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  • Dear Government Unions: We’re Not Making This Up

    We were a little taken aback the other day when Joe Davidson’s “Federal Diary” column in The Washington Post quoted a top White House appointee and two union leaders attacking our research findings that federal workers get paid more than private sector counterparts as “lies,” “misinformation” and — oh my — “scapegoating.”

    We got in touch with Mr. Davidson to voice our disappointment that he would print such scurrilous charges about Heritage analysts — who put the cost to taxpayers at over $40 billion a year — without extending us the courtesy of an opportunity to comment or rebut. To his credit, he listened and invited us to put our concerns in writing. And so I wrote to Mr. Davidson, providing helpful links to relevant documents posted at heritage.org but also asking outright: “Are you saying that Heritage’s analysts made up their results?”

    After some back and forth, he was kind enough to publish as a letter in Friday’s “Federal Diary” an edited, 160-word version of the 355 words I’d deployed to take issue with the quoted remarks by John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and leaders of two public-employee unions: William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and Matthew S. Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers.

    I’m thankful that Mr. Davidson chose to publish what he sees as a fair condensation of Heritage’s side of the story. It seems fitting to post the original here, though, especially since the bureaucrats and union bosses were given well over 300 words in his Oct.18 column to disparage Heritage’s work. So here it is:

    Dear Mr. Davidson:

    Heritage Foundation research shows that federal workers earn significantly more than private sector workers with comparable skills. We employed state-of-the-art data and statistical methods to arrive at this conclusion.

    Your Federal Diary column in Monday’s editions of The Washington Post (“Dissatisfaction in federal employee pay sign of disconnect”), however, quoted government officials and leaders of public sector unions dismissing our research as “lies,” “misinformation” and “scapegoating.”  Are you saying that Heritage’s analysts made up their results?

    Most discouragingly, we were not given a chance to comment even as the union leaders and government officials were given free rein to mischaracterize our work.  Had you asked us, readers would have learned that most academic economists, regardless of their politics, agree that federal workers enjoy a substantial wage premium. In fact, Alan Krueger, President Obama’s choice as chief economist at the Treasury Department, came to just that conclusion in a report published in 1988.

    What’s more, the authoritative Handbook of Labor Economics, surveying the extant literature, describes the federal premium in cash wages as between 10 percent and 20 percent.  The Heritage Foundation followed established methods for analyzing pay differences between government and private sector workers. Our analysts, primarily James Sherk and Jason Richwine of our Center for Data Analysis, updated that literature using the most recent data available. Our results are in line with previous findings.

    Ignoring all of this evidence, the government and union representatives quoted in your column attack our findings by relying on a pay survey that examines job descriptions.  However, federal workers tend to be less skilled than private workers within the same occupation level—for example, a senior accountant in government may qualify only as a junior accountant in the private sector. This tendency makes the pay survey essentially useless for comparing federal and private workers.

    As a result, economists look at workers’ skills and experience when analyzing pay—not just official job duties. These analyses show federal workers earn significantly more than their private sector counterparts. Economists have known this for years.

    We’re sure you’ll agree that The Post, if not government officials and union representatives, should be up to date.


    William W. Beach

    Director, Center for Data Analysis

    The Heritage Foundation

    * * *

    In an earlier “Federal Diary,” incidentally, Mr. Davidson reported President Obama’s apparent admission in a recent interview that less-skilled federal workers are overpaid:

    Obama deflected complaints from Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservative think tanks that federal employees are overpaid. He said his team has examined pay levels, “and the data we get back indicates that high-skilled workers in government are slightly underpaid. Lower-skilled workers are slightly overpaid relative to the private sector.

    “And that’s not surprising,” he added, “because it’s a unionized workforce” in government, while the private sector’s typically is not.

    To check out some of the resources to which we directed Mr. Davidson, see this paper by Heritage analysts James Sherk and Jason Richwine, a commentary by Sherk in USA Today, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal co-written by Richwine. And we certainly hope the union reps didn’t miss Richwine’s easy-to-follow take on CNBC’s “Kudlow Report.”

    Ken McIntyre, Heritage’s Guardabassi fellow in media and public policy studies,  contributed to this post.

