Romney's America: Fewer Cops, Fewer Firefighters, Fewer Teachers?

Guest post by Mark A.R. Kleiman, public policy professor at UCLA. Professor Kleiman regularly blogs at The Reality Based Community.

Here is Mitt Romney, criticizing Barack Obama's plans to help the states and localities reverse the shrinkage in government employment currently dragging us back into recession:
      "He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we   
       need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of 
       Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and
       help the American people."

I haven't seen any polling on this, but if Romney wants to make this election about whether we need more cops, firefighters, and teachers, Barack Obama ought to accept the invitation. At least Romney is more honest (or just more tone-deaf) than his co-partisans such as Scott Walker, who usually pretend we can cut taxes by eliminating "bureaucrats."

Of course the real hard-core Ayn Rand types think it's a good thing if a schoolteacher loses her job and has to become a stripper -- since, after all, by definition private-sector employment is productive while public-sector employment is unproductive -- but Mitt's welcome to that 25% of the vote.

It's true that there are ways of getting crime control, firefighting, and teaching done with fewer people. The police are only starting to adapt to social and technical facts (almost everyone walking around with a video camera connected to the Net) that could allow the "crowdsourcing" of much of police information-gathering. Changing construction codes have greatly reduced the need for urban firefighters, and the Fire Department is not the best or cheapest way to provide emergency medical service. (On the other hand, increased wildfires due to climate change and exurban sprawl means we need more rural firefighting, and that's an expensive activity.) Interactive software and video can - will have to - replace much of the teaching function. In each case, we need to find a way past the Baumol Cost Disease.

But that's all in the long run.
Today and tomorrow, fewer cops means more crime, fewer firefighters means fewer heart-attack survivors, fewer teachers means worse-educated students. And in the medium term those technological changes will require investments. The cost curve will bend up before it bends down.

Romney thinks the "lesson of Wisconsin" is that the American people have been conned into wanting fewer public services so they can buy bigger TV sets. He's wrong as a matter of politics. In agreeing with them, he's also wrong as a matter of policy.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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