What Obama Gets Wrong About Teachers, Firefighters, and Cops

(Pretty much everything.)

President Obama’s latest campaign talking point on the economy is that the Republicans in Congress are responsible for laying off teachers, police officers, and firefighters.

The “private sector is doing fine” line was the one that got all the attention on Friday in the president’s remarks to the press, but Mr. Obama’s other message was just as newsworthy: “the private sector has been hiring at a solid pace over the last 27 months. But one of the biggest weaknesses has been state and local governments, which have laid off 450,000 Americans. These are teachers and cops and firefighters. Congress should pass a bill putting them back to work right now, giving help to the states so that those layoffs are not occurring.”

Mr. Obama followed up over the weekend in his weekly address: “it should concern everyone that right now—all across America—tens of thousands of teachers are getting laid off. In Pennsylvania alone, there are 9,000 fewer educators in our schools today than just a year ago. In Ohio, the number is close to 7,000. And nationwide, over the past three years, school districts have lost over 250,000 educators....I hope you’ll join me in telling Congress to do the right thing; to get to work and to help get our teachers back in the classroom.”

This message is so misguided, and at the same time so characteristic of Mr. Obama’s overall approach, that it is worth taking it apart in greater detail in five ways as an illuminating example.

The focus on inputs rather than outputs. President Obama is concentrating on how many teachers, police, and firefighters there are. What matters more to me is whether the students in schools are learning, what the crime rate is, and how many fire-related fatalities there are. If standardized reading and math scores are increasing, homicide statistics are decreasing, and fire-related losses are diminishing even with fewer teachers, police officers, and firefighters, that could be a good thing, because it saves taxpayers money. In the private sector, increased productivity—doing the same amount of work with lower labor costs, or getting more work out of the same number of person-hours —is a goal, often achieved through technology or innovation. To President Obama, it seems like a threat.

The stasis. For a guy who ran on a promise of “change,” Mr. Obama sure seems alarmed by minor fluctuations in teacher headcount. The president talked about the decline in teacher employment in Pennsylvania, though he did not say how much of it was owing to retirements and attrition and how much was attributable to layoffs. He also didn’t mention that the number of students in Pennsylvania has also declined—to 1,765,327 in October 2011 from 1,801,760 in October 2007, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The same is true in the other state Mr. Obama mentioned, Ohio, where the student headcount dropped to 1,832,832 in October 2010 from 1,892,490 in October 2004. Private businesses add and shed employees all the time in response to how many customers there are. Why shouldn’t governments make the same adjustment?

The obliteration of distinctions between federal and local responsibilities. The best people to decide how many police or teachers or firefighters are needed are the people within the jurisdiction being policed, or protected from fire. Some places may prefer lower taxes and a volunteer fire department. Other places may prefer higher taxes and a fancier high school. The framers of the Constitution realized this when they created a national government with limited and enumerated powers and left the rest of the powers to the states.

The redistribution. There’s a certain amount of redistribution that goes along with most government functions, and it can sometimes be unjust. Residents who do not have children, or who chose to send their children to private schools, are taxed to support the public schools. Non-smoking residents who live in brick houses with working smoke-detectors and sprinkler systems are taxed to support firefighters to rescue neighbors who smoke in bed in their straw houses and who have let the batteries in their smoke detectors go dead. But people can make choices about where to live based on their preferences. Injecting the federal government into these local government payroll choices means that even the childless couple who deliberately moved into a low-tax district with leanly staffed schools is stuck having their federal tax dollars pay for the teachers in the overstaffed district next door.

The vote buying. Mr. Obama can’t fairly be blamed for being political. He is, after all, a politician. But I can’t recall ever encountering another politician who so sanctimoniously preens about being above politics while so crassly engaging in vote-buying with taxpayer money. Pennsylvania and Ohio, after all, are swing states in the presidential election, and Mr. Obama’s effort to bolster state and local public-sector payrolls there with federal taxpayer dollars would expand and enrich government-employee unions that are reliable Democratic allies. Yet Mr. Obama’s weekly address concludes, “I know this is an election year.  But some things are bigger than an election.  Some things are bigger than politics....We can’t afford to wait any longer.” 

