Joan Walsh explains Ronald Reagan: Do our liberal intellectual leaders actually know what they’re talking about?
The question popped into our heads when we read this report by Salon’s Joan Walsh. We were a bit puzzled by this:
WALSH (6/14/12): I still haven’t quite gotten over the graphs Ezra Klein used Monday night when subbing for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, showing the rise in government employment after recessions under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Those Republican presidents were die-hard Keynesians, no matter what their rhetoric pretended, and they knew that the antidote to recession, and a contraction in business and consumer spending, was government spending, including government employment.Really? Was Ronald Reagan a die-hard Keynesian? Were Presidents Bush and Bush?
Incomparably, we decided to check.
The graph to which Walsh refers can be seen at Ezra Klein’s site. The four lines on the graph represent "total government employment" during and after our last four recessions. (Please note: Despite some visual imperfections, all four lines are supposed to be starting at the same place: 1.00.)
Based on that graph, we see no sign that government employment increased under President Reagan until long after the recession was over. We know, we know! Klein seemed to say different on the Maddow Show, and he seems to say different at his own site. This is what you’ll find him saying at his own Post site:
KLEIN (6/11/12): In the graph atop this post, I ran the numbers on total government employment after the 1981, 1990, 2001 and 2008 recessions. I made government employment on the eve of the recession equal to “1,” so what you’re seeing is total change in the ensuing 54 months, which is how much time has elapsed since the start of this recession.In fact, we see no sign in Klein’s graph that “total government employment” rose during the recession which started in 1981. Three years in, employment seems to be down by one percent. Nor so we see any vast increase in government employment during the Bush 41 recession, the one which started in 1990. Roughly two years into that recession, it looks like “total government employment” had risen by one percent. (We assume this includes state and local government, but Klein doesn’t specifically say.)
As you can see, government employment tends to rise during recessions, helping to cushion their impact. But with the exception of a spike when we hired temporary workers for the decennial census, it’s fallen sharply during this recession.
The outlier seems to be the Bush 43 recession, which started in 2001. But here’s a question to which we don’t know the answer: Did government employment rise after 2001 because Bush was a diehard Keynesian? Or did it rise in security fields in response to 9/11?
If we had our druthers, the federal government would be helping state and local governments maintain their previous levels of employment. But was Ronald Reagan a die-hard Keynesian? And beyond that formulation by Walsh, does Klein’s own post make sense?
How about the things he said on Monday night’s Maddow Show? (To read the transcript, click here.) His monologue may have been scripted by staff. This raises the question with which we began:
Do our liberal intellectual leaders actually know what they’re talking about? Or are we increasingly handed pleasing pap, not unlike a group of people who watch a different “news” channel?
For ourselves, we don’t know what happened to government employment during those earlier recessions. But go ahead. Treat yourself!
Walsh hasn’t gotten over Klein’s graph. Just as an intellectual exercise, we'll suggest that you give it a look.