Tag: federal workforce

It’s Fall in Washington and the Livin’ Is Still Good

Drawing on new census data, Newsweek finds that seven of the 10 richest counties in America, including the top three, are in the Washington area. Newsweek’s former sister publication, the Washington Post, summarizes the data. Only three counties in the United States have a median household income over $100,000, and they’re all Washington suburbs.

As we’ve reported here before, these trends began even before the Obama administration started concentrating job creation on the federal sector. In the middle of the Bush bubble, the Washington Post reported:

The three most prosperous large counties in the United States are in the Washington suburbs, according to census figures released yesterday, which show that the region has the second-highest income and the least poverty of any major metropolitan area in the country.

Rapidly growing Loudoun County has emerged as the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation, with its households last year having a median income of more than $98,000. It is followed by Fairfax and Howard counties, with Montgomery County not far behind.

This of course reflects partly the high level of federal pay, as Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been detailing. And it also reflects the boom in lobbying as government comes to claim and redistribute more of the wealth produced in all those other metropolitan areas.

To slightly amend a ditty I posted a few years ago,

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,

Don’t let ‘em make software and sell people trucks,

Make ‘em be bureaucrats and lobbyists and such.

Federal Employees and College Costs

For a long time now I’ve been writing about how student aid fuels explosive college costs, while Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been highlighting the ever-cushier compensation of federal workers. Well, I’m pleased to have finally discovered a direct linkage between these topics: A new U.S. Office of Personnel  Management report on student loan repayment programs for federal workers.

According to the report, in calendar year 2009 “36 Federal agencies provided 8,454 employees with a total of more than $61.8 million in student loan repayment benefits.”

Now, 8,454 employees is a small chunk of the entire, roughly 2-million-person federal workforce. Still, $61.8 million isn’t anything to sniff at, and loan forgiveness is one more perk that needs to be considered when thinking of federal worker compensation. And then there’s the trajectory of forgiveness: According to the report, spending on student-loan forgiveness by federal agencies in 2009 was “more than 19 times” bigger than it was in 2002. Were things to continue at that rate, in 2017 the cost would be almost $1.2 billion, and then you’d almost be talking real money!

The important point from a student-aid perspective is to emphasize something that must never be forgotten: While many analyses of student aid will only count grants – because they don’t ever have to be paid back – as “aid,” the reality is that that hugely under counts the true cost of federal aid to taxpayers. In addition to grants, taxpayers fund all federal student loans (and eat them when they aren’t repaid), help finance work-study, and pay for federal expenses that people taking federal education tax credits don’t pay for. So when you look just at federal grants, the bill for taxpayers in the 2008-09 school year was about $24.8 billion (see table 1). Add in loans, credits, and work-study, however, and the bill suddenly balloons to nearly $116.8 billion.

“But wait,” will say the only-grants-are-aid crowd, “isn’t a lot of that $116.8 billion loan money that will be paid back?” Yup – it’s just that at least $61.8 million of that repayment is coming, once again, from beleaguered federal taxpayers. And that, to be sure, is just the tip of the federal loan-forgiveness iceberg.

Federal vs. Private Pay: A Response to OPM Director John Berry

The release of updated industry data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which show that the average federal employee continues to earn significantly more in compensation than the average private sector employee, has Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on the defensive.

In light of Berry’s assertion that Cato and other critics of federal pay are not “advancing a factually-oriented debate,” I’d like to make a few comments:  

First, the Washington Post reports that top OPM officials point to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that “[f]ederal employees made on average 22 percent less than workers in similar private-sector jobs.” To Berry’s credit, he dismissed that figure (along with comparisons made using BEA data) as being “faulty.”

Even if the BLS data comparison were true, it would only reflect wages. Federal benefits are generally more generous than those found in the private sector. We use the BEA data because it provides the most comprehensive accounting for the value of employee benefits.

Second, defenders like Berry point to higher education levels in the federal workforce relative to the private sector as a reason for the higher average compensation in the former. Because the aggregate private data includes industries with lower-skilled employees, like restaurants, defenders say comparing averages isn’t fair. 

However, breaking the BEA data out across 72 industries shows that the federal civilian workforce as an industry ranks sixth in terms of average compensation. As one would expect, average compensation in the restaurant and bar industry is dead last, and financial services are at the very top. (See this blog for the breakdown.)  

Third, in addition to ignoring benefits, defenders also ignore other perks of federal employment, including extreme job security. According to BLS data, in 2009 a private sector employee was more than three times more likely to be laid off or fired than a federal employee. As my colleague Chris Edwards points out in an essay on federal pay, federal workers also “receive generous holiday and vacation schedules, flexible work hours, training options, incentive awards, generous disability benefits, and union protections.”

Fourth, BLS data shows that a federal employee is more than 8 times less likely to quit than a private sector employee. We’ve argued that this indicates that federal employees recognize that the generous combination of wages, benefits and job security is hard to match in the private sector, so they stay put.

Defenders of federal pay haven’t adequately addressed this point. Attributing this discrepancy to a selfless motivation on the part of federal employees to serve the nation would be nonsense. A question that defenders need to answer is: if comparable private sector pay is so much better, why don’t more federal employees leave for the private sector? If they’re as high-skilled and educated as defenders claim, why settle for less than they’re worth?

