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Republican Myths in the GOP War on Public Employees

February 18, 2011

In just the latest front in the perpetual GOP campaign to divide and conquer, Republicans are trying to get Americans to turn on their neighbors who work for government and unions on each other. Of course, the Republican assault on collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio, around the country has nothing to do with recession-ravaged state budgets and everything to do with fatally wounding a Democratic constituency. And to do it, Republican leaders are telling tall tales about rapidly expanding government workforces stuffed with overpaid, undeserving public employees.
Like so much else conservative mythmaking, it's simply not true.
The Mythical Pay Gap
With a sluggish U.S. economy, cash-strapped states and under-funded pension programs, leading lights of the GOP are scape-goating government workers and their unions for the nation's woes. Of course, there's only one problem with Rush Limbaugh's claim that public sector employees are "freeloaders" and the charge from Indiana Governor and GOP White House hopeful Mitch Daniels that they are a "new privileged class in America."
Perhaps the strongest recent broadside against public servants came from Minnesota Governor and 2012 Republican presidential contender Tim Pawlenty. In a December Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Government Unions vs. Taxpayers," Pawlenty echoed half-term Governor Sarah Palin by targeting "unionized public employees [who] are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt."

How did this happen? Very quietly. The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions.

Pawlenty repeated his charge to Fox News:

"You have public employees making more than their private-sector counterparts. They used to be under-benefited and underpaid. Now they're both over-benefited and needs to stop."

Sadly for would-be President Pawlenty, the charge - whether at the federal, state or local level - is false.
That's the conclusion of a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute. Just one of many recent analyses debunking Republican charges about government workers and their unions, EPI found that "on average, state and local government workers are compensated 3.75% less than workers in the private sector." The report by Labor and Employment Relations Professor Jeffrey Keefe of Rutgers University revealed that public employees are undercompensated compared to similarly skilled private sector counterparts:

The study analyzes workers with similar human capital. It controls for education, experience, hours of work, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity and disability and finds that, compared to workers in the private sector, state government employees are undercompensated by 7.55% and local government employees are undercompensated by 1.84%. The study also finds that the benefits that state and local government workers receive do not offset the lower wages they are paid.
The public/private earnings differential is greatest for doctors, lawyers and professional employees, the study finds. High school-educated public workers, on the other hand, are more highly compensated than private sector employees, because the public sector sets a floor on compensation. The earnings floor has collapsed in the private sector.

Those findings echoed the results of another new study of the public worker wage penalty in New England. That joint research by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts upended tired union-bashing claims from the likes of Chris Christie ("There are "two classes of people in New Jersey: Public employees who receive rich benefits, and those who pay for them") and Mitt Romney ("Average government workers are now making $30,000 a year more than the average private-sector worker"):

In this study, "The Wage Penalty for State and Local Government Employees in New England," PERI's Jeffrey Thompson and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research demonstrate that in New England the reality is the opposite. While the average state or local government worker does earn higher wages than in the private sector, this is because they are, on average, older and substantially better educated. In reality, there is a wage penalty for public workers in New England of close to 3%.

To be sure, the attack on public employees heated up this summer, when Republicans in Congress pulled out all the stops to block a new federal aid package to state and local governments. Despite studies showing that cash-strapped states could shed as many as 900,000 teachers, policemen, firefighters and other workers, the Senate Republican Policy Committee insisted: "No state bailouts should be contemplated until the wages and pensions of public sector employees are brought into line." As the United Steelworkers' Fred Redmond wrote in The Hill in August:

The National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) and the Council on State and Local Government Excellence (COS & LGE) released a jointly-funded study on this topic just as the Republican sound machine revved up this spring. On the facts, they found that every one of the Republican assertions is false.
Analyzing data from the U.S. Government's National Compensation Survey, their economists found that when factors such as education and work experience are taken into account, state and local employees earn less than their counterparts in the private sector. To be exact, state employees earn 11 percent less than comparable private sector workers. Employees of city and county governments earn 12 percent less than their private sector counterparts.
Pensions and health insurance coverage make up a slightly greater share of public employees' overall compensation than those benefits do for private sector employees, but when those costs are included, state and local employees still wind up with less total compensation - 6.8 and 7.4 per cent less, respectively.

Still, Republican leaders have extra ammunition - and talking points - for federal employees. Consider, for example, the "2 to 1" claim now dominating the U.S media:

"The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year." (Rand Paul)
"It's gotten to a point where the average federal worker makes twice as much as the average private sector worker." (John Boehner)
"Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector." (Tim Pawlenty)

But as with state and local governments, this line of attack is an apples-to-oranges comparison at best and an outright deception at worst. As FactCheck pointed out:

The analysis is based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and crudely done by dividing total compensation (salary and benefits) by the number of current federal civilian employees. Comparing such averages is quite misleading, for two reasons:
First, BEA says the figure is inflated by including compensation that is actually paid to benefit retirees, not just for current workers. The figure is at least several thousand dollars too high, by our calculations.
Second, the average federal civilian worker is better educated, more experienced and more likely to have management or professional responsibilities than the average private worker.

