Robert Samuelson was sufficiently outraged by a NYT editorial claiming that the government creates jobs that for the first time in his 35 years as a columnist he felt the need to attack a newspaper editorial. Samuelson called the NYT view "the flat earth theory of job creation" in his column's headline. Since on its face it might be a bit hard to understand -- there are lots of people who do work for the government and get paychecks -- let's look more closely at what Samuelson has to say on the topic.
Samuelson tells readers:
"It’s true that, legally, government does expand employment. But economically, it doesn’t — and that’s what people usually mean when they say 'government doesn’t create jobs.'
What the Times omits is the money to support all these government jobs. It must come from somewhere — generally, taxes or loans (bonds, bills). But if the people whose money is taken via taxation or borrowing had kept the money, they would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment."
Okay, so we can at least agree that all of those people working as teachers, firefighters, forest rangers etc. do legally have jobs. That seems like progress. But let's look at the second part of the story:
"the money to support all these government jobs. It must come from somewhere."
Yes, that part is true also. But the last time I looked, the money to pay workers at Apple, General Electric, and Goldman Sachs also came from somewhere. Where's the difference?
Samuelson tells us that if the government didn't tax or borrow or the money to pay its workers (he makes a recession exception later in the piece) people "would have spent most or all of it on something -- and that spending would have boosted employment."
Again, this is true, but how does it differ from the private sector? If the new iPhone wasn't released last month people would have spent most or all of that money on something -- and that spending would have boosted employment. Does this mean that workers at Apple don't have real jobs either?
The confusion gets even greater when we start to consider the range of services that can be provided by either the public or private sector. In Robert Samuelson's world we know that public school teachers don't have real jobs, but what about teachers at private schools? Presumably the jobs held by professors at major public universities, like Berkeley or the University of Michigan are not real, but the jobs held at for-profit universities, like Phoenix or the Washington Post's own Kaplan Inc., are real.
How about health care? Currently the vast majority of workers in the health care industry are employed by the private sector. Presumably these are real jobs according to Samuelson. Suppose that we replace our private health care system with a national health care service like the one they have in the U.K. Would the jobs in the health care no longer be real?
If our new system was as efficient as the one in the U.K. we would not even need any additional tax revenue to pay for it. According to the OECD, the whole expense of the U.K., system, $3,433 per person in 2010, is less than the $3,967 per person (in 2010) that the government already pays for health care. So by replacing a less efficient private system with a more efficient public system will the government have eliminated all the real jobs in the health care sector?
It keeps getting harder and harder to figure out what is supposed to be a real job in Robert Samuelson's world. If the government requires drivers to buy auto insurance, do the people at the auto insurance companies have real jobs? Suppose the insurance companies were run by the government? Suppose that they were private but drivers paid for most of their insurance via a tax on gasoline? (You can have differential rates so that dangerous drivers pay an additional premium.)
How about when the government finances an industry by granting it a state sanctioned monopoly as when it grants patent monopolies on prescription drugs. Do the researchers at Pfizer have real jobs even though their income is dependent on a government granted monopoly? Would they have real jobs if the government instead paid for research out of tax revenue and let drugs be sold in a free market, saving consumers $250 billion a year?
Robert Samuelson obviously thinks there is something very important about the difference between working for the government and working in the private sector. Unfortunately his column does not do a very good job of explaining why. It would probably be best if he waited another 35 years before again attacking a newspaper editorial.