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Is the Federal Government Too Generous To Working-Class People?

[ 111 ] January 31, 2012 |

The Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that poorly educated government workers make more than they would in the private sector. That’s hardly surprising. What’s equally unsurprising is that pro-business writers are saying that government workers make too much money. First up is my new favorite Atlantic hack Jordan Weissmann:

It’s great that the federal government is providing livable wages to workers, and their families, who would probably have a tough time of it in the private sector. But as an efficient use of resources, the current setup doesn’t make much sense. This might sound cold-hearted to some, but this is exactly the opposite of what the chart should look like if we’re interested in attracting the best and brightest to public service, and keeping them there.

So it’s great that the federal government treats working-class people with dignity but this needs to end yesterday? For someone like Weissmann, committed to defending the nation’s income disparity and defending the privileges of the 1%, this is typical but still awful. For Weissmann, the only workers that matter are those with advanced degrees. Working-class people I guess should go work at Wal-Mart or something.

Of course, Kevin Drum also equivocates on whether this is a good thing:

Would the quality of the federal bureaucracy improve if we paid less for low-level jobs and used the money we saved to compete better for top-level managers and other professionals? Maybe! But the CBO punts on this: “A key issue in compensation policy is the ability to recruit and retain a highly qualified workforce. But assessing how changes in compensation would affect the government’s ability to recruit and retain the personnel it needs is beyond the scope of this analysis.” Maybe next time.

Hiring working-class people hurts the quality of the federal bureaucracy? Should you need a master’s degree to work for the Postal Service? A Ph.D. to hold a mid-level job in Commerce?

What’s remarkable is the assumption by both writers that the government should target primarily the highest educated people. Does anyone in this society care about workers with only a high school education? Are we really going to accept their exile to the lowest levels of the workforce and permanent poverty? Should even the federal government follow the corporate social Darwinist model?

….Of course, Megan Mcardle just comes out and says that those lazy fat government workers make too much.

  • Jason

    Good thrust to this post, but your dislike of Kevin Drum does seem to prevent you from reading him accurately. In particular, he does not say or imply that hiring work-class people hurts the quality of the federal bureaucracy.

    • I have no particular dislike for Drum, though I do frequently criticize him. He is clearly hinting this though.

  • Joshua

    Does anyone in this society care about workers with only a high school education?

    Obviously not, and they haven’t for a while. But we are also getting to the point where society doesn’t care about people with a college degree, either. As a member of “the millenials”, all I hear from my elders is that we are just greedy assholes that are expecting too much (like a job that can pay our debts and allow us to live with some measure of dignity) out of college.

    Oh, and society doesn’t really care about people with advanced degrees either – witness all the guffawing when people with PhDs (or law degrees, as any reader of LGM has seen) in this or that say they can’t find a job.

    I saw it put this way, maybe on this blog – they told us to go to college so we don’t flip burgers, and now they are telling us that we should be thankful we can flip burgers.

    I’m not trying to distract. I’m just saying that this society doesn’t give a shit about workers in general.

    • MPAVictoria

      So this.

    • Linnaeus

      I’m not trying to distract. I’m just saying that this society doesn’t give a shit about workers in general.

      Nothing new under the sun there. Workers’ fortunes have waxed and waned to some degree in this society, but what people who are entering the workforce (or trying to) are hearing isn’t much different from what workers in generations past heard.

      • Linnaeus

        Point being, I’m quite sympathetic, and I’m just saying that this is the continuation of a long-term tendency.

      • Uncle Kvetch

        Society only gives a shit about workers when the workers make it give a shit.

        • Furious Jorge

          Yes. Exactly.

        • DocAmazing

          Preach it, brother.

    • dangermouse

      The bait and switch has been really spectacularly shameless.

  • The CBO section quoted by Drum could also be implying “if we paid minimum wage and no benefits we could have a lot more turnover, which would cause a great deal of damage, quantifiable and non-quantifiable.”