    Posted in Economics [slideshow_deploy]

    34 Responses to Dear Government Unions: We’re Not Making This Up

    1. bill bradshaw says:

      besides being over paid all government workers are non productive they produce nothing except rules and regulations and more paper trails

      but other than that they produce no marketable product

      they are over paid for producing nothing

      abolish income tax replace it with a nation wide sales tax and send all the blood suckers home

    2. bill bradshaw, wyomi says:

      besides being over paid all goverment employees produce nothing except rules and regulations and more paper trails.

      they are over paid and produce no marketable product

      abolish the irs replace it with a nation wide sales tax and send all the blood suckers home

    3. bill t. says:

      The fleet F/A-18 pilots will be surprised to learn that the software produce by our group running in the main computers in their jets is nothing but "rules and regulations". Oh, by the way, we easily meet industry standards of quality (our software is delvered on-time and on budget and works as specified) typically at half or less what it would cost to be delivered by private industry. I am sure the FBI, forest and national park rangers, border patrol officers, Navy, Marine, Army, coast Guard and Air Force personnel, to name a few I could go on much longer, will be equally surprised that they produce nothing but "rules and regulations". By making such ludicrous statements it only demonstrtates your lack of knowledge of what is done by the typical fed. Do I earn my pay and deserve to get paid more than a burger slinger? You betcha.

    4. Ken McIntyre KenMac55, Washington says:

      A friend reminds me of this poll, which shows the public is wise to this scam — but then, your ordinary American tends to exhibit more common sense than the typical top bureaucrat or union boss: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/bu

    5. Drew, Phoenix, AZ says:

      As a federal employee and conservative Heritage Foundation supporter, I find your findings to be wrong in a practical sense. As a project manager, I manage on average $30M in construction and design activities. I make approx $80k per year. I know that my peers in private industry, who manage far less work than I, make over double my salary – not to include money that they receive in bonuses and perks. My supervisor manages $1B in project work per year and makes $150k – his peers make millions in salary, perks and bonuses. After working in private industry for over a decade, I chose to accept making far less money working for the feds because of the job security – the insulation from boom/bust cycles. I find all of the carping about federal salaries disingenuous at best. Instead of hammering federal salaries (2% federal budget), why don’t you try going after the major expenditure categories like social security, Medicare, Medicaid, Phar entitlements and defense spending (80% federal budget).

    6. New York, NY says:

      It's easy to make claims when you skew data and compare apples to watermelons (in this case). Maybe if the Heritage Foundation published accurate, factual articles, people wouldn't have to prove you wrong time and time again.

    7. MSantiago, Alexandri says:

      Federal employees can't be put in a bucket with all private sector employees, because the jobs Feds hold are increasingly senior-level — brain surgeons at the VA, NIH scientists, nuclear warhead dismantlement specialists at DOE. No hamburger flippers on the Federal dole. Let's be honest and stop trying to get your financial donors to replace federal employees as contractors.

    8. Fred, Phoenix says:

      As a federal government employee I take issue with the license that the Heritage Foundation takes in making blanket comparisons of federal employees and private sector employees. While in general your statistics may be true overall, what stratification is there by agency and type of employee. As a Nurse working for the VA health care system I don't see this to be the case and my guess is that there are other agencies where your comparisons are not accurate. When you make such blanket allegations you hurt a large portion of the federal employee work force's image. Why don't you publish your statistics by agency breakdown so people can see where the unions have corrupted the process and reform is turely needed.

    9. Joseph, Texas says:

      I agree that federal pay system needs to be rethought. Time in grade raises result in steady increases in pay beyond the annual cost of living raises. Right now the difference in pay between federal and private is compounded by the fact that so many agencies have retirement eligible employees sitting at the last step on their time in grade. At step 10, they make around 30% more for doing the same work. There should be some time in grade increases as people become more profficient and vital to a team, but after 5 years there is less to be gained by another raise. The current federal employees should start retiring and be replaced with cheaper workers that can be forced to accept the elimination of some of the time in grade increases. I have faith that this would cut the wages more than 15% which would be an easy step in the right direction.

