The New York Times Forgets Why Government Workers Are 'Middle Class'

The New York Times Forgets Why Government Workers Are 'Middle Class'
AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File
Story Stream
recent articles

“Many people benefit from every tennis ball I hit.” Those are the words of tennis great Andre Agassi.  Agassi could have retired long before 2006, but every ball he hit professionally meant more money for the charities he supported, not to mention the people he employed to help keep him at the top of his tennis game.

Agassi’s words should be prominently placed in the office of every economist, every reporter, and in the office of every politician empowered to spend taxpayer dollars.  They’re a reminder that government spending doesn’t spring from benevolent politicians pulling resources from Mars; rather it’s always and everywhere an effect of those hitting the proverbial ball in the private sector.  

Thanks to millions of Agassi equivalents producing with great gusto, a federal government that produces nothing is able to spend trillions.  Politicians, economists and pundits who should know better tell us that a reduction in the size and cost of government would crush the economy, but in saying this they remind us how little they understand economics. 

They forget that economic growth itself is what enables all the wasteful spending in Washington.  Absent the growth, Washington would have very little to spend. 

All we need to understand this is to consider Agassi yet again.  His charities were flush and his staff well employed only insofar as Agassi produced wealth that made its way to his charities and his employees.  Agassi was the growth engine.  Governments are the opposite of Agassi.  They once again produce nothing.  They’re at best an economy-sapping effect of actual growth.

Which brings us to a recent New York Times news story about “Public Servants Losing Foothold In Middle Class.” Despite it, the Times remains an amazing newspaper.  There’s so much learning that comes from reading it.  But its reporters and editorialists invariably let their emotions inform their reporting.  The front-page story about government workers allegedly “losing” their foothold in the middle class is a shining example of how an abundance of tears can blur the reality that reporters are supposed to convey.

According to Times scribes Patricia Cohen and Robert Gebeloff, government jobs have historically “provided a comfortable nook in the middle class” for “generations of Americans.”  No doubt their reporting is correct in the sense that government pay can be handsome enough to afford government workers a middle class lifestyle.  Yet missed by the reporters is that the actual producers of wealth away from government had to get by on less so that government workers could have a “comfortable nook.” Reporters at the Times regularly ignore others in the real world without which there are no government jobs.  They forget that for government workers to be comfortable, there must be abundant production away from government to fund this foothold.  Don’t worry, it gets more ridiculous.

Cohen and Gebeloff add that amid an allegedly more difficult environment for those who aspire to government work, “[T] he private sector has been more welcoming.  During 97 consecutive months of job growth, it created 18.6 million positions, a 17 percent increase.” To most, a migration from the public to private sector would be a good thing for this migration at least theoretically reducing the burden on those paying the bills, but not to Cohen and Gebeloff.  They lament that work in the real world “lack[s] stability and security.” Translated, Cohen and Gebeloff think it unfortunate that government workers have to experience the same stresses and strains as those who make their jobs possible.  It brings new meaning to “Ruling Class.”  Don’t worry, it gets even worse.

Cohen and Gebeloff similarly lament the private sector jobs that supposedly “pay little more than the minimum wage and lack predictable hours, insurance, sick days or parental leave.” Oh well, if we ignore the falsehood promoted by the reporters that private sector work is the living definition of dead end, can they really be this tone deaf? Didn’t anyone remind them that pay in the government sector is only middle class insofar as it’s less lavish in the private sector? Where do they think government pay comes from? If we accept what’s silly, that pay and benefits in the private sector are low and near non-existent, we must stop and think why that’s true: it is because governments take too much of the wealth created in productive sector, only to hand it off to workers who would prefer to toil free of the stresses and strains experienced by those who make their cushy work possible. 

The Times’ economics reporting never ceases to amaze.  Implicit in it is that there are no victims of government spending, and that no one is made worse off so that government workers can be better off.  Except that so tangled were Cohen and Gebeloff that they ultimately acknowledged government spending is an effect of private-sector prosperity.  They noted how state government payrolls in Oklahoma declined once its economy did.  Why? The private sector wasn’t hitting enough balls as it were.  It’s kind of simple. 

It wasn’t their intent, but Cohen and Gebeloff unwittingly copped to what’s always been true: government spending can’t stimulate the economy; rather it’s a consequence of growth.  They ought to read Agassi's memoir Open if they’re still confused. 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading ( His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at  

Show comments Hide Comments

Related Articles