Dr. Parker Continues the Debate

UNR professor Elliot Parker makes a six-figure income to teach and write. Lately, he’s been writing about how chintzy Nevadans are in funding their state and local governments (including his own salary).

Me, well, I’m now a volunteer. But a game volunteer.

Just to catch everyone up, Parker wrote a column for the Las Vegas Sun here, which I believe was deceptive by quoting some parts, but leaving out the most important parts, of studies by such esteemed sources as the US Census Bureau and the Tax Foundation, about Nevada’s taxing and spending. When all parts of the Census and Tax Foundation studies are considered, Nevada is revealed, contrary to Parker’s pained portrait, as a state with midline state and local government funding, though we spend those dollars ineffectively. Parker contends that Nevada’s state and local government is “the smallest.”

I posted a rebuttal to Dr. Parker’s opinion the same day Parker’s article was published in the Sun. Ten days later, I wrote about the interesting reaction to Dr. Parker’s and my debate here.

This weekend, Parker posted his counter-rebuttal on his own website: linked, and reproduced here, with my endnotes added:

A Reply to Former Senator Bob Beers About State Spending

I want to thank former Senator Beers for his reply to my column in the Las Vegas Sun, which was printed in the Las Vegas Review Journal recently. It is an important issue, and I appreciate him keeping it before the public so we can clear up apparent areas of confusion, even if he mistakenly thinks I was wrong or reporting selectively. I insist, emphatically, that I was telling it like it is.[A]

Senator Beers says I did not give details on my sources, but newspapers appreciate brevity. Had he asked me, I would have gladly shared my sources and calculations, and like any professor I appreciate people checking my facts. I am easy to find online for anyone with access to a search engine, especially if you spell my name correctly, and I have made the data available on my website.[B]

Senator Beers reports that state revenue was higher than the number I reported for expenditures.[C] We were near the peak of the housing bubble at the time, and revenues were unusually high. Rather than saving the surplus for a rainy day, Governor Guinn and the Legislature chose to give most Nevadans a pretty significant tax rebate. I said I was reporting expenditures, which were more representative of the actual state budget than revenues.[D]

Senator Beers also reports that the data he found did not exactly match what I reported. In the month between when I downloaded the data and the column was published, it seems a new Statistical Abstract came out. I have checked these new data, and include them, with updated calculations, on my website. [B] Nothing significant changed. As in prior years, Nevada still ranked 50th in the nation in the relative number of state employees, total state and local government employees, and employees in higher education, as well as 49th in the nation in K-12 employees.

While Senator Beers admitted that I might be right about the relative number of employees in state and its higher education system, he argues instead that we are overpaid. He reports that government employees make significantly more in Nevada than the national average, but the data he cites – Table 448, column M – only reports earnings for local government employees[E], which are three-quarters of the total. That is relevant for county commissions and city councils, not the state legislature[F]. For the quarter of employees working for the state, average earnings are equal to the national average even though Nevada’s cost of living is higher than average.[B]

Regarding how our state and university benefits compare to those of other states, I don’t yet have a consistent set of data on this, but I will look for one. If Senator Beers has one, I would appreciate him sharing it with me. I do know that we compete in a national marketplace, and our benefits are reasonably competitive but not any more than that[B]. You should not compare our benefits against those in casinos[G], but against other states and other universities.

On his web posting, Senator Beers said that I think we should “further expand government.” I don’t know how he reads that in what I wrote. I certainly doubt that my former economics students – there must be several thousand working in Nevada by now – would say that I advocate big government, and I am quite critical of excessive government. Instead, I wrote that we should not make the smallest state government[H] in the country even smaller, for it would damage the future of the universities and the state. These are not equivalent statements[I].

Finally, I apologize if I offended any Nevadans who earned their degrees online or at small private colleges when I said Nevada only had two universities.[J] I certainly support the desire of anyone to improve themselves through education, but I also assume anyone who has graduated from UNR, UNLV, or any other similar university knows that the institutions are not comparable. The fact that Senator Beers suggests that they are causes me some concern. Is that his objective for our state universities?

My notes to Dr. Parker’s post…

[A] Keynes was just as emphatic that it’s cool to foist irresponsible levels of government debt off on future generations. He was wrong, too. Your enthusiasm does not make you right – in fact, your undeniable self-interest makes you suspect.

[B] Then reference your work. I can understand not doing it in the Las Vegas Sun – it’s chronic on their opinion pages. But here, on your own webpage, it’s just too easy to link to your work. For you to not do so is telling.

[C] Actually, I don’t recall making that argument. Are you creating a paper tiger? I did lay out a series of calculations using Census Data, which you are apparently not disagreeing with in any detailed manner, that Nevada’s per-capita state-and-local government spending at about the middle of the 50 states.

[D] This seems like introducing a bushel of bananas into an argument sorting out apples and oranges. Worse, it sounds like you’re admitting to having included the 2005 tax rebate (where state government apologetically gave taxpayers back some of what they’d been overcharged) as an expenditure? The proper accounting treatment would be to not include those funds in either revenues or expenditures, but certainly never as an expenditure.

[E] Professor Parker is correct. My initial post was incorrect. Column M shows local government employee wages, where we rank sixth. Column J (here’s the data table) shows state government employees separately, where we rank sixteenth. Both rankings are above the national average. My original argument, that Nevada’s government employee benefits are much richer than average, which would lift our rankings compared to other states, remains subject to further study.

Remember, though, that Professor Parker’s original essay argued that Nevada’s low number of government employees per thousand citizens proved that Nevada’s citizens were chintzy in funding goverment. I argued that it was deceptive to “prove his case” with that tiny part of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, especially when the rest of it showed Nevada’s above-average government wages.

[F] Incorrect. This is absolutely the Legislature’s concern. NRS 288 (like all state laws, this exists soley by legislative authorization) allows government unions in Clark and Washoe Counties to prohibit city councils and county commissions from exercising common sense. State government wages are set directly by the Legislature. Both are clearly the Legislature’s doing, and their rehabilitation are clearly the Legislature’s responsibility.

[G] I wasn’t comparing them to those in casinos. I was comparing them to those throughout the private sector. Employment benefits in casinos are actually above average (though not up to government levels).

[H] This is how we got engaged in this debate in the first place. All evidence points to Nevada having a per-capita mid-sized state-and-local (or just state) government, unless you deceptively quote tiny parts of studies, as you did in your original Sun article. It’s not a very academic term, but around Nevada’s dinner tables, your case is what we call “bullshit”. I am floored that you are not ashamed to make it.

[I] Sorry, Dr. Parker. You cannot get away with saying that your opposition to making state-and-local government smaller (reflecting the economic shrinkage in our job market, incomes and Nevada at large) does not equate to further expanding government. It does. You sound like a politician, running for office. Campaign season is over.

[J] More incorrect. Remember, you said there are no private universities in Nevada. My point was not to try to compare them to you, it was to point out your very large factual error. But while we’re on the topic, Touro University’s medical school is larger than the University of Nevada. Not counting their medical students on campuses in other states. Is that what you mean by “small private college?”

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