Politics and Propaganda

I opened the Sunday Indianapolis Star to a front-page story about Governor Mitch Daniels’ claim that public employees make more than their private-sector counterparts. The article discussed the issue in the “fair and balanced” way we’ve come to expect from “journalists” today, dutifully reporting on the “he said/she said” dueling studies–without bothering to tell readers which studies were sound and which were utter garbage.

I am absolutely confident I could conduct a study demonstrating that people who exercise less break fewer bones–if i didn’t bother to control for things like overall mobility and severity of breaks that did occur. I can see the headline now: Study shows that less exercise leads to better bone health.

There’s a reason academic journals insist on peer reviews.

The Star gave equal weight to two studies. One simply compared overall wages of private and public employees. It found public employees doing slightly better. The other study controlled for factors like education, duration of the workday, etc. In other words, it compared people with similar skills and educational training to each other. (What we used to call “apples to apples” comparisons.) That study–surprise!–did not confirm the Governor’s charge.

The article also reported that Indiana has fewer public employees than it did when Daniels assumed office, and it attributed that decline to privatization. But privatization, an inaccurate term for contracting out for services, does not reduce government employment, except in the very narrow sense of “on the State’s payroll.” If the government is paying someone to perform a task, that person is effectively an employee of the government. It may be harder to recognize that fact, because his compensation is being paid through an intervening party (who gets a cut, not incidentally, called profit), but when government is paying someone for providing services and dictating the nature of those services, that someone is effectively a government employee.

A study that really should be conducted would investigate just how many of these de-facto state employees there are in Indiana. (Several years ago, at an academic conference, a well-known scholar explained to me that the federal government had the equivalent of 18 million additional employees. They weren’t counted as federal workers, because they worked for private contractors, but they were employed full-time providing public services.)

Whether you are a proponent or opponent of government contracting–and as readers of this blog know, I’m firmly in the “it depends” category–this sort of game-playing goes beyond disingenuous. It’s not just inaccurate; it’s propaganda.

It would be nice if we had journalists who could tell the difference.


  1. right-on-target comments – wish the indystar editors would print them. I had the same reaction to today’s Groppe piece. Rather than waste her (and our) time, the reporter should have just written a link to the 25 February NY Times article on the same subject (“In Battle Over State Payrolls, Data Show a Mixed Picture”).

  2. I am always amused at the “studies” which lump fast food employees in the average and compare them to school teachers, prosecutors, and others with minimum education requirements. Last I checked, state and local government weren’t running many fast food chains. By the way, I think when ones go beyond disingenuous, one is lying!

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