Taking note of this report from the Congressional Budget Office that finds that the total compensation of federal employees overall exceed the total compensation of their private sector counterparts, James Joyner remarks:
Public sector employment is much closer to the progressive ideal than employment in the private sector. For one thing, it’s capped at the upper end. Even the president only makes $400,000 and no civil service employee makes more than the $179,700 ceiling. On the lower end, even the most junior person (a GS-1, Step 1) makes $17,803 a year–roughly $8.55 an hour. Further, the benefits are comparable across the board, so even those at the bottom of the scale get good health coverage, paid vacation, and retirement benefits.
James and I have each posted on the subject from time to time. The more I reflected on the CBO report the more frivolous I realized it was and I’ll try to explain why I think that in this post.
First, the report is a static analysis. It doesn’t take into account the effect that government compensation levels have on the private sector compensation it’s trying to use as a basis of comparison. What is the market wage of a lawyer who didn’t graduate at the top of his class and/or from a Top 20 law school without substantial government employment and/or subsidy of lawyers? A physician? A teacher? A social worker? The answer is that nobody knows. They could be higher. Or, as my intuition tells me, they could be much, much lower.
Second, ending the analysis with employees whose W-2s are issued by the federal government draws too fine a line. I don’t much care whether a truck driver being paid $50,000 a year is a federal employee or the employee of a company with a contract with the federal government (which is probably paying nearer $100,000 for the work than $50,000). I care what the total cost of the activity is, fully loaded, out the door. If it can be done less expensively by a full-time federal employee, that’s how it should be done. Allocations and allotments that prevent hiring full-time employees but allow hiring contractors at substantially higher cost are smoke and mirrors.
The problem is particularly acute in the military but isn’t limited to the military. And it’s why I roll my eyes when anyone triumphantly points out that the total number of federal employees hasn’t risen over the last 5 years, 15 years, or whatever. It’s just playing with numbers; it doesn’t reflect the reality.
Third, does the system of hiring, firing, and compensation provide the federal government with the flexibility that it needs to be able to respond to an environment that in all likelihood will change more rapidly with each passing year? I think we’ve got a system tailored to the needs and attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s and we’re trying to make do with it in the 21st century.
That’s a start. The eyes crosseth.