Monday, October 12, 2009

Are US civil servants paid too much or too little?

One moment its immigrants, next its unions, then immigrants again. . . .    You know it when you see it.   But whoever writes the Lexington column in the The Economist obviously doesn't:
Meanwhile, [the public] can see that one group of Americans has been practically unaffected by the recession: government employees. Their hours have not been cut, their benefits are gold-plated and they are almost impossible to sack. . . 
One should not overstate the rage of taxpayers against public servants. Most Americans admire firemen, teachers and cops. They like receiving government benefits, too. And roughly half of them will pay no federal income tax at all this year. The problem is that this is not sustainable. 
Where did Lexington discover America's civil servant problem?  From "Arthur Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank." 

Lexington does not bother to mention something obvious:  not only is such finger-pointing commonplace, but serves it serves the right-wing agenda.   Their mission is to provide the American public with an easy scapegoat for its problems.  The right wing does not want those people who actually caused the collapse of the global economy to take the blame.   Hence, the need for scapegoats.

Moreover, the new line of reasoning - that US civil servants have it too good -- only makes any sense if you think governments can attract top talent without paying for it.*   For example, top civil service posts in places like Hong Kong and Singapore pay far better than comparable positions in the US.   These countries are at least -- if not more -- capitalistic that the United States.

There is every reason to believe that civil servants in the US make far too little relative to what similar jobs pay in the private sector. 

If the SEC had been able to attract top legal talent, then perhaps Wall Street would not have ran circles around the regulators.  The financial crisis of 2008 might never have happened.   Certainly clowns like Bernie Madoff would have been arrested years ago.  If the US civil service paid better, Americans might well be $7-8 trillion richer today.

It should also be remembered that those who fill many highly paid private sector occupations -- from the Wall Street banks to the health insurance companies -- contribute little if anything to the welfare of society, and yet continue to prosper despite the deep recession. 

The bottom line is that if the The Economist still wants to be taken seriously, it should stop disseminating outrageous myths about American firefighters and cops having it too good, while turning a blind eye to the source of the problem.
* One way by which the right wing can demonstrate that the public sector -- government -- cannot solve the country's problems is by lobbying to keep government salaries sufficiently low.  This way top talent won't take government jobs, and government begins to fail society. A kind of self-fulfilling prophesy is thereby created and fulfilled.

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