The Agenda

Public-Sector Employment Across States

Earlier this week, Catherine Rampell wrote a post on the state and local employment as a share of total employment across the fifty states. She found that sparsely-populated conservative states tend to have a higher share than densely-populated liberal states, and she offers a couple of tentative hypotheses:


One potential explanation for this is that more liberal states tend to be more urban, and big cities have a lot of private industry that can dwarf the size of state and local governments.

Or maybe thinking about these patterns in “big government” versus “small government” is the wrong framework, since these data refer to a very specific segment of the government: nonfederal workers. Maybe, Jeffersonian-style, it is not such a big contradiction for states to be hostile to candidates perceived to be expanding the size of the federal government, and to still employ lots of workers at the state and local levels.

Both seem plausible. I’d add that it’s worth looking at the total state and local wage bill as well as state and local employment. As William Voegeli has observed in City Journal, Texas, a low-tax, “conservative” state, has more state and local workers per 100,000 people than California, a high-tax, “liberal” state. Yet public sector workers receive far higher wages in California. The conservatives states that have a large number of state and local workers tend to have a relatively low cost of living, and it seems plausible that they tend to receive lower average salaries. A quick glance at average teacher salaries by state suggests that this might be true. Economies of scale might play a role. But if state and local workers are relatively cheap, it’s hardly surprising that states will “consume” more of them.

This is why I think Rampell gets one important thing wrong:

There does indeed seem to be a negative relationship between the two measures. That is, the more dominated a state is by public-sector workers, the less likely that state was to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Is it fair to say that Wyoming is more dominated than public-sector workers than California? I’m guessing that Rampell meant “dominated” in a purely numerical sense, and that’s perfectly legit. But public-sector workers in California that derives from their cohesion, the effectiveness of their lobbying efforts, and their collective purchasing power. Concentrated minorities wield outsized power in any democracy. They often yield more in a sclerotic, opaque political system, like that of California. And the fact that California’s overall political proclivities tilt to the left increases the effective power of public-sector workers lobbying for public-sector expansion, whereas the political configuration of Wyoming is quite different for all kinds of reasons. 


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