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In an April 1, 2011, op-ed column, Steve Moore -- the senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and a longtime conservative activist -- wrote a column titled, "We've Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers." In it, he bemoaned divergent trendlines for government employment, which he described as increasing, and manufacturing, which he described as decreasing.
"If you want to understand better why so many states — from New York to Wisconsin to California — are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government. … We have moved decisively from a nation of makers to a nation of takers."
Several readers asked us to take a look at Moore’s column. We’ll focus on his contention that the ratio of people working for the government and working in manufacturing today is "an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960."
We turned to the historical employment data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here’s what we found:
Total government employment, January 1960: 8,307,000
Total government employment, March 2011: 22,166,000
Total manufacturing employment, January 1960: 15,687,000
Total manufacturing employment, March 2011: 11,667,000
To us, all of these numbers appear quite close to what Moore wrote. So he’s right on the numbers. But is he correct that today’s numbers show "an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960"?
That’s less clear.
We found a somewhat different story if you swap out Moore’s raw employment numbers and instead use the numbers for each of the sector’s share of total U.S. employment. Doing it this way takes into account the increasing size of the American work force over more than 50 years -- it grew from 54.2 million workers in 1960 to 130.7 million workers in 2011. Here are the percentages:
Total government share of U.S. employment, January 1960: 15 percent
Total government share of U.S. employment, March 2011: 17 percent
Total manufacturing share of U.S. employment, January 1960: 29 percent
Total manufacturing share of U.S. employment, March 2011: 9 percent
What this shows is that government’s proportion of the work force has increased -- but by a relatively modest rate. Meanwhile, manufacturing -- for countless reasons, ranging from the expansion of free trade to educational attainment patterns to the emergence of new sectors such as information technology -- has fallen off a cliff during the past 50 years.
To us, the comparison of jobs in government and manufacturing looks less like "an almost exact reversal," as Moore puts it, than two largely unrelated changes.
We’ll add a final point of context. Several other employment sectors grew at faster rates over the 50-year period than government did. The leisure and hospitality sector, for instance, grew from 6.3 percent of the workforce in 1960 to 10 percent in 2011, and professional business services roughly doubled, from 6.8 percent in 1960 to 13.1 percent in 2011. So, other types of private-sector employment -- jobs that don’t "make" anything -- took up some of the slack from manufacturing’s decline.
So where does this leave us? Moore’s raw employment numbers for manufacturing and government are accurate, but adding context about the size of the labor force as a whole weakens the notion that the trendlines are an "exact reversal." On balance, we rate the statement Half True.
Stephen Moore, "We've Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers" (Wall Street Journal op-ed), April 1, 2011
Bureau of Labor Statistics, main page for Current Employment Statistics database, accessed April 4, 2011
Interview with J.D. Foster, senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, April 4, 2011
Interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, April 4, 2011
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