Special Report

An Amazing Public Sector Success Story

Too bad it's the kind that can't happen in Barack Obama's America.

By 8.17.12

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The fire chief in a major city launches a big campaign to prevent fires in poor neighborhoods. This effort is hugely successful: Fires and fire-related deaths drop by almost 50 percent. With fewer fires, the city no longer needs to support as many firefighters. Everybody happy? Not quite. The powerful fire union calls a strike to protest the job cuts. But the chief stands his ground, and the striking firemen soon return to work -- seeing how well a skeletal fire crew does in their absence.

In short, the doughty (mythical?) fire chief in this story makes a big improvement in public safety, stares down a strike by a public sector union of legendary intransigence, and saves taxpayers a bundle of money in the process.

Sound too good to be true?

It didn't (and, alas, couldn't) happen in any big American city. Our cities have continued to add firemen even though the number of fires has fallen sharply over the past several decades. And more than just protecting their jobs and winning fat pay increases, unionized firefighters in American cities have distinguished themselves in winning fabulous disability and pension benefits -- which is one reason why many cities and towns around the country are struggling to pay their bills.

But put that to the side for a moment.

The public sector success story cited above took place in Liverpool in northwest England. It involves the Merseyside (i.e. Greater Liverpool) Fire & Rescue Service which covers a 264 square area of 1.4 million inhabitants, including large ethnic or immigrant populations where English is a second language (if spoken at all).

This is how the Economist ("Fire-Service Reform: More with Less; A Liverpool fireman demonstrates how it can be done," Oct. 7, 2010), described the turn of events in England's fourth largest city under the leadership of Fire Chief Tony McGuirk:

McGuirk saw that speedy response wasn't enough: prevention was the key. At the time, no fire service in the country concentrated on preventing fires in the home. With the backing of local political authorities, Mr. McGuirk and his team resolved to evangelize, providing basic fire-safety advice, checking 350,000 homes and fitting 700,000 smoke alarms. They liaised with social services and recruited new kinds of staff, such as "advocates" who took the safety message into ethnic communities.

All this involved cutting the number of fire officers, who, Mr. McGuirk realized, were underemployed for long periods during their shifts. Anyway, fewer fires required fewer rescuers. Although no one was made redundant involuntarily, in 2006 the fire-brigade union called a strike. Protesters dubbed the fire chief "McJerk"; 2,000 of them walked through Liverpool carrying banners with slogans such as "I hate McGuirk."

Ironically, it was soon clear that the 200 officers who stayed at work could run the service at full capacity. "I told the local press they would never notice there was a strike," says Mr. McGuirk. "It's not my job to be popular; it's to deliver." The strike was defeated in a month.

Thatcher's Legacy
As Barack Obama might say, Mr. McGuirk didn't turn Merseyside Fire & Rescue into one of most efficient fire departments in all of Britain on his own; he had a big helping hand from someone who has been out of office for more than two decades: former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

She created the conditions (diametrically opposed to all of the conditions that Obama has fostered in our country) that made the fire chief's achievement possible -- in passing laws limiting abuses of union power, in privatizing nationalized industries, in contracting-out of many services that had been the exclusive province of public sector workers, and in refusing to expend taxpayer money to preserve and expand unneeded public sector jobs.

Asked in 2002 to name her greatest achievement, Thatcher responded: "Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds." In successfully running for office in 1997, Blair declared the creation of a "New" Labour Party, after repealing Clause IV of party's 1918 constitution, which committed the party to the Socialist principle of state ownership and control of "the means of production, distribution, and exchange."

One may debate how far to the center Blair and Gordon Brown moved in the Labour governments that held sway from 1997 to 2009. But it is certainly true that all of governments since Thatcher -- Conservative, Labour, and (since 2009) Conservative / Liberal -- have continued to pursue a much tougher line on public sector pay and job growth than the governments preceding hers.

