An Honest Question to Progressives: When Does the Proportion of Tax Money Claimed By Government Workers Get Too Large?

I have sent the following question to a number of Progressives. I have yet to hear anything back.

I have been following the story about UC possibly hiding funds as a sort of rainy day fund in accounts because several years ago I worked with a lot of folks (e.g. Ruth Coleman) at California State Parks who lost their jobs when accused of the same thing.  But looking at the story, the part that really appalled me was this from the auditor's report:

​The last few years UC has been begging and pleading for $50 or $100 million extra so they could enroll more in-state students, when the office of the president, if this is presented correctly, seems to be bloated by perhaps $400 million.  God knows what the administrative staffs of the individual universities look like.It appears what we have here is a conflict between more output of government services to the public, which I might call an ideological imperative of the Progressive left, with protection of government workers and their pay and benefits, which I might call a political imperative.

I am wondering if the Left's near absolute political support for government workers is undermining what I might call the good government impulses on the Left.  My involvement with CA politics is mostly in parks, but I know that there are a number of fundamental reforms that could allow the parks agency to do a lot more with their current budget, in fact perhaps even start getting at working down deferred maintenance logs, but these were torpedoed as non-starters because they would involve job losses and changes in work rules.  I am not saying they were discussed and defeated, I am saying they were stopped immediately as pointless to even discuss.

I don't agree with Progressives on the size and scope of government, but leave that aside.  Taking the government's current size and tax base as a given, is there a segment of the progressive community that gets uncomfortable with the proportion of these resources that are channeled into government employee hands rather than into actual services for the public?  Or is there a progressive argument for larger-than-needed government staff and higher-than-necessary pay and benefits (e.g. a city on the hill argument where the government is setting a higher standard that perhaps the benighted private employers will someday more closely emulate)?


  1. J_W_W:

    No. Because progressives hypocrisy and lies know no bounds.

  2. irandom419:

    Redistributing the wealth. When a business faces a downfall in revenue, the owner is expected to take the hit and keep everyone fully employed. I'm shocked that administrators don't take a pay cut to make sure everyone is fully employed.

  3. Orion Henderson:

    I have a number of relatives that are either current or retired Fed/state/city employees. All college educated people doing good work (presumably). This isn't even a comprehensible question to them.

  4. dartagnan:

    It's a bit of a strawman argument - as far as us Lefties are concerned, any money going towards administration and the government is too much, pretty much exactly as you folks feel.

    We do care about it's use though. We want people to be reasonably safe, reasonably free, have well built, maintained and distributed infrastructure good healthcare and education and not face poverty due to excessive medical costs, be they due to pregnancy or old age.

    To reflect the hyperbole: can any rightist explain why they want our taxes so high just for absolutely excessive military spending?

  5. fotini901:

    I'm lefty-er than you, and I'd be all for cutting UC's president's staff and all such bloated budgets (including our military's) by like 90%.

  6. SamWah:

    What? Wash out your mouth, Warren! And hide in your bunker; there's INCOMING!!!!!11111!!!!!!!

  7. sean2829:

    Actually, most of us look at anything the government funds or promotes (defense, education, healthcare) and see tremendous inefficiency coupled with a tendency to drive prices higher without an increase in value. With defense however, programs do get cancelled and the volume of equipment gets reduced when prices surge too high. Healthcare and education just seem to increase in cost at 2-3x the rate of inflation for 3 decades now and we've gotten to the point where more than half the country can no longer afford either without substantial government assistance.

  8. J_W_W:

    This is one of the most fascinating posts I've ever seen on the internet.

    It talks about why costs are rocketing up for everything (especially everything influenced by the government) but zero value is being delivered to "customers" and none of the increase funding is going to the core effort (i.e. teacher's salaries are flat while funding is increasing with rocket like trajectory).

  9. ErikTheRed:

    I'm going to call bullshit on this, and before you get too angry with me I'm going to say it's bullshit in the exact same way that conservatives are full of bullshit. The first priorities of lefties are:
    1) Defeating the Republicans
    2) Defeating the Republicans
    3) Defeating the Republicans
    4) Defeating the Republicans
    5) Defeating the Republicans
    6) Defeating the Republicans
    7) Defeating the Republicans
    8) Defeating the Republicans
    9) Defeating the Republicans
    10) (wait for it)... Defeating the Republicans.

    These are concrete goals that are planned for and acted on. Anything else that happens is incidental. The same goes for conservatives, in the reverse. At this point people lose their shit and get angry, but as evidence I present exhibits 1-537: the President and Vice President of the United States, and the United States Congress. I then present their historical patterns of behavior, and the aggregate responses of their supporters. People *talk* about issues. Talk is cheap. Talk is as close as you get to nothing without actually being nothing. People act based on their actual beliefs (where the word "actual" comes from - things that drive you to act). And the actions say that "the most important thing is that we defeat the other party." Until that behavior changes, please save the protestations for somebody more gullible.

  10. Nehemiah:

    Government headcount, whether productively deployed or not, directly impacts public union enrollment and dues collected. That in turn benefits some politicians who receive significant campaign contributions. Why would anyone want to disrupt this legalized money laundering operation?

