Revenge of the Conservative Sith?

Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and The Wrecking Crew, interviewed on Bill Moyers Journal a little while back, spoke to Bill about President Obama’s calamitous inheritance and the wave of collective amnesia that seems to have engulfed American politics since the financial meltdown, as well as conservative attitudes towards regulation and government in general.

What’s particularly interesting here, especially from a Canadian angle, is speculation about how the conservative “article of faith” with respect to government being inimical to their so-called “free market” ideology, as claimed by Frank, might play out in the coming years as the Harper Conservatives attempt to wrestle with the enormous amount of additional debt they’ve managed to accumulate through their record-high deficits in order to keep the Canadian economy relatively stable — at least by comparison to many other G8 countries.

Funnily enough, an article appeared this morning in the Globe & Mail by that giddy twaddlepate Jane Taber, definitively stating that “Canadians think the best way to balance the federal books is on the backs of public servants, according to a new national opinion poll.” How convenient…

The poll asked which strategy Canadians felt was most effective to help balance the budget. Thirty-six per cent of the respondents felt that freezing government wages was the best approach compared to 3.4 per cent who felt that increasing personal taxes was the way to go. In addition, 20.5 per cent said that government and program spending should be cut, compared to 7.9 per cent who believe the GST should be increased.

The poll of 1,000 Canadians was conducted between March 6 and March 12. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

“Here we are again,” says John Gordon, the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada that represents 165,000 workers.

“Every time the government gets into [trouble] they kind of ramp up the rhetoric and the Canadian public starts to believe them …” he said.

In some respects the government is almost too easy of a target and ridiculously corrupt “use it or lose it” departmental accounting practices don’t exactly help matters. Why not reward bureaucrats for saving money and incentivize a culture of conservative spending instead of penalizing them for it?

While no sensible person would object to fiscal discipline in government spending — something the Conservatives have conspicuously failed to exercise since taking office — let’s hope that purported deficit-cutting doesn’t become simply an excuse for reconfiguring the country according to a “conservative” ideology that mistakenly places notions of some imagined “freedom” above principles of socially-responsible government.

p.s. The first part of the Frank interview can be viewed here.

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13 Comments

Filed under Conservatism, STEVEN HARPER Government of Canada

13 responses to “Revenge of the Conservative Sith?

  1. In some respects the government is almost too easy of a target and ridiculously corrupt “use it or lose it” departmental accounting practices don’t exactly help matters. Why not reward bureaucrats for saving money and incentivize a culture of conservative spending instead of penalizing them for it?

    Easier said than done. The same people that scream about corruption in the public service would raise hell if senior public servants were paid their worth. The simple fact of the matter is that these folks don’t realize how wasteful the private sector can be. Our best insight into this comes whenever there’s an alleged scandal at a crown corp, where the government pays private executives what they would earn in the private sector.

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  3. Ok.

    First point of reality.

    Neither the civil service, nor private business, have a monopoly on fraudulent or at least grossly wasteful practices.

    In both cases, “prudent responsibile management” is necessary. Getting it is easier said than done, however.

    Incentivizing in the public sector, is very, very difficult. Many will argue that some of the woes in health care are based upon administrators’ desires to control spending – not to gain personal benefit, but to try and budget increasingly tight spending allowances.

    The theory is that government service, by definition, must be something that is a “necessity” which the public can’t leave in the hands of private business.. health care, police, armed forces, public education..

    If we turn those processes into “profit making enterprises” – even if only to the extent of providing real incentives to administrators, we run the risk of necessary services beign run “on the cheap”.

    On the other hand, it is true that right now – there is actually a disincentive to save money. If your budget is not “spent” it will likely be reduced – hence manic effort to spend “left over” money at the end of a fiscal cycle.

    Further, particularly during recession, in part because of union power, government employees do not nearly suffer the same stresses as do those in the private sector – so to that extent, the crying on the part of John Gordon rings a little hollow.

    When so many in the auto industry, the oil industry and the lumber industry in particular have lost jobs – there is little sympathy for requests to tighten the belts at the expense of the civil service.

    Also – while it is an American study, it is interesting to note the following review of private v. public sector changes during this economic downturn.. it would appear the public sector has yet to feel the bite to the extent of the rest of society.

    http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2010/02/two-americas-public-sector-vs-private.html

  4. Further, particularly during recession, in part because of union power, government employees do not nearly suffer the same stresses as do those in the private sector – so to that extent, the crying on the part of John Gordon rings a little hollow.

    To be blunt, horseshit. I wish people that know nothing about work in the public service would stop pontificating about how damned easy they have it.

    As for your last point, why the hell should the public sector suffer an equal amount or more than workers in the private sector. There’s nothing logical about that, especially when government spending increases during a downturn, as it should.

  5. Shiner — I presume it’s based on the idea that all boats should sink to the lowest, sand-troweling ebb when the tide of false prosperity suddenly rushes out to sea…

    Which is kind of ironic seeing as it never seems to work the other way around in the minds of “conservatives” when it comes to rising tides lifting all boats in a swell.

  6. I don’t think it’s that at all Red. It’s shadenfreude, pure and simple. Some people take pleasure in the misery of civil servants.

  7. Rob — The theory is that government service, by definition, must be something that is a “necessity” which the public can’t leave in the hands of private business.. health care, police, armed forces, public education..

    I suppose that’s one “theory” but by no means the only one.

    By the way, there’s a subtle difference (albeit rather semantic in nature) between what a “necessity” is and what might be regarded as “essential” in nature.

