The privileged public sector

‘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. Recently, The Washington Post — which maintains its role as cheerleader for the hometown’s No. 1 industry — reported that government workers are becoming happier by the week.

In one way, the news isn’t surprising. Americans like their jobs, as a rule. For the past 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 behind private workers in job satisfaction, the gap is narrowing, according to survey data from the Office of Personnel Management.

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, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation. Only sectors that have been publicly humiliated during the past couple years — the SEC and the “intelligence community,” to name a few — saw a decline in the satisfaction
numbers.

Typical, instead, was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., where morale surged. The agency, the Post reported, “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.”

A USA Today story last month reported that “federal employees’ average compensation has grown to more than double what private sector workers earn.”

The figures were jaw-dropping. During the past decade, the average federal salary has risen 33 percent faster than the inflation rate. When total compensation is measured — salary plus benefits such as health insurance and pension guarantees — government workers have seen an increase of more than 36 percent, adjusted for inflation. During the same period, private workers received an 8.8 percent increase. The result: Average private sector compensation is $61,051 and the average federal compensation is $129,049.

The private workers nearly always came up short. With a few exceptions — attorneys, optometrists, airline pilots, paralegals — someone who chooses to work in government will wind up better off than if they had sought private employment. Only 36 of more than 200 job titles offered higher average salaries in the private sector.

Even so, we shouldn’t forget the demagoguery in the Republican campaign against federal pay, especially when it’s waged on grounds of frugality and budget discipline. While not quite as negligible as foreign aid and “earmarks” — two other targets of the phony deficit hawk — the federal payroll amounts to much less than 10 percent of the government’s budget, and firing every federal worker tomorrow would still leave a deficit next year of roughly $1 trillion, except nobody would be around to count it.

There’s an irony to go along with the demagoguery. One reason the difference between federal and private pay widened at an accelerated pace in the past decade was the Bush administration’s decision to contract out many lower-paying government functions to private business. With fewer low earners, the average federal pay rose.

Another reason was the administration’s vast expansion of anti-terror activities, giving the federal government an insatiable appetite for college graduates — raising the average federal salary again. The federal pay premium is in part a consequence of privatization and a strong national defense.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.

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