Saturday, February 09, 2013

Panhandlers, Welfare Queens and Civil Servants


            Let me begin this jeremiad by pointing out that during the period from last Monday through this Sunday, all American flags should have been flown at half-mast.  Normally, we take that action to commemorate the deaths of one or more people.  In this case, we have a much more somber fact to recognize: no more football for roughly half the year.  It is always deeply depressing when that reality sinks in.  We’re left to satiate ourselves on lesser sports – like basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, and baseball.   They can all present compelling drama, but they’re not football.  Not even close.

            Say what you want about all the dangers of playing on the gridiron.  Whine if you must about how if you had a son, you wouldn’t want him risking his health on a “collision sport.” It’s still far and away the best entertainment in America today – sports or otherwise – and the last time I checked, nobody is being forced to play it.

            So, let’s raise a glass to the end of another pair of football seasons (both the college game and the pro game deserve their own toasts), and prepare ourselves to be a whole lot more bored when it comes to sitting down and watching the idiot box.   Academy Awards?  American Idol?   Nighttime soaps?  The NBA Finals?  The French Open?   Sorry – I’d rather watch a regular season Vikings/Packers game any time.   Unfortunately, that time will never happen from mid-February through August.  

            With football off the air, many Americans are left with more time on our hands -- time to contemplate things like ferocious storms, even the ones that don’t hit our part of the country.   My friends to the north are enjoying such a storm right now.  This monster is bringing two feet of snow and winds up to 75 miles per hour.  That usually means downed trees, broken houses, and perhaps even calls for federal government assistance.   These days, such calls inevitably include requests to finance the relief effort by cutting pay and/or benefits for federal employees.

            Truth be told, my fellow Feds aren’t worried about paying the bills for this latest iteration of Snowmaggedon.  It’s the so-called “Sequestration” that has our attention.  We are bracing for the possibility that, within the next few weeks, either Sequestration will take effect or there will be some deal to cut hundreds of billions of dollars out of the federal budget.  Most of us appreciate the need for fiscal sanity and recognize that the Government shouldn’t be spending more than it takes in on a regular basis.  What we don’t understand is why the existence of a huge Government deficit is grounds to cut our pay.  Then again, we’re obviously out of touch with the way many Americans perceive us – lazy, overpaid, unaccountable, self-entitled ….  I’ve watched Fox News; I get the message. 

            Back during the period from Reagan/Bush I through the Clinton years and up to the end of W’s first term – let’s refer to that generation as “the salad days” – corporate executives often saw massive rises in pay.   It was as a result of that generation that the definition of “middle class” became re-defined to the point where Congress could get up in arms at the thought of raising taxes for those who earn a “mere” $250,000 a year.  But while so many in the private sector were living large, we Feds got relatively modest cost of living increases.  And we were fine with that – because that’s what we bargained for.  Steady and socially-useful work, mediocre pay, pretty good benefits.  That was our social contract, and it appeared that all of our Presidents -- Republican and Democrat – were willing to respect it.

            Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the ensuing panic, and the notion that all the problems in the universe should be blamed on the National Debt.  Everyone and everything came to be on the chopping block.  And increasingly, people began to suggest that federal employees “do their share” to help get the Debt under control.   The President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform called for a three year freeze on federal salaries, and an effective reduction in the employer contribution toward federal employee health insurance and retirement benefits. While we haven’t yet seen the benefit cuts implemented, we Feds have certainly suffered through the pay freeze – our salaries have been frozen for 2011 and 2012, and the best cost-of-living increase we can hope to receive for 2013 is a whopping 0.5 percent raise that is currently scheduled to take effect in April.   So much for the Social Contract.

            I remember listening on the radio when the President announced that federal employees’ salaries would be frozen, and my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen was interviewed on the radio.  Van Hollen’s District spans much of D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.  Surely, if there is anyone in Congress who would come to the defense of the federal workforce, it is him, right?   Not exactly.   He complained a bit about the timing of the President’s announcement, but he also said that federal employees don’t have a problem with doing their part to help with the budget at a time when the economy is suffering.

            I beg to differ.   While the Feds I know don’t object to small cost-of-living increases at times when the economy is doing great, we DO object to pay freezes and benefit cuts during lean times.  That’s not the deal – we’re supposed to be the tortoises of the system.   Slow, steady, dependable.   Since we don’t get to live like Gordon Gekko during the salad days, we don’t want to be “on the menu” when times are tougher – especially not when this country continues to bail out too-big-to-fail companies from multiple sectors and generally tiptoes around taxing the rich.  

            I truly don’t know what percentage of Americans buy into the notion that civil servants are little different than panhandlers and welfare queens.   Certainly, much of Red America sees us as half-assing our way through 40.0 hour work weeks, and yet demanding to be royally compensated for our “efforts.”   I know a number of right-wingers who continue to maintain that a federal job isn’t a “real” job, and they look down their nose at anyone who spends more than a few years working for “Club Fed.”  I’d like to think that is a minority view, but I can’t be sure.  What I’m afraid is NOT a minority view is that federal workers are generally overpaid.  We all have been exposed to statistics indicating that, especially when you factor in benefits, federal employees make more money than private sector employees.  So, for many if not most Americans, it stands to reason that when it comes time to cut the federal budget, employee compensation should be among the first items to cut.

            But you know what they say about statistics – if you want to mislead people, there will always be numbers to cite.  In this case, the lie is a simple one: the only way to claim that Feds are overpaid is to ignore altogether the education and training that they bring to their job compared to their private sector counterparts.  If you want to look at my profession, for example, the difference in pay is night and day, and we Government workers are the ones on the short end of the stick.  When my trial begins in a few weeks, I will enter the courtroom knowing that the lawyers on the other side receive multiple times what I earn despite the fact that my job is no less challenging or demanding than theirs.   Just walk around the Department of Justice offices at 6:30 p.m. – you’ll see most of the lawyers are still at work.   And as much as I would like to say that we at least have our weekends off, that is often not the case either.   If you litigate, you litigate, and that means long hours.  But are we compensated for those long hours?   What do you think?

            I’m not complaining that Government litigators are poorly paid, or that Government workers generally are poorly paid.  But please don’t tell me that we are paid too much, especially not relative to our private sector counterparts.  And given that fact, I don’t fathom why it is that when it comes time to talk about fiscal sanity, chopping federal compensation is invariably part of the conversation.  At best, we will be looking at an effective pay raise of roughly one tenth of one percent a year for three years.   For folks like me, who max out when we’re around 40 and depend on these cost of living increases for the rest of our career as the only way to maintain our pay level, the freezes send a chilling message.  Now that people are once again talking more than just freezing compensation but actually shrinking it, it makes me wonder whether this will force some of the best employees to retire earlier or otherwise leave the federal workforce.   If you think this country can afford that type of outcome, you really have been buying into the Fox News nonsense.  

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