Over 44% of federal employees have a college degree, compared to about 19% of private sector workers. More importantly, an assessment of salaries (excluding benefits) by the Office of Personnel Management found that on average comparable federal civilian workers are paid 22 percent less than private workers. The disparities, even including incentive pay, are even greater in some metropolitan areas:

(It is worth noting, as FactCheck does, that there are limitations to the OPM data. Not only are benefits not included, but the benchmarking methodology makes direct public/private section comparisons difficult.)
It is true that since 2000, the pay of federal employees has risen faster than their private sector counterparts. (Then again, American average household income sank durng the Bush years.) There is no question, as Pawlenty and Palin each point out, that states and localities face a crisis in meeting their future pension benefit obligations. But as Dean Baker of CEPR noted, many public employees don't get Social Security, adding "most public sector pensions do not provide retirees with an especially high standard of living." That public employees find themselves in the GOP's crosshairs has less to do with their compensation than being what Sarah Palin decried as "union thugs." As Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic pointed out, "Unions represent around 37 percent of public sector workers, compared to 7 percent of private sector workers." (Left unsaid? They vote Democratic.) He then got to the heart of the matter:

"But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking then: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?
I would suggest it's more the latter than the former."

While Tim Pawlenty praised President Obama's proposed pay freeze for federal employees as "a step in the right direction," right now Republicans have bigger fish to fry. At a time of record income inequality, rising poverty and massive budget deficits, the GOP is focused on yet another tax cut windfall for the wealthy. Meanwhile, state and local governments continue to shed tens of thousands workers. As for those public servants still at work around the nation, they are, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, "a bunch of leftist, socialists, neo-communist union people asking their brothers in government to raise taxes."
No, they're just the Republicans' latest scapegoats. Scapegoats, it turns out, who get paid less, not more, than their private sector neighbors doing the same work.
Overall Government Employment Shrinking, Not Expanding
Earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner's bogus claim that "since President Obama has taken office, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs" was eviscerated. While Politifact branded Boehner's "false" assertion "way off," Ezra Klein pointed out that as a percentage of the U.S. population, federal employment is near 50 year lows.
But Boehner's backfiring salvo is just the latest in the conservative effort to vilify public employees at all levels of government. Grover Norquist and his Weekly Standard allies urged Congress to let cash-strapped states go bankrupt in order to slash public employees, drain their pension funds and punish their unions. At the heart of their crusade is the bogus claim, as 2012 GOP White House hopeful Tim Pawlenty put it in December, that "since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000." Alas, as with so much conservative mythmaking, the statement isn't merely a lie. As the data show, the public sector has actually shed hundreds of thousands of jobs over the past two years.

While Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette was among the first to deploy the mythical 590,000 figure this summer, it was Governor Pawlenty who brought it to prominence in his vitriolic Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Government Unions vs. Taxpayers."

"They work for government, which, thanks to President Obama, has become the only booming "industry" left in our economy. Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000."

Sadly for the man who calls himself "T-Paw," the figure isn't even close.
As Politifact noted about T-Paw's "Pants on Fire" lie, "Pawlenty's statement doesn't account for the tremendous -- and now vanished -- bump from hiring Census workers." And as it turns out, Pawlenty simply reproduced the 590,000 figure from a June 24, 2010 blog post at Andrew Breitbart's Big Government web site. Once the temporary hiring of Census workers from January 2009 through May 2010 came to an end, Politifact concluded, "total federal hiring comes to only 34,000." Or as Paul Krugman put it:

See, if you measure right at the top of that peak at the right, pretend not to notice that it's all Census workers, and never update the number, you get your myth inserted into the discourse, and it becomes part of what everyone knows ...

But the Republicans' sleight of hand over the Census is just the beginning. Even as they wrongly rail against "over-benefited and overpaid" government workers, hundreds of thousands of state and local government employees have already lost their jobs.
By July 2010, over 200,000 state and municipal workers were laid off. By October, as David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times:

Local governments are cutting jobs at the fastest rate in almost 30 years.
They cut 76,000 jobs last month and over the last three months have cut 143,000 jobs, many in education, according to today's jobs report. That's 1 percent of total local-government employment across the country. Since the Labor Department began keeping records in the 1950s, the only other time that the cuts were so steep was in the harsh 1981-2 recession.

As Ezra Klein lamented in the Washington Post two months ago, the draconian job cuts at the state and local level constituted "the anti-stimulus."

The government is now impeding an economic recovery. But it's not for the reasons you often hear...It's because, at the state and local level, it's firing people.
Consider this: If we only counted private-sector jobs, we'd have had positive jobs reports for the last nine months. As it is, public-sector losses have wiped out private-sector gains for the past four months.

By November, state and local governments had shed 407,000 jobs (-39,000 state, -368,000 local) since their peak in August 2008. With state budget shortfalls estimated to top $100 billion for each of the next two years, analysts including Moody's Economics and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have forecast more state and local job losses reaching between 400,000 and 900,000. Surveying the data for the past year and the catastrophic fiscal landscape across the country, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic rightly concluded:

"The biggest job killer in 2011? Cities and states."

Cities, states and, if the likes of Scott Walker, John Kasich, Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels and other conservative luminaries have their way, the Republican Party.
UPDATE: A new EPI assessment concludes "full-time state and local government employees in Wisconsin are undercompensated by 8.2%, when compared to otherwise similar private-sector workers."

2 comments on “Republican Myths in the GOP War on Public Employees”

  1. Yeah only problem your an liar. Your Left Wing Bias forgot to take into account Deferred and Unfunded Pensions. For instance, in Wisconsin we have $72B unfunded liability for the state employees’ pension benefit. The state has promised the unions this money but hasn’t' put aside the money to pay for it. Your silly study assumes that none of those benefits get paid. If in fact we the people of Wisconsin decide to honor our promise to pay for these benefits (which we always do) you need to add that into equation - low and behold the public sector employee's compensation now far exceeds the average private sector employee.
    I am so sick of liars!


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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