An economic statistic can be like sculptor's clay or Play-Doh. You can mold it into something beautiful or something silly. So it is with the news that the number of Americans employed in government has outstripped the number working in manufacturing. Is that good or bad? A major development or trivia? Answer: all of the above.
The fact that employment in manufacturing is declining in this country is not news. It's been flat for a decade. And it's not necessarily bad news. Part of the reason is that fewer people are producing more goods in some industries because of better quality equipment or methods. That's progress -- an important indicator of industrial health. And it's been matched by more jobs being created elsewhere in the private sector. When the lost jobs are the gritty, unpleasant ones, there is a social gain as well. But when they are the highly skilled jobs that were considered blue-collar but paid solid middle-class wages, there is a real social loss.
Similarly the growth in public employment is a mixed bag. It reinforces the fears of those who believe Big Government is strangling the nation. But the growth is not in their pet bugaboo, the federal government. It's at the local level, in state, county and municipal government. To some extent it's just a transfer of tasks from Washington to the localities. But the local governments have the agencies that are most likely to be providing services directly to people. As population grows -- particularly in the suburbs -- more services are needed. In many cities population is stagnant or falling, but the proportion of elderly and poor keeps rising, and they need relatively more help. (In Baltimore, the number of city workers has shrunk proportionately more than the population, propelled largely by that most population-sensitive of services, education).
The growth area in the job market is in services, an increasingly vital sector of this country's economy. "Services" covers a larger spectrum of job descriptions, attractive and repulsive, than manufacturing does. Services can be processing sophisticated data or scrubbing floors, a $300-an-hour lawyer or a minimum-wage busboy. But services appear to be where the future of this country lies, in private business no less than in the public sector. Like everything else in economics, that's probably good news and bad news.