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The "Washington Monument Syndrome" Strikes Again as Trump Imposes Hiring Freeze

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02/23/2017

On Monday, January 23rd, President Trump announced a hiring freeze on federal workers, with an exception for jobs that are ostensibly related to national security or public safety. The exception includes uniformed military personnel, but does not include the military’s civilian support staff, which already numbers around 750,000.

This has led to somewhat of a brouhaha regarding two major US Army bases – one in Fort Knox, Kentucky and the other in Wiesbaden, Germany — that have sent out memos to soldiers informing them that child care services would no longer be provided by the Army, specifically claiming that the closure is due to the hiring freeze. On its face, such a cut seems like a great burden to put on military families and may lead one to question whether this hiring freeze is really worth it. And that is precisely the intention.

The First Rule of Budget Cuts: Cut the Most Popular Programs First

If one takes any time at all to consider the options Army bases have for cutting expenses, it requires an extreme form of naiveté to think that they had no choice but to cut child care. Don’t just take my word for it: go to the Garrison Wiesbaden website and look at the recreational opportunities that remain funded. A family on base may no longer receive complimentary child care, but they can attend Zumba, yoga, German, English as a Second Language, and money management classes (to name but a few) for free. And the kids aren’t left out either. Every Friday they can still attend “Play Morning” where they can interact with other children while their parents learn about child development and parenting skills.

The Washington Monument Syndrome 

Of course, cutting any of these other programs would not have been newsworthy nor caused much outrage, as it’s harder to feel much sympathy for someone losing access to their Zumba classes provided at taxpayer expense. Rather, the decision to cut child care is simply the latest example of a long-running phenomenon called the “Washington Monument Syndrome,” in which government bureaucrats facing pressure to cut their budgets choose to eliminate the most visible and/or popular services they provide in an effort to create a public outcry.

We saw this during the 2013 budget sequestration when the National Park Service apparently had no choice but to turn away park visitors (how much money this saved is anyone’s guess), but did have the spare money to create large metal signs to inform frustrated travelers that it was the sequestration’s fault. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security, knowing that outright abolition of the Transportation Security Administration would likely be an extremely popular move, threatened to make travelers wait for hours to get through airport security, no doubt in order to convince them of the horrors of budget cuts.

There are of course the more mundane examples at the local level. For whatever reason, when budget cuts are on the way, teachers seem to be on the chopping block before any administrator is. Some police officers are apparently so confident that the public will support them no matter what kind of job they do, that they openly advertise on billboards how many homicides they failed to prevent in the hope that public will be convinced that their benefits should not be cut. The almost universally adored fireman is also such a popular target for budget cuts that an alternative name for the Washington Monument Syndrome is the “firemen first principle.”

Don’t be fooled. In times of fiscal crisis, you would never expect a bureaucrat to consider it his patriotic duty to resign and find work in the private sector in order to decrease the fiscal burden on his countrymen. So why would you expect him to quietly cut the fat from his budget when there are opportunities to stoke pity or outrage among the public?

Tate Fegley was a 2016 Mises Institute Fellow. He is currently a graduate student at George Mason University.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: Lorie Schaull www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/
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