The so-called "greatest jobs president that God ever created" began his presidency by refusing to hire people.
On Monday, President Trump issued an executive order freezing new hiring of federal employees. It exempts the military, and provides wide exemptions for other agencies involved in national security and public safety. And it will end as soon as the government can come up with "a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government's workforce through attrition," the White House says.
There are multiple problems with this plan, which stems from Republicans' long-standing effort to reduce the size of the federal workforce, cut their benefits, and make public employees easier to fire. Some of the problems are practical. But the most important ones have more to do with our fundamental values as a society.
Let's start with the practical problems.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. population grew 67 percent and the private workforce grew 136 percent. But the federal workforce only increased by 10 percent. (In fact, if you shorten the timeframe to after 1990, it's actually shrunk by 300,000 workers.) Trump's campaign asserted that a smaller federal workforce would be "forced to become more efficient and responsive." But that's not necessarily true.
For instance, Internal Revenue Service staff was cut 14 percent from 2010 to 2016. The result was shoddier taxpayer services, massive delays, and billions in lost revenue each year from lax enforcement. Presidents Carter and Reagan both attempted federal hiring freezes, and in both instances the tax revenue lost was vastly larger than any cost savings.
In the private sector, meanwhile, the modern wave of corporate downsizing hasn't led to an explosion in productivity. Quite the opposite! But it has generated near-record-sized profits for CEOs and wealthy shareholders.
The federal government does an enormous amount of useful things in our society, from law enforcement to protecting our air and water to gathering data to defending civil rights to guarding workplace safety. To do all those things well, in a country of 320 million, will require a big federal workforce. If Trump and the GOP think certain things the federal government does now shouldn't be done, fine: Name them and defend cuts to those specific programs. But an across-the-board reduction in the federal workforce is not justified by the evidence. That Trump exempts the military — by far the country's biggest government bureaucracy — from cuts makes it even harder to take his defense of the reduction seriously.
That brings us to the deeper question of values. If you poke through Republicans' statements, it's pretty obvious what they don't like about federal employees: The right believes the federal workforce is a kind of parasitical "privileged class."
Trump's 100-day plan placed his hiring freeze under the heading of "measures to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C." (Never mind that only 15 percent of the federal workforce can be found in the nation's capital.) Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser, has complained that federal employment is a "job-for-life." Conservative commentary often complains that federal employees are overpaid and overcompensated. Republicans want to end defined-benefit pensions for public workers and move them onto the failed scheme of 401(k)s, and they want to roll back public workers' bargaining rights — public employment being one of the country's last bastions of union power.
This criticism might make sense within conservative orthodoxy, but it's very odd coming from Trump. A secure job that lasts decades, that pays well, and that comes with good benefits was what the American economy provided in its heyday of the mid-century. It's also precisely the type of employment that Trump promised to bring back en masse. And to do it, the president doesn't seem to be above the kind of private-sector meddling and big-ticket infrastructure spending (depending on how it's designed) that his party usually abhors.
So why are these jobs a good thing when the private sector provides them, even at government cajoling, but objectionable when the public sector just does it directly?
There seems to be bipartisan agreement that the civil service does not discipline lax workers enough, and is too slow to fire them. That may be true, but again, is that really a problem? Maybe it should be hard to fire people, even in the private sector. Livelihoods are at stake.
Obviously, the federal government is a different employer than a for-profit business. But that doesn't make public employment inferior or less "real." It just means it's built on a different set of incentives.
And maybe those incentives are worth learning from. The idea that private sector employment has become stingier and less secure, so public sector employment should, too, is perverse. We should be seeking to make all jobs look more like government jobs, not the other way around.