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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You by Iain Murray

Overreach hurts the overall argument

I feel I must establish my bonafides here. I am an Iain Murray fan. I really enjoyed his book The Really Inconvenient Truths (to see my review click here). On my favorite quotes page on this blog, there is an Iain Murray quote (really!). But, while I am a fan, in this book, I think that Murray has made many, many valid points but overreached on others. The over-argument weakens the overall book, in my opinion.

Also, in the interest of making everything clear, I have chosen to be a member of public employee union - the Indiana State Teacher Association (we choose to be a member or not in Indiana). I have actually gone to state level meetings as a representative of my local union and helped to vote in our current president. I have been invited multiple times to attend trainings so that I can become more involved but I have not done so due to family commitments. That being said, I can clearly see that there are tensions between being a political conservative and being a union member. Most people do not realize that the local union is, sadly, often the only counterweight to school administrations that may not act wisely and often offers great advice on issues like consolidations and programs that can be trimmed (I once listened to my union rep explain to my superintendent that if we followed through on the superintendent's planned staff cuts some of our schools would no longer be accredited by the state because we would be in violation of state laws that require schools to offer so many hours of this and that subject per week to maintain accreditation. Should our superintendent have known the law? Sure, but he didn't and this was not the first time, either.) Also, so as not to be accused of being biased towards public employee unions and/or teachers, I will leave those aspects of the book out of this review.

What Stealing You Blind does right:

-The government cannot keep growing indefinitely. All organizations tend to add bureaucracy and government at all levels, from your locals schools to the White House like to add it on even quicker. Throw in the ability to make regulations that have the effect of law and you have a recipe for disaster - an ever-growing bureaucracy creating more rules that need even more personnel to check for compliance....

-Some functions (but not all) can be privatized.

-On page 80, he makes perhaps the most important point in the book: "The key question is...should the federal government really be doing that in the first place?" This, of course, was the central question in the budget debate this summer and we failed to answer that question. It should have been the central point of the book but too often it is not.

-Employees should never use their employers' resources to supplement their on-the-side projects like being a real estate agent.

What he gets wrong:

-Iain Murray continually harps on urban professional firefighters, claiming that volunteer firefighters (mostly rural) are cheaper. Absolutely, they are cheaper and they do a great job. I happen to live in Indianapolis, very close to what used to be the "world's largest volunteer fire department". We used to be volunteer until we could not staff it any longer. Rural volunteer fighters are wonderful for their community (I grew up with one in mine - some of my relatives were volunteer firefighters), but they often arrive after the house is fully engulfed (how can they get there any earlier when they have to drive to the station, suit up and then go to the fire?). If that is our standard, we will lose entire neighborhoods to fire in cities due to the proximity of the homes to one another (like Chicago in 1871). A professional fire department is like car insurance - you hope you'll never need it but you pay for it anyway.

-Sometimes Murray goes for the cheap applause line like on page 21 when he notes that in the 1800s half of Americans lived on the farm and the USDA only had 2,000 employees. Now it has 100,000 employees. He makes it sound like every farmer has his own personal bureaucrat with a secretary watching over him. I can easily imagine him amongst the soybeans sitting at his desk. He fails to note that the USDA has added many, many responsibilities such as administering the school lunch program, the food stamp program, crop insurance, food safety inspections, and more. Should they be doing all of these things? Great question, but he does not ask it, instead he goes for absurd image of this small number of farmers with a large number of bureaucrats watching over them.

-He is fond of comparing public employee salaries to private sector salaries, but he usually does not compare workers of the same skill level. For example, on page 31 he compares the salaries of IRS employees (one would presume that there are a lot of accountants and other people with a high degree of training)  to the average male income in the United States. The numbers are $48,100 for the IRS and $33,161 for the average male.Outrageous, right? But, I looked up his source (it is right here - table 700) and it includes all males age 15 or higher. Yes, that kid at the McDonalds and your grocery store bagger is thrown into the mix as well. I bet they drag the average down, what do you think?)

***UPDATE on 7/21/19: That table from the Census Bureau that I linked to above has moved and I can't find it. Too bad, because it was Murray's source as well - I just typed in the internet address from his endnotes. Here is another table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2019 that shows income for full time workers. You can see that the 16-24 year olds really drag the average down.

-Sometimes he indulges in a bit of "thesis drift." The book is about how government is stealing you blind through lavish retirement plans and byzantine regulations,  but on occasion he wanders about the private sector taking whacks at different folks. For example, he takes a few whacks at the UAW on pages 121-123 for voting to let a GM factory in Indianapolis (my city) close down rather accepting a deal with a buyer for the plant that included a 50% pay cut. Clearly, the wisdom of choosing to have no job at all rather than a $15.50/hour job in this economy is questionable, but this is not the topic of the book at all - this has nothing to do with public employees or crazy regulation.

I have other examples, but you get the idea. I am not trying to bludgeon Mr. Murray. Like I said, I am a fan and these critiques are offered as a fan that is disappointed in the quality of this work. This book really felt like the extract of a larger, more complicated in-depth book that was going to take a serious look at all of the issues and discuss them thoroughly. If a fan sees that many of the arguments are too often flimsy straw man arguments, will they do anything to inspire new thinking or is it just chum tossed out to churn the waters of the faithful? This book asks some of the right questions, but not enough of them and does not really ask the most important question of all - Should the government be doing these things?

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You.

Reviewed on September 3, 2011.

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