I grew up in a farm state, South Dakota, and still recall a joke that was then popular. It grew out of the fact that the number of farmers in the U.S. was constantly declining, while at the same time the Department of Agriculture was steadily growing. So here is the joke: A guy at the Department of Agriculture is going past a cubicle and he sees one of his colleagues sitting at his desk, crying. He wonders what is wrong and stops to ask his colleague what has happened. The guy looks up and, through his tears, says: “My farmer died.”
That same phenomenon has now spread throughout the economy. Government workers are everywhere proliferating, even as private sector employment flags. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Stephen Moore notes this astonishing fact:
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.
It gets worse. More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined.
To borrow an analogy from biology, if the parasites overwhelm the host, it is catastrophic for both the host and the parasites. (Which is why viruses aren’t really trying to kill you, at least not quickly.) That analogy may be unfair; certainly not all government workers are parasites. Let’s try this one: if the cowboy gets bigger than the horse, both the horse and the cowboy are in trouble.
There are many reasons for pessimism these days, but first on the list is the prospect that the growth of the public sector at the expense of the private may have become irreversible.