      As baby boomers retire, the government should use automation to replace the excess workforce which will further cut the budget. This way fewer new employees can replace a larger number of retiring employees.

      Bottom line, the American people want cuts to come from the parts of government that spend the least money. Social Security, Medicare, and Interest on debt make up more than half the budget. They should be the obvious target for major reform. Do not limit reductions to areas where they'll have the least impact. We need to cut 1 trillion, not only a few billion from federal pay.

    10. Former IRS employee, says:

      I hate to tell you this Mr. Bradshaw, but a nation wide sales tax will not abolish the IRS. This is because (just as with current tax system) there will be businesses that withhold or charge this sales tax, but do not pay it over. Someone still has to go out and get it from those businesses that don't willingly pay it over.

    11. s hilton,maryland says:

      we as federal workers are not overpaid, matter of fact most us federal workers are underpaid, due to non promotions, people in top levels of the work force don't see the little men or women working hard for nothing, to only have the pay checks be eaten up in taxes, health insurance increases , only to get a very small pay raise, some of us have to depend on those little raises to kinda off set the cost of living. so this tell of federal workers being over paid is alice in wonderland.

    12. Erasmus Funderburke says:

      It's interesting that free market fundamentalists seem to ignore that in good times the government can't recruit workers at the high end of the GS pay scale. Doesn't that fact imply that goverment workers at high levels are underpaid at some levels?

      Yes, everyone admits that the FWS workforce is slightly overpaid. However, to imply that GS pay scale workers are overpaid (I believe some of folks at Heritage and Cato have even gone so far as to say they are "getting rich") at the expense of the taxpayer is inaccurate.

      I suspect the issue is where you have chosen to residualize the error in your regression equations.But I am too highly paid as a private sector worker to re-run the analysis and determine it for myself. I would like to work for the government, but I would have to take a 40% pay cut to do so. I am not making this up!

    13. Erasmus Funderburke, says:

      Mr. Bradshaw,

      I don't think Hobbes and Locke had marketable products in mind when they expounded on the notion of the social contract. Government's job is to do it what we tell it to through (in the case of the US) representative democracy.

    14. Robert, Roanoke VA says:

      I would like to say that your article is wrong, if you use the facts about how much workload us federal employees take compared to our counterparts there is no way we make more than the private sector. I am a Veteran, federal employee and I am a Heritage Foundation member. I am all for less government, but I know for a fact that we get paid at or less than our counterparts, now if you add in the healthcare and insurance and retirement then yes maybe we make a little more, but we pay a lot for healthcare. Now, If you want to know who makes the most compared to their counterparts, look at the executive level positions in the federal government, those are the ones getting paid the over fruitful amount for what they do. I can say that I am one paycheck away from poverty and a federal employee, cause I have been there once already. I think you should check at what level the government starts paying people more than their counterparts, there are people low on the totem pole that don’t get paid what the should and put up with what we have to put up with. Thanks for llistening to my frustration.

    15. Pingback: Morning Bell: Returning the People’s House to the People | The Foundry: Conservative Policy News.

    16. bill turnbull, calif says:

      " …produce nothing except rules and regulations and more paper trails". Well, the fleet F/A-18 pilots will be surprised to hear that the software our group produces that runs in the jets' main on-board computers are nothing but rules and regulations. Not only do we produce software that meets the requirements defined by the fleet, we produce it on-time and within budget at a cost of around 1/2 of equivalent industry groups. I am sure that the FBI, national parks and forest rangers, border patrol agents, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, Army and Air Force, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Air Traffic Controllers, (you get the point), will also be surprised that they " …produce nothing except rules and regulations and more paper trails".