    • This is precisely the rationale behind a civil service. The idea is that these bureaus are so key to the administrance of government that you don’t want people job-hopping when their services are not just wanted but required, particularly when it comes to securing a license or permit. Their salaries are already lower than the private sector and since they cannot be raised as fast as private sector salaries, you have to find other forms of compensation to entice and retain workers.

      That the private sector has all but eliminated similar enticements doesn’t mean you “dumb down” benefits for civil servants. It means you reinstate them in private industry.

    • DrDick

      Somehow I find it odd that while it is absolutely vital that we pay CEOs and other top executives millions or billions to insure we get the best and brightest (despite all the evidence indicating the contrary), but the same logic does not apply to low level workers. Would not paying a decent wage also recruit better, more qualified candidates for those jobs? It is also the fact that employee turnover, which is very high in low wage jobs, is expensive for the employers as even “unskilled” workers need to be trained and to learn how to do their jobs well. It would seem to me that the government is attempting to optimize the service it provides, as opposed to the CEO’s salary or the corporate bottom line.

      • KadeKo

        B-b-b-b-but they’ll get top-level managers! Said managers are certainly capable of getting more out of the disenchanted, brow-beaten riffraff they’re managing, or the even-less-desirable replacements the new budget can afford.

        Sorta analogy: My wife (with a masters) works for a non-profit, a small system with a small footprint, not a lot of resources. There is no inherent ability to throw more money at professionals. I’d like to think that this has nothing to do with the director’s third of a million dollar salary.

      • Furious Jorge

        Part of the problem with Weissman and Drum’s approach is that it reduces a quality worker to a set of quantitative variables that can easily be summed up and compared. People aren’t that easy to compare in real life, which is why we have hiring managers and HR departments and annual reviews. Sometimes – in fact, probably a lot more frequently than many of us realize – the best fit for a particular job is not the one who is best qualified on paper.

        • DrDick

          Lots of intangibles involved in these issues that are not easily measured. It is also the case that, while a really good manager can get better results from their employees, managers mostly have a negligible impact (or negative impact and many managers are really bad at their jobs) on the performance of subordinates.

  • Erik, you’re begging a far, far larger question, which, if you’ll allow a little rage-mongering, I’ll state here


    “Efficiency”? Really? WTF is wrong with Weissman, but especially Kevin Drum?

    • “Efficiency” isn’t just about returning profit to shareholders. I don’t know how anyone else is intending to use it, but it would certainly make sense to worry about maximizing efficiency in terms of delivering public services to, you know, maximize the benefit thereof.

      • DK

        If one of the benefits you hope to achieve is ensuring that you are treating citizen-employees with dignity and getting the benefits that flow to society from a sizable enough middle class, than this version of ‘efficiency’ is not very helpful.

        • Well, maybe, but if you have a fixed budget, there’s going to be a trade-off somewhere if you are, in fact, overpaying public employees (not that I’m saying they are being overpaid, necessarily). Which isn’t even necessarily a problem, but it does depend on where the trade off is coming from.

          • Downpuppy

            Federal civilian employment has been falling for 30 years. We’ve gone from 4% of the labor force to 2%* Employee costs are a tiny slice of the US budget. A million high school grads at $40k each is 1%. The Federal wage scale, frozen since 2010 is:

   any lower & GS-5s would be on Medicaid & food stamps.

            The real issue isn’t that Federal wages are higher than private sector comparables, it’s that the comparables have been ground into the dust.

            It’s amazing that the one-sided class war has lasted as long as it has. People who can’t afford a dentist tend to get angry, and eventually they figure out an effective way to express it. (Usually after a lot of really ineffective ways)

        • This. Thank you. “Efficiency” implies a lowering of costs (however measured) with a concommitant increase in benefit.

          If the benefit of having a stable workforce means better services, then that’s efficiency, I don’t care how much it costs (to a point, which clearly we haven’t reached because after thirty fucking years of slashing budgets to the veins, these folks are still working)

          • DocAmazing

            This also doesn’t even get into the obvious thing that even a fucking pirate like Henry Ford understood: if your workforce can’t afford your product, you sell less product. In terms of “efficiency” in the federal government, that means that your employees in, say, the US Army are requiring services from, say, the Department of Agriculture (food stamps). This is, by the way, actually occurring.

