Thursday, January 13, 2011

Right sizing the federal workforce?

In the January 10, 2011 edition of the Federal Times, Stephen Losey reports that both Congress and the Deficit Commission were angling to reduce the federal workforce from the 2010 level of 2,113,980 permanent civilians to a level of 1,913,980. That's a reduction of 200,000 employees, or about 10%. These figures do not include private contractors doing federal work, a force that is estimated to expand the size of government by 1/4th to 1/3rd.

Given the current economic times, many of those on the Right side of the aisle want to see government shrink. They argue that the federal government does too many things it has no business doing, and, to paraphrase the Republican leadership, is a job killing entity.

So, of course, they want to kill 200,000 actual jobs (at a savings by 2015 of $13.2 Billion) in an economy where we bounce back and forth around 10% unemployment. They presume that, in so doing, they would somehow stimulate the economy, and also make inroads in reducing the "regulatory burden" that they accuse government of inflicting on the economy.

I have three problems with that approach. First, with unemployment as high as it is, why intentionally increase that number just to make a political point? Wouldn't it be prudent to keep people who have jobs employed, so they can spend their paychecks and drive some portion of the recovery?

Second, that $13.2 Billion is a small fraction of the deficit - 9.6% to be precise. Rounding to 10% of this year's deficit, one still has to ask if it is worth it. Sure, a 10% reduction is an appealing target, but if one looks at the numbers, one finds that mandatory spending, coupled with decreased revenue through decreased tax receipts, is the real culprit. The real problem is that it's less then 1% of the $14 Trillion National debt, and that is the real economic drag that keeps our country from surging forward in many areas.

My third issue is philosophical. When Congress, particularly Republican members of Congress, talk about reducing the size of government, what they want more often then not is to do away with things like Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare, the new health insurance regulations, environmental protection, science, and all manner of other social programs. They do not suggest cutting defense, or law enforcement. So to achieve that 200,000 person reduction, they will start from a disproportionately small set of government functions. And when that reduction fails to produce any economic benefit (but significantly hampers the delivery of federal services to Americans) they will lambaste government and seek to shrink it even more.

What I'd rather see is a robust debate on what government should do, followed by a realistic discourse on what it can do with the resources it has. Too many politicians (and their spoon-fed constituents) expect the impossible - maximum service for minimum investment. And my fellow federal workers pay the price every time it rains bad economic news.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The legacy of Afghanistan - How can we let this child die?

For my first post of the new year, I had planned to tackle Rep. Daryl Issa's sudden interest in governmental oversight. I was planning to delve into his misguided assumption that holding hearings on alleged Administration corruption would somehow identify ( and thus free up) $200 Billion for other things. it was a grand plan.

But this story, carried on CNN today, changed my focus entirely:

Five-year-old Marjan sniffles from the cold as she struggles under her load. Hoisted on her back is a bag almost as big as she is.

Instead of going to school, Marjan scavenges for hours with her 10-year-old aunt collecting trash. It is a heavy burden for such a small child but a necessary one. The trash she collects is what her family uses as fuel for cooking and, more importantly, to fend off Kabul's bitter winter.

It is a matter of life and death for someone so young. Last winter, Marjan's baby brother died from the cold.

As a father, whose youngest daughter is rapidly approaching two, this story tears me up. Every night I lay my toddler down in her bed, and I tear up at how fortunate I am, and how fortunate she is. I used to do the same with my teenagers, though I don't tuck them in any more. Yet to see this little girl on the brink of hypothermia, and to see her even younger sister (who is probably my toddler's age) loading trash into the fire pit so she can stay warm is to see abject suffering in a way that will haunt me forever.

And it leads to so many questions:
  • Once they got the images, did the CNN crew do anything to help this little girl and this family? The story doesn't say whether they did, but I would find it hard to believe that they would just walk away. Did they leave her their coats? Did they bring better blankets or a more insulated roof? Could they and did they go to the UN mission and get her, her sister and her mom some help?
  • Now that this family has been identified around the world, will anyone step up to help? Sure, the security and economic situation in Kabul is horrendous, but why should that stop us from seeing to it that for this winter (if not all winters) Marjan has the clothes, shoes and shelter she needs? If American business tycoons can build schools for girls in remote villages, what does it really take to make sure this little girl has a warm bed to sleep in? Or even a blanket that is not made of scraps?
  • And what does the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan do for this girl and her family? How is it that, as we seek to drive down a resurgent Taliban, and defeat a resilient Osama Bin Laden, that we are letting this girl, and all children like her, suffer this much? Surely if we are to gain any kind of upper hand in Afghanistan, we must make sure that its children do not sleep one night in these conditions.
Yes, there is poverty here at home too. Yes, we need to take care of all our own before we take care of everyone else. Yes, there is only so much to go around. I know all that. And for Marjan's sake, I don't care. We can not, we must not, let her mother put her to sleep every night filled with fear that she will not wake up, having succumbed to the cold. Those tears will never dry on her mother's face, nor on mine.