The New York Times has unwittingly given GOP contender Mitt Romney a boost. In a recent editorial The Times contradicts Romney’s assertion that “Government doesn’t create jobs” – pointing out correctly that teachers, soldiers, park rangers – are all hired by Uncle Sam. The Times should have rested its case.
Instead, the paper goes on to report that government employment in the U.S. totals 22 million workers; they say that since the late 1980s, the “number of workers has averaged about 7.3 for every 100 people” in the U.S. “With the loss of 569,000 government jobs since June 2009” that ratio has declined to 7 today.
This drop concerns the editors at the Grey Lady who have apparently never heard of productivity. There is probably no sector of our economy in which we are using the same number of workers today for a given job, or unit of output, that we used in the late 1980s. Productivity gains, mainly from automation and technology improvements, have been startling over the past few decades.
Over time, it has been climbing productivity that has led to a rising standard of living and GDP growth beyond that of the population. The Labor Department reports that the productivity of the U.S. worker increased at an average annual rate of 2.1 percent from 1989 to 2011. That means that even if we had seen no growth in the number of workers over that 23-year period, we would still have turned out over 40 percent more goods and services.
Has the productivity of government workers kept pace? Doubtful. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that our state and local workforce increased over the past three decades from 59 per 1000 people to 65 per 1,000. During the height of the recession that figure dropped to 61 per 1,000 in 2009. In other words, unless the government has vastly enlarged its activities, you could argue that productivity declined during this period.
Where have the extra workers been added? The Center reports that “All of that growth has been in education workers and reflects demographic changes and policy initiatives, such as efforts to reduce class sizes…” What do we have to show for this expansion? Good question.
In 2008, the U.S. spent $10,995 per student on secondary and elementary education – 35 percent higher than the average spent in all OECD countries. Despite this outlay, the most recent assessment of international reading capabilities from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study ranks the U.S. 18th, just behind Latvia and also trailing Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia.
The 2009 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, comparing the achievements of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, placed the United States 18th in reading skills, just slightly ahead of the OECD average, and even lower down the rankings (and below average) in math. Spending per student has soared for decades in the U.S. – rising 46 percent in constant dollars from 1989 to 2009, but outcomes have barely improved.
True, we have reduced the number of students per teacher in the classroom- to 15.2 in 2011 from 15.9 in 2001, but the impact of the change seems minor. From 1992 to 2011, fourth-grade reading scores advanced only slightly. We have seen, in short, a good deal of wasted spending.
How could we improve productivity in the education sector? Most likely, the way every other enterprise has boosted the return on their dollars – through greater use of technology. How better to leverage the knowledge of our country’s best teachers than to make their lectures widely available, and especially to schools that don’t attract top educators? What better way to lengthen a student’s day than to send him home to learn and practice interactively on any device that can access the Internet?
In 2008, the average public school had 189 instructional computers, up from 110 in 2000. There were, according to the Digest of Education Statistics, 3 students per computer with internet access in 2008, up from 7 in 2000. This is progress – but it is agonizingly slow compared to nearly any other enterprise on earth.
Why haven’t our schools embraced technology more enthusiastically? There are certainly budget considerations, and there are also union issues. Last year, when the University of California attempted to offer courses online, with a view to reining in costs, the University Council — American Federation of Teachers moved to block the plan, saying the adoption of technology could cost teachers their jobs. In Idaho, the teachers union organized to defeat State Education Superintendent Tom Luna’s efforts to bring technology into the classroom. They ran ads saying his program would replace “teachers with computers by requiring taxpayers to fund laptops for high school students.”
What does this have to do with Governor Romney? First, unlike Mr. Obama, he understands the difference between jobs created by the government versus those created by the private sector. What he could have said is that government doesn’t create profits – a dirty word to liberals – which in a virtuous cycle creates capital that, when invested, produces new businesses and jobs. That is not true of government hiring and spending, which saps money from the private sector.
Second, Romney brings to the fight proven executive capabilities – capabilities that are demeaned by and also lacking in President Obama. Instilling efficiency into the vast reach of our local, state and federal governments is certainly beyond any one individual. But the tone of any organization is set at the top --- by establishing priorities and goals, and hiring people to carry them out.
With our national debt topping $16 trillion, we no longer have the luxury of throwing money at every problem. We should focus instead on making our taxpayer dollars work harder. Ideally, that ratio of government workers to citizens would shrink further – a goal that would horrify The New York Times, but is right up Governor Romney’s alley.