The Magazine

The Privileged Public Sector

Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be ­anything but civil servants.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"Be happy in your work,” Col. Saito advised his prisoners in Bridge Over the River Kwai, and it seems that employees of the federal government are taking the adage to heart. The Washington Post—which, having shed many other functions of a news-gathering organization, nevertheless maintains its role as cheerleader for the hometown’s number one industry—reported the other day that government workers are getting happier by the week. 

The Privileged Public Sector

In one way, the news isn’t surprising. Americans like their jobs, as a rule. For the last 20 years the Gallup organization has polled the public about job satisfaction, and the percentage of Americans who were “completely satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” has never fallen below 80 percent and usually bumps up against 90. “Completely dissatisfied” has never risen above 4 percent. While government employees have lagged private workers in job satisfaction, the gap is narrowing, according to survey data from the Office of Personnel Management. Spirits are evidently rising under President Obama, himself a good friend of public-employee unions and a great defender of government in general. Indeed, the percentage of working Americans who say they “like the work they do” is now the same in government as out.

This, said the Post, is “an encouraging sign as the government continues to woo applicants for hundreds of thousands of new positions.” Satisfaction among federal workers increased in nearly every area of the government, from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Department of Transportation. Only sectors that have been publicly humiliated over the last couple years—for example, the SEC and the “intelligence community”—saw a decline in the satisfaction numbers. Typical, instead, was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, where morale surged: The agency, said the Post, “was buoyed by its central role in the recent economic downturn after years of low morale. It took third spot among large agencies as it managed 140 bank failures in 2009.” Nothing like a surge in bank failures to brighten a government worker’s day.

Should we begrudge our government workers these glimmers of professional contentment? Lots of people think so. “Compensation reform,” a freshly minted phrase that must chill the bones of anyone in the federal government, is now a popular topic among conservative policy wonks. Government pay has become a hot topic among supposedly skinflint Republican legislators, who have begun calling for hiring and pay freezes as a help in balancing the federal budget. This led Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic to call government workers “the new welfare queens”—the new scapegoats, he meant, of Republican electioneering and antigovernment demagoguery. And it does seem to work. Scott Brown made the size and pay scale of the federal government an issue in his upset victory in Massachusetts this January. “Americans are fed up with public employee pay scales far exceeding that in the private sector,” says Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip.

Cantor’s statement served as decoration for a USA Today story last month. “Federal employees’ average compensation,” the article reported, “has grown to more than double what private sector workers earn.” The figures from an analysis by the newspaper’s Dennis Cauchon were jaw-dropping. Over the last decade, the average federal salary has risen 33 percent faster than the inflation rate. When total compensation is measured—salary plus benefits like health insurance and pension guarantees—government workers have seen an increase of more than 36 percent, adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, private workers got an 8.8 percent increase. The result: Average private sector compensation is $61,051; the average federal compensation is $129,049. 

The USA Today figures, and others making a similar point got up by conservative and libertarian think tanks, have been widely attacked by friends of government, and from here the battle descends into the trenches of pure wonk warfare, calculator-to-calculator, the bloody earth littered with one dismembered regression analysis after another. The defense of “apples and oranges” is often invoked: Government jobs, say union economists, have no exact analogue in the private sector, and so “a direct public/private pay comparison” is impossible.

When USA Today did make such a job-to-job comparison, however, the private workers nearly always came up short. With a few exceptions—lawyers, optometrists, airline pilots, paralegals—someone who chooses to work in government will wind up better off than if he’d sought private employment. Only 36 of more than 200 job titles offered higher average salaries in the private sector. 

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