There are a lot of listeners who may agree about the “can’t afford to wait any longer” part — not about re-hiring the laid-off public employees in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but about allowing a certain Washington-D.C.-based government employee to join them in the ranks of the newly unemployed come January 2013.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of Samuel Adams: A Life.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • John||

    Eric Holder is just a cruder and more repulsive version of Obama. And what did Holder say before Congress? His people. That is right, his job was to protect "his people".

    That is how Obama views government and politics. The purpose of politics and government is to protect the interest of "his people" at the expense of everyone else. Now, "his people" does not mean black people. It is not racial. "His people" are his supporters. And that largely includes government employees. So when Obama looks at the economy, of course the private sector is doing fine. It is always doing fine because they are not his people and he doesn't care. Obama looks out and looks right passed the unemployment rate and the falling incomes and sees and worries about "his people" losing jobs working for state and local governments.

  • allen||

    Close but not quite.

    Obama said "his people" because like all lefties Obama sees himself not as a representative of the people but as the ruler of the people; he doesn't belong to us, we belong to him.

    It's that assumption of the mantle of authority as a function of moral and intellectual superiority that defines lefties and distinguishes them from conservatives.

  • Jesse James Dean||

    Yes, because we all know there is no such thing as a conservative elitist.

    *eyeroll

  • Devil's Advocate||

    It is overly simplistic to say that only the lefties can believe themselves to be morally superior. See, e.g., SoCons when it comes to the WOD, gay marriage, etc.

    Sounds like Sowell's vision of the anointed to me, although I think it can happen on the left or the right. The elites believe that they need to save us from ourselves, and they employ emotionally charged rhetorical devices to convey their message. With that in mind, we may never have had a more elitist president, nor one more willing to engage in inflammatory and deceitful rhetoric. I guess if the shoe fits . . .

  • wareagle||

    three days later and the left is still trying to re-frame, clarify, and otherwise turn on its head what Obama said Friday. The plain fact is the plain fact - he meant what he said in describing the private sector as "doing fine."

    Does anyone question his disdain for private enterprise? This is the same man, aided and abetted by a cadre of dogwashers, insisting that 4 million jobs have been created while ignoring that 5 million have disappeared altogether from the time he took office.

    If cops, teachers, and firemen are fewer, the rationale simple - the organization cannot afford as many. Kinda like private enterprise laying people off.

  • DarrenM||

  • 16th amendment||

    His comment that the private sector is doing fine could be interpreted as being relative to the public sector, compared to which private sector is doing fine or more accurately a little better. Of course, both could be doing better. That's how he should clarify it.

    On the other hand, the public sector has been doing better for some many decades, amassing new employees and benefits, new departments. Just the other week I saw Dr. Oz talking with unions in CA, proposing a plan to require public employees to walk for 30 minutes a day, which will improve their productivity. Way I see it is 30 more minutes of paid lunch break a day, with worse service for citizens.

    So if the public sector shrinks, that's a good thing. The big problem is with the manner it is shrinking. Senior employees have higher salaries and seniority, and many of them are typically lazier. Yet these are the employees that get to stay, while the younger ones, fresh out of college and keen on serving the public (as opposed to the other way around), are laid off.

  • wareagle||

    That's how he should clarify it.

    No..he said what he meant to say. No clarification necessary. His animus for the private sector is no secret. He sees higher profits but never factors in the reduced payrolls that positively impact margin. Obama believes himself responsible for any jobs created, even those where someone retired and a replacement was hired.

  • Killazontherun||

    If everyone's favorite libertarian theorist /sarc were alive today, what his take on Obama would be:

    http://mises.org/daily/5990/Ja.....s-Analysis

    The theory of class conflict as a key to political history did not begin with Karl Marx. It began, as we shall see further below, with two leading French libertarians inspired by J.B. Say, Charles Comte (Say's son-in-law), and Charles Dunoyer, in the 1810s after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. In contrast to the later Marxist degeneration of class theory, the Comte-Dunoyer view held the inherent class struggle to focus on which classes managed to gain control of the state apparatus. The ruling class is whichever group has managed to seize state power; the ruled are those groups who are taxed and regulated by those in command. Class interest, then, is defined as a group's relation to the state. State rule, with its taxation and exercise of power, controls, and conferring of subsidies and privileges, is the instrument that creates conflicts between the rulers and the ruled. What we have, then, is a "two-class" theory of class conflict, based on whether a group rules or is ruled by the state. On the free market, on the other hand, there is no class conflict, but a harmony of interest between all individuals in society cooperating in and through production and exchange.
  • R C Dean||

    Classic DC gaffe: Obama inadvertantly told the truth, at least about which is more important to him. Namely, growth in the public sector is priority one; as for the private sector, well, whatever.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I hope I can join the Party and get a nice dacha.