            Not at all efficient.

            • Excellent point, DocA

            • DrDick

              Yes, but Republicans LOVE the military! That is why they oppose increasing pay and want to cut benefits for service people.

      • LKS

        Effiency and cost savings from the federal government come overwhelmingly from efficiencies of scale and its massive purchasing (and therefore bargaining power). The problem is not that we aren’t shaving a few hundreds of millions off of the federal payroll. The problem is that we don’t often enough take advantage of those efficiencies of scale and negotiating power to shave off hundreds of billions, the DoD being the prime culprit (with help from Congress).

  • Should you need a master’s degree to work for the Postal Service? A Ph.D. to hold a mid-level job in Commerce?

    A PhD in history!

    • Hogan

      Seriously. Those guys can do anything.

      • They do it by weighing evidence and writing popularly.

        “JudiciouslyWeighingDocuments”Dude was brought down by “SuperRevisionismByWayOfStatisticalAnalysisOfShippingEphemera”Woean….AGAIN!

        Will he never learn?

        • That’s “SuperRevisionismByWay OfStatisticalAnalysisOfShippingEphemera”Woman.

          • Hogan

            See also Dixon, J, “The economic influence of the development in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

        • John

          I don’t want to threadjack, and iIt’s probably pointless to clarify at this point, but I expressed myself poorly in the previous thread when I brought up the idea of popular history writing.

          I don’t really know if there’s a bigger market for popular history writing than other academic subjects. Certainly I’d say it’s bigger than the market for popular works of literary criticism, philosophy, anthropology. But it’s probably true that there’s a decent-sized market for popular works in the hard sciences, in economics, on politics, and so forth.

          What I should have said, but did not say, is that the border between academic historical writing and popular historical writing is a lot less distinct than in any other field I can think of. Obviously, there’s a huge difference between a Steven Ambrose book about how men at war are brothers and a scholarly monograph about cliometrics. But there’s a lot of works that can function in either vein. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom was written by an academic historian at Princeton, and published by Oxford University Press, but is widely read outside of academia as a history of the Civil War. Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Guerre was published by Harvard, but was turned into a movie.

          Obviously, the vast majority of works by academic historians do not have the kind of success of those works, but a significant percentage of academic history writing is not really different in kind from those works. A pretty high percentage of works written by academic historians could be read just as easily by a popular as by an academic audience. I’m obviously less familiar with other disciplines, but this seems like something that is fairly unique to history. In something like the hard sciences, popular works are just nothing like academic works, even when written by the same author. The audience is completely different, and the work is completely different. Same for economics. You don’t see that as much in history, because the basic mode of most historical writing is narrative. The kind of training that people with PhDs in history get does, indeed, largely train them to write for other academic historians. But writing for other academic historians is more like writing for an audience of intelligent laypersons than most other academic disciplines.

          Whether this has any implications for the employability of historians, I don’t know. Probably not, in practice. As I said in the other thread, my own preference would be to restructure academia so that there are more academic jobs, rather than to try to employ History (and other) PhD’s in other fields unrelated to their degrees. But I do think it’s worth noting.

          • Hogan

            I tease. I knew more or less what you meant, and I don’t think I’m alone in preferring the narrative mode to the expository mode, to the point where I find it difficult to finish long books that don’t tell me a story. History is the nonfiction for me.

            • Linnaeus

              You’re not alone. I agree that a lot of historical scholarship skimps on narrative, to its detriment.

            • John

              I was more responding to Bijan, I should note, who seems to have nothing but contempt for us history PhD’s.

              • I was teasing too.

                If that’s what you got from the prior thread then I’m afraid you have a completely wrong picture, and if you a history PhD then I don’t think much of your evidence judging skills. (E.g., read this comment.)

