Public sector vs. private: What would Scoop say?

It’s shaping up as this year’s great divide, the public vs. private sector.

We heard about it last week, when President Barack Obama declared that “the private sector is doing fine.”

That was followed by GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s statement that Obama “says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? … It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Speaking as one of the American people, I don’t think it’s all that simple.

The verbal barbs came after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, survived a June 5 recall vote. Walker previously had moved to eliminate collective bargaining for many state workers.

In a piece published Wednesday on The Herald’s Opinion page, Richard S. Davis of the Washington Research Council argues that private-sector workers chafe at paying taxes to support generous retirement and health benefits for public workers.

Get used to it. In a presidential election year, what’s complicated is made simple. That’s how sound bites work.

My employer is The Daily Herald, owned by The Washington Post Co. I used to work for the East Oregonian Publishing Co., a family-owned newspaper company. Before that, it was the University of Washington. As a college newspaper editor, I was paid — in the public sector — to learn a trade that has kept me in the private sector 34 years.

And my high school summer job was teaching crafts to little kids as a $2.35-an-hour public worker for Spokane Parks &Recreation.

Mostly, I have earned a living in the private sector. Yet I’m puzzled by all the political sniping over which employers are and aren’t job creators. The city of Spokane, the UW and the media companies for which I have worked are all job creators. They created my jobs.

Many of us have worked for both government entities and profit-making businesses. Most of us, in the end, will have benefited from government programs.

All of us, no matter where we earn our money, go out and spend some of it — for housing, food and clothing, medical care, transportation, everything that makes the economy hum along.

My sister, politically more conservative than I am, has spent nearly 40 years as a public school teacher. My father, politically more conservative than his children, spent his long career in both the private and public sectors. He has well-deserved retirement benefits to show for it.

A World War II veteran, he was first in the U.S. Army. In civilian life, he worked many years at Spokane’s private utility, the Washington Water Power Co., now called Avista. Through my youth, he was an officer in the Washington Air National Guard. He has also overseen a family wheat farm.

My father’s working life — the career of just one American — shines a light on how complex our economy is, and how public and private work and benefits are intertwined.

Everyone in the military has a taxpayer-supported job. Workers in uniform aren’t the ones we think of when we hear that label, “public sector.”

Last month, this community celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sen. Henry M. Jackson. The man we called “Scoop” spent some time in the private sector, as an Everett Herald newspaper carrier. His distinguished career was in the public sector, first as Snohomish County’s elected prosecutor, then as a member of Congress and the U.S. Senate.

A powerful member of the Senate Arms Services Committee, Jackson was sometimes called the “senator from Boeing.” He helped bring government contracts to the Boeing Co., which now employs more than 80,000 workers in our state. Jackson pushed for the creation of Naval Station Everett and other military installations in the region, where thousands now have jobs.

Many local families owe a debt of gratitude to Jackson, who was both public servant and job creator. And Snohomish County is lucky to have big employers from both camps, the public and private sectors.

Maybe it’s worth having the public-private debate. It needs more thought than a silly sound bite.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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