Mark Ahlseen is associate professor of economics at King College in Bristol, Tennessee.
Any nation needs a certain number of government employees in order to function. But ever since the Employment Act of 1946 a different view of government employment has emerged: that government can alleviate downturns in economic activity by spending—or “investing”—funds on projects that will stimulate employment. The government may be either a direct employer (as when it increases the numbers in our armed forces) or an indirect employer (as when it increases spending on highways, which increases employment in construction companies). As a nation we may need larger armies or more and better highways, but that is not germane to the discussion at hand.
The insidious notion persists that government job creation actually generates an increase in employment. According to this view, if construction companies increase employment by 100,000 jobs due to a $3 billion government spending program to finance highway construction, then employment is 100,000 jobs ahead of what it might be in the absence of the program.
Rarely does the public debate focus on how employment in other sectors is affected when the government seeks the $3 billion necessary to finance its program. These effects are important but, unfortunately, less visible because they are spread among hundreds, if not thousands, of employers.
Government spending, including spending designed to stimulate employment, may be derived from three sources. The first is taxes. If individual income taxes are raised by $3 billion to fund our highway project, disposable income is reduced by $3 billion. Consequently, individuals will demand less clothing, fewer appliances, and so on. Private sector employers will notice and respond by laying off workers. Since most of us will agree that we can spend our income more efficiently than can the government—if only for the fact we do not have to pay a bureaucratic overhead charge—layoffs in the affected companies will exceed the employment added by companies constructing the new highways.
If corporate taxes are raised instead of individual income taxes, they will eventually result in higher prices for consumers, lower real wages for workers, and lower returns for investors. All of these result in a decreased ability to buy clothing and appliances with the net result that unemployment increases, not decreases.
A second source of funds is government borrowing, but this borrowing increases the price of lendable funds, which reduces the amount of investment in the private sector. Consequently, fewer new factories, machines, and homes will be built. Not only does this decrease in private investment slow economic growth, it results in additional unemployment in these industries.
A final source of funds is the government’s central bank, which can create new money. However, this monetary inflation results in price inflation by eroding the purchasing power of the dollar. This decrease in purchasing power will eventually increase unemployment as well.
Unfortunately, the political appeal of government spending stems from the fact that the jobs created are noticeable to the average voter, while the handful of jobs lost here and there are not attributed to the government spending program. Interestingly, from 1960 to 1988 there has been a positive, and statistically significant, correlation between public aid (as a percentage of GNP) and the unemployment rate. Conventional wisdom would have the public believe that as government “invests” in people the unemployment rate decreases. Yet the opposite is the case. For the same years there has been a positive, though statistically insignificant, correlation between government employment (as a percentage of total employment) and the unemployment rate. This suggests that as government work is created more jobs are lost elsewhere resulting in a rising unemployment rate.
As a nation, we undoubtedly need government employees for such things as national defense, police protection, and administering our court system (though I do question our founders’ wisdom in relegating the delivery of first-class mail to government employees). But it is a fallacy of the Keynesian legacy that government can reduce unemployment by priming the pump with spending programs. Government needs to reduce spending and taxes in order to leave income in the hands of individuals who earned it and who can spend it much more efficiently than the government can.