Tag: benefits

The President’s Health Care Tax

As Michael Cannon discussed in an earlier post, the White House is trying to claim that health care “reform” does not mean higher taxes. This is a two-pronged issue. First, there is a mandate to purchase health insurance. Second, there is a tax (the White House calls it a fee) on people who fail to purchase a policy.

The White House claims this mandate is akin to state-level requirements for the purchase of health insurance, and that the newly-insured people will be getting some value (a health insurance policy) in exchange for their money. These assertions are defensible, but that does not change the fact that a tax is being imposed.

It might be plausible to argue that the mandate is not a tax if the value of the insurance policy to the individual was equal to the cost. But since these are people who are not buying policies, their behavior reveals that this obviously cannot be true. So this means that they will be worse off under Obama’s plan and that at least some of the cost should be considered a tax.

The Social Security payroll tax allows a good analogy. Labor economists correctly argue that the payroll tax functions, in part, as a “premium” for what can be considered a government-provided annuity. As such, when we try to measure the disincentive effect of the payroll tax, it is appropriate to include the perceived value of future Social Security benefits (for most Americans, especially with average or above-average incomes, the “rate of return” is very low or negative, so a substantial share of the payroll tax is a tax both in the legal sense and economic-distortion sense). The same is true of a mandatory health insurance policy (even if the money does not go through the government’s hands).

On the broader issue of paying money and getting something of value in return, another analogy is helpful. A share of the gasoline excise tax is used for road construction and maintenance. We all benefit from roads, even if we don’t drive (let’s set aside issues such as whether the benefits equal the costs, whether the federal government should be involved, etc). Does that somehow mean the gasoline excise tax is not a tax? Of course not.

Turning now to the excise tax, the Administration’s argument that this is a fee is even less defensible. The Baucus legislation in the Senate Finance Committee explicitly references an excise tax. Equally revealing (and even more ominous), the IRS is charged with collecting the fee. The White House can argue that the tax - in the economic sense - is lower than the fee if something of value is exchanged. But the tax is still there.

Rather than play games, the White House should make an open argument for bigger government. The fact that the Administration prefers to be deceptive says a lot about the underlying merits of their proposal.

Wall Street, Big Oil, and Federal Workers

What do workers in finance, energy, and the federal government have in common? Very generous compensation packages, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

When I posted federal compensation data last week, I received a flood of comments that disputed my contention that federal workers are overpaid. A common retort was that “federal workers are not burger flippers.” That’s true, but workers in the computer systems design, computer manufacturing, and chemicals industries are not burger flippers either, yet those folks also earn less than federal workers, on average.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy (Table 6.2D). Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, including wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation, which, indeed, includes burger flipping. (I’ve simplified the names of the industries in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the seventh highest average compensation of 72 industries. Compensation in the federal civilian workforce is topped only by compensation in three finance-related and three energy-related industries.

Should federal compensation be so high? We are always told that the 1.9 million federal civilian workers are “public servants,” implying that they are selflessly sacrificing for the good of the nation. I’m sure that most federal workers are dedicated employees, but looking at these compensation levels, I don’t see much sacrificing going on.

It is true that there are some elite agencies in the government that need to have high compensation levels. But the bulk of the federal workforce is in sprawling bureaucracies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has a huge army of about 100,000 workers. The main job of USDA workers is to administer farm aid, food stamps, and other subsidy programs. That sort of paper-pushing work is not rocket science.

The other point I made last week is that the BEA data makes clear that federal compensation has skyrocketed this decade. Figure 2 provides more support for that claim.

Federal civilian workers had the fifth highest average compensation increase among 72 industries between 2000 and 2008. Average federal civilian compensation increased 57 percent, which compared to the overall average increase in the private sector of 31 percent.

Let’s slow this freight train down. Federal pay ought to be frozen for a period of years, at least until the economy recovers and private sector pay starts catching up.

Federal Pay: Response to the Critics

My post yesterday on federal worker pay generated a large and aggressive response from federal workers, both in my inbox and on websites such as Fedsmith.com. (See also Federal Times and Govexec). Here are four points raised in criticism:

First, people accuse me of producing distorted data somehow. Actually, it’s essentially just raw Bureau of Economic Analysis data, but the data is usually overlooked by the media because I don’t think the BEA puts out a press release on it. Anyway, the average wage data is from BEA Table 6.6D. The average compensation data is simply total compensation (Table 6.2D) divided by the number of workers (Table 6.5D).

Second, people argue that reporting overall averages for wages and compensation is somehow illegitimate. People email me comments like “my federal salary is only $50,000, yet you claim that federal workers make $79,000.” All I can say to folks like this is that there must be a federal worker out there making $108,000 who balances you off.

Third, people argue that a better analysis would be to compare similar jobs in the private and public sectors, rather than looking at overall averages. I agree that that would be very useful. Unfortunately, the BEA data is not broken down that way. At the same time, the BEA data provides the most comprehensive accounting for the value of employee benefits of any data source. Benefits are a very important part of federal compensation, and so that’s why I look to the BEA data.

Fourth, many people argue that the federal government has an elite workforce with many highly educated people. Certainly, that’s an important factor to consider. However, that is the reason why I focused on the pay trend over the last eight years. The federal worker compensation advantage rose from 66 percent in 2000 to 100 percent in 2008. Has the composition of the federal workforce really changed that much in just eight years to justify such a big relative gain? I doubt it.

A final consideration is to look at a “market test” of the adequacy of compensation in the public sector–the quit rate. The voluntary quit rate in the federal government is just one-third or less the quit rate in the private sector (Table 16 near the bottom here).

That is strongly suggestive of ”golden handcuffs” in federal employment. While many federal workers probably grumble about their jobs (as many private sector workers do), they know that the overall package of wages, benefits, and extreme job security (Table 18 here) is very hard to match in the competitive private market, and so they stay put.

