Home / Community Comment /

‘Expendables’ and the 21st century

At one time, I decried the size of government, its costs and inefficiencies. On further reflection, I have come to the conclusion the “common good” may require the acceptance of large numbers of public sector workers who, in the private sector, would be expendable.

The purposes and functions of government and business are different. Given these differences, it is wrong to expect government to apply the same standards as the private sector. Each has its strengths and weaknesses which can only be evaluated within the context of the tasks each is designed to perform.

Government must consider the social consequences of increased efficiency in a high-tech world. Should it be the employer of last resort even in those areas where obvious efficiencies could eliminate millions of public sector jobs? What would be the consequences to workers and their families? Are they expendable? Or is it better to keep them employed even though the need for the service has diminished?

Capitalism is the force that drives the economy. It is fueled by greed or, if you prefer, money, profit, and growth. It performs the essential functions of providing jobs, goods, and services. It needs people with purchasing power to buy what it sells.

It also can be ruthlessly efficient in its attention to the bottom line by discarding employees who no longer contribute to growth and profit. Doing more with less has become increasingly evident in an age of technology and robotics where human labor is less and less necessary for production. The jobs of yesterday are not the jobs of today or tomorrow; one person at a computer can perform the work of two hundred on an assembly line. Automation will only increase.

That problem will become worse as the need for labor decreases while the population expands. With fewer people working, purchasing power declines and profit margins shrink. Although it needs fewer workers, capitalism needs more buyers for its own survival.

Government obviously is far less efficient than the private sector. Without the financial incentives that exist in business, there is not the motivation to improve performance, reduce expenses, or identify ways of doing more with less. In fact, the pressure to create more jobs, regardless of the need, is ingrained within our political system.

There are pockets of performance where highly motivated government workers do outstanding work. However, budget increases are rarely given to departments that perform at a high level. In some cases nonperformance is rewarded as more resources are directed to inefficient agencies.

Conservatives argue that we should limit aid to the unemployed or underemployed, thereby creating a greater incentive for them to work while at the same time the need for workers is shrinking. Where are the jobs? They say that if we reduce corporate taxes and taxes on high income earners, these “job creators” will pick up the slack. But is it likely private employers will hire more workers than they need?

The US Postal Service is an example of an institution that arguably has outlived its usefulness and could be easily replaced by the private sector. With tens of thousands of employees and facilities throughout the country, it operates at substantial annual deficits. More importantly, with the explosion of communication technology, there is no need for daily delivery.

Is there any doubt that Fed Ex, UPS and/or Amazon can provide essential mail service at a profit for much less than the Postal Service? To do so would mean that tens of thousands of workers would lose their jobs. Or, is it better for the self esteem of the workers, the financial security of their families, and the purchasing power they generate to retain an inflated system?

The same could be said about fire departments in an age where fire resistant building materials and technology have substantially reduced the number of fires. One reason both fire departments and EMS personnel respond to non-fire emergencies is to justify their continued staffing levels. Could police and firefighters be cross-trained as public safety officers, able to switch roles as circumstances require?

There is enormous waste and inefficiency within the Department of Defense. A large and robust military generates billions in private sector contracts. Maintaining an expensive military also creates the temptation to justify its existence by using it unwisely.

Because of the military-industrial complex and the absence of similar commercial links to social welfare programs, Congress is much more reluctant to cut “waste” in the former than in the latter. Without inflated budgets, defense contractors would suffer, and one consequence would be worker layoffs.

Government is engaged in a delicate balance: It must continue to promote a robust private sector while at the same time filling in the gaps where industry fails to deliver jobs. To fund those caught in the gaps, it must tax corporate profits and the unconscionable income that unfettered capitalism generates.

If capitalism is the brains of the system, government is the heart. It keeps blood flowing throughout the entire body while the brain calculates. They are mutually dependent organs that can function well when properly balanced.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.