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Posted at 11:47 AM ET, 01/ 7/2011

The private recession vs. the public recession

By Ezra Klein

One of the important shifts in opinion that we've seen in the past few years has been the transference of the public's anger away from greedy bankers and other private actors who caused the recession and toward lazy unions and other public-sector workers who they feel haven't shared sufficiently in the pain.

Using the Bureau of Labor Statistic's data, you can separate the effect of the recession on both private payrolls and public payrolls, and doing so is a real help in thinking clearly about where that sentiment is coming from, and whether it's correct. First, take a look at the monthly change in both public- and private-sector jobs:


You don't see anything like the massive collapse that the private sector endured. But you also aren't seeing the recovery that the private sector has enjoyed. The stimulus, which included a lot of aid meant to help keep states from laying people off during the recession, worked to stabilize public payrolls, and then the census, which required the hiring of hundreds of thousands of workers, created a short-lived bump back in the spring. But since the census ended and the stimulus has run out, there's been a steady downsizing of public-sector workers, which has offset a fair amount of the job growth we've seen in the private sector in recent months.

What makes people angry, I think, is this graph. Here, I've set the number of public and private sector jobs in January of 2007 to serve as the baseline, and what you're seeing is the cumulative gain or loss after that:


The number of public-sector jobs has increased by about one percentage point since 2007. The number of private-sector jobs have fallen by six percentage points. In my opinion, the public side of this chart is a triumph of policy: We had wanted to keep people from losing their jobs, and at least in the public sector, we were largely able to, though we've now stopped trying and are likely to see job losses through 2012. The private side is a failure: Neither the Federal Reserve's actions nor the stimulus did enough to moderate those job losses.

But it's worth remarking on the disconnect between the two arguments. The main argument against the Obama administration is that it hasn't saved enough jobs. But in the public sector, which is obviously where the government has the easiest time savings jobs, the argument is that they've saved too many of them.

By Ezra Klein  | January 7, 2011; 11:47 AM ET
Categories:  Economy  
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no reasonable person wants to see someone lose a job whether it be public or private. For me, my frustration with the public sector grew when the federal pay freeze came up and many of them whined about it when they should be grateful to just have a job with the security that they have.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 7, 2011 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Yet another case of blaming (fellow) victims. And another triumph of right-wing propaganda. We blame teachers and garbage collectors because they supposedly haven't shared enough pain. Yet totally give a pass to the bankers who (a) caused the problem as you rightly point out and (b) are feeling no pain (yet continue to whine that Obama is "anti-business" while they rake in TARP-supported bonuses.

Posted by: jtmiller42 | January 7, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

"...and toward lazy unions and other public-sector workers who they feel haven't shared sufficiently in the pain."

I don't think that is correct. Nobody wants to see someone else suffer just to punish them. State and local budget deficits are huge and people are looking for cuts where the money is. I believe in most cases personnel costs are the largest portion of the budget. In my town people are angry that their taxes are going up drastically, while many public sector workers are getting pay raises and increases in their already very generous benefits. While in the private sector wages and benefits have been flat or declining for years, so it is harder to pay those increased taxes. People are angry at the public sector workers that don't seem to understand that they have to give up something, like everybody else already has, or else things will just get worse and worse.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | January 7, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Is there actual polling that indicates that people have transferred their "anger away from greedy bankers and other private actors who caused the recession and toward lazy unions and other public-sector workers"? Or is this just Beltway CW adopting the talking points of Republicans in Congress and a few loudmouth teabaggers?

Posted by: randrewm | January 7, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"State and local budget deficits are huge and people are looking for cuts where the money is."

Let me hop back on my hobby-horse and point out that government fragmentation (putting tons and tons of government layers on people) is really the problem here. When you got 700 different government entities all affecting one person, it's bad for libertarian *and* for liberal reasons (check out

The liberal reasons are what you point out: when you have so many government layers to shift costs between, there's no one place to apply pressure -- so states move costs down to local governments where they're ill-equipped to deal with them (for economies of scale and property tax reasons), local governments move costs away based on property tax wealth, the federal government moves responsibilities down to states (which don't have the luxury of deficit-spending when things go bad). All this shifting of costs always goes to where it can be best shielded from public scrutiny and where opposition would be less effective. It's also super inefficient in a whole bunch of ways.

