THE NEW SIN TAX
Ideologically, I may be progressive, but dispositionally, I am quite conservative when it comes to money. I don’t like to borrow beyond my means, and it makes no sense to me that our federal government should perpetually live with trillions of dollars worth of debt – particularly given how much of this debt is owed to foreign countries. Consequently, I view myself as fiscally responsible and have been awaiting a report from the National Debt Commission as to how best to raise more revenues or cut expenses.
That Report is now out. And instead of allowing me to see red tape, it just has me seeing red.
I will leave it to others, progressives and conservatives alike, to chronicle everything that is wrong with that report and confine my brief statements today to a single provision – the suggestion that the Government freeze federal salaries for a period of three years.
Supposedly, federal salaries have become bloated because they never dropped as a result of the recession that began in 2008. But that statement is misleading for two reasons. First, federal workers’ retirement plans were largely affected by the recession insofar as they were tied to the stock market. But more importantly, the statement is a half truth – for just as it is true that federal (non-pension) salaries didn’t appreciably decrease due to the recession, it is also true that federal salaries didn’t appreciably rise during the boom years that preceded the recent recession. Federal salaries, in short, move like turtles – slowly, and steadily – whereas private salaries can skyrocket or shrink depending upon short-term trends in the economy. Simply to examine one particular slice of time in an effort to show that the federal employees are a fat and happy bunch is patently absurd.
If there are folks who have effectively beat the system, it isn’t federal workers. Rather, it’s workers like those on Wall Street who made gobs and gobs of money when the economy was going great, and then when it tanked, they were bailed out by the Government. Federal workers never had such a luxury. There was no time I can recall when their salaries increased dramatically. So if they are not benefiting when the economy is going well, why should they be punished when it isn’t? How could that possibly be fair?
Surely, the Debt Commission recognizes the conceptual error in their reasoning. But they are desperate to find ways of reducing the Debt that are politically palatable. And what could be more palatable these days than bashing Government workers? In fact, as my conservative friends often remind me, even the term “Government worker” is an oxymoron. According to the Fox News/Tea Party narrative, we are lazy people with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and an unwillingness to be held accountable. We resemble those on welfare much more than we resemble people who do real work (meaning in the private sector).
Seeing as how I have been working roughly 80 hours a week lately on my own federal job, you will hopefully understand that I find these arguments to be nothing short of revolting. What I’ve noticed with my own eyes – which mean more to me than the ideology spewed by Government-hating talking heads – is very different from the image of the federal worker portrayed on Fox News. Line attorneys for most Government agencies, even after achieving the very top grade and step of the GS pay scale, now earn roughly the same amount as first year associates at Washington, D.C. law firms, and about half of what law firms pay experienced attorneys who never made partner. As for those law firm attorneys who did make partner – and these are the ones who attorneys like myself are expected to battle in court – they frequently earn four or more times what we earn.
Those are the facts. But unfortunately, they aren’t persuasive to the dyed in the wool Government hater. The Fox News crowd would surely add that law firm salaries should dwarf those in the Government because law firm attorneys work appreciably harder than their federal counterparts. From what I’ve seen, however, that is bunk. Junior associates may be expected to kill themselves, but I suspect that federal litigators work similar hours to those in the private sector. As for the credentials of those in the public and private sectors, I would again argue that they are comparable. Certainly, any differences pale in comparison to the differences in pay – we in the federal government are working comparably hard for MUCH less money. At least I can say that’s the case for my own office and for many others I’ve observed.
From where I’m sitting, there are plenty of folks who could easily afford to “take one for the team” and pitch in on the effort to shrink the National Debt. People who earn over $300,000 … or for that matter $300 million, immediately come to mind. And what about those farmers who are receiving many millions of dollars in federal agricultural subsidies? Can’t they afford to pitch in? Why then is the National Debt Commission throwing the federal workers under the bus?
We all know the answer. There’s a tidal wave of rhetoric flowing from the hinterland these days and it is directed to those people who are seen, bucolically speaking, as “sucking on the federal tit.” I can just hear the demagogues unload their bile: “Welfare queens, your time is up! Government workers, you too! It’s time for a little pay cut. And if you don’t like it and feel like quitting, don’t let the door hit your fat ass on the way out.”
This is today’s America. It wasn’t yesterday’s and it won’t be tomorrow’s, but it is the mood of the moment. These attitudes are cyclical, and right now the Government worker is not an object of respect. Well that’s fine, I suppose. Disrespect us if you must. But don’t insult our intelligence -- and remove your own credibility – with arguments that show no basic grasp of economics.
As for the folks on the National Commission, if you’re going to freeze our salaries for the next few years, are you prepared to advocate that we get raises of 10% or 15% the next time the economy enters a boom cycle? I’m still waiting for an answer. I didn’t read anything about that in your report.