Flipping the Channel

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Jun 10, 2013 11:26 AM
Flipping the Channel

Change is frightening but inevitable.

As times and tastes change, old business models disappear, and many jobs go with them. There are no longer elevator operators, or television repairmen, or pay phones on every corner.

But elevators (in private buildings) are simple to operate and work well. It’s in quasi-government organizations such as Washington D.C.’s Metro that many are so often out of order. Our televisions are bigger and better than ever, and our cell phones are much more convenient than the old phone booths that Underdog so frequently destroyed.

In fact, the very thing that makes the private sector scary also makes it exciting. Take a look at ESPN -- everything there seems rosy. The network has more live sports than ever, and its SportsCenter highlights show has become a booming franchise that has even spawned its own channel. And yet, despite large profits today, there are threats on the horizon.

This summer, FOX plans to launch a sports network that will include its own highlight shows. It’s possible that the Canadian hosts of SportsCentre (who are moving to FOX from the Canadian network TSN) may draw viewers away from SportsCenter.

It also seems unlikely that non-sports fans will continue subsidizing sports fans forever. If the current big package cable model was replaced with pay-by-the-channel pricing, much of ESPN’s profit could disappear. So Disney, ESPN’s owner, wants to be ready. It’s laying off some 400 employees.

The layoffs seems harsh, but it’s the way the real world works. Jobs are created and destroyed every day. People are forced to innovate and move from place to place. The average worker remains in a job for only about four and a half years.

However, there’s one place where the churning job market becomes more placid: the federal government. A federal job is forever, or just about.

To cite one example, the federal government still spends more than $1 million each year to employ elevator operators who push buttons for senators. “In the year ending March 31, 2012, the longest-tenured elevator operator made more than $41,000. That salary was greater than the average starting salaries of 2011 graduates in education, math and sciences, and humanities and social sciences,” the Weekly Standard reports.

In some departments, federal workers are more likely to die than lose their jobs, as USA Today reported in 2011. “The federal government fired 0.55 percent of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 -- 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3 percent of workers annually for poor performance,” the newspaper found. Like the children of Lake Wobegon, perhaps all federal employees are exceptional.

They’re certainly well paid.

“Between late 2007 and mid-2009, the number of federal workers earning more than $150,000 more than doubled, even as the economy fell into a deep recession,” the CATO Institute reports.

And the benefits can’t be beat. “The federal government gives its workers excellent health coverage and offers them both a defined benefit and defined contribution pensions,” labor expert James Sherk points out. “Federal employees get more paid leave than private sector workers and receive other perks that few private workers do - such as student loan repayments and on-site child care.”

Sadly, Washington’s lack of change goes far beyond the civil service workforce. 2012 was supposed to be a watershed year filled with political changes, yet after a seemingly endless campaign, voters returned almost everyone to office. The same president is dealing with the same Congress led by the same gentlemen from Nevada and Ohio.

It’s possible that the ongoing IRS and NSA cases will prompt voters to demand change -- a flat tax, perhaps, or stronger limits on information gathering.

But for now, it’s worth noting that “no government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear,” as Ronald Reagan put it back in 1964. “Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” Bring on the creative destruction. And hurry.