Paul Jacob

Let us now praise the underpaid, selfless civil servant.

Wait — does such a person exist in federal employ?

Excuse me while I chortle.

Oh sure, union officials, civics texts, and those blue-ribbon panels set up by defensive politicians often imply (and sometimes baldly assert) that government workers receive less pay than private employees. Sometimes they even bring up ideas like "selfless service."

Add a touch of cynicism to this, and you might say that government workers exchange higher pay for job security. (It can sure be hard to fire a bureaucrat.)

But it's high time to dismiss the myth. As the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported this month, federal civil servants receive far, far more in wages and benefits than workers in the private sector. Indeed, twice as much.

Average compensation for federal civilian workers last year came to $106,579 — which Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute notes is "exactly twice the average compensation paid in the U.S. private sector." Throw out the benefits and the difference is less, but still a whopping 62 percent more for the federal worker.

Of course, past figures used to bolster up the "underpaid civil servant" notion ignore benefits and consider just the nominal wage rate. But today's 62 percent difference is hard to ignore, isn't it?

But face it: nominal wages aren't real wages; for a true comparison we must add on all the benefits, as Edwards does: "Federal workers receive generous health benefits during work and retirement, a pension plan with inflation protection, a retirement savings plan with generous matching contributions, large disability benefits, and union protections." Let me put a stop to transcribing here. There's a lot more, and I don't get paid enough to risk carpal tunnel.

Figuring in all the benefits, Edwards suggests that government employees should be paid less than private sector employees, not more.

Nice idea, but to get that to happen, wouldn't we first have to fire the unions? Hmmm.

Now, the mere suggestion of lowering compensation — or even just curbing scheduled compensation increases — might be enough to incite incivility amongst our civil servants. But the point of bringing the matter up is not for the emotional reactions or to start a class war between net tax consumers and net taxpayers. It's not that federal employees are evil, deserving to be punished. They are simply overpaid.

So, why is federal employee compensation so high?

Well, here's one big reason: In bad times, when private sector wage increases grind to a halt, federal wages rise merrily upwards.

There are others, more basic in nature.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.