Air-Traffic Controllers and Fifth-Grade Principals

We have been told that reductions in federal spending, due to the sequester, are the cause of cuts to basic services. For example, we are told that budget cuts have forced the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to furlough air-traffic controllers. Furloughs started on Sunday, and today news stories about flight delays began to appear:

Some flights out of New York and Washington were delayed by more than two hours as the Federal Aviation Administration kept planes on the ground. The federal agency has said furloughs of air traffic controllers could lead to delays if there weren’t enough people to monitor busy air corridors.

For instance, the 8 a.m. US Airways shuttle pushed back from the gate at Reagan National Airport six minutes early but didn’t take off until 9:58 a.m. The plane landed at 10:48 a.m. — more than two and a half hours later than its scheduled time.

A total 85.4 billion has been cut out of a Federal budget of 3.8 trillion; that amounts to about a 2% reduction in spending. How could such a small cut in federal spending have such a large impact? Did the FAA have no other option than to cut essential front-line personnel? Or, is cutting essential services a political strategy designed to scare the public into supporting more spending and more taxes?

A few weeks ago, in my MBA principles of economics class, I was explaining how per capita expenditures (adjusted for inflation) for public school students have skyrocketed over the past decades and how most of the spending has gone to grow the public school administration rather than to fund smaller classes or new technology.

Sitting in on the class was the fifth-grade daughter of one of my students. My student offered this example of spending on school administration: Her daughter’s middle school has a principal and it has principals for each of the grades five through eight. Count them up: five principals for one middle school!

I asked my student if she knew how much the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade principals were paid. She actually had the budget information on her computer. Together, the four grade principals were making $468,000. This sum does not include the salary of the overall school principal.

I speculated that if teachers were asked, they would report that these grade principals did nothing but get in the way of their teaching mission. At that point the fifth-grader whispered in her mother’s ear. Her fifth-grade principal walks the halls most of the day and barges into the classroom unannounced. In front of the class, the principal scolds the teacher any time the teacher deviates from the prescribed lesson plans.

What do you think would happen if the public school budget was cut in this city? Would the superintendent fire all the grade principals? After all, in the not too distant past, middle schools ran without individual grade principals. A fifth-grade principal makes about as much sense as a manager in charge of blue shirts at Macy’s.

Sadly, it is far more likely that every administrator, including the grade principals, would be deemed essential employees. The superintendent would instead cut front-line teachers, hoping that the uproar from parents would restore his budget.

That is exactly what the federal government is doing. It would not take too many days for an independent team of professionals to identify hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions of dollars, of bloat in the budget of the FAA. Yet the FAA tells us they must furlough air-traffic controllers.

What does the furloughing of air traffic controllers have in common with the hiring of fifth-grade principals? Both are manifestations of decisions made by bureaucrats and politicians whose funding is not determined by how well they serve the consuming public. On the contrary, the poorer their performance, the more they argue for increased funding.

Inconvenience the public until they cry uncle! Is that the strategy of these cynical and cruel bureaucrats and politicians?

2 Responses to Air-Traffic Controllers and Fifth-Grade Principals

  1. AZ says:

    It sounds like you are describing administrative bloat here, Barry. If you want to learn more, or add some numbers to strengthen your writing check out

    Also, couldn’t the government have required some % budget reduction and also for all planes to keep flying? It seems this was a failure of regulation and budgeting, I wish I could say I’m surprised and disappointed, but I doubt anyone is.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks for the very helpful link, AZ. Yes, they could have but then they would have to admit that there is room to cut the budget without impacting services. That goes against their whole narrative.

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