Saturday, 6 September 2003

"Fiscal conservatism" and the War on Terror

Today’s flap: Andrew Sullivan said, based on news that federal employment is at its peak since 1990:

The sheer profligacy of this administration continues to astound. If you’re a fiscal conservative, Howard Dean is beginning to look attractive.

Matthew Stinson thinks this is hogwash, James Joyner is just bemused, and Alan of Petrified Truth doesn’t think Dean’s record of fiscal conservatism is exactly what it’s cracked up to be (a position I generally agree with). But Matthew’s assertions seem to be a bit clouded by his partisan biases:

Did Andrew ever stop and think that perhaps the reason why the federal government payroll has gained a million contracted workers is that the government has to pay for the war on terror?

Either this is a non-sequitor or Matthew is trying to make a giant leap of logic here. The federal government payroll has been swelled by non-contract workers due to the War on Terror—the civilians who used to handle baggage screening, for example, are now federal employees working for the Transportation Security Agency. Surely there are some contract jobs are related to defense spending, but not all of them are; the WaPo account says:

Instead, much of the surge is attributable to increases in anti-terrorism efforts and defense spending, which accounted for 500,000 of the new jobs, the study found.

So 50% of the jobs have nothing to do with defense or homeland security. That’s not a very good number if you’re trying to defend the growth of government under Bush 43, and the sort of thing likely to contribute to the general discontent with the administration from Republicans and Republican-leaning libertarians that Dan Drezner noted yesterday in his blog.

Now, you can certainly quibble with the measurement in the Brookings study: does every professor—and associated research assistants—whose research is supported by a grant from DoE or NSF count as a “federal employee”? Do the contractors who construct federal-aid highways count? How about state and local employees—and private-sector workers—whose jobs are partially paid for by federal money, or whose jobs wouldn’t exist without federal laws (which would drag in hundreds of thousands of private-sector workers who monitor corporate compliance with federal mandates)? And, certainly, the population has risen substantially since 1990, so as a percentage of the total workforce government isn’t as big an employer as it was in 1990, even by the Brookings methodology. But for someone alleging he’s going to cut government, Bush sure has a funny way of doing it.