If we had more consolidated governments, we could see that things like cap-and-trade or FinReg-like taxes would be a great way to solve the real, larger problem of "government doesn't raise enough revenue." Instead, our institutions conveniently put that burden on levels of government that have less power to address problems.

So instead of figuring out how to raise revenues, every layer of government is trying to work within their tiny scope of power to address the problem. This system is great for the powerful -- when people are "angry that their taxes are going up drastically, while many public sector workers are getting pay raises and increases in their already very generous benefits", the bankers and other powerful interests get off scott-free. Better to focus on socialism or spending, rather than figuring out how to better account for where our revenues are going and how efficiently they're being used in a super-fragmented system.

Posted by: Chris_ | January 7, 2011 12:52 PM | Report abuse


name ONE federal worker who whined in public about pay freezes.

okay, on the off chance you know of ONE such person, please prove that a substantial number of public workers made whining a public spectacle.

I have at least three family members in state jobs who have had pay freezes for several years and I do not remember any of them whining. Indeed, They often remark they are thankful for their jobs in this economic situation.

Perhaps you are perpetuating something that isn't largely true?

Perhaps most public employees actually never whined and instead are grateful? Can you prove this not to be the case? If not, why are you saying something you don't have the basis to say?

Have you read the Krugman articles about how public service jobs/pay have not really grown in ways, in recent decades, that conservatives want you to believe? Krugman basically has shown data that indicates public sector growth has been steady and has risen as a function of population growth since around Nixon's time (during the Nixon era, though, the growth rate skyrocketed).

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 7, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Based on anecdotal evidence from two of my brothers-in-law, people are "angry" at public workers because they haven't been screwed quite as badly as private workers in terms of benefits and pensions. Their answer to this, apparently, is to take benefits and pensions away from people who managed to hold on to them, instead of organizing to get the same benefits and pensions for themselves.

After several rounds of this, in which I tried to remain polite, I finally said, "look, if you want the benefits of union membership, maybe you should join a union." That, of course, went over like a lead balloon, since they know that unions are the spawn of the devil. They know this because everybody on faux snooze tells them so.

Posted by: KarenJG | January 7, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

A classic American problem:

People see government workers with jobs and health benefits and instead of wanting to be more like them, they berate them.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | January 7, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Anger towards public workers is a dangerous poison administered by the GOP.

Instead of offering real solutions, they divide and tear down, all for ideological sake.

This is why I am no longer a Republican.

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 7, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse


I was speaking largely of commenters on here when the federal pay freeze was being talked about.

I also know plenty of teachers that screamed bloddy murder (and wished my Governor dead) during the whole scandal here in NJ relating to less funding for public education here. In fact there's a lovely facebook page dedicated to teachers whining about it.!/DefendNJEd?v=wall

So by that count there's 74,105 that will ADMIT to whining. There are countless others I'm sure.

Personally I stopped reading Krugman since he's so slanted in his views. I'd suggest you do the same. to that end I commend Mayor Booker (ooh a Democrat) for his response during the recent snowstorm here in NJ. He's a fantastic mayor in a tough city to be a mayor in.

And on a more personal note my daughter (and her entire 9th grade class) is struggling a bit in Algebra 2. We called her math teacher on December 17th about it, December 29th and again January 5th. Still waiting for a response. We've called the guidance counselor about it twice now and she can't believe the teacher hasn't called us back but there's not much she can do. You know tenure and all.

Listen there are tons of fantastic teachers out there so i know this one bad apple is not indicative of all teachers before I get accused of that.

