How to Spend Money We Don’t Have

Among the many well-intentioned but IMO ill-considered ways of stimulating the economy I’ve been reading about, one that I find particularly poorly thought out is to hire more teachers and police officers.

There is no straight line relationship between teachers and educational performance or police officers and public safety. There’s scholarship suggesting that cutting class sizes in half would improve educational performance but not much saying that reducing classroom sizes by one student results in improvement. Nobody is talking about cutting class sizes in half—they’re talking about reducing class sizes by a student or two.

If there’s a relationship between police officers and public safety it’s an inverse relationship. Chicago has the highest number of police officers per 100,000 population of any city in the United States. Higher than New York or Los Angeles or Philadelphia or Detroit and much higher than Dallas or Miami or, indeed, any southern city. It also has the highest intentional homicide rate among major cities and higher rates of violent crime, generally.

While I’m on the subject it is simply untrue that we’ve been skimping on healthcare or education or infrastructure over the last 30 years in the United States. That’s a lie. We spend more in real terms in all three of those areas than we did 30 years ago, in the cases of healthcare and education more per capita by a several multiples in real terms. Our problem in those areas is much more insidious: we’re not getting value for the money we spend.

The most significant reason that the federal government shouldn’t spend more to “put cops on the streets” or hire more teachers can be stated in one, simple question: what happens next year? Those cops and teachers have wages to pay, healthcare to support, the cost of which is not under control, and unaffordable pensions. Those pensions will need to be paid long after the federal appropriation runs out and when interest rates are much, much higher than they are now. How could they not be? What happens then? The cities are already strapped.

7 comments… add one
  • jan

    The call to put “more cops on the street and more teachers in the classroom” are emotionally-based demands that work well for the dems, because, “more is better” and “safety and dependency” are vernacular marriage partners in their politics.

    The accompanying lynch pins, though, are that increasing non quality-based numbers alone do not necessarily create better educational services, and the more safety a government delivers, the more civil rights are usually sacrificed.

    Adding in the cost factor, which only burdens our fiscal problems more, is rarely considered.

  • PD Shaw

    I think there are some studies about the benefits of more police. Here is a blog entry from Alex Tabarrok with some links, arguing for more police and fewer prisons:

    Just looking through one of Tabarrok’s studies he mentions that he attempted to study Chicago, but the city was unwilling to provide daily reports. I don’t know much about the Chicago situation, but one of the complaints about police as deterrents to crime is that there is not always assurance that the police are patrolling high crime areas, or indeed patrolling at all. GPS technology should move that a long way, as well as targeting the areas where crimes are being reported.

  • The closest thing I’ve ever heard of to a controlled experiment found that increasing the number of policy had no demonstrable effect on violent crime.

    It was done a number of years ago. Either in Omaha or Kansas City, IIRC. They took three precincts with similar crime statistics and demographics, cut the number of officers assigned to one precinct in half, doubled the number in another, and left the third the same. No change.

  • PD Shaw

    There is a study that shows that more police are hired during mayoral and gubernatorial elections and that such increases reduce the levels of violent crime. That may not convince you that numbers are the most important factor however; there may be politically motivated decision-making.

  • PD Shaw

    I don’t want to lose sight of the second part of the approach — saving money by reducing length of prison sentences. (Of course, I was arguing for lengthening the sentences of a certain class of criminal, who commits a crime with a high rate of recidivism and may not be “curable”)

  • Icepick

    Police in action. Let’s hire more public workers like these guys.

  • What jobs can you get with high school only that pay $80,000 a year, have great healthcare plans, early retirement with a generous defined benefit pension, and opportunities for overtime? Police officer and firefighter. In the case of firefighter there’s also the ease of holding a second, part-time job. I don’t think I know a single firefighter that doesn’t have a part-time job, too.

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