So is there a make-work bias or not?

As has been said elsewhere:

Solution D is the obvious approach and has been practiced by regimes around the world since Cheops was a little boy: to keep the peasants fit, healthy and happy, pay them to do otherwise unnecessary work. Like, you know, building pyramids.

There is an apocryphal anecdote which illustrates Solution D perfectly. It probably never happened. A famous American economist – Milton Friedman, perhaps – is visiting China, perhaps in the ’80s, and sees a construction project where workers are digging a canal, with picks and shovels. “Why not use bulldozers?” the economist suggests.

“But Professor Friedman,” his host points out, “this is a jobs project.”

“Oh!” says the apocryphal professor. “Well, in that case, why are they using picks? Why not give them spoons?”

While this is meant to illustrate the supposed idiocy of Solution D, it actually illustrates the design space. The purpose of Solution D is to lose as little money as possible, while maintaining the human quality of your assets and preventing them from degenerating into Hardcore Pawn customers, 10th St. zombies or other revolting parodies of the human condition.

Digging ditches with appropriate hand tools is a simple and almost ennobling, in its own small way, form of manual labor which is ideally suited to the condition of most humans, delicate aristocrats perhaps excepted. (It is possible to construct makework for delicate aristocrats, but it takes more imagination.) Digging ditches with spoons is a degrading punishment appropriate only for refractory pedophiles. Since there is never any shortage of ditches you’d rather have than not, there is no need to issue spoons – unless the purpose of the project is exemplary degradation.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t USG sending its millions of gangstaz, its hundreds of thousands of zombies, and its uncountable hordes of ordinary young people who just can’t find a damn job, to self-improvement-through-labor facilities where they create gleaming new national parks, which no one ever visits, on the North Slope of Alaska? It might seem illiberal, but it can’t be – FDR did it.

In general, makework programs are restricted to strong governments. Ours is a large government, but by no means a strong one. FDR’s was a strong one. When a strong government wants to “create jobs,” it just hires people. If the product is useless and the work is just makework, it says so. The strong are confident and can tell the truth. A weak government has to shroud the truth in a cloak of lies – it has to convincingly pretend that our great nation may be doomed without substantial and immediate improvements to “Gates of the Arctic National Park.”


5 Responses to Confused

  1. Handle says:

    We aren’t even a large government. This is also something I tell people that no one ever believes. But it’s true that we have a significantly smaller civil service per capita, and military in absolute terms (by the end of FY13), then at any time in the post-war era, and maybe even going back to the 30’s.

    Of course, it’s hard to count “government workers” when so much is outsourced to companies and ‘charities’ with the government as their primary customer / sponsor / patron. But the number of individuals officially titled as being members of ‘the civil service’ should still be meaningful. And the per-capita trend in that number is smaller than anyone thinks.

    What makes the government seem ‘large’ is a combination of increased ‘tyranny productivity’ (?) and the sheer quantity of money it now redistributes in cash, goods, and services – roughly $2 Trillion a year. I figure (extremely roughly) that each civil servant directly connected to the redistribution system probably redistributes an average of $10K a day, vs maybe $1K (in real terms) half a century ago. Efficiency! Progress!

    • josh says:

      “This is also something I tell people that no one ever believes.”

      Because you yourself know its false as you go on to explain.

    • Marc Cabot says:

      I am a government employee, for all intents and purposes, for which my company is required to pay the salary directly instead of through taxes. If it were not for the compliance requirements the government imposes on my employer, a good 90% of my work would simply vanish. The government is definitely in red-giant stage, vast and omnipresent, but diffuse.

  2. Alrenous says:

    Two trillion is a drastic underestimate. Taxes alone are 19% of GDP, or $3 trillion.

    How much is real inflation? ( ) So, 10-15% of roughly $15 trillion, or a further $1.5 trillion or so.

    Then there’s the deficit, $1.3 trillion in 2010.

    We’re up to $5.8 trillion before we even start talking tyranny productivity – the government using its coercive power to order one private actor to distribute to another. (Last I checked, not reported as a tax…)

    Not to mention the fact that regulatory friction is essentially a tax they take out back and burn.

    While neither of these latter two are currently well reported, you can ballpark them based on how wasteful individual initiatives have been measured as being.

    Oh, and this is all purely federal, neglecting state and local.

    That said, I entirely agree that having fewer bureaucrats and soldiers counts for something. Don’t know what exactly, but the sheer number of other occupations have been measured as mattering. (Librarians per capita? Something like that.)

  3. Tenneby says:

    “It is possible to construct makework for delicate aristocrats, but it takes more imagination.”

    Isn’t that what most “educational” institutions are? Particularly, graduate schools in subjects like ecomomics? Did Milton Friedman ever work a day in his life or did just feed off the taxpayers his whole life? Like most economist and libertarians, I know it was primarily the lattter. I’m sure he never thought of what he did as make-work, but it absolutely was make-work and what he created was much less useful than a canal.

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