In 2016, the going legend is that government is too big and growing by the second. But is there fact to support the legend?
July 8, 20161:00 am
6 min read
If all goes to plan, by the time you are read this, I’ll be off on some tropical isle blotting out memories of DC traffic, the Metro commuter nightmare and our constant the-end-is-near TV weather reports. While I’m away, I asked some readers to do a guest column. As always, they are good (good enough to make me a little nervous), and show the wit, depth, range and experience of the federal family.
Today’s guest column is by Greg Keller who worked at the Office of Personnel Management before moving into the private sector. Spoiler Alert: He likes the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
It’s summer vacation season, which is a great time to relax and watch an old movie, head to the beach, crack some crabs, or maybe visit a Federal park or two. Movies are always a quick fix. They can take you away for a few hours with very little effort.
In the 1962 classic film, the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Town Marshal Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) longs for the attention of Hallie (Vera Miles). Hallie is otherwise smitten by idealistic attorney, Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart). As Stoddard faces down town menace and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) in a gun duel, Doniphon surreptitiously fires a shot killing Valance. Doniphon’s act has multiple effects. It eliminates Valance. It saves Stoddard. It ensures that Stoddard will live to be with his romantic interest, Hallie. It ensures that Doniphon’s hidden love for Hallie will go unfulfilled, but it also ensures Hallie will be happy. But it also inadvertently elevates Stoddard to hero status as the man who shot Liberty Valance, though he did not fire the fatal shot.
Years later, Stoddard has become Governor and is interviewed about his rise to legend by a reporter and his editor, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young). Seeing that the actual facts do not add up to the accepted history and that Stoddard did not vanquish Valance, Scott tosses his notes in the fire and sanguinely states, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
In 2016, the going legend is that government is too big and growing by the second. Print it.
But is there fact to support the legend?
First, let’s break this legend down. Let’s stipulate that if you want to talk about Federal, state, city, county, local governments all as one monolith, good luck. It’s kind of an apples-to-turnips comparison. And usually when the kitchen table discussion turns to the size of government, no one is really talking about the local town engineer, county court clerk, or Parks and Rec coordinator. They mean the big boys up in Washington doing those things those people do. So, let’s focus only on the Federal government.
There are a few different metrics which can be used to assess the size of government, depending on your point of view. Sure, you can look at all the permutations of budget costs and spending. Or you can count the endless pages of regulations or the contractors and subcontractors and grantees and guest fellows and experts who shuttle in and out as projects come and go. And if facts really do not matter to you, you can gripe about the things government does which irk you. When the IRS needs you to complete the 1040 and all the correct schedules and forms, it can feel like the government is huge. But let’s stick to facts and not feelings or myths and legends.
One of the easiest, important, most obvious, and least appreciated metric is the number of civil servants who roll out of the sack every morning to design safer highways leading to the beach, ensure your summer seafood is safe from contaminates, patrol federal parks to maintain your safety, track the bad guys so you can relax, or study the deep cosmos to understand and identify the stars you’ll stare at as you roast s’mores around the warm crackle of a mid-summer fire pit.
But then, you can split hairs and ponder, do you include our heroes in the military? Well, if your goal is to simply get to the highest possible number to prove the legend is true, then you could add them, but they have such a unique and vital role and operate so decidedly different from the rest of the government, prudence (and honor) dictates that we do not dump them into the argument. So, let’s agree the military force strength is not counted as “government.”
What about Federal elected leaders? Sure, but, counting them is basically adding a constant. The number of folks in Congress has not changed much in modern times. The Supreme Court has eight or nine, depending on your side of the aisle. And that doesn’t change either. So, we’ll agree to leave the elected body and courts out, but the Postal Service, which is a quasi-government corporation, we’ll leave in to be fair.
But just how big is this mass of bureaucrats and is it growing as the legend suggests?
In 1962, when John Wayne’s character was saving Jimmy Stewart and sacrificing his own chance at a Hallie’s love, there were 2.5 million Executive branch feds spread out across the US, building the interstates, looking out for marine wildlife and watching for hurricanes. As the Cold War heated up before ending 27 years later in 1989, the number had expanded to 3.1 million. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War faded, overall, the civil service shrank and now stands at around 2.6 million.
Did we print that last fact? 2.6 million. That’s basically the same as 55 years ago. Right back where we started. That doesn’t match the legend. The legend is that growth is out of control. The fact doesn’t support that.
Now, having entered the headcount myself in the mid-60’s as a citizen and as one of the Feds in 1988, I can assure you the US and the world has changed dramatically in the intervening 50+ years but yet the Federal workforce is still at the same level—notwithstanding some ups here and downs there.
Want to apply the metric to reality? In 1962, Civil Servants worked to assist a nation with a population of 186,537,737 (minus one, Liberty Valance, who did not make it through 1962). That’s 75.1 citizens for every bureaucrat. By 2014 (the last year for which I could get census and civil service data to line up), there were 318,907,401 US citizens serviced by 2,663,000 Feds, or 119.8 citizens per bureaucrat.
I never did too well in math, but my basic math facts are still pretty solid, and to me, a constant number is not a number which is “big and getting bigger.” Government has absorbed a heck of a lot of extra coverage with basically no increase in its human capital capacity to provide service. That means today, bureaucrats are accomplishing more at the same size as 55 years ago. That’s pretty efficient utilization of a large, but not swelling and bursting Civil Service.
In fact, in my estimation, the US Civil Service’s capacity to take on new and constantly changing challenges of government with an increasing service ratio and more pressure to perform is the stuff of legends. And when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. So let’s print both the facts, and the legend, fire up the Blue Ray, get a bushel of crabs, and pop in an old movie at the beachhouse.