Since the beginning of 2009, the number of public sector jobs in Britain has declined steadily from 6.3 million down to 5.9 million, a drop of 414,000 jobs or 6.5 percent. By contrast, government employment in the United States is down just 2.7 percent over the same period of time, while federal employment has actually increased.

There is no question that public sector in the U.S. have been relatively sheltered throughout the "Great Recession" and the official but anemic recovery that began in the summer of 2009. At 111.3 million, private sector employment in the U.S. today is still more 4.3 million jobs below the peak of 115.6 million in January of 2008. At 4.2 percent, unemployment in the government sector has been only about half of that in the private sector.

Obama's Trickle-Down Economics
The president made his first big gaffe this summer (neatly setting up the even bigger you-didn't-build-that gaffe to follow) when he declared, "The private sector is doing fine," and went on bemoan the lack of job growth in the public sector. "If Republicans want to be helpful, if they really want to move forward and put people back to work," he scolded, "what they should be thinking about is how do we help state and local governments."

For more than a year now, Obama and his team have been calling on Congress to help pay for more "police officers, firefighters, and teachers. " And it is always those three jobs that are mentioned.

If Obama, Biden et al. were to call for more "meter maids, street cleaners, and garbage collectors," people would ask: Why do they want more people writing parking tickets, sweeping streets, or hauling trash? Team Obama assumes (rightly) that many people will not apply the same scrutiny to "first responders," or to the people teaching their children.

But they should. Here is a closer look at the case for more firefighters, more police, and more teachers. Consider:

  • According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), over the past three and a half decades, the number of fires reported in the United States fell from 2.4 million to fewer than 1.4 million, mostly due to the effect of fire detectors and sprinkler systems in preventing fires. Meanwhile, however, the number of career firefighters (excluding volunteers in small towns and rural communities) increased from 200,000 in the mid-80s to close to 350,000 today. To put that another way, there was a 40%-plus decrease in fires, and a 40%-plus increase in fire-fighting jobs.
  • Even the word "firefighter" has become something of a misnomer. Today most calls to firehouses are to accompany or precede ambulances to attend to medical emergencies or to go to scene of auto accidents. Many experts question whether it is a wise use of resources to dispatch four or five firemen on a large truck to attend to a heart attack and stroke victim. Much more often than not, a fire crew will wait for an ambulance to arrive with more highly trained medical technicians to attend to the victim and accompany him to a hospital.
  • Serious crime is also in decline. The U.S. Census Bureau keeps track of the number of murders, rapes, robberies, and burglaries. Between 1993 and 2009, those four major crimes were down 40%, 17%, 38%, and 19%, respectively.
  • Finally, despite the president's repeated assertions that America can educate its way to prosperity if Congress spends more money to prevent public school layoffs and "rehire even more teachers," there is good evidence, as Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute put it in a recent Wall Street Journal article, that "America has too many teachers."
  • Since 1970, the public school workforce has almost doubled -- to 6.4 million from 3.3 million -- and that is eleven times faster than the growth in public school enrollment (up just 8.5 percent). "If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970," Coulson noted, "American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs." Yet even with all that additional cost, academic results have either stagnated or declined. Said Coulson: "We have already tried President Obama's education solution over time and on a scale that he could not hope to replicated today. And it has proven an expensive and tragic failure."

On the week of July 23, Vice President Joe Biden hit the road in pledging the administration's undying support for firemen, police, and teachers. On that Monday he went to Miami to speak to the National Association of Police Organizations; on Wednesday he was Philadelphia speaking to the International Association of Fire Fighters in Philadelphia; and on Sunday he was Detroit speaking to American Federation of Teachers.

Press reports described these speeches as "emotional." A better description would be wildly dishonest. Biden repeatedly asserts that if the president's job bill is not passed, it will lead to increased rape and gun crime and leave fire departments short of the manpower and resources needed to do their job. This is totally at odds with the facts cited above.

