Public Employee Bashing on the Dark Side

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Saturday, 16 October 2010 16:04

With private sector unionization down to 7 percent, the right-wing is turning its guns on public sector unions. Since workers generally can opt to join a union in the public sector without the risk of being fired, there has been no notable decline in public sector unionization rates over the last three decades. The unionization rate in the public sector is still above 35 percent, which means that public sector unions continue to be an important force on the political scene.

The Washington Examiner accommodated this attack with a piece from Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the chief economist at the Labor Department in the Bush Administration. The centerpiece of Ms. Furchtgott-Roth's piece is a complaint "insourcing," which means having work done by private contractors done instead by public employees.

Her first sentence has the bizarre complaint that:

"Even though Americans face a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, with almost 15 million out of work, President Obama and Congress are trying to take more jobs from private businesses through 'insourcing,' which means taking contracts from private firms and giving the work to government employees."
The 9.6 percent unemployment rate is obviously awful, but what does that have to do with whether jobs should be done by workers in the public or private sector? For most people a job is a job. If some of the unemployed get re-employed in the public sector, what is the problem?
But the more fundamental point is that the policy that Furchtgott-Roth complains about does not in fact exist. She is upset about an insourcing policy that gives preference to the public sector over private contractors.
However, that is not the policy in place. The policy only gives preference to the public sector in cases where the work in question has an inherently governmental character (think of interrogating prisoners) or there had been a past history of abuse by private contractors (think of Halliburton).
The simple fact is that the role of private contractors in the federal government has exploded in the past decade. The real value of private contracts increased by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2009. Many of these contracts have been associated with serious abuses. It is understandable that the recipients of these contracts would be concerned if some of this business ended up back in the public sector, but it is hard to see why the rest of us would be.
We might not expect the Washington Examiner to be "fair and balanced," but it would be nice if it stuck a little closer to the truth.