When you start looking at how budget crises affect government operations, you enter a real rabbit hole, I tells ya. Yes, everyone agrees, we're spending too much money in the public sector and something's gotta give. But what? Don't you see that every goddman thing the government at all levels does is so essential that, really, when you start to look at it, absolutely nothing can be cut?
In fact, when you look at the 60 percent increase in total federal outlays (in constant 2010 dollars or 104 percent in 2000 dollars) since Bill Clinton left office, the real question becomes: How the hell did we ever get by as a country without all that extra crap that's been around for a decade or less? My memory is fading, but in the surplus year of 2000, didn't we all live in old washing-machine boxes and prepare holiday dinners by cutting pictures of food out of grocery-store circulars? Sure, we were poor (by which I mean unprecedentedly wealthy) but at least we had each other (by which I mean the Internets).
No wonder that the good war-happy people at AEI are bitching and moaning that we oughta crank up defense spending from its puny 4.9 percent of GDP to an Eisenhowerian 10+ percent? More guns, less butter! Then there's John Podesta, former Clinton admin chief of staff and now head of the liberal Center for American Progress, fretting that trimming $255 billion from a 2015 budget coming in at over $4 trillion would "do lasting harm to the health of the American middle class." More butter (or cholesterol-free equivalent) and about the same amount of guns!
But let's take it down a notch, and travel well west of Washington, where the real Americans are living lives of quiet desperation. Feel the pain of Hamilton County, Ohio (which includes Cincinnati) auditor Dusty Rhodes when he's faced with a crushing budget situation that imperils every one of us:
Auditor Dusty Rhodes said his office needs $120,000 - some of that to hire a person to make sure the county's more than 13,000 gas pumps, cash registers, scales, parking meters and taxi meters among other things are accurate. That number doesn't include cash register price scanners, which the office also checks.
"Weighs and measures ensures an honest workplace," Rhodes said. "Without another inspector people's pocketbooks won't be protected."
The county has two inspectors, down from four in 2009. Budget cuts means they weren't filled after one inspector took a job in another county and another was moved to a new job within the auditor's office...
It's the office's goal to inspect every gas pump, cash register, scale, and parking meter every year. This year, for the first time, the county won't have done that, [a spokeswoman] said.
"We find ourselves at 2011 having inspected about 11,000 devices," [she] said.
Without another inspector, next year at most 9,000 devices will be inspected, she added.
As a manager, I've faced my share of flat or falling budgets and I know it's not fun. Two words: tough shit. Think through the example above folks, for even 30 seconds. If this is the sort of "problem" we'll be facing by cutting public-sector expenditures, let's have at it.
Memo to Auditor Rhodes: Inspectors aren't protecting the people's pocketbooks, though you are clearly trying to protect your budget (the article notes that Rhodes "has long complained his office doesn't have enough money or staff"). Try doing the same - or better yet, more - with less. Do all devices actually need to be inspected every single year? There isn't a way to create random samples that will cover the same ground and, to the extent that fear of inspections keep merchants from being sociopathic cheaters, keep gas station operators on their toes? What about contracting out the task? Or how about getting out of the inspection business altogether and letting businesses figure out how to certify to customers that they are not cheating them at the pump or the deli counter? I'm just spitballing here, but come on already. Hardened-in-the-arteries-and-head bureaucracy and defenses of the way it's always been, whether emanating from Washington, D.C. or southwest Ohio, just ain't cutting it any more. Thank god.
If the choice is between spending more money that we don't have on inspecting every gas pump in the country or taking a chance on cutting spending, well, I know what side I'm on: the one willing to risk paying more for a 1/3 pound of salami in exchange for not paying an ever-increasing amount of my cash for public-sector services that have, by and large, massively failed to keep pace with the private sector.