                In that thread I was very specifically commenting on what seemed like a completely unrealistic, yet equally completely unsupported, assertion of Eriks that, roughly, history PhDs were intrinsically hireable and valuable in corporate America due to their speaking, writing, and evidence judging.

                Regardless of the general value you put on history and history PhD this is prima facie ridiculous. (As I point out, the training PhD students in any field generally receive is overwhelmingly in how to speak and write and mobilize evidence for academics. This is so banal as to shock me to be in dispute. I’m about to teach a mandatory course in “Academic Writing” to our first year PhD students. A dissertation (well, performing arts is a bit different) which consumes an enormous everything of a PhD student is targeting academics.) Worse, it’s exactly the sort of thing law profs tell their students (JD is a career opener), philosophy profs (to hit home) tell their majors (and law school is always and option!)

                This is really orthogonal to the “But they writes the popular histories and textbooks!” Minimally, to support Erik’s claim, you have to establish that 1) sufficient numbers of history PhD do and/or can write such things, 2) that getting a history PhD facilitates it (if not, the PhD is a rip off), and 3) that such particular skills is readily transferable (and in demand).

                The most anyone made a gesture toward was 1 and even then with the weak sauce of “more than other fields”.

                This simply doesn’t come close to denting the prima facie case.

                This has nothing in the least with valuing or disvaluing history PhDs. I think bulking up all the humanities departments would be great. I think the pursuit of knowledge has huge intrinsic merit. This is partly why I resist this throw away line: It’s not at all clear that PhD training has large ancillary benefits for people not pursuing academic careers. It definitely has huge costs.

                • John

                  Sorry – I was being a bit facetious too, and it was probably unfair to say you are contemptuous of history PhD’s, and I understand that wasn’t your main point. I think I basically agree with you about Erik’s post.

                  I think my main disagreement with you is over the idea that the writing skills one learns as a history PhD candidate aren’t transferable to other kinds of writing. Certainly, they are not fully transferable, but I do think that the kind of writing one is trained to do in history is more readily transferable to other kinds of writing than most other kinds of academic writing.

                  I’d add that when I mentioned textbooks, I wasn’t referring particularly to giant intro textbooks, but more broadly to “books with an audience of undergraduates in mind,” which, in history, is actually quite a lot of books. You don’t necessarily get as much of that in other fields. Lots of important works by academic historians are written with the idea that they won’t just be read by professional historians, but also as course texts by undergraduates. The kind of academic writing that historians do is more like popular non-fiction writing than academic writing in any other field I can think of.

                  And I certainly don’t see the need for a swipe at my “evidence judging skills”. It’s easy for people to talk past each other on the internet.

                • John,

                  Hmm. I think you either get to be offended, but then you should note that you threw the first stone, or you get to be facetious, but then you should concede the obvious jocularity of my jibe. I don’t think you get it both ways! (I’ll note that yours was way out of the blue and much less supported by the evidence :))

                  Re: the transferability, well, but again this is what everyone says about just about any field. It’s highly in the interest of folks intra-field to believe this, as well.

                  So I think there’s a huge burden of proof here, and it’s multipart as I enumerated above. So, again, even if you establish the popular writing thing (this seems like a helpful starting point; I trust that it’s obvious why interested self reporting is not hugely prima facie convincing), there’s a huge job remaining.

                • John

                  I don’t think I’m arguing that history writing is a skill which is, in practice, particularly transferable. But I do think (with only, admittedly, completely anecdotal evidence) that my point about the blurry boundary between academic and popular history writing is sound, and that, with a very few exceptions, it doesn’t really exist in other disciplines.

                • Fair enough. If we restrict it that narrowly, then I don’t really know what to say about it. There are certainly plenty of fields which are inherently highly inaccessible. But there are also highly inaccessible fields that have huge reams of popularizers (e.g., physics).

                  But if the skill is not transferable then, while my argument about history PhDs being trained to speak and write for other academics would be wrong, the point of the argument would hold.

