Human Events Blog

Paul vs. Krugman on government job growth

During last Sunday’s edition of ABC News’ This Week, Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky got into an argument with Paul Krugman of the New York Times over the size of the government payroll.  After listening to Krugman argue a variation of President Obama’s notorious “the private sector is doing fine” comment, Senator Paul asked, “You are arguing that the government sector is struggling.  Are you arguing that there are fewer government employees under Obama than there were under bush?”

“That’s a fact,” Krugman replied.

Krugman spent the following day hammering this point on his blog, sneering that “I know Republicans know, just know, that government has surged under Obama.  But it ain’t so.”  Liberal blogs weighed in with triumphant posts that Krugman had “schooled” Rand Paul.

The truth is more complex.  As Senator Paul explained in a subsequent radio interview, what Krugman has done is combine federal job numbers with state and local government jobs.  Federal jobs have indeed surged enormously under Barack Obama.  State and local governments, on the other hand, have cut a lot of jobs.  Barack Obama has power over federal hiring, but little direct influence over state and local government employment.

Fact-checking website PolitiFact worked over a claim from Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) last December, in which Johnson said that “President Obama has increased the federal workforce 192,000 individuals – about 10 percent since he’s taken office – while we’ve lost 2 million jobs.”  PolitiFact found this claim was “Half True,” mostly because they quibbled with the data set Johnson used (they prefer numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with those famous “seasonal adjustments”) and the precise starting date he selected for his evaluation.  But even if the relative increase is closer to 5 percent than 10, there’s no question that the federal workforce has grown substantially.  There was a great deal of federal job growth in the late Bush and early Obama years, followed by stagnation and a modest decline.

State and local governments, in contrast, have lost “nearly half a million jobs in two years,” according to the Council of State Governments, which describes this reduction as “the largest contraction of public employment in more than 30 years.”  Of course, since this is a discussion of 50 state governments, it should be noted that 16 states have increased government payrolls during that period, while the others have decreased.  Some of this could reasonably be ascribed to shifts in population to fast-growing states like Texas, which tend to subtract population and revenue from states with high government overhead.

Looking forward, USA Today notes that “Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has proposed cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent,” while “Obama’s budget calls for a small increase in federal workers.”

Mixing federal, state, and local staff together into a mythical “government workforce” to create a counter-intuitive talking point is disingenuous.  The compensation levels of federal vs. state and local jobs (and their comparison, in turn, to private sector compensation) is another point to consider.  The truth is not easily abstracted into a 30-second sound bite.  As with so many other misleading deployments of statistical data, before looking at numbers, it’s important to define the terms.

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