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State of California building in San Francisco, Calif.
The brain-dead consensus in California, from the right to Gov. Jerry Brown and others on the left, is that we need to cut government, even government jobs. The right wants government to be smaller. Brown and Democrats see cuts as a way to build credibility with voters so that they may be convinced to raise taxes.
But this consensus doesn't match the on-the-ground economic reality. California's high unemployment rate remains stubbornly high not less because of private sector job cuts (private sector hiring is growing with the excpetion of construction) but because of a decline in the number of government jobs. The budget crisis in the state -- and resulting problems in local governments -- mean fewer people are working for the government. And it doesn't look like that will change sometime soon.
This doesn't make any sense. More people need jobs. And there are huge public needs not being met -- from closed state parks to hundreds of billions in deferred projects and infrastructure.
So what's the solution? If California's governing system made any sense, the answer would be: make it easier for governments to hire. One way to do that would be to lower salaries and benefits. Better to have people working on important needs than not working at all.
Of course, that's a political non-starter. Public employee unions have made some concessions on pay but are likely to be wary at the kind of salary cuts for new hires that would aid hiring. After all, they just battled through a period of forced pay cuts, via furloughs. Conservatives don't like the idea of government jobs. And those worried about unfunded obligations for pensions and retiree health care are worried about the obligations that are incurred when new people are hired.
It's too bad. When times are tough, government should step in and boost the economy and employ people. That's counter-cyclical. But California's government funding too closely matches its economy; when the rest of us are hurting, the government hurts too. It's another reason why the state needs a new governing system that permits long-term budget planning, provides more flexibility for local governments, and puts aside real money for rainy days.