    17. Bobby Catania, Agour says:

      We need to eliminate all unions!! I love America and I want to do my part to help save it! To help spread the Exciting Positive Business-Friendly Fiscally-Conservative Self-Reliant Responsible Healthy Uplifting Productive Political message, please forward to all of your staff/writers friends associates, personalities. Please advise on how I submit Music, Lyrics and Video? Are the web-links below good enough? For Mass Appeal, the Music is Country Rock and Rap note the following:

      O-Vomit! – (Rock/Rap) Version Video Link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWHNll8ymOg
      Manufactured Lies – (Rap/R&B) Video Link – For your R&B Listeners &ndash ;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhYoGEeEOvM
      O-Vomit! – (Rap/R&B) Version Video Link – For your R&B Listeners – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doOSU7uriB0
      Home Page – http://bobbybluemusic.com/

    18. Pat Regan, Louisiana says:

      Appreciate what you are doing to reveal the stark discrepancies in wages and salaries. What will be done about your revelation?

      My sense is there is no will on the part of our elected officials (federal, state or local) to change anything relating to this issue. These discrepancies exist today because the citizens (frog) never paid any attention to the progress of the unions and their outrageous pay scales (water heating up) until it was too late. (frog is boiled) This country is fast approaching the miserable state of France wherein labor unions paralyze the country anytime they want.

      Private industry produces jobs, government sucks its citizens dry as do the unions. Balance has to be restored if we hope to return to prosperity. The tail is wagging the dog. Not a place we want to be. Who will take up the cause of changing the way all (federal, state and local) government employees are paid and benefited?

    19. Marvin Clark says:

      Unionization of government jobs has exactly the effect that union members, union bosses and government hacks have agreed upon. Political power and cash money from the public fund. The lure of power and money lead, almost invariably, to dishonesty and mob manipulation. Another argument against government unionization is the power to strike, which can influence the security of the nation under some circumstances. Unionization of the military and our security offices is absolutely unacceptable. This is one of the later steps to turning our governmental system from a Constitutional Republic to a Communist Dictatorship.

    20. Don Bruce says:

      I read through the responses and it becomes obvious that government employees feel if anything, they are under paid.

      I have an idea, why don't we remove the Unions and make their pay and benefits, equal to that of private industry?

      We could then determine ways to save based on down sizing, just as they do in the private industry. Then no one could complain, or could they? I suspect many would.

    21. John, San Diego says:

      I watch federal employees at the base where I work not do their jobs every day. Not only are many of them overpaid, quite a few need to be relieved of their positions.

    22. ONTIME says:

      This is the ruse used by those who are lib slants, no need to print the truth let the other side prove we are lying and take the chance, the closer it gets to the day of the elcection the more of this tactic you will see. The left has no intention of coming anywhere's near the facts or the actual truth, for some reason they seem to think that another lie will not matter or hurt their shaky credibility, this year more are paying attention and the left is getting their nipples pinched daily.

      Keep'em straight and make own up….

    23. Scott PA. says:

      Government is legal theft

    24. Ron, California says:

      One difference between private and government jobs I have observed, is that many goverment workers have little work or responsibility in spite of impressive job titles and high salaries.

      A private sector engineer for example, has to produce complex documents, assume a great deal of personal responsibility and work 50 hours a week just to stay employed. My agencies' engineers are bored and underutilized.

      Many Federal employees were I work fill organizational chart positions "just in case" a need comes up. Agencies could contract out for temporary expertise, but somtimes "staff up" with permanent employees instead. The answer isn't to cut pay, but to staff agencies appropriately to match actual workload.

    25. William Travers, Wes says:

      Several years ago, I received a letter touting how underpaid State workers were compared to people in industrial jobs. The purpose of the letter was to ask for a contribution to the Union. I had not been employed by the State of WV for TEN years, but I had still been getting union letters.

      I sent them a nasty letter, delineating the difference in the "poor, downtrodden, State employees" and my own experience. As near as I can remember, a State employee has at least twelve paid holidays, two weeks vacation with advancement based on seniority, and a health care plan that had a 20-80% ratio (I paid 20%, the State paid 80%). They also had a very generous sick day allowance.

      Contrast that with what I, as a private employee got: Two weeks of vacation, regardless of seniority, I got just 8 paid holidays. and my health care package was an 80/20 ratio (I paid 80%, the company paid 20%). My health care did not cover dental and vision services, unless you paid a higher premium. Sick days? Two weeks.

      I told them to take their whining and crying and leave me alone. Needless to say, I never heard from them again.

