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.

Why Is Marijuana Still Illegal?

According to Rasmussen Reports, a majority of Americans believe that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana:

Pot or not, that is the question.

Fifty-one percent (51%) of American adults say alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Just 19% disagree and say pot is worse.

But 25% say both are equally dangerous. Just two percent (2%) say neither is dangerous.

Younger adults are more likely than their elders to view alcohol as the more dangerous of the two.

Fifty-three percent (53%) of women say alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, compared to 48% of men. Men by a two-to-one margin over women say pot is riskier, but women are more inclined to say both are dangerous.

Unmarried adults are more critical of alcohol than those who are married. Those with children at home think alcohol is more dangerous than those without kids living with them.

So why are pot users still being tossed into jail?

There are lots of good reasons why people shouldn’t use drugs.  But making drug use illegal only compounds the social consequences, turning a moral and health problem into a legal and criminal problem.  The result is the worst of both worlds:  all of the problems of drug use plus all of the problems of prohibition.  Unfortunately, those consequences flow overseas, further undermining fragile societies such as Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico and ultimately American security objectives as well.

It’s time to call off the Drug War.

Costa Rican President Calls for New Constitution

President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has joined the trend in Latin America of calling for a new constitution that would expand executive powers and get rid of “unnecessary checks” on the president’s authority. Although Arias has less than 9 months left in office and can’t run for reelection, his brother and current minister of the presidency — a primer minister of sorts — has openly said he’s interested in running for president in 2014. A new constitution with expanded executive powers would fit him just fine.

Arias’ call has been received with broad skepticism. La Nación, Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, said that trying to make the government more efficient through a constitutional convention was like “killing a mouse with cannon fire.” The newspaper also said that the idea of dismantling the checks and balances on executive power sounds like an effort to create an “imperial presidency.” Maybe we should send our colleague Gene Healy to study the case.

However, the most disturbing aspect of Arias’ call was his harsh criticism of the media. Borrowing from the script of Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Arias described news outlets as “corporations interested in making a profit” that don’t necessarily pursue the “public good.” He asked the media to “tone down” its criticism of government officials, and said that journalists “should understand their role within a higher framework.” He complained that news outlets claim to represent the public interest, without any control or accountability.

That a politician with a thin skin complains about media criticism is hardly news. However, the fact that Arias did it while calling for a new constitution that would change the institutional and legal framework of Costa Rica (including the role of the media) should be interpreted as a threat to freedom of the press.

Most people outside Costa Rica see Arias as an accomplished democrat who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Central America during the 1980s. Most recently he attempted to mediate the conflict in Honduras after Manuel Zelaya was (legally) removed from office. However, many people in Costa Rica fret about what they perceive as an increasingly controlling style of governing by Arias and his brother, intimidating the media, bullying the opposition, crowding key government posts with allies and cronies, and now hoping for a dynastical succession in 2014.

Friday Links

  • Nearly 30 European countries have agreed to end their government mail monopolies in the next five years. The U.S. Postal Service has estimated losses of $7 billion this year. It’s time to privatize.

Fresh OLC Memos

The Justice Department just released some more Office of Legal Counsel memoranda. As you may already know, these legal interpretations facilitated the worst of the Bush administration’s approach toward terrorism — forget the lawful tools that we have on hand; let’s craft a whole new legal regime that tosses out barriers to executive authority and upends the rule of law. Posse Comitatus and the First Amendment got you down? No problem. Non-Detention Act preventing you from detaining American citizens as enemy combatants? Whatever. Geneva Conventions, War Crimes Act, and Convention Against Torture barring coercive interrogation? Crank it to eleven.

Jack Balkin has a good summary with some highlights. On Iraq:

On October 21st, 2002, five days after Congress authorization of the use of military force against Iraq, John Yoo explains why it was legally irrelevant that Congress authorized the Iraq War, noting that the President could have attacked Iraq without anyone’s permission. Delightfully, Yoo cites President Clinton’s use of force in Bosnia, which Yoo himself had questioned when the Republicans were out of power. But perhaps being in power gave him a different perspective.

Yoo sums up his argument this way: “There is no expression in the Constitution of any requirement that the President seek authorization from Congress prior to using military force. There is certainly nothing in the text of the Constitution that explicitly requires Congress to consent before the President may exercise his authority as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief to command U.S. military forces.” I’m glad we straightened that out.

This should not be surprising. The same claim of unitary executive authority was bandied about in the run-up to the Gulf War. Guess who said this:

It was my view at the time [that] we were absolutely committed to getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait one way or the other, no matter what we had to do. We had to have the Saudis as allies in that venture, but if no-one else had been with us if it had just been the United States and Saudi Arabia, without the United Nations, without the authorisation of the Congress, we were prepared to go ahead. I argued in public session before the Congress that we did not need Congressional authorisation. That in fact we had the Truman precedent from the Korean crisis of 1950 that the Senate and all ratified the United Nations charter. By this time the UN Security Council had authorised the use of force back in November saying that we could do it by January 15th if he wasn’t out by then and that legally and from a constitutional stand point we had all the authority we needed.