Federal Pay Continues Rapid Ascent

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its annual data on compensation levels by industry (Tables 6.2D, 6.3D, and 6.6D here). The data show that the pay advantage enjoyed by federal civilian workers over private-sector workers continues to expand.

The George W. Bush years were very lucrative for federal workers. In 2000, the average compensation (wages and benefits) of federal workers was 66 percent higher than the average compensation in the U.S. private sector. The new data show that average federal compensation is now more than double the average in the private sector.

Figure 1 looks at average wages. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal civilian workers was $79,197, which compared to an average $50,028 for the nation’s 108 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). The figure shows that the federal pay advantage (the gap between the lines) is steadily increasing.

Figure 2 shows that the federal advantage is even more pronounced when worker benefits are included. In 2008, federal worker compensation averaged a remarkable $119,982, which was more than double the private sector average of $59,909.

What is going on here? Members of Congress who have large numbers of federal workers in their districts relentlessly push for expanding federal worker compensation. Also, the Bush administration had little interest in fiscal restraint, and it usually got rolled by the federal unions. The result has been an increasingly overpaid elite of government workers, who are insulated from the economic reality of recessions and from the tough competitive climate of the private sector.

It’s time to put a stop to this. Federal wages should be frozen for a period of years, at least until the private-sector economy has recovered and average workers start seeing some wage gains of their own. At the same time, gold-plated federal benefit packages should be scaled back as unaffordable given today’s massive budget deficits. There are many qualitative benefits of government work—such as extremely high job security—so taxpayers should not have to pay for such lavish government pay packages.

Update: I respond to some criticisms of this post here.

Update 2: Compensation data for federal workers vs. other industries here.

Update 3: In September, the government revised the data for private sector workers. On 9/30/09, Figure 1 and the related text were updated to reflect this change.

Co-ops: A ‘Public Option’ By Another Name

Politico reports that the so-called “public option” provision could be dropped from the highly controversial health care bill currently being debated throughout the country:

President Barack Obama and his top aides are signaling that they’re prepared to drop a government insurance option from a final health-reform deal if that’s what’s needed to strike a compromise on Obama’s top legislative priority…. Obama and his aides continue to emphasize having some competitor to private insurers, perhaps nonprofit insurance cooperatives, but they are using stronger language to downplay the importance that it be a government plan.

As I have said before, establishing health insurance co-operatives is a poor alternative to the public option plan. Opponents of a government takeover of the health care system should not be fooled.

Government-run health care is government-run health care no matter what you call it.

The health care “co-op” approach now embraced by the Obama administration will still give the federal government control over one-sixth of the U.S. economy, with a government-appointed board, taxpayer funding, and with bureaucrats setting premiums, benefits, and operating rules.

Plus, it won’t be a true co-op, like rural electrical co-ops or your local health-food store — owned and controlled by its workers and the people who use its services. Under the government plan, the members wouldn’t choose its officers — the president would.

The real issue has never been the “public option” on its own. The issue is whether the government will take over the U.S. health care system, controlling many of our most important, personal, and private decisions. Even without a public option, the bills in Congress would make Americans pay higher taxes and higher premiums, while government bureaucrats determine what insurance benefits they must have and, ultimately, what care they can receive.

Obamacare was a bad idea with an explicit “public option.” It is still a bad idea without one.

Education Has Diminishing Returns!?

Inside Higher Ed features a terrific essay today by economist Michael Rizzo. Rizzo takes issue with President Obama’s goals to have all Americans complete at least one post-secondary year of education or job training, and for the nation to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. I’ve opined about this before, but Rizzo does it much more comprehensively, noting especially that - surprise! - education can suffer from “diminishing returns.”

Here’s the meat of Rizzo’s piece, but you really should read the whole thing:

More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.

While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits when starting from scratch, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it – just as eating that fourth doughnut brings you less satisfaction than did the second. What if these so-called “diminishing returns” never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly. Dedicating more resources to the production of educated workers must come at the expense of resources dedicated to creating other important capital goods, institutions, or consumption goods. An individual cannot dedicate 24 hours in a day to everything, nor can society dedicate all of its resources to everything. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?

Market Bets that ObamaCare Won’t Cut Costs

According to Don Johnson of The Health Care Blog:

Speculators seem to be betting that a watered down health insurance reform bill won’t hurt health insurers, hospitals, drug makers or medical device and supply manufacturers.

Stocks for almost all of these health sectors and for exchange trade funds that track health stock indexes turned higher last week.

In other words, those with real money at stake don’t believe that health reform will hurt the firms that make a living off of America’s highly inefficient health sector – President Obama’s assurances notwithstanding.

Johnson provides seven possible explanations for this development, including:

3. If the very liberal Coastal Democrats who lead Congress and most of the five committees drafting health insurance legislation want to get the support of Democrats from Western, Midwestern and Southern states, they’ll have to up Medicare payments to providers in those states. This is bullish for hospital chains, which operate mostly in the fly-over states…

6. Proposals to tax millionaires to pay for covering the uninsured and increasing benefits for others are in trouble, if not dead on arrival.  The economy’s in no shape to be stalled by tax hikes, and there appear to be enough Democrats opposed to the tax to stop it.

7. While the so-called Blue Dog Democrats are stalling health insurance reform for economic and ideological reasons, the Congressional Black Caucus has made it clear that it won’t support a bill that the Blue Dogs will support. Throw in the opposition by anti-abortionists who don’t want the legislation to use taxpayers money to pay for abortions, and you have a pretty complex political problem for President Obama, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). While the Speaker claimed Sunday that she has the votes to pass health insurance reform, few believe her.