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Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

June 10, 2012

Last week, Republicans hounded President Obama unmercifully for a statement he made during a Friday press conference that suggested, “the private sector is doing fine.” The administration’s efforts to recast these remarks in the context of overall employment growth and economic performance since the start of the recession did little good.

Not long after the President made his remarks, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, rushed to add his two cents’: “[President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

To be sure, President Obama does have some pretty solid statistics on his side. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more occupations and most private sector industries have seen sharp drops in employment losses over the past year if not some pretty good gains. And the economy is growing at a rate of about two percent per annum. The same cannot be said for public employment, where job cuts in health and social services, education and general government services continue to climb. Were it not for this drag, economic growth might well be a full percentage point higher.

Romney’s reference to last week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin was intended to reignite enthusiasm among the base for a rejection of government as the solution to America’s economic woes. What he didn’t mention though was the votes in California that approved pension benefit cuts for public employees in San Jose and San Diego. The notion that those who receive a public paycheck are getting a pretty good deal is not limited to a few disgruntled rust-belt states, and seems to be focused not so much on how many are employed or even what they do but on how well they are being treated compared to the rest of us.

Both men chose incorrectly to emphasize the impacts of recent job data and elections, for better or worse, on cops and firefighters. Interestingly enough, the data suggests these occupations are indeed doing just fine. But the data show just as convincingly that what can be said for public protective services cannot be said of other segments of the public sector vital to our security and prosperity.

When politicians speak of police officers and firefighters, they almost invariably seek to invoke strong emotions, some good and some bad. Those who feel secure, see cops and firefighters as guardians or warriors standing up for the common good, patriotic exemplars of loyalty and dedication to American values. Those who feel less secure, often fear the consequences of losing the protective influence of these public servants or the opportunities to join the middle-class these solidly blue-collar occupations offer many of the less-skilled in our society.

Interestingly enough, teachers, although capable of evoking similarly strong emotions, strike a different chord with the public. Teaching is clearly a profession not an occupation. It requires education and experience to do well. The best teachers inspire as well as inform. The worst take more interest in their status and their subjects than their students’ success.

Although all public sector unions have aligned themselves historically and financially with the political left, those who work for government in the health, education and social service sectors have aligned themselves philosophically with this end of the political spectrum as well. They believe government can and should be a powerful force for good in our society.

Firefighters and cops are not so certain about this. Their rhetoric, individually if not collectively, is often, if not always, far more consistent with the philosophies espoused by the right: Government should stick to its core functions and let markets and individuals sort out and deal with the rest. In many ways, this is little more than a convenient, simple and very straightforward way of saying they want their slice of the government pie first.

Other state and municipal occupations, like city planners, building inspectors, social workers, public health practitioners, traffic engineers, parks and recreation employees, and utility and sanitation workers, require extensive technical or professional education or oversight. And their roles are often overlooked when it comes to considering the impacts of a failing economy on our security and prosperity. (If not for roads, water, sewers and other services, what business would survive?)

Until very recently, it was not at all unusual to see fire and police chiefs rise through the ranks with little or no formal education. These days, more cops come to the job with education than firefighters, but education, and the critical thinking and curiosity it implies, has little to do with individual advancement in either occupation at the lower levels of most organizations.

The story of public sector job losses is striking and stands in stark contrast to the tale told by private sector employment statistics: Public sector jobs that require professional and technical education or experience are under-valued and unemployment in these fields leaves incumbents with few private sector opportunities of comparable worth. Private sector job losses have been largely, although by no means exclusively, concentrated among those with less education or experience. And the cuts to government employment rolls in the health, education and social sectors leave them with fewer opportunities to acquire or advance the ability to compete for future jobs.

Although it pains me to say so, Romney’s partly right: We don’t need more cops and firefighters. Mr. President, it would do you well to acknowledge this, and demonstrate that your administration’s commitment to a secure and sustainable recovery starts with looking after those who need our help most.

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An interesting postscript: Shortly after posting this, I read a summary of Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remarks on CBS’ Sunday program Face the Nation. In short, Walker disagreed with Romney’s interpretation of the recall results. He suggested his “reforms” were aimed at protecting core public safety programs like police and fire protection. And it’s true that Walker’s legislation repealing collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers exempted police and fire unions. (Not so in other states, like Indiana, that followed his example.) Is this another example of a politician pandering to public safety unions, or is it genuine reform?

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