  • fish||

    Sorry Pro, I don't think you're TOP MEN material.

  • Sevo||

    "But, Leonid, what are you going to do if the communists come back to power?"

  • albo||

    Obama's plea to hire more government employees is the sexual equivalent of giving an ice cube hummer to the executive committee of the NEA and the SEIU at noon in Times Square. It's so obvious.

  • JeremyR||

    Democrats (Politicians, even) have always used this tactics. Whenever someone proposes a spending cut (even if it's not a real cut, but a cut in growth), it's always going to put teachers, policemen, and firemen out of work

  • ||

    If the only public employees we had were teachers, cops, and firefighters we prob would not even notice what we pay for salary and benefits.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Hey, I know! Let's ALL be public-sector employees! Problem solv-ed!

    /liberal snark

  • Devil's Advocate||

    I would love to see their bluff called. Lay off a ton of teachers and use the money saved to give vouchers to every student to use for private schools, home schools or whatever. Lay off a bunch of cops and legalize drugs (while also refusing to cooperate locally with federal drug enforcement officials). Lay off the firefighters and let people organize their own volunteer forces. The world would not end.

  • Bill||

    "I can’t recall ever encountering another politician who so sanctimoniously preens about being above politics while so crassly engaging in vote-buying with taxpayer money. "

    And very few in the media will call him on it. The MSM is so partisan (on both sides) that they seldom tell the truth or do any kind of real analysis.

  • CE||

    The framers of the Constitution realized this when they created a national government with limited and enumerated powers and left the rest of the powers to the states.

    Somehow I doubt the framers really set up a federalist system because they thought it was the wisest thing to do. I think they made as big a power grab for the national government as they thought the states might be willing to sign off on, while leaving in language and structures to grab more power later.

  • Raven Nation||

    Good point. Although the Constitution places limits on government, it was written in order to substantially increase the powers then held by the federal government under the Articles of Constitution.

    And Hamilton was one of the more egregious manipulators of things. During the ratification debate, one of his two arguments against a bill of rights was that since the constitution as written clearly defined the powers of the national government no further written restraint was needed. THEN when SecTreas, he essentially argued that a national bank was constitutional because the national government was entitled to do anything not explicitly prevented by the constitution.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    I'm shocked that even our sainted Founding Fathers™ were duplicitous fucks at times, especially once in office.

    Shocked!

    It's endemic in people when they get Mah Authoritah. They abuse it. Always.

  • Devil's Advocate||

    Articles of *Confederation*

    /pedantic dickishness

  • Raven Nation||

    Justified in this case. What a freaking stupid mistake on my part.

  • Registration At Last!||

    Look, we have high unemployment because the government is, very suddenly, employing a lot less people than it used to. This may be a good thing, or a bad thing, or a neutral thing, depending on your point of view. But in any event, it is a very, very major reason that unemployment is high right now.

    If you think it's a good thing that all these public-sector workers have been sh!tcanned, fine, but please stop complaining about high unemployment in that case. Big reductions in government workforce are going to result in high unemployment numbers. The private sector is never going to soak up that many laid-off cops/firefighters/teachers in a 24-month time period.

    All indicators -- GDP, productivity, interest rates, inflation -- are "positive." Unemployment is the only number that is giving the president grief. His enemies are trying to play a double-game of blaming him for high unemployment while cheering the public-sector layoffs and downsizing that have contributed so mightily to that unemployment. Maybe they'll get away with it, but they shouldn't, and their dishonesty does not presage better governance by them should they obtain power.

  • ||

    Look, we have high unemployment because the government is, very suddenly, employing a lot less people than it used to.

    Awww it's so cute when you're trying to sound smart by writing three paragraphs. Too bad your central thesis is dead wrong. Government employment is the highest it's been since 1995.

