Are Teachers and Police Officers Imaginary People?

Growing up, some children have imaginary friends. Today, many politicians seem to live in a world of imaginary workers.

Or at least they think they're imaginary: To most people, school teachers, police officers, librarians and other public servants are very real. The public sees them every day, and knows that the majority work hard, care about what they do, and bring a paycheck home to their families.

But today, many Republicans -- and some Democrats, too -- say these workers aren't "real;" indeed, in their world, nobody who works in the public sector has a "real job."

This week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) told viewers of Glenn Beck's TV show that "Government doesn't create any jobs," which is news to anyone on the public payroll (like Perry's staff). In North Carolina, state Republicans recently responded to charges that their deep budget cuts would result in layoffs for nearly 30,000 employees by arguing those weren't "real jobs."

The idea that public sector work isn't "real" has been central to the attack on state budgets and government spending in general. Last year, then-House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) said that President Obama's stimulus plan proved that "obviously, government spending money doesn't create jobs."

Rep. Cantor should tell that to his follow Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell (R). Rep. Rigell -- who earlier this year was one of the "Lucky 13" Republicans honored at a fundraiser hosted by defense contractors -- is fighting to keep a government-backed nuclear submarine project in his home district, in large part because it would create 6,000 jobs.

Indeed, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out, about 75% of the growth in federal government jobs in 2008 came in defense, homeland security and veteran's affairs. Does that government backing make them any less "real?"

If the claim seems ideologically flawed, it's also empirically wrong. During the Great Depression, when private investment had seized up, the Works Progress Administration put 8 million people to work making buildings, roads, dams and schools -- all quite real, and many used to this very day.

If the argument is that public spending somehow crowds out private investment, the evidence doesn't support that, either.

A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that states which have cut their budgets the most since 2007 have suffered worse economic performance than states where budgets have increased.

This wasn't just public jobs: Overall, cuts in state budgets also correlated with less private sector jobs. Here's a chart from the study:

The short version: In the 25 states where spending increased between 2007 and 2010, there was, on average, a .2 percent decrease in unemployment, a 1.4 percent increase in private employment, and .5 percent increase in real economic growth since the recession started.

On the other hand, the 24 states that slashed their budgets saw unemployment rise by 1 percent, a 2.1 percent decline in private employment, and 2.9 percent contraction of the economy compared to the national average.

It seems the idea that government spending can't create jobs -- public or private -- is, well, imaginary.

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