As the New Year - and the new GOP House majority - approaches, Republicans are ramping up their war on government workers. Grover Norquist and his Weekly Standard allies urged Congress to let cash-strapped states go bankrupt in order to slash public employees, drain their pension funds and punish their unions. At the heart of their crusade is the bogus claim, as 2012 GOP White House hopeful Tim Pawlenty put it two weeks ago, that "since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000." Alas, as with so much conservative mythmaking, the statement isn't merely a lie. As the data show, the public sector has actually shed hundreds of thousands of jobs over the past two years.
While Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette was among the first to deploy the mythical 590,000 figure this summer, it was Governor Pawlenty who brought it to prominence two weeks ago in his vitriolic Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Government Unions vs. Taxpayers."
"They work for government, which, thanks to President Obama, has become the only booming "industry" left in our economy. Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000."
Sadly for the man who calls himself "T-Paw," the figure isn't even close.
As Politifact noted about T-Paw's "Pants on Fire" lie, "Pawlenty's statement doesn't account for the tremendous -- and now vanished -- bump from hiring Census workers." And as it turns out, Pawlenty simply reproduced the 590,000 figure from a June 24, 2010 blog post at Andrew Breitbart's Big Government web site. Once the temporary hiring of Census workers from January 2009 through May 2010 came to an end, Politifact concluded, "total federal hiring comes to only 34,000." Or as Paul Krugman put it:
See, if you measure right at the top of that peak at the right, pretend not to notice that it's all Census workers, and never update the number, you get your myth inserted into the discourse, and it becomes part of what everyone knows ...
But the Republicans' sleight of hand over the Census is just the beginning. Even as they wrongly rail against "over-benefited and overpaid" government workers, hundreds of thousands of state and local government employees have already lost their jobs.
By July 2010, over 200,000 state and municipal workers were laid off. By October, as David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times:
Local governments are cutting jobs at the fastest rate in almost 30 years.
They cut 76,000 jobs last month and over the last three months have cut 143,000 jobs, many in education, according to today's jobs report. That's 1 percent of total local-government employment across the country. Since the Labor Department began keeping records in the 1950s, the only other time that the cuts were so steep was in the harsh 1981-2 recession.
As Ezra Klein lamented in the Washington Post two months ago, the draconian job cuts at the state and local level constituted "the anti-stimulus."
The government is now impeding an economic recovery. But it's not for the reasons you often hear...It's because, at the state and local level, it's firing people...Consider this: If we only counted private-sector jobs, we'd have had positive jobs reports for the last nine months. As it is, public-sector losses have wiped out private-sector gains for the past four months.
By November, state and local governments had shed 407,000 jobs (-39,000 state, -368,000 local) since their peak in August 2008. With state budget shortfalls estimated to top $100 billion for each of the next two years, analysts including Moody's Economics and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have forecast more state and local job losses reaching between 400,000 and 900,000. Surveying the data for the past year and the catastrophic fiscal landscape across the country, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic rightly concluded:
"The biggest job killer in 2011? Cities and states."
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)