Public Job Losses And GOP Chutzpah

by Alec MacGillis | May 4, 2012

Tucked inside this morning’s lackluster monthly jobs report is a remarkable figure: the economy is back to a net positive for the number of private sector jobs created since the start of 2009. That is, even with the ginormous job losses that we saw in the first few months of 2009, we’re now back in the black from that standpoint. But that’s private sector jobs. In the public sector, we’ve lost more than 600,000 jobs since the start of 2009—12,000 more in the past month, mostly in education.

Economists have of course been pointing out for a long time now what a drag public sector losses have been on the recovery—noting, for one thing, that Ronald Reagan did not have to contend with that same drag during the recovery of the early 1980s. What is striking, though, is how little focus there has been on this distinction in the political debate about the recovery. The most glaring example of this oversight came recently when Mitt Romney tried to make up lost ground with women voters by charging that 92.3 percent of the jobs lost Barack Obama’s presidency have been held by women. The Obama campaign and independent factcheckers countered that this was a deeply misleading figure. Lost in the back and forth, though, was the larger truth around the argument: yes, women have been hit disproportionately since the official conclusion of the recession in the summer of 2009—because they disproportionately hold the public sector jobs—in schools and government offices—that have borne the brunt of the layoffs. This is what really made the Romney attack so galling, more than his games with the numbers—he and his fellow Republicans in Congress and state capitals have slashing public payrolls with blithe equanimity and have resisted Obama’s efforts to provide fiscal relief to states and cities to mitigate the layoffs. That is, the big job losses among women (and among minorities, which Republicans also like to point to, to tweak Obama) are the direct result of a policy they have pushed. Yet they then lament, for political gain, the desired outcome of that policy. This is right up there in the chutzpah department with the classic example of the patricidal orphan.

Democrats could be pointing this out, but they’re not, really. This is probably partly rooted in a reluctance to be seen as making excuses for the slow recovery, a stance for which they would inevitably be scolded by the pundits. But it’s also probably rooted in the Democrats’ ambivalence from the outset about making a big stand on behalf of public sector jobs. As a good Washington Post article earlier this week noted, the Obama administration knew all along that states and cities needed much more help to stave off massive layoffs than what they received in the 2009 stimulus package, but dithered about pushing for it in the face of Republican resistance—the president’s jobs bill, announced last fall, included another chunk of aid for states, but what’s the last you heard of that? (The official White House statement on today’s report, by Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, mentions the 12,000 public job losses as a mere afterthought.) Let’s face it—when you’re trying to talk up a recovery, it’s less appealing in a country so deeply ambivalent about government to conjure up the mid-level bureaucrat in some state office than a profit-making worker.

There is probably a fair amount of chagrin in the administration now as it looks at the job figures of the past year or two and reckons with how much rosier they would be but not for the public sector losses. But that chagrin should not stop Obama and other Democrats from drawing these connections for voters, leveling with them about just how much our economy has suffered from the concerted Republican effort to force pain on the public sector. That’s not blame—it’s instruction, and it’s the truth.

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