Tennessee-style austerity would help Washington, D.C.

Tennessee-style austerity would help Washington, D.C.

December 27th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington.

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

What should a household do when its income sharply declines, for whatever reason?

The wise course of action is to reduce spending on luxuries and other discretionary purchases -- from new cars to vacations to fancy electronic gizmos. The focus should instead be on ensuring as much as possible that there is enough money for necessities.

That should also be the focus of a responsible government when its revenue drops, and that is a principle we have fortunately seen displayed here in Tennessee.

You may have read recently that since the early days of the recession, the size of the full-time workforce for state government in Tennessee has dropped by about 9 percent.

Why? Did Tennessee governors and lawmakers just have a strange urge to lay off government employees?

Of course not. We have no doubt that the job cuts were painful -- primarily to those who were laid off but also to those who had to make the layoff decisions.

Nevertheless, Tennessee and Tennesseans believe in balancing our state budgets and in living within our means. That necessitated reductions in the size of state government.

In consequence, the number of full-time Tennessee government employees dropped from more than 47,000 in the 2007-2008 budget to fewer than 43,000 in the 2012 budget that took effect July 1, the Times Free Press reported recently. (Those numbers exclude Department of Transportation and higher education employees.)

Have those cuts been easy? Certainly not.

As Robert O'Connell, the executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, noted: "Having fewer state employees is rough. Fewer employees mean fewer services."

But when the money just isn't there to sustain the same level of services, the state has a duty to tighten its belt.

That is a lesson that has been almost completely lost, however, on the federal government. The size of the federal workforce has not been shrinking but growing -- fast -- since late 2007.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out recently that the federal workforce has grown by a stunning 12 percent since December 2007 -- while total U.S. payroll employment has fallen by roughly 5 percent over the same period of time.

We cannot see how that has benefited our weak economy. Rather, it has saddled taxpayers with the burden to pay for the generous compensation packages of hundreds of thousands more federal workers.

That is alarming because the government does not actually create wealth. Money for government salaries must be removed from the private sector, where it might otherwise create productive employment, or it must be borrowed.

So the growth of government worsens the economic circumstances that are already creating so much hardship for so many Americans.

If Washington had exercised early on in the recession the sound -- though admittedly difficult -- financial principles that we see in Tennessee, we might be witnessing some real, nationwide economic progress by now.

As it is, we are sadly witnessing bigger government, with no end in sight.