Dec. 31 was the last workday for 432 Employment Training Administration aides. In addition to 432 who were actually fired, nearly 300 others were downgraded and more than 200 were reassigned. That sort of thing, in an agency of fewer than 3,000 people, can spell chaos. It is being repeated governmentwide. Thanks to RIFs in other agencies the government now is paying medical doctors and scientists who bumped down to clerical jobs $35,000 to perform work they cannot do nearly as well as it was being done by the clerks, typists and secretaries fired instead of them. Demoted workers keep their salary level for up to two years.

RIF shock waves are costly, in dollars, morale and productivity. Fired workers get up to a year's severance pay and unemployment benefits -- both charged to the government. "Lucky" professionals who don't get RIFfed may find themselves in the modern-day equivalent of the typing pool, unproductive and overpaid. Less senior workers, women, minorities and non-vets are even less fortunate.

RIFs save the government money in the long run. But the short-term effect is very expensive and produces the worst of both worlds: a bureaucracy that is smaller, more costly and less efficient than it was before the budget-cutters decided to "fix" it.

Consider what happened in this company town in 1981. Fewer than 4,000 people were actually RIFfed out of a workforce of 460,000. Detroit can lose that many jobs in a week. But the fear of RIFs, when? who gets it? the congressional budget delays and flipflops have prolonged the RIF nightmare to the point where many federal agencies -- which once housed well-paid, well-trained, dedicated people -- seem more like hospital recovery rooms.

If the board of directors of a major corporation produced this kind of turmoil among the workforce, a lot of its members would be in trouble at the next stockholders meeting.