  • Jesse James Dean||

    especially federal government employment. Lay off some federal bureaucrats and let them go fight fires. Problem solved

  • Registration At Last!||

    If by "dead wrong" you mean right, then you're right.

    http://www.usnews.com/dbimages.....sGraph.jpg

  • ||

    Behold my graphing skillz

    http://oi48.tinypic.com/21lpifr.jpg

  • Devil's Advocate||

    I believe it is even more pronounced in the most recent numbers, as I saw that government unemployment is 4.2%, while the overall unemployment rate is 8.2% (meaning that the non-government rate must be over 8.2%).

    http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t14.htm

  • Registration At Last!||

  • Dylboz||

    This graph. I do not think it means what you think it means. It tracks GROWTH. Not total jobs. So it is indeed quite possible for there to be more government employees than at any time since 1995, and for there still to be a zero or even negative growth rate in those jobs.

  • ||

    If by "positive" you mean "greater than zero".

  • Sevo||

    Registration At Last!|6.11.12 @ 7:05PM|#
    "Look, we have high unemployment because the government is, very suddenly, employing a lot less people than it used to. This may be a good thing, or a bad thing, or a neutral thing, depending on your point of view. But in any event, it is a very, very major reason that unemployment is high right now."

    RAL, there is good un-employment (those workers who are sucking at the public teat), and bad un-employment (those who workers actually increase wealth).
    So an increase in pub-sec unemployment means two positives:
    1) Those folks will have to find jobs that increase overall wealth, rather than reducing it.
    2) The money wasted on them may well now (assuming Obama doesn't continue to screw thing up) be used to actually 'create' jobs and increase the wealth.
    But I'm sure you had at least an inkling of that and were hoping to slide your bullshit through without being called on it, right?

  • ||

    It's simpler than that:

    1. Government employment has only gone up since 2008.

    2. Government employment has no relationship to national employment.

  • Sevo||

    "2. Government employment has no relationship to national employment."

    Not sure what you mean. Those employed by various gov't's, regardless of the overall value, are still not un-employed.

  • Registration At Last!||

  • Dylboz||

    This graph. I do not think it means what you think it means. It tracks GROWTH. Not total jobs. So it is indeed quite possible for there to be more government employees than at any time since 1995, and for there still to be a zero or even negative growth rate in those jobs.

  • Devil's Advocate||

    Bullshit. The very, very major reason that unemployment is high is that the sum total of government policies in this country (taxes, regulations, etc.) has created an environment in which employees and investment are a liability. High taxation can make some marginally profitable investments far less attractive, while Obamacare raises the cost of doing business here. Add to that environmental policies that seek to prevent anybody from doing anything anywhere, and things like the ADA and "paycheck fairness," and investing in new employees and growth becomes way more of a headache than it would otherwise be.

    In an environment in which the government could be depended upon to get the fuck out of the way, there would be employers looking to soak up excess labor. Of course, many government employees might not like working in the private sector where they are not coddled and are not given near-absolute job security, so I wouldn't be shocked to see them linger on unemployment a bit longer than non-government workers.

  • Harvard||

    Much like the military budget, the budgets for law enforcement could easily be cut by 35%.

  • Devil's Advocate||

    Hell, end the WOD and law enforcement budgets could probably be cut by about 50%. Of course they would have to make up all of the revenue lost when they stop taking people's stuff via bullshit civil forfeitures, but that would be more of a feature, not a bug.

  • ||

    One thing I find odd is the focus on fire fighters. Do we need more fire fighters? Has there been a rash of house fires lately I haven't heard of?

    If New Orleans had burned to the ground because of a lack of fire fighters, I could understand why hiring more firefighters might be a national issue. But it got flooded due to bad levy maintainance. if you want to focus on a useful realm public sector employment to plug, try the Army Corp of Engineers, maybe.

  • wareagle||

    no increase in fires. Firemen are just part of the holy trinity tossed out by pols when people talk about cutting govt spending. Cops and teachers are the other two. It's as though no public money is ever spent on anything else.

  • tarran||

    Hazel,

    I can't find the link, but I read an article about a year ago where firefighters were concerned about training since fires are happening so rarely.

    In the bad old days, fires were relatively common, so firefighters kept their skill sharp with OJT.

    But as materials improve, designs become safer etc, fires are rarer and rarer with each passing year.

    Now, most of the callouts are for assisting with medical emergencies. Obviously, the firefighting industry guru who wrote the article wasn't calling for a return to the days when more houses burnt down, but he was arguing that firefighters needed a more systematic training program to counter the loss of chances to learn by fighting real unwanted fires.

    This would suggest that fewer fire fighters might be in order (if only we could deal with the pesky increased response time problem).

