The Private Sector Isn’t Fine Enough

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy on June 8, 2012, at the White House in Washington, DC.

President obama didn’t mis-speak when he said that “the private sector is doing fine.” It was a perfectly serviceable–fine, one might say–expression of a central point of his instantly notorious White House press conference: the private sector is gaining jobs, the public sector isn’t, and this is an enormous drag on the economy.

This wasn’t a gaffe. It was a statement of a world-view. The president is still a devotee of stimulus economics. All that stands between us and a robust economic recovery, in his view, is yet more deficit spending on more government workers and more public-works projects. The economy would be cooking with Crisco if only we could get the public-sector going again.

In making this argument, the President aligns himself with his critics on the left who argue that his $800 billion stimulus bill–the headline initiative in a dog’s breakfast of stimuli over the last three years—didn’t work because it was too small. They are the Keynesian equivalent of the Communist sympathizers who used to insist that socialism never failed, it just had never really been tried. If four straight years of $1 trillion deficits, not to mention an increase in federal spending from $3 trillion in 2008 to almost $3.7 trillion in 2013, isn’t enough stimulus, then there will never be enough stimulus.

Obama’s case for the adequacy of private-sector growth is highly selective. He says the economy has added a total of 4.3 million jobs in the last 27 months. True enough. That still leaves us 4.6 million private-sector jobs shy of the number the economy boasted in January 2008. And job growth has been slowing. We added just 69,000 jobs in May. At that rate, we will recover those 4.6 million jobs in another 5 1/2 years, by which time the Barack Obama Presidential Library may itself be a shovel-ready project. In the first quarter, the economy grew at a 1.9 percent rate. Clearly, one man’s “fine” is another man’s “anemic.”

The public sector has indeed been shedding workers. But as economics writer Tino Sanandaji points out, this is hardly a decisive trend. From the beginning of the recession in December 2007 until today, federal, state, and local governments altogether have lost 400,000 jobs—-in an economy that employs 130 million people. About 85% of people work in the private sector. The public sector can be doing “dandy,” and if the private sector is still only doing “fine,” the vast majority of Americans will be in a weak and perilous job market.

State and local workers perform important functions. Never before, though, have they been considered engines of short-term economic growth. Teachers aren’t entrepreneurs. Cops and firefighters don’t hire people. Lacking the discipline of the market, the public sector is woefully inefficient. As a purely economic matter, you’d much rather add private rather than government workers. Taxpayers aren’t on the hook for their wages, benefits, or pensions. No state or locality ever found itself in dire financial straits because it had too many well-compensated private-sector workers.

The failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the passage of referenda in San Diego and San Jose cutting public-sector pensions herald growing sentiment for curtailing spending on public workers. In the decade prior to 2008, states and localities added public-sector workers at a double-digit clip. This wasn’t sustainable. Although the stimulus put off the reckoning, the tab has about now come due. With federal support receding, states and localities can’t–and shouldn’t–keep workers they can’t afford. As a “timely, targeted, and temporary” measure, the stimulus was never supposed to subsidize elevated levels of public-sector workers in perpetuity.

President Obama’s blown press conference added to the sense that Chicago is off its game. This isn’t entirely fair. There’s no politically easy way of dealing with 40 straight months of an unemployment rate above 8 percent. If the economy were creating 300,000 new jobs a month, as it was at this point in Ronald Reagan’s first term, David Plouffe would look every bit as shrewd as he did in 2008 when everything broke his boss’s way.

On the economy, the president’s administration has been hyperactive and ineffectual, a fatal combination, and all he can offer is more of the same. He is stuck on stimulus. It’s not Morning Again in America so much as Groundhog’s Day. At this point, his re-election campaign has a lot in common with the private sector–not in free-fall, but clearly not doing fine, either.

Lowry is the editor of National Review.

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