President Obama’s recent plea for another $50 billion (here is the letter to congressional leaders) to save the jobs of teachers and firefighters in the states is a great example of the “Washington Monument Syndrome.” This refers to the bureaucratic practice of threatening to close down the most popular and vital programs in response to prospective budget cuts; it gets its name from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which always threatens it will have to close the Washington Monument if its budget is cut.
The message, in this case, is that if taxpayers — who are already poorer than they used to be — don’t give the states billions of dollars on top of the billions already received through the stimulus, our favorite state employees will end up in the streets without jobs. The goal is obviously to cause enough public outrage to give cover for lawmakers to pass another job bill — in spite of the obvious failure of the previous ones.
Here are some reasons why Congress shouldn’t agree to spend $50 billion on state budgets.
First, we are supposedly in a federal system (even though I think federalism in the U.S. is, in some important ways, dead). The states need to grow up and stop relying on the federal government to bail them out.
Second, firing teachers in not the only way out of this budget crisis. Teachers could get a salary cut. Besides, I assume teachers have an incentive to accept a salary cut rather than to lose their jobs all together.
Third, states have many assets they can sell: stadiums, parks, bridges, highways, museums, buildings, and more.
Fourth, if teachers and firefighters are such a priority, why start with them? In the same situation, a typical family would start by reducing its spending in the least essential areas: For instance, parents would stop going out to dinner rather stop buying food for their children. Is President Obama telling us that states have already cut all the non-essential parts of the budget and only essential parts are left untouched? Or is Obama saying that state governments are like bad parents that would rather stop feeding their kids than stop going out for dinner?
Finally, teachers were the big winners of the stimulus bill. According to Recovery.gov data, in the last two quarters, two-thirds of the job created or saved were in the Department of Education (see chart below). How much more help do they need?