Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Friday, June 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Is the 2012 election going to hinge on voters’ beliefs about the government workforce? It seems that at least this week’s news cycle will. It’s an important conversation to have. Public sector job loss is at the heart of our stagnant economy and is a big reason why the recovery can’t get real lift-off. Yet this isn’t a coincidental phenomenon or a bipartisan issue. Republican lawmakers are to blame for the bulk of these job losses, and their solutions to the problem will only add fuel to the fire.
To recap for those who don’t watch the Sunday talk shows: in a press conference on Friday, President Obama said, “The private sector is doing fine.” The full quote shows that he was talking about private sector job creation versus public sector job loss, but the pundits began a-punditing and soon his quote had become synonymous with “the economy is doing fine,” as if the private sector is all that matters.
Never one to sit on an opportunity to muddy his own message, Mitt Romney jumped in later in the day to take it further. Instead of confining his attack to Obama’s (purported) suggestion that things are hunky-dory in the private sector while the economy is still clearly suffering, Romney maligned some of the most beloved public sector workers. He said of Obama: “He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers.… It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."
Both soundbites are likely to get so bent out of shape by the media game of telephone that they’ll eventually end up unrecognizable. But at the heart of each statement lies a fundamental difference in how the two candidates—and the two parties—view the nature of the jobs crisis. From Obama’s point of view, we’re not being dragged down by job loss in the private sector but by losses in the public sector. Romney sees exactly the opposite: we should cut even more jobs in the government and invest more heavily in private sector job creators. (He even explicitly called for government job cuts just a week ago.) So which view is right?
Evidence backs Obama’s perspective. Since the recovery officially began, the number of local government jobs has fallen by 3 percent, while the private sector has actually been able to add jobs—4.3 million, to be exact. And it’s worth comparing those numbers to what happened in recent recessions to get the full effect of just how bad, and abnormal, this trend is. Romney is at least partly right in that the private sector isn’t doing as well as it could be. At this point in the recessions experienced in 1992 and 2003, it had added 5 million and 4.5 million jobs, respectively.
But the public sector looks far, far worse now than it did then. As Ben Polak and Peter K. Schott write in the New York Times today, “In the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not.” Local government employment actually grew in the past two recessions by 7.7 percent and 5.2 percent for each respective period. This time around, it’s hemorrhaging jobs.