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?
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.
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.
In re‐appointing Bernanke to another four year term as Fed chairman, President Obama completes his embrace of bailouts, easy money and deficits as the defining characteristics of his economic agenda.
Bernanke, along with Secretary Geithner (then New York Fed president) were the prime movers behind the bailouts of AIG and Bear Stearns. Rather than “saving capitalism,” these bailouts only spread panic at considerable cost to the taxpayer. As evidenced in his “financial reform” proposal, Obama does not see bailouts as the problem, but instead believes an expanded Fed is the solution to all that is wrong with the financial sector. Bernanke also played a central role as the Fed governor most in favor of easy money in the aftermath of the dot‐com bubble — a policy that directly contributed to the housing bubble. And rather than take steps to offset the “global savings glut” forcing down rates, Bernanke used it as a rationale for inaction.
Perhaps worse than Bush and Obama’s rewarding of failure in the private sector via bailouts is the continued rewarding of failure in the public sector. The actors at institutions such as the Federal Reserve bear considerable responsibility for the current state of the economy. Re‐appointing Bernanke sends the worst possible message to both the American public and to government in general: not only will failure be tolerated, it will be rewarded.
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 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.
It appears that the Obama administration has decided to disown the venerable Senator. No wonder. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the ten‐year cost of Sen. Kennedy’s bill at $1 trillion, but admitted that its analysis was incomplete.
Now the consulting group HSI Network, LLC comes foward with an estimate of $4 trillion:
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) have proposed a health reform bill called the Affordable Health Choice Act (AHC) that seeks to reduce the number of uninsured and increase health system efficiency and quality. The draft legislation was introduced on June 9th, 2009. The proposal provided adequate information to suggest what the impact would be of AHC using the ARCOLA™ simulation model. AHC would include an individual mandate as well as a pay or plan provision. In addition, it would include a means‐tested subsidy with premium supports available for those up to 500% of the federal poverty level. Public plan options in three tiers: Gold, Silver and Bronze are proposed in a structure similar to that of the Massachusetts Connector, except that it is called The Gateway. These public plan options would contain costs by reimbursing providers up to 10% above current reimbursement rates. There is no mention of removing the tax exclusion associated with employer sponsored health insurance. There is also no mention of changes to Medicare and Medicaid, other than fraud prevention, that could provide cost‐savings for the coverage expansion proposed. Below, we summarize the impact of the proposed plan in terms of the reduction on uninsured, the 2010 cost, as well as the ten year cost of the plan in 2010 dollars.
HELP Affordable Health Choices Act
- Uninsurance is reduced by 99% to cover approximately 47,700,000 people
- Subsidy — Tax Recovery = Net cost:
- $279,000,000,000 subsidy to the individual market
- $180,000,000,000 subsidy to the ESI market with
- Net cost: $460,500,000,000 (annual)
- Net cost: $4,098,000,000,000 (10 year)
- Private sector crowd out: ~79,300,000 lives
HSI figures that a lot more people will take advantage of federal health insurance subsidies, driving costs up far more than indicated by the CBO figure. (H/t to Phil Klein at the American Spectator online.)
Of course, no one knows what the bill would really cost in operation. But the history of social insurance and welfare programs is sky‐rocketing expense well beyond original projections. Go back and look at the initial cost estimates for Medicare and Social Security, and you will run from the room simultaneously laughing and crying.
Health care reform would be serious business at any moment of time, but especially when the country faces $10 trillion in new debt over the next decade on top of the existing $11 trillion national debt. And with the $100 trillion Medicare/Social Security financial bomb lurking in the background, rushing to leap off the financial cliff with this sort of health care legislation would be utterly irresponsible.