This Brookings Institution Hamilton Project chart shows the ratio of government employment to population.

Elections 2012: Debating Government Jobs

Mark Trahant
10/4/12

Politics is entirely about perception. More so when there’s a debate between two politicians. How did the candidate look? Were they aggressive? Did they call the other out?

That’s the way that campaigns are fought. The issues were debated.

Except the issues weren’t debated. This election, more than most, is a real choice in a governing philosophy. The difference in how the two candidates approach government is of critical importance to the people of Indian country.

Consider government jobs.

Mitt Romney clearly outlined his thinking Wednesday night. “I'm concerned that the path that we're on has just been unsuccessful,” he said. “The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more – if you will, trickle-down government – would work.”

The problem with that is that government has been shrinking. Dramatically. Federal spending even slowed under Obama. As The New York Times fact checker reported last night: “Measured as a share of the economy, as economists prefer, the deficit has declined more significantly — from 10.1 percent of the economy’s total output in 2009 to 7.3 percent for 2012.” Government Jobs

When it comes to government jobs, there is even more shrinking going on. As the Brookings Institution put it in August: “Falling public employment has been among the largest contributors to unemployment in the United States since the end of the Great Recession.” This is true in both absolute terms and as a share of the population. “Total government (i.e., the sum of state, local, and federal) employment has decreased by over 580,000 jobs since the end of the recession, the largest decrease in any sector since the recovery began in July 2009. State and local governments, faced with tough choices imposed by the confluence of balanced-budget requirements, falling tax revenues, and greater demand for public services, have been forced to lay off teachers, police officers, and other workers,” wrote Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney. (I’d love to see how tribal governments fit into this picture, but unfortunately there’s not enough data.)

That was one question not asked during the debate: How is it possible to cut government spending and at the same time create jobs?

The answer is you can’t. Cutting government spending, popular and necessary as it might be, will reduce growth. The proof is occurring worldwide. Last May the BBC took a look at austerity country by country for the 27 members of the European Union.

“The problem can be seen in a country like Spain,” the BBC said. “It has embarked on structural reforms but they take time. And in the short term, regional governments, companies and households are paying down debts. The reforms may well boost growth in the future but, in the present, countries like Spain appear to be locked in a cycle of decline. Which is why much of the debate will focus on whether some of the deficit-cutting targets may be eased.

”It would be the same in America. It might be, one could argue, that cutting federal spending now would produce results down the road. Even a decade in the future. But that’s not what’s being argued by those who would cut government. They are promising jobs now, after the election. In a climate of severe austerity that is simply not possible.

In the debate, Romney said he’d replace government growth with small business growth. “It’s small business that creates the jobs in America. And over the last four years, small-business people have decided that America may not be the place to open a new business, because new business startups are down to a 30-year low,” he said. “I know what it takes to get small business growing again, to hire people.”

Perhaps. But the numbers are daunting. As the Brookings Institution pointed out that had government employment remained at historic levels the unemployment rate today would be around 7 percent instead of above 8 percent.

In the debate, Obama explained his thinking about government jobs. “So now I want to hire another 100,000 new math and science teachers, and create 2 million more slots in our community colleges so that people can get trained for the jobs that are out there right now,” he said. “And I want to make sure that we keep tuition low for our young people.”

Even the role of the federal government in education represents sharp differences in thinking. Romney said he agreed, saying, “education is key, particularly the future of our economy. But our training programs right now, we've got 47 of them, housed in the federal government, reporting to eight different agencies. Overhead is overwhelming. We've got to get those dollars back to the states and go to the workers so they can create their own pathways to get in the training they need for jobs that will really help them.

”Romney says his test about the role of government is simple. “I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for,” he said. “That's number one.”

The main Romney thrust is to turn over more government to the states. “One of the magnificent things about this country is the whole idea that states are the laboratories of democracy,” he said. “Don't have the federal government tell everybody what kind of training programs they have to have and what kind of Medicaid they have to have. Let states do this.

“And, by the way, if a state gets in trouble, well, we can step in and see if we can find a way to help them.”

Let the states do it is a complicated opportunity for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Will the states, then, have the power to shape Indian health care by determining what services to pay for through Medicaid? Will they work directly with tribes as constitutional sovereigns or write a script of demands?

Or will Romney consider turning over those programs directly to tribal governments to operate? What if every time the word state was used, the words “or tribal governments” were added? If that’s a possibility that represents a different kind of thinking, too.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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