I was not enthusiastic about going to Congress to ask for an additional grant of authority.

The Founders made an inherently inefficient form of government as a check against arbitrary use of the power of the state. The President doesn’t declare war, Congress does. When we allow the government to write itself a waiver to constitutional limitations that are part and parcel of its contract with the people, it’s time for the people to let the government know who the boss is in this employer-employee relationship.

Timothy Lee’s idea is looking better all the time.

Evidence-based for Thee, But Not for Me

One of the things that strikes me as curious about supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act is that they talk regularly about “evidence” and having everything be “research-based,” yet they often ignore or distort evidence in order to portray NCLB as a success. Case in point, an op-ed in today’s New York Times by the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli.

Truth be told, the piece doesn’t lionize NCLB, criticizing the law for encouraging schools to neglect high-performing students because its primary goal is to improve the performance of low achievers. Fair enough. The problem is, Loveless and Petrilli assert with great confidence that the law is definitely doing the job it was intended to do. “It is clear,” they write, “that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students.”

As you shall see in a moment, that is an utterly unsustainable assertion according to the best available evidence we have: results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which carries no consequences for schools or states and, hence, is subject to very little gaming. Ironically, Loveless and Petrilli make their indefensible pronouncement while criticizing a study for failing to use NAEP in reaching its own conclusions about NCLB.

So what’s wrong with stating that NCLB is clearly helping low-achieving students? Let me count the ways (as I have done before):

  1. Numerous reforms, ranging from class-size reduction, to school choice, to new nutritional standards, have been occurring at the same time as NCLB. It is impossible to isolate which achievement changes are attributable to NCLB, and which to myriad other reforms
  2. As you will see in a moment, few NAEP score intervals start cleanly at the beginning of NCLB – which is itself a difficult thing to pinpoint – making it impossible to definitively attribute trends to the law
  3. When we look at gains on NAEP in many periods before NCLB, they were greater on a per-year basis than during NCLB. That means other things going on in education before NCLB were working just as well or better than things since the law’s enactment.

So let’s go to the scores. Below I have reproduced score trends for both the long-term and regular NAEP mathematics and reading exams. (The former is supposed to be an unchanging test and the latter subject to revision, though in practice both have been pretty consistent measures.) I have posted the per-year score increase or decreases above the segments that include NCLB (but that might also include years without NCLB). I have also posted score increases in pre-NCLB segments that saw greater improvements than segments including NCLB. (Note that on 8th-grade reading I didn’t highlight pre-NCLB segments with smaller score decreases than seen under NCLB. I didn’t want to celebrate backward movement in any era.)

For context, NCLB was signed into law in January 2002 but it took at least a year to get all the regulations written and more than that for the law to be fully implemented. As a result, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether 2002, 2003, or even 2004 should be the law’s starting point, noting only that this problem alone makes it impossible to say that NCLB clearly caused anything. In addition, notice that some of the biggest gains under NCLB are in periods that also include many non-NCLB years, making it impossible to confidently attribute those gains to NCLB.

Please note that I calculated per-year changes based on having data collected in the same way from start to end. So some lines are dashed and others solid (denoting changes in how some students were counted); I calculated changes based on start and end points for the type of line used for the period. I also rounded to one decimal point to save space. Finally, I apologize if this is hard to read—I’m no computer graphics wizard—and would direct you to NAEP’s website to check out the data for yourself.

4th Grade Regular Math

8th Grade Regular Math

4th Grade Regular Reading

8th Grade Regular Reading

Age 9 Long-term Math

Age 13 Long-term Math

Age 17 Long-term Math

Age 9 Long-term Reading

Age 13 Long-term Reading

Age 17 Long-term Reading

So what does the data show us? First, that there were numerous periods that didn’t include NCLB that saw greater or equal growth for low-achieving students as periods with NCLB. That means much of what we were doing before NCLB was apparently more effective than what we’ve been doing under NCLB, though it is impossible to tell from the data what any of those things are. In addition, it is notable that those periods with the greatest gains that include NCLB are typically the ones that also include non-NCLB years, such as 2000 to 2003 for 4th and 8th-grade math. That means there is inescapable doubt about what caused the gains in those periods most favorable to NCLB. And, let’s not forget, 4th -grade reading saw a downward trend from 2002 to 2003, and 8th-grade reading dropped from 2002-2005. That suggests that NCLB was actually decreasing scores for low-achievers, and one would have to acknowledge that if one were also inclined to give NCLB credit for all gains.

And so, the evidence is absolutely clear in one regard, but in the opposite direction of what Loveless and Petrilli suggest: One thing you definitely cannot say about NCLB is that it has clearly helped low achievers. And yet, they said it anyway!