    If we turn those processes into “profit making enterprises” – even if only to the extent of providing real incentives to administrators, we run the risk of necessary services beign run “on the cheap”

    Perhaps not intentionally, but this is a red herring. I certainly wasn’t suggesting that core government services be turned into “profit making enterprises” — just that they be held to a reasonable standard of fiscal prudence and accountability. Taxpayers are right to demand that they’re getting fair value for their money from every dollar expended.

    An honest attempt to purge civil service expenditures of every bit of waste, fraud and abuse wouldn’t be remiss at this juncture.

  8. Shiner — Perhaps. As a self-employed worker just barely scraping by, I have to quell my envy sometimes when considering the generous salaries and lavish pensions/benefits of many civil servants — especially given their sometimes snotty, imperious attitude and notoriously lackadaisical behaviour when it comes to the execution of their basic functions. But then, they’re no different in that regard than most people who despise their jobs and vent their deep sense of self-loathing failure on hapless “customers”.

  9. jkg

    Further, particularly during recession, in part because of union power, government employees do not nearly suffer the same stresses as do those in the private sector – so to that extent, the crying on the part of John Gordon rings a little hollow.

    There are many people on public service contracts, and in fact, being a resident of Government Town myself, I can assure you that government departments have been, since the days of Reg Alcock and other Treasury Board Presidents before have ground, reformed, recalibrated them all in response to this idea that the public service is a wasteful shangri-la. Presently, more public sector employees are kept on contracts to avoid paying benefits and some only get to transition after hammering away for a number of years.

    Yet despite this, the Public Sector, in response to the charges of “incompetence” has to attract bright talent by incentivizing them in a way that would deter managers from going into the private sector where they would be very well paid.

    As for the comparison between levels of stress versus both sectors, the difference is that the public sector attempts to uniformly incentivize its work force to maintain high retention. Undoubtedly, the unions help guard these incentives, which a require a combination of concessions and cost cutting measures that occur in all levels of departmental spending.

    The private sector, however, does not have such a uniform distribution, which is why it is ‘felt’ more. I would submit that, in many cases, middle to upper management are protected quite well relative to the entry and lower level workers who seem to bear the brunt of layoffs (which incidentally are done by upper management). The fact that representatives of the private sector are now baying for the public pensions to be overhauled is just another diversion tactic away from the policy that most companies are trimming back pension and benefit packages on a permanent basis. The days in which our parents were able to go work for a company that took care of them even beyond retirement are waning. Unless you are able to enter into the executive class, there is far more incentive to enter the public sector.

  10. JKG — Well said. The public service isn’t always a bed of roses. My mother worked for the provincial government for 15 ½ yrs., before being forced into retirement at age 65, just a few months short of the 16 yrs. that would have qualified her for a pension. As a result, she got nothing and ended up having to work two part-time jobs, seven days a week, for the next 18 yrs. of her life.

    And just as an “insult to injury” footnote, when she was forced out of her government job — as “a matter of principle” by the ADM at the time — she was replaced by three more junior people!

  11. Good point regarding the difference between entry-level civil servants and management. My father is a senior public servant, director level. He spends 10 hours a day at work, is subject to incredible pressure from constant public scrutiny, and usually needs to bring his work home for him. For his trouble he earns a fraction of what he would as an executive in the private sector, and certainly never gets to go golfing on Fridays.

    There is a bit of a point to be made regarding the high salaries of clerical and point of service employees, but do you really want the person at the passport desk to be making $12/hour?

  12. And, of course, would you want Pierre Poliviere to be your boss???

  13. jkg

    I just find these arguments about how easy public service employees have it comes from just plain envy and ignorant sophistry. It is the same source from which teachers get lambasted all the time. I come from a long line of teachers, and good lord, I took so much crap from idiot Mike Harris supporters over the years, telling me no less how easy my parents had it because you know, they seem to have greater insight into my parents’ levels of work and stress than me, an actual child, living with them.

    In any event, the hierarchical structure of corporate work operates along the same lines as what occurs when getting into an Ivy League university. Sounds strange, but the basic process is very similar. If you can make it into the coveted upper management class, you are well insulated and given more advantages to survive and stay much in the same way that once you finally get into an Ivy League school, all effort is made to retain such students where they eventually go onto establish connections that will guarantee their future, a function of people’s social acumen rather than their academic (This is especially common in high ranking business schools, like the one at Stanford).

    In other words, it is a pseudo-meritocracy, and there is no better way to entice people to sustain the brunt of entry level employment than to keep dangling the carrot only to pull it back inch by inch. The public service will never get to that point because it will always attempt to homogenize productivity, cost cutting, and rewards, which is why senior civil servants can get overworked, but it is also why, entry level employees may not burn out à la Nortel like rate.

    The fact that people do not realize that with continuing public pressure, the public sector can never afford to have management reach the levels of expense account affluence like their private counterparts. The only silver lining for this constant and widespread cost to entering the public service is the secured package of pension and benefits, which is a fair compensation.

    but do you really want the person at the passport desk to be making $12/hour

    One just has to look at the privatizing of the prison system down south to realize that employing poorly trained prison guards with a depressed wage does not translate into an efficient prison.

    And, of course, would you want Pierre Poliviere to be your boss???

    Given than he has never held a real job before, getting managed by him would be irritating to say the least. However, I would be entertained by the sheer clueless irony of him being the CPC populist attack god on all things free market and salt-of-earth ‘hard work’ when his employ has been almost exclusively been in the public sphere.

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