David Frum’s Strange Critique of Obama’s Record on Public Employment

In endorsing Mitt Romney for President, David Frum writes:

Obama is following a path explored by the British Labor governments of 1997-2010, when the majority of the net new jobs created in northern and western England, Scotland, and Wales were created in the public sector. That approach pushed Britain into fiscal crisis, when the recession abruptly cut the flow of funds from south-eastern England to pay everybody else’s government salary.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks governmental and private sector employment every month (data right here). In January 2009, seasonally adjusted public sector employment at all levels in the United States totalled 22,576,000. Under President Obama, it has fallen to 22,011,000 as of last month. Meanwhile, private sector employment increased over the same period from 110,985,000 to 111,744,000.

Whether it is good or bad to grow public sector jobs is a matter about which reality-based people can reasonably disagree. But lambasting a President for growing public sector jobs when in fact they have contracted on his watch is a departure from reality.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “David Frum’s Strange Critique of Obama’s Record on Public Employment”

  1. But Frum’s endorsement of Romney is incoherent on so many levels, why just focus on this one? He also wants to give in to Republican blackmail, saying that Romney will be able to get things done with Congress where Obama wasn’t. Frum also doesn’t want Obamacare repealed, wants the middle class to do better, wants the government split between dems and repubs, and believes that while Romney will govern as the Conservative he’s campaigned to be, he somehow doesn’t believe in all that right wing stuff and so that’s okay.

  2. Yes, I should be able to expect
    better from Frum,
    but alas, from Frum
    comes an argument of crumbs!

  3. There are many top pundits and “journalists” from whom we don’t usually expect the hear the truth. They might tell the truth from time to time, or even often, but we don’t expect truth from them. Then, there are some few top journalists from whom we mostly expect something like the truth.

    If our mostly-true top journalists stand silently by and let a candidate lie his way into office, trampling democracy in the process, it might go down in history as one of the most cowardly acts in American history. Only a few people have climbed into those top journalists seats, and like it or not it is now up to them to defend democracy. And if they don’t do it, right now, they’ll be rightly branded by history as cowards and traitors to democracy. Nobody’s shooting journalists in America who stand up for truth. And none of these top mostly-true journalists is going to get evicted from her or his mansion if they stand up for truth right now.

    But if they don’t stand up for truth, and the lying candidate wins, these mostly-true journalists will be pilloried around the world for a failure to show even a little spine in defense of truth and democracy.

  4. Frum’s analysis of the British economy is also inaccurate — I mean, it may be the sort of thing about which reasonable people can disagree, but he’s still wrong. The UK went into recession in the third quarter of 2008 because of the financial crisis, of which he may have heard, and has slid back into a double-dip recession because of the Cameron’s government thoroughly unnecessary austerity policies. Hard to see how this counts against Labour.

  5. President Obama delivered his answer to this problem in his important speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, a year ago: more direct government employment (at higher wages), more government contracting (to enforce higher wages), and more government aid to college students (in hope that expanding the number of degree holders will raise their average wage). Obama is following a path explored by the British Labor governments of 1997-2010, when the majority of the net new jobs created in northern and western England, Scotland, and Wales were created in the public sector.

    As has been noted, this is nuts, on several levels:
    1) I suspect that no-one but David Frum and the residents of Osawatomie remember that speech, a possibly specious interpretation of which is key to Frum’s whole argument.
    2) As noted, Obama’s record on public-sector payrolls is the opposite of what one would expect based on the conclusions Frum divines from this speech.
    3) The very idea that anyone would rely on deep insight into the policy consequences of a speech in order to endorse Mitt Romney, a candidate who has publicly spoken in support of every conceivable side of every conceivable issue, is risible.
    4) The increased student aid is not obviously connected to the fearmongering about public-sector employment and wages in the UK under New Labour.
    5) What is the significance of separating out “northern and western England, Scotland, and Wales”? A huge proportion of Britain’s population is in London and southern England (I’m not sure just how huge – half? two-thirds? three-fourths?). These regions include most everyone in the financial sector; a hugely disproportionate share of the research, development, and technical communities (near Oxford, Cambridge, and London); and likely disproportionate shares of other economic sectors. Northern England and Wales have famously been losing their coal and manufacturing industries over the last forty years, which trends weren’t reversed under New Labour. The statistic Frum relies on is crazy, it’s one so obviously cherrypicked as to suggest it’s consciously dishonest.

