Thomas Jefferson Says a "Pruning Knife" is in Order

A friend recently pointed me to some quotes from Thomas Jefferson.  The one that struck me most was from a letter than Jefferson penned to Spencer Roane on March 9, 1821.  He wrote, “The multiplication of public offices, increase of expense beyond income, growth and entailment of a public debt, are indications soliciting the employment of the pruning knife.”

So do you think we are there?

I did some research relating to the number of Federal Employees and found that federal employment hasn’t grown that much.  In 1962, non-military employment totaled just over 2.5 million.  By 2012, that number had grown to 2.76 million, about 10%.  Military employment has actually shrunk during that period from 2.84 million to 1.55 million, about 45%.  Our military, like the private sector, has become much more productive and efficient as a result of technology.  If we consider that the rest of the federal government has become more productive as well, we have a clear indication that the federal government has grown so much that it has outpaced the gains created during the fastest growth in productivity in the history of man, plus some.  So, surely we have a lot to show for it, right?

Here is one example: From 1981 until 2010 US Department of Education spending grew from $16 billion to $39 billion (in 1981 dollars).  The result?  In 2014, the only super power in the world ranks 24th out of 65 countries in reading literacy and 17th out of 40 countries in overall educational performance.

Another indicator might be the use of Czars, offices that are given authority from the president whose names, for the most part, are not submitted to the Senate for approval.  The appointment of “czars” began in the Franklin Roosevelt administration.  There were 11 such titles in his administration.  From that time through Bill Clinton, administrations averaged just over 3 czar titles.  George W Bush had 33 and Barack Obama 38.

Our government is so efficient that a 2013 inquiry by The Daily Caller determined that no one in the federal government knows how many agencies there are, including the Office of OMB and the GAO.

Well in spite of all that, considering civilian and military personnel, overall federal employment is down.  Expenses must be as well, right?

In 1962, federal spending was $106.8 billion and the national debt was $302.9 billion.

In 2014, federal spending was $3.5 trillion, more than four times the 1962 budget when adjusted for inflation, and the national debt was $17.8 trillion.  Oh by the way, unfunded federal liabilities are over $100 trillion.

Yes, Mr. Jefferson, I think we may have a problem.

What is the solution?  Shall we turn the problem over to the politicians who have created it?  You know, the ones who believe that holding the line on spending means keeping the rate of spending growth the same as the prior year?  Shall we ask the federal bureaucrats to look for places to cut?  These are the same ones who have the philosophy that they need to spend every dime in their budget each year in order to avoid losing some dollars in the coming year.

We need an outsider who still thinks of a budget as dollars actually spent on a need, not a rate of growth.  Dr. Ben Carson has a pretty simple plan.  Cut the budget of every federal department by 10%, without exception.  Once they figure out that it can be done, have them do it again!  That is the pruning knife that Thomas Jefferson was calling for.

Surely there will be wailing and moaning.  Politicians will talk of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and other such nonsense.  However, this is a government that has never had to make tough decisions or prioritizing projects.  It has never had to assess whether a project is actually doing what was intended and it has not, in many years, had a budget that did not include an increase over the previous year.  Those who are worth their salt can do it in a heartbeat.  Those who can’t should be shown the door and others brought in to replace them.

Dr. Carson’s medicine is distasteful but that is what is needed in our current state of affairs.  The good thing is that while the government is shrinking, the US economy will be expanding as government regulations decline and a reasonable tax policy is put in place.  As people lose their jobs in the public sector, private sector openings will absorb them quickly.

I’m sure Thomas Jefferson would also point out that a change in fiscal mindset will be needed as those former government workers go to work in the real world.