Tag: government workers

Government and GDP

The expansion in government and poor state of the economy got me thinking about how government growth is reflected in measured gross domestic product. So here is a wonky look at the treatment of government in the Bureau of Economic Analysis GDP data.

Data notes: By “government,” I mean total federal, state, and local. For 2009, I’m using the average of second and third quarter data. All data from BEA Tables here.

GDP measures total production. In 2009, government production was 20.7 percent of U.S. GDP.  Government production is roughly the sum of government value-added (the stuff it produces itself) and government purchases. The first item, government value-added, was 12.4 percent of GDP and mainly consists of employee compensation. For example, the Pentagon produces output by adding together fighter pilots, which it hires, and fighter jets, which it buys.

A more commonly cited measure of government is total government spending. In 2009, that was 38 percent of GDP. The difference between this number (38 percent) and the production number (20.7 percent) is 17.3 percent, and represents the sum of government interest payments and transfer payments to individuals and businesses.

Figure 1 shows how the three measurements of government size have changed over time. Government production has remained fairly stable as a share of the economy, but total government spending has soared. The growing gap between these two lines mainly represents the massive growth in transfer (or subsidy) programs, such as Social Security.

12-10-09 edwardschart

How Does Government Growth Affect Measured GDP?

Consider how the recent rise in government spending might have affected measured GDP. First, let’s look first at the production part of government spending. The important thing here is that we don’t know how much government workers actually produce because their output is generally not sold on the market. As a consequence, the BEA measures their output as the sum of their compensation amounts. Also, we know the dollar value of the things the government buys, but we don’t know how much those intermediate goods actually produce when in the hands of the government. So the government production portion of GDP seems kind of shaky, despite the superb efforts of the BEA to assemble all the data.

Anyway, let’s say the government adds a new worker with pay of $100,000, the BEA measures GDP being boosted by $100,000. But it might be that the worker doesn’t actually produce anything useful, and he adds zero to the economy’s actual output.

If the government hires that worker away from the private sector, private GDP would go down by about $100,000. As a result, overall measured GDP would be unchanged. But that would be incorrect because the economy’s actual output fell by $100,000.

So let’s say the government spent $100 billion to hire a million new government workers. Let’s say half of those workers produced as much value as their salaries, but the other half produced nothing of value. The result of this government expansion would be that the BEA would overestimate U.S. GDP by $50 billion. (I am assuming that the government’s hiring doesn’t change the unemployment rate. I’m also ignoring the distortionary effects of higher taxes).  

Now let’s look at the transfer or subsidy portion of government, which equals 17.3 percent of GDP.

Let’s say the government increases transfers by $100 billion, perhaps by increasing Social Security benefits, and funding it by higher taxes on wages.

If there are no behavioral responses among taxpayers and benefit recipients, measured GDP would be unchanged, which would be the correct answer.

But of course there would be behavioral responses. The higher taxes would induce people to work less and the higher Social Security benefits would induce people to save less and retire earlier. The results would be that output would fall, and that would be accurately reflected in measured GDP.

In sum, my purpose here was not to explore how a growing government affects the economy, which is a huge subject. Instead, it was to explore whether measured GDP accurately reflects changes in the size of government. The answer appears to be that the transfer part of government spending (17.3 percent of GDP) would be accurately reflected in a shrinking GDP, but that the production portion of government spending (20.7 percent of GDP) may not be. If workers produce less output when they work for government than when they work in the private economy, the latter portion of measured GDP will be overstated.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

The National Park Service announced Friday that it has removed its superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park and reassigned him to work in a cultural resources office as an assistant to the associate director. His job duties have not yet been determined.

John A. Latschar said Thursday that his demotion was in response to the public disclosure of Internet activity in which he viewed more than 3,400 “sexually-explicit” images over a two-year period on his government computer – a violation of department policy. The misconduct, which Latschar acknowledged in a sworn statement, was found during a year-long investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general and was documented in an internal Aug. 7 report obtained by The Washington Post.

The reassignment came after a Post report Monday about the results of the investigator’s forensic analysis of Latschar’s computer hard drive, which showed “significant inappropriate user activity” and numbered the “most sexually-explicit” images at 3,456….

David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service, said Latschar’s annual salary of $145,000 and his pension will not be affected. The cultural resources office is based in Washington, but Latschar will commute from his home in Gettysburg to a Park Service office about 30 miles away in Frederick, Barna said.

Hey, can I get that deal? If I download 3,500 pornographic images on my office computer, can I get reassigned to a telecommuting job with no defined duties at my current salary and pension? As superintendent of a very visible national park, Latschar had a job with a lot of pressure, lots of criticism, management challenges, etc. Now he’s going to be some sort of undefined “assistant to an associate director in a cultural resources office,” but he won’t have to actually go to the cultural resources office, and he’ll still get the same pay and benefits he was getting for doing a real, stressful job. Does anyone in the federal government ever get fired?

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.

Those Who “Serve” Us Celebrate

adamsThose who think that the college-educated, or soon to be so, should have more and more of their education funded by taxpayers – whether those taxpayers themselves attended college or not – are shooting off the fireworks a bit early this year, celebrating increasingly generous federal aid going into effect today.

Perhaps the most galling part of all the increasingly free-flowing aid is how much is being targeted at people who work in “public service.” Ignoring for the moment that the people who make our computers, run our grocery stores, play professional baseball, and on and on are all providing the public with things it wants and needs, to make policy on the assumption that people in predominantly government jobs are somehow selflessly sacrificing for the common good is to blatantly disregard reality.

Consider teachers, as I have done in-depth. According to 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, adjusted to reflect actual time worked, teachers earn more on an hourly basis than accountants, registered nurses, and insurance underwriters. Elementary school teachers – the lowest paid among elementary, middle, and high school educators – made an average of $35.49 an hour, versus $32.91 for accountants and auditors, $32.54 for RNs, and $31.31 for insurance underwriters.

So much for the notion that teachers get paid in nothing but children’s smiles and whatever pittance a cruel public begrudgingly permits them.

How about government employees?

Chris Edwards has done yeoman’s work pointing out how well compensated federal bureaucrats are, noting that in 2007 the average annual wage of a federal civilian employee was $77,143, versus $48,035 for the average private sector worker. And when benefits were factored in, federal employee compensation was twice as large as private sector. But don’t just take Chris’s word and data to see that federal employment is far from self-sacrificial – take the Washington Post’s “Jobs” section!

And it’s not just federal employees or teachers who are making some pretty pennies serving John Q. Public. As a recent Forbes article revealed, it’s people at all levels of government, from firefighters to municipal clerks:

In public-sector America things just get better and better. The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector’s $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

Recently, my wife and I have been watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, and I couldn’t help but make the observation: In Adams’ time, many of those who served the public truly did so at great expense to themselves, often risking their very lives and asking little, if anything, from the public in return. Today, in contrast, many if not most of those who supposedly serve the public do so at no risk to themselves – indeed, unparalleled security is one of the great benefits of their employment – but are treated as if their jobs are extraordinary sacrifices. And so, as we head into Independence Day, it seems the World has once again been turned upside down: In modern America, the public works mightily to serve its servants, not the other way around.

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

Today’s column, like many of the Federal Diary columns, is about how to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of federal workers. What about the taxpayers who foot the bill? To provide some balance, the Post ought to at least have a side-by-side column entitled “Federal Taxpayers’ Diary.”