Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, is once again banging the drum for federal aid for state and local governments. In theory, the federal government has the capacity to prop up states and municipalities by providing stimulus dollars to keep economic activity from stalling. However, this would require Congress to raise the debt limit and the Treasury to borrow from bond markets to get the money. Krugman contends that this would cost little and that the Obama administration is postponing the recovery by not fighting for more money from Congress:
The federal government has been pursuing what amount to contractionary policies as the last vestiges of the Obama stimulus fade out, but the big cuts have come at the state and local level. These state and local cuts have led to a sharp fall in both government employment and government spending on goods and services, exerting a powerful drag on the economy as a whole.
What Krugman’s analysis overlooks is that government at the state and local levels has been ballooning for decades and that a contraction may be necessary to purge the system of bureaucracy and outdated programs. Krugman’s borrowing plan would simply freeze budgets which, on their own, are basically unsustainable for state and local governments. As their costs increase, there is no more “fiscal space” in many state and local budgets to maintain the status quo without large tax increases. So after Krugman’s proposed federal stimulus expired, states and municipalities would likely have to raise revenues to support their expanded size.
Hoping that state and local government can provide a large number of jobs is unwise policy, since government employees have substantial attendant costs, notably generous pensions. Unlike private corporations, government cannot quickly add and reduce jobs as public budgets must go through the legislative process, which is infinitely more complex than corporate planning.
You can see the growth of government in the graph above, which plots state and local government employees per capita. In the early 1980s one government employee served 179 citizens. By 2002 one government employee served 155 citizens. This increase in employees either happened because governments took on more responsibilities, became less productive or padded the employee rolls as a result of political pressure (or a combination of all three).