The question of worth leads to the fifth, and in my opinion, the most important point.

I think the most valid criticism defenders of federal pay offer up is that we’re comparing “apples and oranges.” However, although they have a point, it’s not for the reasons they suggest.

In the private sector, an employee’s compensation is a reflection of his or her value in the market. For instance, one may not like that LeBron James makes millions of dollars playing basketball, but that’s what the market for professional basketball players says his production is worth. It’s no different for a considerably lower-paid employee in the restaurant industry.

What’s a federal employee worth? How does one measure a government employee’s production? Government isn’t subject to market disciplines. It can’t go out of business. It has no competitor. It doesn’t need to earn a profit or even break even. It doesn’t receive its revenue from voluntary transactions – its revenues are obtained via taxation, which is paid by individuals under compulsion and force.

Therefore, federal employee compensation is a function of the political process. Government employees are plugged into a pay scale, and can move up the scale by simply sticking around. President Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2011 budget that federal civilian employees receive an arbitrary across-the-board 1.4 percent pay increase. What does that figure have to do with a federal employee’s worth?

Federal and private employees are apples and oranges because the former is dependent on the latter for its existence. In the natural world, this relationship is call parasitism. This is not a pejorative statement. Every dollar earned by a federal employee is one less dollar that a private sector employee earns. One can argue over a federal employee’s value to society, but one cannot argue that the perceived value doesn’t come at the expense of the private sector.

According to the BEA, total federal wages and benefits amounted to $240 billion in 2009. That’s $240 billion in economic resources extracted from the private sector. Given that the private sector has lost millions of jobs while federal employment continues to expand, defenders of federal pay can’t just dismiss the critics as being “unfair.”

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Federal Employees Continue to Prosper

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its annual data on compensation levels by industry. The data show that the pay advantage enjoyed by federal civilian workers over private-sector workers continues to expand. This state of affairs is a thumb in the eye of the private sector, which continues to struggle with high unemployment. Many private sector employees have been forced to take pay and benefit cuts while continuing to fund generous federal employee compensation with their taxes.

Figure 1 looks at average wages. In 2009, the average wage for 1.95 million federal civilian workers was $81,258, which compared to an average $50,462 for the nation’s 101 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). The figure shows that the federal pay advantage (the gap between the lines) continued its steady increase over the past decade.

Figure 2 shows that the federal advantage is even more remarkable when worker benefits are included. In 2009, federal worker compensation averaged a whopping $123,049, which was more than double the private sector average of $61,051.

The disparity between average federal and private employee compensation has risen dramatically over the decade: from 66 percent in 2000 to 101 percent in 2009. Defenders of generous federal employee compensation point to the higher levels of education in the federal workforce. However, it’s doubtful that education accounts for the growing disparity between federal and private compensation.

Figure 3 shows that federal employees also enjoy much greater job security (data is from Table 18 here). In 2009, a private sector employee was more than three times more likely to be laid off or fired than a federal employee.

A good indicator of the adequacy of federal compensation is the quit rate. Figure 4 shows that in 2009, private sector employees quit at a rate that was more than eight times higher than federal employees (data is from Table 16 here). This indicates that federal employees recognize that the generous combination of wages, benefits, and job security is hard to match in the private sector, so they stay put.

Does the Government Need More Employees?

The Washington Post reports on the results of a survey of federal agencies on their hiring needs conducted by the Partnership for Public Service:

The federal government needs to hire more than 270,000 workers for ‘mission-critical’ jobs over the next three years… Mission-critical jobs are those positions identified by the agencies as being essential for carrying out their services. The study estimates that the federal government will need to hire nearly 600,000 people for all positions over President Obama’s four years – increasing the current workforce by nearly one-third.

Given the mind-set of most government managers I’ve encountered, I’m a little surprised they didn’t define all 600,000 as “mission critical.”  But 270,000 or 600,000, that’s a lot more folks living at the expense of the economically productive class of people in this country called taxpayers.

According to the Post:

The nation’s unsettled economy and high unemployment rate may ease the government’s task, as workers turn to the federal sector for job security and good benefits.

As my colleague Chris Edwards has been pointing out, the average federal employee is doing quite well in comparison to the average private sector employee when it comes to compensation.  See here, here, and here.

But here’s the line that made my skin crawl:

It [federal government] has to win the war for talent in order to win the multiple wars it’s fighting for the American people,’ said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, the think tank that conducted the survey of 35 federal agencies, representing nearly 99 percent of the federal workforce.

I could be wrong but I don’t think Stier is referring to Afghanistan and Iraq, so what are these “wars” for the American people?  Is he talking about the government’s counterproductive “war” on poverty?  Its failed “war” on drugs?  Its “war” on [insert societal ill here]?  There’s a war going on alright: it’s the federal government’s war against the productive men and women out there who have the fruits of their efforts gobbled up by that Leviathan on the Potomac.  The last thing the economy needs are the best and brightest this country has to offer wasting their abilities in some bureaucracy when they could be out starting businesses, creating new technologies, etc., etc.  As Chris Edwards likes to point out, would we rather Bill Gates had put his talents to work at the U.S. Department of Commerce?

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.