    26. John, VA says:

      I happen to be an accountant for a federal government agency. Based on my experiences in both public and privator sectors, if it is true that "a senior accountant in government may qualify only as a junior accountant in the private sector," it is also true that a senior accountant in the private sector may also qualify only as a junior accountant in government. This is all because federal government accounting standards are different. One can't compare 'oranges' with 'apples' in the accounting field.

    27. Wes in cincy says:

      Personally, I don't believe that gov. workers should be unionized since they are being paid by the tax payer. We can easily see how it can shut down the gov. when they strike. Gov. workers are insulated from recessions and bad times,

      that benefit is enough, they don't need a union.

      Unions are good in the private sector but even there they go too far, I was a union worker and saw people who repeatedly came to work drunk and was fired, but later got their job back with backpay. The unions typically only care about whwat's good for them. They don't care about the company or the country.

    28. Dave, Sioux Falls says:

      Hey Bill Bradshaw from Wyoming, are you that clueless? So you want to eliminate all government workers, the irs and go to a sales tax instead. So who is going to collect this sales tax? Who is going to actually enforce the sales tax? Who is going to keep prisoners from escaping federal and state prisons? Who is going to protect our borders? Who is going to keep federal and state parks open?

      Who is going to police your city? Who is going to remove snow from your streets in the winter? Who is going to run your water and purification plant in your city? Who is going to put the fire out if your house catches fire? You are truly one of the clueless people in this country, who are the first to moan and groan when a service is not provided. Your just another dumb person making a dumb posting.

    29. Lisa Loooo, Wash DC says:

      I really dislike these findings whether it be the Heritage, CATO or some other foundation looking to justify THEIR paycheck. When these folks post ntheir findings in a media outlet, they provide a summary with WOW factor. We Americans LOVE LOVE LOVE to categorize everything in to pretty little packages so that we can think better. The bottom line is, perhaps there are similar jobs in private to federal (accountants, nurses, asministrative personnel, etc). I have a problem with any analysis in this day and age because the dynamics are so grand in scale. What I didnt see or read was, many civilians that lost their jobs worked for large or small scale companies/corps. I dont know about you, but the reason I LEFT that world was because they will lay you off or get rid of you before you retire. Just when you start to make it in the corp world, they let you go, Why? Its not job performance, its because they dont want to pay retirement to you. Now, the government is a different animal. It provides stability. We have tenure, therefore, wages reflect that. You no longer have that in the corporate world because they canned you before they had to retire you. This can be argued all day long, but the fact of the matter is, the government is a safer bet. Someone that has been in govt fo 30 yrs will tell you that there have been times when the civilians prospered well over the feds and life was good,..noone cared about Joe Fed. Now that the economy tanked, the witch hunt has begun, Villagers are mad because their neighbor is doing ok based on their choices of a secure job vs making big money that was only going to last as long as our economy was good. I take these analysis with a grain of salt. They offer very little and only matter to those that no longer are living the high life.

    30. Gnatman says:

      As former Heritage vice president Burton Pines said in a 1986 Atlantic story:

      "We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time," says Burton Pines, a vice-president of Heritage. "Our role is to provide conservative public-policy makers with arguments to bolster our side. We're not troubled over this. There are plenty of think tanks on the other side."

    31. Ken McIntyre KenMac55, Washington says:

      Dear Gnatman: Are you suggesting that The Heritage Foundation — and other think tanks, for that matter — has as great a responsibility to tell "both sides of the story" as The Washington Post and other "mainstream" news outlets do?

    32. Tommy, Tucson says:

      I've noticed in many of these comments how government employees are underpaid compared to the private sector and how hard they work. If your jobs are so bad, why isn't there more turn-over in government jobs? It's because they are SOOOO much better than the private sector.

      A retired government employee.

      Hey, I like my pension!

    33. Matthew Barber, Ston says:

      to Dave, Sioux Falls, Bill Bradshaw has it right. Maybe you should read the fairtax book before venturing into a string of non sequitors then making disparaging remarks about their intelligence?

    34. Mo Kingston MA says:

      I am confused. Are the comments directed at the original document, or at a comment on same which is not a direct reflection of the original author?

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