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CBO pay gap study draws unions’ fire, conservatives’ praise

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Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office report on federal employee compensation is already renewing the debate over the federal-vs.-private sector pay gap. The report — which concluded federal employees are compensated 16 percent higher than private sector workers — prompted the conservative Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute and the libertarian Cato Institute to take victory laps.

Heritage’s Jason Richwine and James Sherk quibbled with CBO’s methodology (CBO’s findings generally tracked with Heritage’s conclusions that feds receive higher pay and benefits than the private sector, though CBO said the difference was much slimmer). But overall, they view the report as vindication and used it to swipe at Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, federal unions, and other left-leaning organizations who criticized Heritage’s assertions. Said Richwine and Sherk:

Heritage’s prior critics, however, must now either redirect their same harsh invective at the CBO or — much better — acknowledge the validity of our conclusions.

The American Federation of Government Employees is choosing the former. In a statement released last night, AFGE National President John Gage blasted the study as “pointless,” “absurd,” “academic and irrelevant.” Gage said:

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TSA director on security patdowns: Like it or lump it

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Once again, an Austrian bodybuilder-turned-killer cyborg-turned-governor shows us the way. (from Total Recall)

The Transportation Security Administration is digging in its heels over the new patdown procedures for airline passengers who don’t want to go through revealing — and possibly radiation-exposing — scans. But the agency is losing the battle for public opinion — fast.

And the American Federation of Government Employees — one of two major unions vying to represent TSA — is worried the backlash could come down hard on screeners. There’s already been a few physical altercations between screeners and angry passengers, including an incident where a traveler in Indianapolis punched a screener.

“TSA must do a better job explaining these measures to the flying public,” AFGE National President John Gage said yesterday. “This absence of information has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of [Transportation Security Officers] based on a few widely-reported but largely ill-founded claims repeated over and over again by the media. It is unacceptable for any passenger to verbally or physically assault any security officers, and TSA must act now — before the Thanksgiving rush — to ensure that TSOs are not being left to fend for themselves.”

TSA Administrator John Pistole told a Senate committee Tuesday that travelers who object to the Advanced Imaging Technology scans and patdowns have a third option: Don’t fly at all. Even someone who objects to the searches on religious grounds would be out of luck, Pistole said. “While we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.”

TSA seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. After the government failed to detect the Undiebomber before his skivvies fizzled Christmas Day, the hue and cry went up that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. But now that new measures are in place (Pistole said a patdown or scan would have caught Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but the GAO said the jury is still out on the scans), people as diverse as the ACLU, Tea Party activists, Rep. Ron Paul, magician and Cato Institute fellow Penn Jillette, and hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger are saying enough is enough.

FedLine friend (and former Federal Times reporter) Mollie Hemingway last week wrote about her recent patdown on the Get Religion blog: “I joked that in some cultures I would be married to my screener by now. But it wasn’t funny. It was incredibly intimate and it actually made me uncomfortable. … After all, the new policies basically say that if you’re uncomfortable with the government taking naked images of you, you will be caressed or groped by strangers.”

TSA’s Blogger Bob is working overtime pointing out that four out of five surveyed Americans are fine with the new procedures and insisting their machines don’t store images. But privacy concerns and bathroom humor can be a potent mix, and will make it tough for TSA to counter opposition to its policies. Let’s review:

  • A Conan O’Brien skit on Monday featured a fake TSA screener giving an audience member the creepiest patdown imaginable (video after the jump).
  • The anti-patdown crowd now has a rallying cry — “Don’t touch my junk!” — courtesy of software programmer John Tyner.
  • Taiwan’s Next Media Animation made a cartoon about the controversy that went viral, and featured a demonic-looking Michael Chertoff working for a company called “RapeScan”, a thinly-veiled parody of backscatter manufacturer Rapiscan (video also after the jump).
  • And some online are trying to make next Wednesday — the uber-heavy traveling day before Thanksgiving — a national day of protest in which passengers opt out, en masse, of the body scanners to gum up the works. Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg wants to up the ante, and is encouraging male travelers to wear kilts and go commando — that is, wear no underwear at all, in true Scotsman style — to make TSA screeners as uncomfortable as possible.

