Grow Up With the Country: the Value of Government Work in a Recession

I’ve been taking some time off — maybe you’ve noticed? — to acclimatize to a new life and a new job. The job, I think I’ve said, is as an appellate prosecutor for a New York metropolitan jurisdiction. It’s a great choice, for all parties involved: I get a chance to do what I really love, appellate litigation, and the district attorney gets a (semi-)experienced litigator who they didn’t have to pay to train, but who’s still young enough to learn the People’s work.

I’m also lucky to have the job. Due to no fault of their own — and attributable, instead, to the shocking and blind greed of their managers — many young, bright, and hard-working attorneys find themselves unexpectedly unemployed, making competition for any good legal job fierce indeed.

In a more sensible world, the public sector could snap up this eager population to fill vacancies of their own, the latter occasioned by growing population centers, new regulatory needs, or both. My jurisdiction, I know, generates enough of a caseload to justify hiring at least a few new trial prosecutors. But office leadership holds back, their budget tightly constrained by under-funded (or under-spending) city/county politicians.

We’re not alone. Contrary to the public perception, it’s damned hard to “create a job,” but in many cases, and especially in the legal world, vacancies await only funding, this withheld by a vocal minority motivated either by short-sighted “austerity” or vindictive, ideological obstructiveness. In the case of the CFTC, the sleepy agency suddenly tasked with inventing the field of derivatives regulation, 400+ “briefcase-ready” jobs await only the end of congressional Republicans’ unprecedented, counter-majoritarian, hyperpartisan delay strategy. (For a more classical case arguing that Dodd-Frank implementation will generate hiring, see here.) But rather than create jobs by funding the agency, Republicans may force cuts, leading directly to government layoffs. Think of it as a Fabian plan, designed to kill Dodd-Frank by outlasting the democratically-elected federal government — in Republican eyes worse than Hannibal, and no more entitled to govern than Carthage was to Rome.

Consider, too, the federal bench. At last count, ca. 75 federal judicial nominees awaited Senate confirmation and, now, will have to wait until December at the earliest. Those judges, once sworn in, would be entitled to hire between them 100-150 law clerks, who would  either exit the unemployment rolls, or vacate jobs elsewhere in the industry, leaving room for others.

Add in SEC and IRS needs, and that’s almost 1,000 jobs — not just stopgaps, but honest, career-making positions — left empty by Republican intransigence, jobs functionally destroyed by conservatives’ deeply-felt hatred of the public sector. Legal unemployment could be a windfall for government, a renaissance where minds otherwise likely to be captured by profit, and made into apologists for destructive financial practices, could instead discover the virtues of public service. We could have a regulatory field designed from the bottom up and policed by the best and the brightest, whose paychecks would in turn effect a kind of stimulus for the middle class. We could have a generation of attorneys grow up to tell their children how government gave them a chance, when the private sector couldn’t. Instead we leave unemployed, ex-firm lawyers to collect their $405 a week (for now), and apply for corporate law jobs that won’t take them, because of a gap on their resume that Beltway Republicans could have filled. Maybe the private sector isn’t doing fine, but we continue to see sharp declines in government employment, and not because there isn’t work to be done. But Obama was right to highlight the need for public employment. Public hiring is a win for everyone — except for the party whose power depends on keeping unemployment high, and Wall Street bankers safe from even good faith regulation.

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