Federal Pay: Shoot the Messenger

Fedsmith.com ran a commentary today about the new data I cited on average federal worker compensation.

Most of the 31 comments on my blog and the commentary so far are hostile, and many take a “shoot the messenger” approach. Folks, it’s not my data. I didn’t use “fuzzy math” or “twist” the data. The data comes straight from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Yes, averages are only one indicator of pay gaps. But is it justified that the federal average has grown so much more quickly than the private sector average? Why should fringe benefits in the government workforce be so much more generous than in the private workforce?

And shouldn’t we have a “government of the people” rather than a class of elite overlords increasingly separated from the realities of taking risks, being fired, facing salary cuts in downturns, and having to work hard to get pay raises?

More E-voting Security Flaws

There’s been a lot of e-voting news this week. A California research team released a report demonstrating serious security flaws in the touch-screen voting machines in use there. And a Florida study found that some of the previously-uncovered flaws in the voting machines in use there had not been fixed.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there have been intense negotiations under way on the Holt-Davis legislation, which would outlaw paperless voting machines and require random audits of voting results. Under the legislation, every voting system would be required to produce a voter-verified paper ballot that would be the official record in the case of a recount.

It’s far from a perfect bill. My preference would be to outlaw touch-screen voting entirely, with or without a paper trail. One of the biggest flaws in the legislation is that it will allow states to use touch-screen voting machines with cheap cash-register-style thermal printers in the 2008 and 2010. In my view, using cheap printers would be a serious mistake; thermal printers frequently jam, and the paper tapes they produce are brittle and hard to deal with. Using such cheap printers dramatically increases the danger that election officials won’t take the paper trail requirement seriously.

Crucially, the Holt-Davis bill doesn’t require states to use touch-screen voting machines at all. States may, and in my opinion should, return to using old-fashioned optical-scan paper ballots. States have been using optical-scan technology for decades, and it has far fewer security flaws than computerized voting machines.

But if states are going to have time to implement changes in time for the 2008 election, Congress needs to act quickly. It would be unfair to state officials to pass legislation in 2008, just months before the election. The Holt-Davis bill isn’t perfect, but as Lawrence Nordin and I argue in an op-ed in The Hill today, it’s a step in the right direction.

Life without Farm Subsidies

When the House passed a massive farm bill last month, supporters justified ongoing subsidies as a “safety net” for family farmers. But a story in the New York Times this morning on the New Zealand dairy industry shows that farmers can survive and thrive in a free market without subsidies.

The story begins by describing how technologically sophisticated the country’s export-oriented dairy industry has had to become to meet global competition.

Dairy farming in New Zealand was not always this sophisticated. But ever since a liberal but free-market government swept to power in 1984 and essentially canceled handouts to farmers — something that just about every other government in an advanced industrial nation has considered both politically and economically impossible — agriculture here has never been the same.

The farming community was devastated — but not for long. Today, agriculture remains the lifeblood of New Zealand’s economy. There are still more sheep and cows here than people, their meat, milk and wool providing the country with its biggest source of export earnings. Most farms are still owned by families, but their incomes have recovered and output has soared.

For more on the lessons we should learn from New Zealand’s successful reforms, check out a Free Trade Bulletin we published in 2005 titled, “Miracle Down Under: How New Zealand Farmers Prosper without Subsidies or Protection.” The Kiwi example also featured prominently in an online debate I had in May with the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau.

The New Zealand dairy industry and our own fruit and vegetable sectors prove that farmers can thrive without government subsidies and trade protection. Yet it looks like we will be saddled for another five years with an expensive and anti-market farm bill.

Another Government Shutdown?

In Wednesday’s OpinionJournal.com Political Diary, John Fund writes that House minority whip Roy Blunt told reporters that he believes President Bush will deliver on his threat to veto the budget bills currently working their way through Congress. And with enough Republicans on record agreeing to uphold the veto, Blunt suggests we might end up witnessing a government shutdown later this year.

As you might recall from the mid-1990s, a federal government shutdown does not mean that every federal agency stops whatever it is they are doing. It’s only the non-essential ones that grind to a temporary halt – and, yes, there is an official definition of what constitutes essential government functions: mainly law enforcement and defense. That Congress continues to fund everything else is what keeps policy wonks like me busy.

Maybe Blunt’s statements are the opening gambit in a political game of chicken. There might be little interest in a government shutdown among the Democratic leaders in Congress. So the follow-up to an upheld Bush veto would likely be a compromise stop-gap measure (like a “continuing resolution” that puts the government on auto-pilot for the rest of the fiscal year) that results in much less spending than would otherwise occur in the course of an unimpeded appropriations cycle.

In either case, those of us who prefer divided government might have another example to add to our growing “Great Moments in Gridlock” list.

