If you listen to the recent speeches of Republican presidential hopefuls, you’ll find several of them talking at length about the harm done by unionized government workers, who have, they say, multiplied under the Obama administration. A recent example was an op-ed article by the outgoing Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who declared that “thanks to President Obama,” government is the only booming sector in our economy: “Since January 2008” — silly me, I thought Mr. Obama wasn’t inaugurated until 2009 — “the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs, while local, state and federal governments added 590,000.”
Horrors! Except that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, government employment has fallen, not risen, since January 2008. And since January 2009, when Mr. Obama actually did take office, government employment has fallen by more than 300,000 as hard-pressed state and local governments have been forced to lay off teachers, police officers, firefighters and other workers.
So how did the notion of a surge in government payrolls under Mr. Obama take hold?
It turns out that last spring there was, in fact, a bulge in government employment. And both politicians and researchers at humbug factories — I mean, conservative think tanks — quickly seized on this bulge as evidence of an exploding public sector. Over the summer, articles and speeches began to appear highlighting the rise in government employment and issuing dire warnings about what it portended for America’s future.
But anyone paying attention knew why public employment had risen — and it had nothing to do with Big Government. It was, instead, the fact that the federal government had to hire a lot of temporary workers to carry out the 2010 Census — workers who have almost all left the payroll now that the Census is done.
Is it really possible that the authors of those articles and speeches about soaring public employment didn’t know what was going on? Well, I guess we should never assume malice when ignorance remains a possibility.