Public-sector austerity in one graph

at 03:35 PM ET, 06/11/2012


(Ezra Klein)
On Friday, I ran some numbers on public-sector employment:

Since Obama was elected, the public sector has lost about 600,000 jobs. If you put those jobs back, the unemployment rate would be 7.8 percent.

But what if we did more than that? At this point in George W. Bush’s administration, public-sector employment had grown by 3.7 percent. That would be equal to a bit over 800,000 jobs today. If you add those hypothetical jobs, the unemployment rate falls to 7.3 percent.

Today, Ben Polak, chairman of the economics department at Yale University, and Peter K. Schott, professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, widen the lens, with similar results:

There is something historically different about this recession and its aftermath: in the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not. Going back as long as the data have been collected (1955), with the one exception of the 1981 recession, local government employment continued to grow almost every month regardless of what the economy threw at it. But since the latest recession began, local government employment has fallen by 3 percent, and is still falling. In the equivalent period following the 1990 and 2001 recessions, local government employment grew 7.7 and 5.2 percent. Even following the 1981 recession, by this stage local government employment was up by 1.4 percent...

Without this hidden austerity program, the economy would look very different. If state and local governments had followed the pattern of the previous two recessions, they would have added 1.4 million to 1.9 million jobs and overall unemployment would be 7.0 to 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent.

In the graph atop this post, I ran the numbers on total government employment after the 1981, 1990, 2001 and 2008 recessions. I made government employment on the eve of the recession equal to “1,” so what you’re seeing is total change in the ensuing 54 months, which is how much time has elapsed since the start of this recession.

As you can see, government employment tends to rise during recessions, helping to cushion their impact. But with the exception of a spike when we hired temporary workers for the decennial census, it’s fallen sharply during this recession.

Note that a Republican was president after the 1981, 1990 and 2000 recessions. Public-sector austerity looks a lot better to conservatives when they’re out of power than when they’re in it.

 
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