It All Depends on What Your Definition of “Job” is….

I’m getting tired of politicians piously declaiming that “government can’t create jobs.” (That statement is generally followed by that candidate’s jobs plan. Irony, anyone?)

The truth is that even if you reject the notion that public policy can create an atmosphere that facilitates job creation, government is a huge employer. Almost one of every five American workers is employed in the public sector – working in our schools, colleges, universities, police and fire departments, and providing many other vital public services. One of the biggest drags on employment since the start of the Great Recession–one of the reasons that job creation has not been more robust–is that state and local governments have laid off so many of those public sector workers. Such job growth as has occurred has been almost entirely in the private sector .

Those public sector jobs (we used to call them “public service” jobs) have become a handy target for ideologues who rant about bloated government and overpaid public sector workers, but the inconvenient truth is that modern society requires educators and police officers and people who work at the BMV. When their ranks get too thin, we complain about government inefficiency, or insufficient public safety, or classrooms that are too large.

A modern, complex society requires an agency that monitors the environment, that oversees food and drug quality (more meningitis, anyone?) and performs numerous other tasks that individuals in urban environments cannot do individually. Unfortunately, we still need soldiers. All these people may be bloated bureaucrats in the public imagination, but when that schoolteacher or firefighter is furloughed, we are suddenly faced with reality.

Of course, even the politicians who are fond of declaiming that government can’t create jobs betray their hypocrisy by accusing “big government” of killing jobs with taxes and regulation. Their claim–implicit and explicit–is that lower taxes and less regulation will foster job growth. But when tax cuts imperil our ability to provide essential services, jobs go elsewhere. When we go too far with deregulation, we get more instances like the recent deaths from meningitis.

I know it isn’t as satisfying as making sweeping proclamations about the evils of government and the glories of the private sector, but we need to admit that modern life is complicated. We need the right levels of taxes, the proper regulation. Those things need to be carefully calibrated to achieve our goals, not subjected to simple-minded “either-or” formulations.

And we need to laugh out loud the next time a political figure says that government doesn’t create jobs.


  1. Several months ago I saw a figure indicating that unemployment would be a whole percent less
    were it not for all the layoffs of public employees.

    Despite the stimulus funds to stop public sector layoffs, Indiana cut $1 billion the last 3 years from K-12 public schools, causing massive layoffs of teachers, bus drivers, school nurses, teacher aides to assist special ed. students, custodians, food service personnel, and more.

    Taking $1 billion out of local economies across the state helped build a state surplus but it shrinks Hoosier purchasing power, and every merchant feels it just as surely as do the unemployed.

  2. I agree with everything here but I didnt understand what you meant when you said, “unfortunatly, we still need soldiers”. Why is that unfortunate?

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