Again I find it hard to believe you EVER were a Republican but who am I to call you a liar so whatever.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 7, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse


also and it can't necessarily be proven but many in our area have speculated that some of the poor response to the snow removal efforts in the Northeast during the day after Christmas storm here was related to disgruntled workers. Again, impossible to prove what goes on in a persons' mind but that has been floated around.

Don't believe me? Here's a story in the NY Post where honest union workers ADMIT to union management convincing them to stop or slow work to protest budget cuts.

Anytime lauren you want to apolgize to me for stating that "perhaps you are perpetuating something that isn't true" feel free to. I'll gladly accept.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 7, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse


I am a 12 year USAF vet who voted for Reagan twice and BushSr once. The Clarence Thomas hearings and the 92 elections taught me of the immense capability and willingness of the GOP lie machine. I started fact checking everything I ever was told, and discovered that almost everything we are told by the GOP and the media and about half of what Dems say is a lie.

You always seem to end up calling me a liar by questioning the very basic nature of who I am. In essence, you feel intimidated by my experiences and and the way you solve that dilemna (a voice in your head that speaks to you and says maybe yuu are wrong) is you simply dismiss other people's learned wisdom and experiences by calling them a liar. I've had this problem here from the very beginning and is why I never hesitate calling you an idiot, because when your first instinct is to deny other's experiences, you are an idiot.

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 7, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse


The things you cite are nothing more than human nature in action.

Yes, I admit it is visible if you look for it, as you do.

Public workers are people like everyone else.

This poison you help administer, as if somehow they are to blame for anything or don't have the right to complain, is not targetted correctly IMO. You should target the politicians and judges whose policies have caused these problems.

Public workers are victims, like everyone else.

Policy should never be based on the emotions of any group of people, whether they are public workers or tea partiers.

But obviously anger does serve as a useful indicator, because it sometimes allows voices be heard. And sometimes it comes down to who shouts the loudest (i.e. squeaky wheel), though again, that should not dictate policy though it obviously affects it.

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 7, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse


i'm done with you after this one. I simply said by all your comments its hard to see you ever as a Republican (and we've been down this road before). if you thought I was calling you a liar then I apologize.

Any comment to the posts made about union workers and teachers for lack of a better term behaving badly or are you just going to continue to call me an idiot? And honestly from what I can tell you never hesitate to call anyone an idiot or a liar.

But again I'd rather hear your thoughts on the 74000+ Facebook members or the union members admitting stopping or slowing work because of what their union manangers told them to do. You know people died because EMS couldn't get to them in NYC because of the storm. I kind of think if say Goldman Sachs did something like this liberals would rightly be up in arms about this but for some reason it gets the short-shrift around here. hmmmm.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 7, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"For me, my frustration with the public sector grew when the federal pay freeze came up and many of them whined about it when they should be grateful to just have a job with the security that they have."

Huh? Many of them EXPECTED it as part of their salary. They shouldn't have just shut up and take it because you want others to stuffer

What an absurd and idiotic theory.

Posted by: Bious | January 7, 2011 4:05 PM | Report abuse


maybe they should reconsider their expectations considering we're in the Great Recession. If they'd rather be laid off then that can happen instead of a pay freeze which I beleive i remember seeing didn't even end up happening for many. I don't want them to suffer. I just want them to realize that many others are suffering too and to complain about having to forgo a couple of percent annual pay increase is selfish at least and idiotic at most.


its amazing your blindly willing to forgo blaming an administrator or teacher that wishes a governor dead (and many times does so on SCHOOL TIME or a sanitation worker who refuses to work (AND STILL GETS PAID) at the behest of his union boss as a protest towards potential layoffs and people die from it. As I said if someone you didn't favor did that you'd be rightfully up in arms about it. A hypocrite is what you are. Plain and simple.

As far as public workers being victims many of them absolutely are and these few bad apples and hurting them all so they need to be able to be addressed just as during the heat of the HCR debate many on the left attacked the Tea Party in general when several idiots put up racist things about our President but again that's not indicative of the entire population in question.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 7, 2011 4:34 PM | Report abuse

vision: "Again I find it hard to believe you EVER were a Republican but who am I to call you a liar so whatever."

