Paul Krugman notes that public sector employment has declined under Obama—a sharp contrast with his two predecessors, under whom it grew (with Republican Bush ahead of Democrat Clinton). How does recent experience stack up on a longer view?
Very unusually. Graphed below is the behavior of employment—total, private, and public—around business cycle troughs and recoveries. The darker lines are the averages of all the cycles since the end of World War II; the lighter lines, the most recent period, around the June 2009 trough. (Click on the graph for the full-sized version.)
As of March, the most recent data we have, we were 33 months into the recovery/expansion. In a “normal,” or at least average, expansion, total employment would be up 6.6% (which is why the index number on the graph is 106.6). But now it’s only up 1.8%. But there’s an enormous divergence in public and private sector employment. In an average recovery, private employment would be up 6.7% and the public sector up 6.4%. This time, though, the private sector is up just 2.7% (4 points short of the average)—but the public sector is down 2.5% (almost 9 points below average).
Putting some numbers on that, total employment is 6.3 million below where it would be in an average recovery. (As the graph shows, the decline in employment was far deeper than average, and the recovery slower to kick in.) Of that shortfall, 4.3 million comes from the private sector, and 2.0 million from the public. So the public sector is responsible for about a third of the deficiency. But that’s twice its share of total employment.
No doubt yahoos will cheer the fall in public employment as a reduction in waste—though there’s no visible payoff in private sector job growth. (Of course, the yahoos don’t care about the continued deterioration in public services.) Public sector austerity is a major drag on the job market. If public employment had merely matched the anemic growth in the private sector, the unemployment rate would be more like 7.4% than 8.2%. And if it had matched its post-World War II average, the unemployment rate would be under 7%.
Propagandists love to go on about how the socialist in the White House is scaring the private sector, leading to a hiring strike. But public sector austerity—mainly at the state and local level—is a major drag on the job market. That doesn’t get anywhere the attention that it should.