    1. Frum is arguing from conclusions.

      He starts with the premise of wanting to endorse Romney, and constructs arguments to back it up.
      I suspect the number of votes he sways will be about two, counting his own.

      As a career move, it’s a net gain though.

    2. Here’s what I thought: improving education increases productivity, which in turn increases earning power.

      Not so, Mr. Frum?

  6. But lambasting a President for growing public sector jobs when in fact they have contracted on his watch is a departure from reality.

    Frum is supposed to be reasonable (in the sense of ‘pleasant’) and that’s all very nice, but mendacity is his most important working tool, and he’s been peddling garbage all year long.

    He claimed that he voted for Obama (really?) in 2008, and hoped Obama would do something about civil liberties (from the man who cowrote ‘World War IV’? Really?) but he has evidenced absolutely no concern with civil liberties that I’ve seen in the last couple of years. Nor any support for replacing Republicans who think our civil liberties regime is entirely too soft. Further to that, he posted that he was reading a book on the DoJ’s work on the laws of war under Obama, and was all offended because the lawyers were too persnickety.

    At best, he’s taking the view that Democrats should clean up after the elephant parade, just in time for another parade to start. At worst, of course, he could care less about civil liberties along with a lot of other things.

    I know which way I’d bet.

    [‘On the econ stuff, he’s just a standard-issue Norquist R who pays lip service (and only that) to being concerned with not-rich people. R’s don’t like him, and really, who can blame them?’]

  7. Thanks to Warren for saving the trouble of clicking to Frum.

    Notice that Frum very carefully avoids saying anything false. He cites a speech a year ago in which Obama said more public employment would be a good idea [and a year ago, as now, public employment had fallen, so a future gain was not unreasonable–but he doesn’t admity that]. The he says “is following the path”, not “has followed the path” — so past statistics become irrelevant.

    And the words about Britain then evoke, for most of his audience, “Obama the socialist”, and vague images of the British Labor party derived from the Benn-Foote era or before.

  8. DCA makes a good point. Frum doesn’t actually claim Obama has increased public sector employment; rather he is “following the path” of doing so, which could mean just that he stands for it in principle. I’m kind of surprised because Frum is about as reasonable and fair-minded as a Republican can get (I can believe he voted for Obama in 2008 — what puzzles me is why someone who is clearly not in league with the hard-right-Tea Party types wouldn’t do so again).

    1. Frum’s tapdance is all you and DCA say, and more. My immediate impression is that Frum is advancing a post-election, ‘moderate’ conservative addition to the diminish-Obama-in-any-way-possible narrative – Obama may win the election (crossed fingers), but he’s still an America hating socialist. By avoiding falsifiable claims, Frum plays a whole hand of cards: he avoids being explicitly pinned down on lying; he plays on the conservative penchant for “belief” over empiricism (which, pathetically, the left and media have stupidly adopted); but mostly he defines Obama’s character, makes a sweeping statement about who he is as a person. Perfect fodder for a from-the-gut electorate, and quite impressive propaganda.

    2. Actually, I’m thinking Frum’s piece might be an example of a new conservative narrative structure, where the lie is the star. Is Frum, in his oh-so-moderate mien, taking Team Romney’s baton and running with it? Combining Gingrich’s plebian bombast, Romney’s out and out lying, and ‘moderate’ reasonableness into a discourse too easily mainstreamed by a compliant and spineless national media?

  9. Minor compared to your point, but the UK did not experience a fiscal crisis. Rather the Tories chose to cut spending and raise VAT choking off the recovery. High deficits are not a fiscal crisis if investors are willing to buy bonds for tiny yields.

    Frum is totally wrong twice, Obama didn’t increase public sector employment and it would have been better if he had (of course he couldn’t given Congress and I am thinking of state and local employment which wouldn’t have been cut so much if Ben Nelson et al hadn’t fried the bacon, trimmed the fat, milked the sacred cows and reduced the aid to state and local government in the ARRA).

    Still Your post is perfect. Frum made a claim of fact radically inconsistent with reality. This is a different order of nonsense than a (barely) arguable critique of Keynesian fiscal policy.

  10. In the end, Frum is trying to get his GOP pundit card back, and there is only one way to do it, by lies and BS.

    I’ve crossed him off my list of ‘respectable conservatives’.

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