Now, would any reasonable person read that and believe their basic honesty wasn't being challenged? Indeed, that comment is OVERTLY saying I am a liar.

Vision, you have posted several of those kinds of comments in response to my comments, challenging the basic nature of who I claim to be, or my experiences.

And then you feel offended when I take umbrage. Get real you loser.

The fact you can't admit you implied I was a liar, or called me one, makes you the liar.

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 7, 2011 4:41 PM | Report abuse

vision : "its amazing your blindly willing to forgo blaming an administrator or teacher that wishes a governor dead"

Where does that come from?

Since when does not responding to you mean that you can predict what I think?

Are a mind reader?

I will admit you have found a few examples where public employees gripe in public. Kudos to you on proving me wrong about that.

Can we now get to the bigger picture?

And if you think I do not condemn the actions or threats of bad apples, then you are an idiot.

The bigger picture is that public workers are victims (even the ones who complain in public).

The bigger picture involves whether we should be talking about the anger of people who get pay cuts or whether we should be talking about actual problems that causes that anger.

Krugman is slanted. Who isn't?

Can you name ONE economist who isn't?

(oh lord, there I go again).

Anyway, Krugman has dredged up the data showing that the number of public employees hasn't drastically increased as the GOP claims. Ignore it at your own peril of appearing ill-informed.

And Ezra has shown data proving their pay is not out of line.

BTW, Ezra is slanted. Why do you read him?

Are you here as an antagonist, perhaps paid by the GOP or someone who benefits from their ideology (e.g. insurer)?

You are slanted. If you published a blog or wrote articles, does that mean you'd recommend no one read your stuff?

Or perhaps you don't read Krugman because some of his facts or analysis is discomforting to you?

Krugman is indeed slanted, as you say, but he is not a dimwit or a gold digger like, say, Palin or Beck.

His opinions and data are incisive, central, and necessary to understand today's debates about economics. To say you don't listen to people like Krugman means you listen to only one side of the issue.

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 7, 2011 4:58 PM | Report abuse


I read Ezra becuase he knows of what he talks about even though he is slanted and he sometimes doesn't let his slanted view get in the way (ie his workings with Rep. Ryan).

I'm not going to get into the name calling and all with you. I'm not paid by anyone to say what I say on here.

74000 is more than a few. And that's just in NJ but if you want to forgo it whatever. Be easily duped. I'm done. No more responses from me to you.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 7, 2011 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I'll offer my story, not to whine, but to illustrate the situation.

When the economy crashed, I was among the lucky ones, a tenured community college in California. While friends around me lost their jobs, I knew mine was secure, and I was very grateful. I and my colleagues at work have not been unaffected by the economic climate, however. Many of our students have been confronted with terrible challenges as they struggle to continue their education. The college has slashed services and laid off adjuncts, increasing the workload and the stress for those of us who remain. Pay was eliminated for extra service jobs that teachers did outside their job descriptions; this practice, the result of previous funding cuts, meant that a host of administrative and clerical tasks done by other employees 20 years ago were being done by us for little pots of extra money. In my case, the elimination of these extra little jobs resulted in about a 9% reduction of take-home pay, but in most cases we continue to do the the extra work without pay, since it is work that really has to be done in order to provide basic services for students and fulfill accreditation requirements.

The key point is that, as the economy recovers, nothing is likely to change for us. My long experience has been that concessions once made in the public sector are rarely restored.

Posted by: Sybil_D | January 7, 2011 6:43 PM | Report abuse

I am a federal employee (Department of the Army). I don't know of one federal employee who whined about the pay freeze...not one. Because the WP found a few that did does not mean the rest of us are whining. In fact, many I've talked to (including me) would have no problem with a mandatory furlough if it was necessary.

What I hate are the idiots who are using federal workers as scapegoats because the private sector problems. Its almost like federal employees are the root cause of the economic crash...when in fact, the private sector is the root cause.

Posted by: tagazio | January 8, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

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