The Federal Jobs Program, Then and Now

Have you heard that a bill has been introduced in the House prohibiting federal employees from using government computers and devices to watch pornography on the job?

The bill is in response to many stories of federal employees spending their workdays watching pornography.   Evidently, this practice is rampant in the federal bureaucracy, and under the current rules, people employed by the federal government cannot be fired for it. 

Please note that if the bill passes and has its intended outcome, in order to be in compliance with federal work rules, employees will need to use their personal devices to spend their workdays watching pornography.  Perhaps this bill is better than nothing, but it is also pretty close to nothing all the same.

Is it possible that we have a deeper problem in here somewhere?

I recently got into a conversation with a young couple about government employment.  They made it amusing, though it was maddening at the same time.  He works for the federal government; she has a real job.  He told me that he has never yet seen anyone in his section do any actual work.  He amuses himself during his hours at the office by collecting anecdotes for his wife about the various ways the others in his section pass the time.  

I was not surprised to hear his story because I had been fortunate enough to get my own experience of government employment once upon a time.

In the early '60s, the federal government, in its restless search for problems to solve, discovered that many college students wanted summer jobs.  This fact was declared to be a "problem" (or perhaps it was called a "crisis"; I don't recall).  The decision – surprise! – that emerged was to throw money at it.  I got a position at the motor pool on a military base.  And a position is literally what it was.  It was the middle position on the bench seat of a truck.  My job was to occupy that part of the seat.  I spent eight hours five days a week sitting between the driver and his assistant.  The government had decreed, "Let there be jobs," and lo and behold, jobs appeared.  But there was nothing for me to do, except to coordinate with the driver so as not to interfere with his operation of the floor shift.

For that matter, there was almost no work for the other two men in that truck.  The civil service commissar who ruled the motor pool had two rules: always look busy, and constantly vary where you eat lunch.  So it was that our days consisted of racing around the Navy base as if we were on urgent business while keeping an eye out for pleasant spots to open our lunchboxes and enjoy not being in the truck.  That was it.  The commissar occasionally did assign us tasks.  Now and then we would make deliveries, usually transferring furniture from one place to another.

The driver and his co-pilot were pleasant fellows who took a friendly interest in me.  The Navy base covered a vast area of great natural beauty, and my colleagues kindly made sure I got to experience all the best spots.  And the money was great – much better than any summer job in the private sector.  In fact, what with one thing and another, more than fourteen years were to pass before I made as much money again.  Because I was living at my parents' home, I was able to save nearly everything after taxes, so my college fund grew rapidly.

All in all, you would think this was a very good deal for a college kid who needed money to get through the school year.  Nonetheless, I could take it for only so long.  I quit about halfway through the summer.

Whether or not it was a good deal for me, it was not such a good deal for the taxpayer.

The lesson about the problem with government is perfectly clear: the incentives are upside-down.  It's just common sense.  Imagine if the commissar was the owner of a trucking service business instead the administrator of a government operation.  He would have had to raise money, and quite a lot of it, too, to go into that business.  Instead, he was able to requisition money from taxpayers.  To stay in business, he would have had to make a profit.  Instead of telling us to look busy, he would have had to find a way to keep us busy doing something that paid our salaries and his costs and made enough profit to keep the business going.

As a government administrator, the more money he spent, the greater the number of trucks in the motor pool, the more people reporting to him, the better for his career.  Those bigger numbers were the basis for determining his civil service rank and, therefore, his pay and benefits. 

So it has long been this way and will no doubt continue in this way.  What, then, is the commonsense explanation for the continued existence of this vast federal jobs program?  Think of it this way: it is a fabulously lavish welfare program for an army that can be relied on to vote for the Democrats.

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

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