But surely, even in Obama and Biden's deliberately dumbed-down America, police, firemen, and teachers are aware of the failure of what I will call the administration's "trickle-down economics" to deliver anything of lasting value to their members.

How much have they really gain as a result of the president's $800 billion stimulus program? How much do they stand to gain from a new jobs bill or stimulus program that would about half that size?

Not much in either case, it seems.

In reading Biden's speeches to police and firefighters, I was struck by how little he was able to offer these groups other than a great deal of overheated political rhetoric (about the terrors that would be unleashed upon them if Mitt Romney becomes president) and the usual moral posturing about making the "rich" pay their "fair share." This impression was confirmed when I checked some of the numbers regarding what had trickled down to firefighters and police in my home city of St. Louis from the $800 billion stimulus bill. You might think that St. Louis had done well, given the fact that Obama carried the city with 84% of the vote in the 2008 election. But you'd be wrong.

Stimulus money funneled federal agencies to the city currently supports just 50 out of 2,100 police department, or just 2.9%, and just 29 out of 630 fire department jobs, or 4.7%. What's more, the money to support those additional jobs will run before the end of the current fiscal year.

Nor does Eddie Roth, the director of public safety in St. Louis, expect much if any additional money to be forthcoming from the federal government any time soon. He told me, "We're not counting on anything, let's put it that way."

So where has all the money gone that Obama has spent in the course of adding $5 trillion to the federal deficit since coming to office?

As far a job creation is concerned, the great spending spree that Barack Obama embarked upon in 2009 is reminiscent of Lincoln's remark about the loquacity of a fellow lawyer: Being a miracle of compression in using so many dollars to so little effect.

St. Louis Blues
St. Louis is facing fiscal crisis of its own. As it happens, this crisis is due a 30-year history on the part of the city's elected officials (almost all Democrats) in topping up pension, disability, and other benefits for its firemen and policy.

As long ago as 1984, then-Mayor Vice Schoemehl warned that overly generous pension payments to fire and police pensions were putting the city on a path to bankruptcy, saying, "If the people of this city knew what the Board of Alderman was doing (after a 27-to-0 vote to support a big pension payout to firemen), they'd reduce the size of the board by lynching."

The former mayor's day of reckoning is fast approaching. The city's annual contribution to fire pensions has quadrupled from $6.8 million in 2008 to $24.3 million this year. The payout to retired firefighters is now equal to 74 percent of the department's payroll -- and rising. A top aide to Mayor Francis Slay said only half-jokingly: "(Soon) we won't have a fire department. We'll just have a fire pension."

Police pension cost in the city of St. Louis have also jumped and are now equal to 48 percent of payroll. Said Roth, the public safety director: 

Every dollar that we spend on pension is one less dollar that we can spend on putting firefighters, police, or neighborhood stabilization officers on the scene.

The steep climb in pension costs throws everything out of order in the city's budget and it is ultimately unsustainable and unaffordable and it will be something approaching bankruptcy if recent trends hold.

St. Louis is far from alone in facing this quandary. According to the banner story in this weekend's Wall Street Journal ("Hard Times Spread for Cities"), the cost of pension plans for state and local governments across the country has soared from a little over 5 percent of payroll in 2001 to more 15 percent today.

Over the last four years, four California cities have sought bankruptcy protection -- Vallejo, Stockton, Mammoth Lakes, and San Bernardino.

Barack Obama did not create the mess that cities and states are in today because of soaring pension costs. But he is also the last person on earth to act as savior, having taken the same reckless promise-now, pay-later approach to government that led over time to the problems that cities and towns are experiencing today.

Unlike many city and state officials, Obama is still in a state of denial -- refusing to recognize that there even is a problem.

Unlike the British fire chief cited at the beginning of this article, our president has no desire to spend taxpayer money sparingly and wisely. If given the chance, he will happily spend the country into bankruptcy.

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.