Hunter Baker on the Missing Element in a Government Jobs Strategy
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (the longtime Democratic senator from New York) once suggested instituting twice-daily mail service as a way of providing good government jobs for African-American males. Moynihan's notion demonstrates that modern liberals do not always build up the number of government jobs because more employees are needed to accomplish some mission, but because they are trying to provide a quality lifestyle for large numbers of people. In other words, the job itself (the entry on the payroll) is the mission.
In his response to President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels commented that the president appears to sincerely believe that a middle class can be created with government jobs paid for by government dollars. Perhaps such a position would not be so fantastic if there were a different spiritual core at the heart of modern left-liberalism.
Today, it appears that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is unnecessary. It loses large amounts of money, partly because email and digital imaging have made some of its former functions obsolete and partly because it has good competitors in the form of UPS and Federal Express. The old argument that the USPS must exist to serve rural areas has lost force because the nation is more thickly populated now. Besides, the government could simply subsidize private carriers to serve outlying areas at a much cheaper cost than that of sustaining current USPS operations.
But it is unlikely that the federal government will dissolve the postal service as a former necessity that has been bypassed by technology. The reason is that liberals are trying to accomplish something other than the delivery of the mail with the USPS. They are trying to create good livelihoods with solid salaries and benefits for a sizeable number of people. Such jobs, in theory, are to be protected from the creative destruction and dislocations of capitalism.
The question is whether the modern liberal approach to improving the quality of citizens' lives by sustaining mass numbers of government jobs is workable. The answer is that it can be done (though at the cost of significant economic efficiency), but not with the mix of values currently accepted by modern liberals.
The Benefits of a Government Job
I have some personal history and inside knowledge to bring to bear on the problem. My maternal grandfather grew up in Cullman, Alabama. His family was not well off, and he did not have much in the way of business assets or educational attainments to help him along. He married at a young age, found work in various factories, and began having children in Decatur, Alabama. The young family lived in a small home that he and his brothers built on a nice plot of land, right on the border of an industrial area and close to the Tennessee River.
Getting a job with the post office at about the age of 30 was a boon to him. Delivering the mail was a much cleaner, safer, and more comfortable job than working in factories, where he had once witnessed a tragic workplace accident resulting in the death of several men. It was the kind of accident that everyone present had realized was coming, and my grandmother recalled his having nightmares about it for a long time after the event. He was more than ready to leave the industrial environment.
I can still remember seeing him in his postal uniform, making his rounds about town. He left early in the morning and got home in the afternoon. He was happy in that job. It provided for his family and gave him enough leisure time to begin an extensive avocation in horticulture.
One of the nice things about my childhood was the way he named various plants and flowers after family members. I very much enjoyed wandering around the greenhouses and nursery buildings he constructed on his property. My grandmother and my sister joined me for games of hide-and-seek. Any place was fair game as long as we didn't disturb the flowers. There were lemons as large as grapefruit in his yard, and bees that sometimes loomed as fat as golf balls.
He became a fixture in our community as a longtime mailman and revered gardener. Each Christmas he received a hail of gifts and money from the people on his route. The walls of his home displayed a number of pictures and awards detailing his achievements at national flower shows, where he eventually became a respected judge.
Thanks to a government pension and benefits, he retired at about age 62 and spent the next quarter of a century pretty much doing what he wanted. He tended his flowers and spent time with his family. He kept working in the greenhouses and tending his plants until he was too weak to keep it up, as the consequences of a lifetime of smoking beset him. Moving to a more manageable home in the suburbs made him unhappy, but his loved ones had arranged it out of love and compassion for him and my grandmother.
We may not find a movie script in this story, but there is little doubt that his government job provided the income and working conditions for a pretty satisfying life. And here's the thing: he fulfilled his end of the bargain. What does that mean? I'll explain.
Benefits Given Back
When, back in the 1960s, Moynihan first proposed expanding the number of postal service jobs, it's doubtful that he was merely hoping for a lot of people to be employed. He was too visionary for that. He was often considered a neo-conservative, though he never voted like one. As the author of a much-cited study on the crisis of the black family, Moynihan knew of the importance of families for children. He likely hoped that all those new postal employees would do just what my grandfather did—that is, that they'd live in such a way as to leverage the gift of a steady government job into something better for the next generation.
My grandfather—who had the very un-WASPy surname of Boike—was a Roman Catholic. He and my grandmother had five children in stair-step fashion. The seven-member family lived in a small house with three small bedrooms and one bathroom. The single lavatory had a bath with no shower. My grandmother was unable to drive, thanks to a childhood eye injury, so the children had to walk to the Catholic school and any other activities they wanted to do. Trips to the grocery store had to wait until my grandfather could get home to take his wife out to get what she needed. She prepared virtually all of the meals for the family of seven.
He had three daughters and two sons. The first daughter married a young man who went on to work for NASA and IBM. The second child, a son, spent decades working for AT&T. He started as a lineman and worked his way up into the professional technology ranks. The second daughter, my mother, married a man who worked for thirty years at the Monsanto corporation as a chemical engineer and who continues to do technical work (as of this writing) at age 70. The second son worked as a manager in retail throughout his career. And the third daughter, his fifth child, married a fellow who became an information technology executive.