Or maybe we just need TSA contractors to develop the kind of scanners California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger encountered in Total Recall, that see only bones and guns. Let’s get on that.

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‘Compassionate’ talk at Heritage Foundation

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The Heritage Foundation today hosted a panel discussion on the public-private pay gap that didn’t really touch on a whole lot that hasn’t already been hashed out over the last several months. But it did yield this interesting exchange in response to a reporter’s question about the Obama administration’s claims that stimulus dollars saved state and local government jobs:

Chris Edwards, Cato Institute: ‘What’s wrong with layoffs of state and local government workers? … Recessions create a sort of weeding out in the private sector, where companies lay off the least efficient workers, and then they’re ready to grow again when the economy starts booming. We don’t see that healthy weeding-out effect in the government sector, unfortunately. I’ve got kids in public school in Fairfax County, and I don’t see anything wrong with, during a recession when money is tight, for schools to lay off teachers and have the teacher-pupil ratio rise a bit. What’s the big deal?’

Andrew Biggs, American Enterprise Institute: ‘If state and local workers are actually 10 percent underpaid, as these studies claim, then by laying them off you’re giving them the opportunity to get a private sector job where you can earn 10 percent more.’ [laughter]

Jason Richwine, Heritage: ‘It’s the compassionate thing to do.’

Biggs: ‘Exactly.’

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Cato: Federal employment is ‘parasitism’ on private sector

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Do you see dedicated public servants contributing to society? Or parasites leeching off of the private sector?

I’ve had the nagging feeling lately that this never-ending debate over federal salaries is, deep down, really just a Rorschach test for how someone feels about the government. And the Cato Institute’s latest blog on the subject has some interesting comments that lend credence to my theory.

Cato budget analyst Tad DeHaven on Tuesday fired back at OPM Director John Berry’s recent assertions that Cato and other federal critics are playing fast and loose with the facts to support their political viewpoints. DeHaven goes over some familiar points — federal perks and benefits are much more generous than in the private sector, their job security is nearly absolute, feds are much less likely to quit their jobs than private sector employees.

But then DeHaven takes an unusual angle on Berry’s comment that federal-private comparisons have been “apples to oranges:”

However, although they have a point [that Cato is comparing apples to oranges], it’s not for the reasons they suggest.

In the private sector, an employee’s compensation is a reflection of his or her value in the market. [...]

What’s a federal employee worth? How does one measure a government employee’s production? Government isn’t subject to market disciplines. It can’t go out of business. It has no competitor. It doesn’t need to earn a profit or even break even. It doesn’t receive its revenue from voluntary transactions – its revenues are obtained via taxation, which is paid by individuals under compulsion and force.

[...]Federal and private employees are apples and oranges because the former is dependent on the latter for its existence. In the natural world, this relationship is call parasitism. [emphasis added] This is not a pejorative statement. Every dollar earned by a federal employee is one less dollar that a private sector employee earns. One can argue over a federal employee’s value to society, but one cannot argue that the perceived value doesn’t come at the expense of the private sector.

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Overpaid feds?

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Cato’s Chris Edwards thinks federal employees are overpaid (h/t Alyssa Rosenberg at GovExec’s blog):

In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal civilian workers was $79,197, which compared to an average $49,935 for the nation’s 108 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). The figure shows that the federal pay advantage (the gap between the lines) is steadily increasing.

This is a pretty useless comparison.

66 percent of federal employees are in higher-paid “management, business, and financial” or “professional” jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only about 36 percent of private sector employees are in those categories.

That means the private sector has a much higher concentration of low-wage jobs, in areas like the service sector, which bring down average wages. The best example is Wal-Mart, the largest private-sector employer in the U.S., with more than 1.5 million employees. The most common jobs at Wal-Mart are “sales associates” and cashiers, both of them low-skill jobs that pay scarcely above minimum wage.

A more useful comparison would be to compare federal jobs directly to their private-sector counterparts. This is impossible in many cases, of course, since we don’t have many private air traffic controllers or Border Patrol agents.

So instead Edwards compares FAA air traffic controllers to Wal-Mart cashiers and complains that the former group is overpaid. Not very useful.