More Tax-Funded Media Bias

This morning on Marketplace Radio, there was a clear example of the bias toward government intervention that pervades so much of the establishment media. The story was titled

U.S. finishes last in fuel economy

Online, the introduction reads, “A new report reveals that the U.S. is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to fuel economy standards. Turns out even China tops us. ” The reporter introduces the topic of a new study on mandatory fuel economy rules in different countries and turns to the study’s author:

Drew Kodjak: At the bottom of the heap is, unfortunately, the United States.

Study co-author Drew Kodjak says Europe and Japan already have high mile per gallon rules, and they’re gonna get even better.

Kodjak: Out to 2012, Europe is projected to have a 49 MPG passenger fleet. And Japan a 47 in 2015.

Even China’s better than the American 27.5 miles a gallon.

Kodjak: So certainly a very big difference between the leaders and the laggers.

Notice the drumbeat: the United States is “last,” “at the bottom of the barrel,” “at the bottom of the heap,” a “lagger.” Stricter regulation is “better.” And all because our regulations are slightly less intrusive and burdensome than those in other countries.  I think we’re better off letting the market determine how much fuel efficiency American consumers want. But my point here is not to argue the issue, but simply to notice that Marketplace Radio, heard on tax-funded radio stations, didn’t argue the issue either. It just indicated to listeners that stricter regulation was “better,” and the United States was a “lagger … at the bottom of the heap” for having less stringent regulations.The last time I wrote about a similar one-sided, adjective-laden story on Marketplace, I referred to it as “unconscious liberal bias.” But really, how long can I keep seeing only unconscious bias? I noted in my previous item:

So where’s the bias? Let us count the ways. First, of all the studies in the world, only a few get this kind of extended publicity. It helps if they confirm the worldview of the producers. For instance, I don’t believe Marketplace covered this Swedish study (pdf) showing that the United States is wealthier than European countries (perhaps most provocatively, that Sweden is poorer than Alabama — perhaps because Europe has the kinds of laws the Heymann study advocates). Second, Heymann was allowed to appear without a critic. Third, the interviewer never asked a critical question. He never noted that the countries that Heymann was praising are poorer than the United States and in particular that many are suffering from high unemployment brought on by such expensive labor mandates. Fourth, look at the language of the questions: “lags behind,” “falling short,” “picking up the slack.”

The unstated, perhaps unconscious, premise is that countries should have mandatory paid leave and other such programs. If we don’t, we’re “falling short” and someone must “pick up the slack.” Language like that, which is very common in the media, posits government activism as the natural condition and then positions any lack of a government program as a failure or a problem.

Do Marketplace’s reporters, editors, and producers–and the reporters, editors, and producers at other media outlets–really not recognize that this sort of language biases their coverage?

Is Federal Pay Too High?

Chris Edwards writes below that the gap between federal pay and private-sector pay continues to widen, with federal employees now making more than twice as much as private employees. Meanwhile, a congressional committee is holding hearings on whether federal employees are underpaid or overpaid. Do you think they’ll hear testimony about why federal employees make twice as much as private-sector workers? Or about the fact that federal quit rates are far lower than private-sector quit rates, suggesting that most federal employees are pretty satisfied?

Bad News for Karl Marx

If there is a heaven (or, more appropriately, if there is a hell), Karl Marx must be in a sour mood. The Berlin Wall has disappeared. Communism is dead every place other than Cuba, North Korea, and certain faculty lounges. And now, former Soviet colonies are abandoning his concept of discriminatory taxation and instead adopting simple and fair flat tax regimes. A Czech article discusses the flat tax revolution, which is proceeding in spite of complaints from Western Europe’s uncompetitive welfare states:

Karl Marx might be shocked to see who’s doing what with tax systems in Central and Eastern Europe these days. After all, it’s the capitalist West that won’t abandon progressive tax systems, which Marx championed in The Communist Manifesto, while the former Soviet bloc countries are lining up to buck their old ideological fountainhead by moving to a … single tax rate for nearly all earners, regardless of income. Nowhere has this flat tax caught on more swiftly than in Central and Eastern Europe, where nine of world’s 13 countries to have adopted the system are located. It’s a reform movement that started in 1994 with Estonia, gained momentum when Russia saw a 25-percent increase in state revenue from personal income tax after implementing a 13-percent flat tax in 2001, and culminated with Slovakia’s much-lauded adoption of a single 19-percent rate on income, corporate, and valued added tax three years later. …

Few, if any, of the reforms in Central and Eastern Europe meet the definition of a true flat tax because they include deductions, exemptions, and other exceptions. … Several Western European leaders complain that the lower tax rates … give the newer European Union states an unfair advantage in attracting business.