Good Work, If You Can Get It

Every national politician, in good times and bad, will talk about "jobs" -- creating jobs, building jobs, saving jobs, bringing jobs. Or as they sometimes put it, "jobs, jobs, jobs." But as the current debate on the Obama administration's stimulus package has shown, not everybody has the same understanding of what a "job" is. The problem is that philosophy is getting in the way of reality.

If as you watch this debate you're beginning to feel like the country is riding an express train to Stupidville, you're not alone. Instead of having an honest discussion about what measures will actually arrest the economic crisis, we have to watch United States senators blathering on about how many times large numbers of currency notes could circle the earth, or working out Jesus-related problems in long division. They are no doubt certain that their fantastically clever arguments will turn the political tide in their favor, which makes it all the more exasperating.

When you listen to the different ways the two sides talk about these kinds of issues, you notice that conservatives tend to speak about financial matters in much more abstract terms than liberals. They simply have a more strongly defined economic ideology, one that determines what they favor and what they oppose. Ask a typical conservative what he or she believes about the economy, and you'll get a firm reply: markets work, government intervention is harmful, maximum economic liberty is right and good and quite possibly a pure expression of God's will.

Ask a typical liberal what he or she believes about the economy, on the other hand, and the reply you'll get will be along the lines of, "Could you be more specific?" That isn't to say there isn't a coherent set of values underlying what liberals believe. But they don't tend to think of their opinions on taxes or the minimum wage or trade policy -- or this stimulus package -- as the expression of a core philosophical system whose principal tenets they could recite in their sleep.

The difference between the two perspectives is not something we are seeing for the first time; indeed, conservatives have put an economic philosophy at the core of their political philosophy as long as they've been thinking about economics. And that may be just the problem: conservatives care about economics, but what they really care about is philosophy.

You can tell, because when they talk about the economy they describe a fantasy world unlike the one in which we all live. And when the real world changes, they find themselves spiraling down into absurdity. So last week we heard Michael Steele, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, declare grandly, "Let's get this notion out of our heads that the government creates jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job." Steele's elaboration attempted to acknowledge that there are people who do in fact work for the government, but he was nonetheless unable to claw his way back to reality: "Small business owners do, small enterprises do. Not the government. When the government contract runs out, that job goes away." As opposed to a job in the private sector, which once it is created, lives on forever, though the 598,000 people who lost their jobs last month might tell you different. And though Steele seems to have forgotten, there are people in government-created jobs who don't work on a "government contract" (more on that in a moment).

We've also heard one Republican senator after another -- including renowned economist John McCain -- saying, "This isn't a stimulus bill, it's a spending bill!" (Ezra Klein beat me to the obvious joke: "Similarly, this is not a restaurant; it's a place that sells food in exchange for money. And this is not library; it's a facility that lends books. And this is not my mother; it's the woman who gave birth to me and later provided me with sandwiches.") As silly as it is, the statement is revealing. If "government spending" is by definition bad, then it cannot be the same as "stimulus," which is good. Republicans therefore tried to cut as much money from the package as possible. But as Dean Baker so brilliantly put it, "Trying to save money on stimulus is like finding a short cut for your jogging route. We can do it, but it undermines the whole point of the effort."

And heaven forbid part of the stimulus involves the government not just pumping money into the economy that eventually results in jobs being created, but actually hiring people to do things. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to write with contempt that if the administration's stimulus bill creates 3 million jobs, "one in five will be a government job." He didn't feel the need to explain why this would be a bad thing.

Of course, how you think about a "government job" depends on what you think about the actual work being done. I assume that your average Republican is quite happy when the government creates a job at Lockheed Martin, because that's military spending, which is the kind of spending they like. They even like some kinds of government jobs -- you could get overwhelming Republican support to hire more border patrol agents, for instance, because they like the idea of more border control. It's when you move back up to the abstract level of saying government jobs are the wrong kind of jobs that logic begins slipping away.

So let's be honest: Whether we create more of them right now or not, government jobs are an incredibly important portion of the American economy. In 2007, the Census Bureau counted 16.4 million people who work for state and local government -- police officers, teachers, health inspectors, and even – cover your ears, children -- bureaucrats. Add that to the 2.7 million civilian federal employees, plus the 1.4 million members of the active-duty military, and you've got 20.5 million Americans who work for government at some level. To think about it another way, since the entire labor force stands at 154 million, over 13 percent of Americans -- or more than one in eight of us -- work for the government.

Although when someone says "government jobs" you might think of a pointy-headed bureaucrat in Washington, it's the first number above -- 16.4 million -- that's most striking. Eight out of 10 government employees work for state and local governments, not the federal government (not to mention that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nine out of 10 federal government employees work outside the Washington, D.C., area). Though conservatives often complain about the size of the federal government, as this handy chart demonstrates, the number of federal employees hasn't changed much in the last half century. The real growth has been in the number of people who work for local government -- you know, the kind of government conservatives prefer, what with it being close to the people and all.

And even beyond the 20 million government employees, you've got millions more private-sector employees whose incomes are dependent on government -- not just contractors but folks like the guy who owns a food truck that parks outside City Hall every day. He may not be getting a check from the government, but his income is derived from the incomes of government employees.

But for some reason, we're supposed to believe that the food-truck owner's job is a "real" job, while the jobs his customers do aren't. The person who works for Aetna is supposed to be of greater value to society than the person who works for Medicare. Creating a job at a defense contractor is somehow more stimulating or effective or morally righteous than using the same amount of money to hire someone to audit defense contracts for the Pentagon.

It isn't, of course. To the person holding it, a job can be good or bad, but which it is won't have anything to do with somebody else's beliefs about the free market. There are even situations -- hang on while I blow your mind -- in which government workers do a better job than their private-sector counterparts.

It will be some time before we see the effects of the stimulus, and even when the economy recovers, we won't stop arguing about what worked and what didn't. What we do know is that no matter how the next few months and years play out, Republicans will say that the best medicine for any economic ailment is to cut taxes and get government out of the way so the market can work its magic. This crisis will not make them reassess what they have believed for so long. That's the thing about dogma -- it frees you from the need to see the world as it is, instead of how you imagine it to be.

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