Government and the Slow Jobs “Recovery”

Government finally starts to get out of the way of recovery. In an earlier post today on the good news of the January 2012 employment report, I observed that one of the major factors resulting in an improved (but not good enough) jobs report was that government employment numbers stopped dragging down the total.  I wanted to briefly expand on that idea here.

First, let’s make no mistake the “recovery” from this last recession has been very, very weak.  Private sector growth has been anemic at best. In employment, the recovery has largely been missing in action.  Today, 31 months after the supposed end of the recession, we have only recovered 1/3 of the jobs we lost during the 19 months of recession. As I’ve mentioned before, we are well on our way to a lost decade or more before we regain full employment.  A huge part of the weak recovery has been slow and at times negative growth in private sector employment.

But a bigger problem has been government.  Government has a three-fold impact on employment during a recovery.  Government spending by itself will create employment in the private sector.  For example, if the government chooses to react to a recession and high cyclical unemployment by increasing it’s spending it can create new private sector employment. This would be a classical stimulus program.  The government could embark on highway, bridge, or school construction.  The spending with construction contractors causes those contractors to hire employees. That’s direct private sector employment through government spending.  As long as there are significant unemployed resources (workers), such government spending will increase employment.  Arguments about crowding out do not apply when large unemployed resources exist.

The increased government spending then has a second effect, a “multiplier” effect.  The multiplier effect reflects the idea that workers who got jobs in the initial round of spending themselves spend their incomes and create more demand for more goods. This increased demand for goods results in even more employment.  In other words, the construction workers hired to build the new bridges or schools spend their paychecks.  The firms selling those workers goods then have to hire in order to produce the goods/services the construction workers want.  The exact size of the multiplier effect is uncertain and subject to dispute depending on the econometric methods used to measure it.  However, it’s clear that as long there were substantial unemployed resources to begin with, there is a positive multiplier effect on private employment from increased government spending.

But what I want to draw attention to today is direct employment effect of government.  One of the greatest reasons why we have had a very slow employment recovery is because government in the U.S. has been aggressively cutting jobs for the last 2-3 years. Conservative critics of government have been partially right. Government has been part of the problem – but not in the way they think.  Let’s look at total government employment in recent years:

The data series can be a bit tough to read because government employment has a very seasonal pattern to it.  That’s shows up by the regular up-and-down pattern each year.  Let’s focus on the trend, smoothing out the ups-and-downs. There’s four patterns. Government employment was essentially flat in 2002 and 2003.  Then a period of employment growth in government began running form 2004 through early 2008.  During the recession itself government employment was essentially flat.  Since 2009, though, government employment has been declining.  Cutting government employment is contractionary.  It directly reduces retail demand for goods and services by reducing the incomes of what were formerly government workers.

The pattern is a little clearer if we look at the data in a slightly different way.  The following graph, courtesy of Menzie Chinn at Econbrowser.com, shows the a smoothed trend.  It does this by plotting the 12-month change in government employment (000’s of jobs) by month.

While private employment continues to grow, government employment continues to fall; the decline is most pronounced at the state and local level (Wisconsin is a good example of the contractionary impact of such measures [1] [2]). However, civilian Federal government employment is also declining.

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Figure 3: Twelve month change in government local employment (blue), in state employment (red), and government employment ex.-temporary Census workers (geen), 000’s, seasonally adjusted. NBER defined recession dates shaded gray. Source: BLS via FRED, NBER and 

One thing I particularly like about this graph is that it shows the relative contribution of federal, state, and local governments. What this graph shows is that before the recession (the grey zone), government was net hiring approximately 250,000 additional jobs per year. Of that, most was at the local level and some at the state. Very little was federal hiring.

Since the end of the recession in June 2009, government has been firing more workers than it hires.  It has been reducing employment.  The federal government, contrary to popular belief, began shrinking (in employment terms).  State governments were largely able to hold the line on employment until early 2011.  Then state governments began reducing employment in rapidly increasing numbers.  But the big impact again came from local governments.  For the last 30 months, they have been laying off large numbers of workers. The reductions have slowed in 2011, but they are still cutting workers at nearly the same rate that they added them in 2007 – hundreds of thousands of lost jobs each year.

There is a temptation among politicians and commenters to think of government employees as representing largely just some bureaucrats mindlessly pushing paper in large bland office buildings.  That is not true.  At the federal level, most federal government employees are either soldiers or part of some security forces (TSA, FBI, ICE, etc).  At the local level, the vast majority of local government employees are police, fire and emergency workers, and teachers. Reductions in local government employment directly translate into fewer services and less education for children.

Why are state and local governments cutting employment?  Simple.  It’s reduced taxes combined with balanced budget requirements.  State and local governments, unlike a sovereign national government, must balance their budgets.  They are budget constrained.  The recession and weak recovery have hit income and sales taxes hard.  Even more significant is that the collapse of home prices a few years ago has translated into lower property tax collections.  Either way, state and local governments have been pinched.  The response has been to reduce government employment – fire police, firefighters, and teachers.

Paul Krugman notes the how this reduction in state and local government revenue has translated into reduced spending, which in turn has translated into lower employment.  Despite the federal government embarking on a stimulus spending program in early 2009, a program which is over and done with now, it was not large enough to offset the reduction in state and local spending.

if you look at what’s being cut, it’s heavily focused on investment:

That is, we’re sacrificing the future as well as the present. Oh, and the cuts that aren’t falling on investment in physical capital are largely falling on human capital, that is, education.

It’s hard to overstate just how wrong all this is. We have a situation in which resources are sitting idle looking for uses — massive unemployment of workers, especially construction workers, capital so bereft of good investment opportunities that it’s available to the federal government at negative real interest rates. Never mind multipliers and all that (although they exist too); this is a time when government investment should be pushed very hard. Instead, it’s being slashed.

What an utter disaster.

On this point, I have to agree with Paul.  Unless we reverse course and do it strongly, we are flirting with a long-term disaster.  We are under-investing in our future.