places to cut? They are trained to spend every dime in their budget each year in order to avoid losing dollars in the coming year.
We need an outsider who still thinks of a budget as dollars actually spent on a need, not a rate of growth. Dr. Ben Carson has a pretty simple plan. Cut the budget of every federal department by 10 percent, without exception. Once they figure out that it can be done, do it again! That is the pruning knife that Thomas Jefferson called for.
Surely there will be wailing and moaning. Politicians will talk of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and other such nonsense. However, this is a government that has never had to make tough decisions or prioritize projects. It has never had to assess whether a project is actually doing what was intended and it has not, in many years, had a budget that did not include an increase over the previous year. Those who are worth their salt will get it done, even if it is difficult. Most managers with corporate experience could walk into a department whose budget has grown 4 to 8 percent annually for decades and find tremendous opportunities to cut expenses. Those government workers who can’t should be shown the door and others brought in to replace them.
Carson’s medicine is distasteful, but that is what is needed in our current state of affairs. The good thing is that while the government is shrinking, the U.S. economy will be expanding as government regulations decline and a reasonable tax policy is put in place. As people lose their jobs in the public sector, private sector openings will absorb them quickly.
I’m sure Thomas Jefferson would also point out that a change in fiscal mindset will be needed as those former government workers go to work in the real world.