  11. JoseM:

    The large number of high-salaried subordinates that a CEO or other high bureaucratic official has serves as justification for his/her own enormous salary. It is a demonstration of the breadth of the job and the complexity, thereby indicating that only a very highly paid person should be able to do it. So, reducing the office staff must be an absolute no-no.

  12. slocum:

    But no lefty politicians dare advocate any such thing. They may recognize the problem privately, but that's the extent of it. Taking on interest groups that are part of the Democratic coalition would be career suicide. Joining the choir to demand higher taxes (on the rich) and greater 'investment' is risk-free. So that's what they all do.

  13. joe:

    progressives believe in Keynsian economics, so that ,money stimulates the economy and is good (even though the actual multiplier effect is less than 1.0)

  14. DaveK:

    I suspect the number is about the same as for simple corruption. My recollection is that an established business can "afford" something in the neighborhood of 25% going to pay for various forms of corruption. Much higher than that and the venture will likely fail. Since nearly all this government-required overhead is simply another form of graft, the rule of thumb about corruption should hold.

  15. Zachriel:

    That is incorrect. Very broadly, the multiplier is a function of slack in the economy. If there is slack, then the multiplier is generally greater than one. If there is no slack, then the multiplier is generally less than one.

  16. Kirk Taylor:

    Stealing this...

  17. bannedforselfcensorship:

    I've noticed this, too. I think its mainly because the bureaucracy lines up with them politically. Taiwan is a great counter-example, where the bureaucracy is from the rightist party, so the leftist party is willing to cut salaries, pensions, perks, in order to fun progressive goals.

    I think that is a far healthier political alignment, but I think its rarer because "bigger spending = bigger budgets" means bureaucracy eventually aligns with the left.

  18. bannedforselfcensorship:

    I wish more attention were paid to the numerous scams being perpetrated on the taxpayers like this.

    Bank penalties being assigned to NGOs like La Raza. State funding of NGO's that also help electioneer for parties, like ACA navigators.

  19. bannedforselfcensorship:

    The left is in control of California's political levers. If what you say is true, how did we get to this situation?

  20. bannedforselfcensorship:

    I think a lot of government in the west is now simply busy work for college-educated people.

  21. DirtyJobsGuy:

    A lot of this is response to incentives (or risks) coupled with classic empire building. To expand an academic department with new professors usually has some semi-reasonable metrics like students majoring per staff member or support of required courses for undergrads. But no real measure exists for compliance officers or administrators. With so much influence of government funding these offices can expand with little constraint.

  22. Patrick:

    I don't self-identify as progressive, but I lean left on at least some issues, so I'll give a shot at answering. To answer the headline question, I'd say that it really depends. Seems like pretty much all government spending can be classed as "people," "stuff," "paying debt," and "handouts." Theoretically, i wouldn't object to a government that was allocating 100% of that to "people," but 100% is definitely too high for the US to reach in the near to medium term.
    I also think that equating "tax revenue" with "government resources" is a good idea--the more people learn to associate these two, the better the chances of them grasping the consequences of spending. But in a case like this where you're asking for actual numbers, it's kind of a mismatch, since different government structures (including the UC system, for instance) derive significant funding from non-tax sources. Government employee costs as a percentage of total government expenditures or total government income would make more sense, to me at least.

    The graph is horrifying, and doesn't really jive with my impression of Janet Napolitano as relatively thrifty (at least compared to some of her Team Blue colleagues). I wonder if there's some reasonable explanation.

  23. GU1:

    Yup. The other weekend I was speaking with two 30-something progressives about the advantages of moving to Colorado (from our urban, blue state & city). One stated, "yeah, but the schools aren't as good." My response was something along the lines of "well, CO spends less on K-12 education, but since schooling results are mostly a function of inputs (i.e., students and the SES) and not outputs (spending), I don' think that's really true. I'd have no problem sending my kids to an upper-middle class school in CO over one in our uber-spendy state." They looked at me like I was speaking a foregin language. It just didn't copmute.

  24. Daniel Barger:

    "I have sent the following question to a number of Progressives. I have yet to hear anything back."
    Don't hold your breath. To the majority of them this is beyond their grasp. They do not understand
    what it is you are trying to make obvious to them. To the handful who might get it....THEY DON'T
    CARE. The ends justify the means. If a few of their kind manage to get rich and fat along the way
    they don't long as it's paid for by CONSERVATIVE NORMA AMERICANS. They hate us.
    To them the law is nothing but a tool to be used to bludgeon us into surrender and servitude....NOT
    something they need follow.

  25. dartagnan:

    Thought about this a lot - I believe the explanation if you cannot find data about where the money is actually going in the official statistics is fraud and graft. There was an NPR study about housing projects for the poor that concluded that more and more money was spent hyperinflationarily while fewer units were built and fewer people benefited.

    The reason turned out to be kickbacks - bids were inflated and under the table money flowed back to the decisionmakers, sometimes in nicely hidden forms (wow, you got a real good deal on that house!)

    We're becoming such a third world country :(