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.