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Liberal logic:

    Hiring millions of new firefighters = no building will ever burn down again.

  • Sevo||

    "This would suggest that fewer fire fighters might be in order (if only we could deal with the pesky increased response time problem).

    Is there an increased response time problem?

  • Devil's Advocate||

    Send them out West to deal with wildfires during fire season. Different skill set, obviously, but if they are so bored, let them help out there.

  • SIV||

    Non-smoking residents who live in brick houses with working smoke-detectors and sprinkler systems are taxed to support firefighters to rescue neighbors who smoke in bed in their straw houses and who have let the batteries in their smoke detectors go dead.

    Pointing out fires caused by those who fall asleep while frying chicken would be racist. Or accurate if you watch the local Atlanta news. We have a lot of fried chicken related fires.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Watery tarts lying about in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

    Just saying.

  • Devil's Advocate||

    Might be better than what we have now. Just saying.

  • ||

    Pointing out fires caused by those who fall asleep while frying chicken would be racist. Or accurate if you watch the local Atlanta news. We have a lot of fried chicken related fires.

  • ||

    Non-smoking residents who live in brick houses with working smoke-detectors and sprinkler http://www.maillotfr.com/maill.....-3_15.html systems are taxed to support firefighters to rescue neighbors who smoke in bed in their straw houses and who have let the batteries in their smoke detectors go dead.

  • joy||

    that could be a good thing, because it saves taxpayers money. In the private sector, increased productivity—doing the same amount of work with lower labor costs, or getting more work out of the same number of person-hours —is a goal, often achieved through technology or innovation. http://www.zonnebrilinnl.com/z.....c-3_5.html To President Obama, it seems like a threat.

  • jason||

    Its a great critic over the system, obama is trying to save it.

  • JoshSN||

    Contextfree much?

    On stasis:

    First, it was a dead giveaway when you picked the absolutely arbitrary 2007-2011 and 2004-2010 date ranges for declines in student populations.

    Are teacher declines over this period proportionate, or not? You give us no way to know. I, for one, am not going to assume you are being intellectually honest, since your date range choices clearly weren't.

    On redistribution:

    Every idiot out there gets to vote, and serve on juries. We all benefit from not letting them leave school at 5 years old and become shoe shine boys and matchstick girls.

    You want to talk about reducing suffrage, fine, until then, educate the lot of them.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    What the fuck are you on about now?

  • Raistlin||

    +100!

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    We all benefit from not letting them leave school at 5 years old and become shoe shine boys and matchstick girls.

    That argument might hold water if those who served their sentences in the public schools actually got an education. They don't. All too many people have no idea how the government is structured--they can't name the three branches of government. They can't place the Civil War within the correct century. They've had no training in recognizing the logical fallacies that politicians use.

    Getting jobs in the real world would undoubtedly prepare them better for voting and serving on juries.

  • tee shirt pas cher||

    ON SAIT QUE DANS L'ADVERSITÉ l'Italie ne manque pas d'idées, notamment à table. Alors que le pays est entré en récession et que les ménages doivent tailler dans leur budget sorties, un nouveau type de "repas" est apparu : l'aperitivo.

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    onsidering that the beginning of the Nike Air Max, Nike choose lengthen an concept of the function with the other footwear including Nike Free Running Women

  • Ralph Wylie||

    This is what happens when you get a "Community Organizer-lifelong Politician" that has no experience in private industry (i.e.working for a living) and thinks of himself as an expert economist.

  • Lyon||

    I recognize that the private sector unemployment rate in many areas far exceeds that of the public sector, and that President Obama is less than a fantastic leader. Regardless, the reality is that thousands of jobs in education have been lost to layoffs, attrition, and still more educators are on a pay freeze. These deficits cannot be covered with "increased productivity" and "innovation". The NAEP has shown a steady increase of student achievement growth in mathematics since 1973 as student to teacher ratios have lowered. Major gains were made in times of increased spending in education, such as in 2008. The trend does not support that standardized test scores could still improve with less teachers. I too agree with the intentions of the framers of the Constitution, but I also value the necessity of teachers, police officers, and firefighters.

    Devil’s Advocate, while I see your point about the unemployment rate of public sector employees being much less than the unemployment rate of some private sector employees, I am very concerned with the trend data that shows that the public sector is deteriorating while the private sector is rebounding. Both contribute to our national unemployment rate, and ideally all American’s would be employed regardless.

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