The family grew up in the Catholic Church. Somehow, they managed to afford private grade school for all five children. They were involved in their parish and were regular attendees at Mass.
There are a couple of things worth observing in the history of my family with my grandfather, the postman, at its head. First, notice the number of children he and his wife had—five. From their marriage came five households that jumped from blue-collar work to white-collar careers and families. Certainly, he received a government pension and benefits, which he used for a quarter-century, but he had enough children growing up to take their places as taxpayers to support his retirement.
Second, consider the types of families the second-generation households became. There were no divorces, no out-of-wedlock births, no failures to finish school, no incarcerations, and steady records of employment. My grandfather's government job and the living it provided to his family acted like a lever that significantly improved the prospects of his children. But the job alone did not do that work; the other major factors were the Christian faith and expectations he and his wife passed on to their children. Their stable, one-paycheck household led to the formation of several other stable, employed households that have paid a tremendous amount in taxes through the years.
The kind of government policy that sets out to create lots of good government jobs (sometimes jobs that could be done by the private sector) that pay workers a nice wage and that provide them with a lengthy retirement with pension and benefits is only sustainable under certain conditions.
First, and most obviously, there must be a sizeable base of taxpayers not dependent on the government. Redistribution through government jobs relies upon a thriving private sector generating substantial profits and growing in size in order to fund the practice. If this dynamic does not hold, it is simply true that the redistributor will eventually, as Margaret Thatcher has pointed out, run out of other people's money.
Second, and equally clearly, if we set up a system in which large numbers of people will be receiving government pensions and benefits during long retirements, then we must have a much larger number of people in the generations succeeding them who are able to pay taxes to support the retired class during their economically non-productive years.
Third, if we wish to prevent the formation of a standing class of government employees who agitate endlessly for their own betterment through the contributions of the taxpayers, then we need government jobs to function as a platform for greater opportunities for the government employees and/or their children.
My grandfather paid back his government job and benefits by doing the work well, having lots of children, providing for them, ensuring a quality education for them, establishing a strong moral foundation through parenting and church attendance, and then seeing the kids off into successful marriages. I suspect that what he did is exactly the kind of generational arc the late senator Moynihan had in mind.
Commitments at Odds with Good Results
On the other hand, however, if we establish these jobs and those who obtain them do not get married, do not form stable families, and do not successfully raise children to complete their educations, launch into careers, and have families of their own, then we will not have succeeded. Government work will simply be another way for the political class to redistribute funds and to form coalitions at a cost to everyone not savvy or connected enough to find a way to get a piece of the pie.
The Boike family was a Democratic family. It is primarily a Republican one now. But the old saw about the Democrats being different back then is absolutely true. Government jobs were intended to do what they did in the life of my grandfather and his family. It was a strategy of the populist Democrats that was successful, I would argue, as were many of the big infrastructure investments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and NASA. These were government expenditures that added to the national balance sheet by making bigger things possible in the private sector.
Today's left would like to see government jobs have a positive effect, too, but their modern commitments are at odds with those good things happening. Marriage? The modern left denies the need for natural marriage as a foundation for the most stable and successful families. Remember the rage Dan Quayle inspired when he suggested that a popular fictional character on TV set a bad example by choosing single motherhood? And what about the wrath George W. Bush incurred when he dedicated tiny amounts of money in the budget to encouraging marriage among the poor?
How about the idea of having enough children to grow the economy and sustain taxpayer-funded retirements? The modern left is committed to encouraging people to have fewer children rather than more. Environmentalism has trumped the old commitment to growth and development. Few remember that the old left and union leaders consistently argued for increased production and industrial activity rather than less. The environmentalist left has trumped the old labor left. And the labor movement has transitioned from the private sector to the public one, with the result that its agitation merely siphons off more money from the private sector with fewer beneficial results.
More Social Capital Needed
The modern left's commitments result in the diminution of social capital. We wonder why inner-city schools struggle while suburban ones do better. Though most people blame the lack of money, the truth is that many urban schools are well funded, such as the ones in Washington, D.C. It is simply easier to preside over a school full of children with married parents who model work, commitment, delayed gratification in pursuit of goals, and other positive behaviors. Culturally, if we run out of that kind of social capital, then we are trapped in a cycle of decline.
If we want a society that provides opportunities for social and economic improvement through government jobs, and that takes care of the elderly through pensions (i.e., social security), then we must opt for the kind of family ethics and dynamics (with regard to marriage, procreation, and child rearing) that will reward the investment rather than simply creating an "entitled" class. Government jobs can function well for America if they are used as a lever, but they will merely increase our indebtedness if the primary use of a government salary is to enable a person to consume. •
Hunter Baker J.D., Ph.D. is a professor and administrator at Union University and a fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His third book, a collection of lectures and essays titled The System Has a Soul was published in 2014.
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