November 13, 2010

MICKEY KAUS: Psst! Rand Paul Was Right About Federal Pay. “So you have apples in that pay basket! When I heard that Rand Paul had claimed that average federal employee’s compensation (including benefits) was more than $120,000, I thought that can’t be true. Then I read Media Matters’ lengthy response to the claim.”

Plus this:

P.S.: When people are outraged at the $120,000 figure, I think, they aren’t making an implicit apples to oranges comparison. They’re making an apples to themselves comparison. They know what they do and what they’re making. They have a pretty good, rough idea of what federal employees do (some are highly skilled doctors, some are equal opportunity compliance facilitators). They know that they themselves have had to take pay freezes and cuts and endure waves of corporate downsizing while the federal government hasn’t been through anything like that. In fact, pay for individual federal workers has kept growing each year thanks to both cost-of living raises and “step” increases. The federal pay escalator kept on running right through the recesssion. Meanwhile, federal workers enjoy job security they can only dream of.

They know, in short, that as a result of this Great Divergence (sorry Tim!) they don’t make anything like $120,000, but they pay taxes to support the government workers who do—and they’re outraged. Oranges have nothing to do with it.

Indeed.

UPDATE: Reader Dan Hollenbaugh writes:

Glenn, it’s distressing to see you climb on the bandwagon for federal pay cuts. I have 29 years of civil service. I’m an aerospace engineer at Redstone Arsenal. There are a few things I’d like to point out to help explain the numbers you’re quoting:

1. The federal government has no low-paying jobs. We don’t hire janitors or ditchdiggers or record clerks – all of that work is contracted out. With the rise of office automation, the GS-4 secretary positions have gone away too – we all do our own typing now. The clerical jobs have completely disappeared. Everybody on the payroll now is a professional of some type.

2. We’re paycapped. Nobody here can make more than a congressman’s official salary. A young professional in a large corporation has the chance to eventually make big bucks – those multimillion dollar salaries with bonuses and stock options that top executives make. That’s not possible for us. That’s what we gave up to get the security that civil service offers. The best we can hope for is a decent salary, never a high one. Would you take that from us too?

3. We went through long hiring freezes in the ’80s and ’90s. The result is that most of the engineers I work with are senior people in higher pay grades. There are very few engineers in the 30-45 age range. Senior people in any organization make larger salaries. The downside of that is that over 50% of the workforce is eligible for retirement within the next 10 years. You’ll see the average salary go way down then, but so will the experience level.

My annual pay is $150K, plus a decent benefits package. The guys with my skills and experience in aerospace firms make $200K and more, with comparable benefits packages. Once again, I went for the security, plus I’m serving the Army, the service I started in and love.

4. Finally, where the hell were all of you people in the ’80s, when I was making $22K a year as a young engineer, and federal salaries were well behind the civilian secto? I didn’t hear a lot of complaining about lack of fairness then.

Good points, but once you start class-envy politics, which the Dems have done, this kind of thing is inevitable. If a 250K income makes you one of the hated-rich, then a two-civil-servant household is pretty much there. And this blowback is perhaps fair, since federal employees tend to vote heavily Democratic. If people still believed in a neutral civil service, perhaps sentiment would be different. Meanwhile, the low-pay-for-security trade isn’t really there anymore, as federal employees now often make more, not less, than people in comparable private sector jobs where there’s also no security.

Meanwhile, reader Troy Hinrichs writes:

Regarding federal pay… not only do we make an “apples to self” comparison… we look at our men and women in the military — federal employees all — and realize they don’t make squat compared to bean counters living in Virginia. They really are public servants in myriad ways… I would support paying an E-7 120,000 a year over ANY EEOC compliance officer. Would that they could switch pay scales.

I think a lot of people feel that way.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader John Miller writes:

I’d agree, in part, with Mr Hollenbaugh’s comment. There are people in Federal government doing useful work that deserve to be compensated for it.

But…if we take him at his point that there are no low-level staff in Federal employment, how in Hell could government have gotten so large?

Perhaps it’s true that in his area a substantial percentage of the staff will retire in a decade, but when so much of the government has grown so explosively over the past decade that can’t be true everywhere. Which means that in a decade the engineers will be gone and the recently-fattened bureaucracies will be even more ascendant.

It’s part of Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. And Katie Kring emails:

Here’s an apples-to-apples comparison: I was, in a former life, a box office manager working in live theatre. I was working at a non-profit, and making $30k a year, which was a little on the low side, but in range. I had the opportunity to interview for a similar job, working at a city-run performing arts center, getting 3 weeks paid vacation plus something like 12 paid holidays, for $72k/year. Now, the cost of living in that other city was a bit higher, but nowhere near enough to justify the discrepancy. That’s not a federal job, but it pretty neatly illustrates the difference between rigidly scaled governmental pay and what-the-market-will-bear private pay. After all, I would have happily taken that job for, say, $55-60k!

Indeed.

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