Speaker Boehner’s Math

Recently, Speaker of the House John Boehner asserted: “…the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs since President Obama took office.” Other analysts have tried to find the source for this figure, but I thought of interest to see exactly how bad his math was.

Figure 1 depicts Federal employment, and employment excluding postal workers, as reported by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official source of labor statistics. Both series are depicted with and without the temporary Census workers employed.

Figure 1: Total Federal employment (dark blue), excluding temporary Census workers (bold blue), total Federal employment excluding postal service workers (purple), excluding temporary Census workers (bold red), all seasonally adjusted, in thousands. NBER recession dates shaded gray. Vertical line at 2009M01. Source: BLS, and NBER.

In order to assess Speaker Boehner’s claim, I plot the ex.-Census worker series normalized to 2009M01 = 0.

Figure 2: Change in total Federal employment excluding temporary Census workers (blue), change in total Federal employment excluding postal service workers, excluding temporary Census workers (red), all seasonally adjusted, relative to 2009M01, in thousands. Vertical line at 2009M01. Speaker Boehner’s estimate bold gray dashed line. Source: BLS, and author’s calculations.

Under the most charitable (to Boehner’s assertion) definition of Federal employment, Speaker Boehner is off by 55,000, i.e., overestimated Federal employment growth by 37.9%.

More research on the world of Boehner-math, where 1+1=3, here and here.

In this period during which there are concerted efforts to reduce overall government civilian employment, it is interesting to observe that employment in the public sector is now below what it was at the beginning of the last recession, in 2007M12.

Figure 3: Total government employment (dark blue), excluding temporary Census workers (bold blue), all seasonally adjusted, in thousands. NBER recession dates shaded gray. Vertical line at 2009M01. Source: BLS, and NBER.

By the way, speaking about cutting government spending on consumption and investment, it is of interest to note that overall, in the United States, spending has only risen minimally.

Figure 10 from Aizenman and Pasricha, “Net Fiscal Stimulus During the Great Recession,” NBER Working Paper No. 16779.

Aggregate government consumption and investment has only risen by 5% relative to 2007Q3.

16 thoughts on “Speaker Boehner’s Math”

1. Various

Menzie, I would be careful. You’re starting to sound a lot like an ideologue. Republican = bad. Democrat = good.

2. Steven Kopits

Since the start of the recession, the Fed government has added 200k jobs, ex-USPS, ex-census.
Since the start of the recession, the US has shed more than 7 million jobs, and part time positions have increased by more than 4 million.
It would appear the pain has not been shared proportionately.

3. Menzie Chinn

Various: I think you are projecting. Just because his math is incorrect does not mean that I think he is “bad”. Accountants can do math correctly, but I don’t believe that makes them intrinsically “good”.

W.C. Varones: relative to a baseline, what they stated is correct. I am sure that when the House Republican plan comes out, the 5 year horizon reduction will be relative to a baseline.

4. Menzie Chinn

Steve Kopits: I won’t make the value judgment on pain-sharing (after all some of the people fired from the private sector might have been hired by the public?). All I am asking is for correct addition. Is that too much to ask for?

By the way, you are repeating Speaker Boehner’s assertion of 200K net addition. What is your source? The entire point of the article is that it is less than 200K.

5. Steven Kopits

You’re correct. Boehner was technically in error. The number is 150k, or he could have said “200k since the start of the recession.”
Still, I take his point. Fed’s have done better than everyone else overall. I believe DC housing prices also reflect this.
As for asking for good math from politicians, well, you really are an optimist.

6. Anthony

Forgive me my woeful misunderstanding of economics. The small piece I will add to this conversation concerns assertions made by a person or persons who consistently argue you can cut taxes and reduce the deficit. Is this a “good faith” claim? Inevitable this same group lockstepped the deficit-increasing Bush tax cuts. So, yes, I would favor empirical vigilance over anything they say. Thank you.

7. 2slugbaits

Steven Kopits It would appear the pain has not been shared proportionately.
Huh? So are you arguing that it would be better if the pain were shared proportionally? Is that what you’re saying? I hope not because that would truly rank as one of the dumbest things ever posted on this blog. How does having public sector workers share the pain of private sector workers help either sector? It’s not like making public sector workers worse off makes private sector workers better off. This shared pain nonsense is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you want to help private sector workers, then increase government spending during the recession and cut back on government spending once the economy is back on its feet.

8. benamery21

Kopits:
“Since the start of the recession, the Fed government has added 200k jobs, ex-USPS, ex-census.
Since the start of the recession, the US has shed more than 7 million jobs, and part time positions have increased by more than 4 million.”
So, by my math the Feds have hired about 7 million too few people to offset the pain of driving the economy into a ditch.

9. Susan

Politics = Lying & Business = Lying if you can get away with it.. Is there any single piece of his statistics or calculations that you disagree with or can point to as being incorrect?

10. jonathan

This topic was covered in depth a few months ago when the talk was about the vast increase in federal employment over the decade. The answer then and the answer now is the same: security. I’m not going to bother digging out the links. The gist is that homeland security has hired and continues to hire large numbers of people and the rest of the federal government is flat to down in workers.

11. Menzie Chinn

Steve Kopits: You state: “Boehner was technically in error.” I would assert that this is an out-and-out error. It would be like me saying U.S. GDP is \$20 trillion. Would that be a “technical error” or just a plain “error”?

12. ottnott

Menzie, you should know the Ideologue Commenter Dictionary by now.
From the Nov. 2010 edition of the ICD:
error: to make a claim or reach a conclusion I disagree with.
technical error: to use incorrect factual information to make a claim or reach a conclusion I agree with.

13. Marvin

The piece I will add to this conversation also concerns assertions made by a person or persons who consistently argue you can cut taxes (on wealthy) and reduce the deficit. First, this is a massive redistribution of wealth that the founders of this country was against(they wanted the majority “middle class” to hold the majority of the wealth and power. This same group lockstepped the deficit-increasing Bush tax cuts, and then said…oh my word..we need to have everyone else pay (middle class and lower) for the “wealthy” tax breaks….