                  I did start looking at history theses abstracts such as this and this, and while they aren’t obviously terrible, there are hints that their accessibility would be limited. (E.g., “In creating this model of imperial authority, Vespasian drew from a range of Roman cultural traditions and historical exempla from the Julio-Claudian period and earlier, including narrative topoi, notions of gender and the family, the traditions and memories associated with Roman urban topography, and models of leadership that emerged in military contexts.” or ” I argue that Guide literature and programs in interwar England, Canada and India both reflected and contributed to this conservative modernity, most notably by combining an older emphasis on maternalism and domesticity with an emphasis on bravery, independence, and female masculinity, and by promoting a friendly familial version of international and imperial relations that was nonetheless still influenced by older ideas about racial hierarchy and the British ‘civilizing mission.’ “.

                  Granted, I was told by my relations that they didn’t even understand the titles of recent theses I supervised!

                  I’d be interested in a survey of different fields and some idea of what makes academic writing inaccessible. Some things seem inherent: I have trouble with biology papers because I just don’t know the 80 million (hard) things they necessarily take for granted.

          • Linnaeus

            Apologies for continuing the drift, but since it’s on my mind this morning…

            But writing for other academic historians is more like writing for an audience of intelligent laypersons than most other academic disciplines.

            As one who is getting my Ph.D. in history (trying to, at least), I tend to agree with this. I think it’s totally fair to point out that there’s limits to what a person trained in a particular field can do in or outside of academia. And the “go outside of academia” strategy is further constrained by the generally bad job market.

            But I do think that a history Ph.D. does have a little more flexibility than a lot of people think. So I got a little prickly in my comment below because going non-academic is exactly what I’m trying to do. Right now, I have three jobs, and one of them (history tutor) is directly related to my field. But the one that currently has the most long-term potential is not. My graduate training may not have helped me get that job, but it doesn’t seem to have impeded my getting that job either. Granted, I’m just one example.

            • I’d be happy to believe this, but the evidence seems thin on the ground to me.

              Look, I feel like I got tons of benefit from my philosophy BS, MSc, and PhD training. But I’m also a pretty bright, curious person who might have comparably benefited from any such training (i.e., not philosophy specific) or even much less training (i.e., it’s not clear what the marginal gain was; yes I can read complex texts, but yeah, always; yes I learned a lot of logic which was relevant for my field switch, but, eh, logic isn’t that hard; I know a lot of philosophy, but…).

              On average, people who complete PhDs are going to bright, hardworking, etc. This may help them in other careers. But it’s unclear if they are getting special benefit either from their credential or their training if they don’t go into academia (or something analogous).

              I hope that the PhD doesn’t impede! (Though, like a JD, it’s easy to see how it might. Read Paul’s other blog!) But of course, there’s still the opportunity costs.

              Terrible academic markets are the flip side of terrible tuition: Both are real, ginormous problems for academia which need solving. But we need to be clear eyed about the situation.

              • Linnaeus

                Fair enough; I quite agree with you, actually, that we need to be clear-eyed about the limits and benefits to Ph.D. training, which may not have been apparent amid my crankiness. While I do think that Ph.D.s in various fields can do more than be academics, they can’t step into just any job, assuming the job is even there.

                And yes, I’m sure I’ve paid an enormous opportunity cost. But that’s the hand I have, so I gotta play it somehow.

    • Linnaeus

      Silly history Ph.D.s! I can think of no better deserved a fate than for them to be starving in the streets, preferably in some location where I can step over them and mock them for not becoming computer programmers!

      • Steve LaBonne

        Silly computer programmers! I can think of no better deserved a fate than for them to be starving in the streets, preferably in some location where I can step over them and mock them because their jobs have all been offshored to Bangalore!

        • Linnaeus

          They should have picked another field then. The market! The market!

          • Furious Jorge

            I – er, I mean, the market, yeah, that’s it – cannot sympathize with the workers of tomorrow who are unable to accurately predict the future.

            • Linnaeus

              Sarcasm aside, there are people who really do seem to believe this.

              • I agree. I’m not one of them, FWIW.

                But this is what Paul’s been going on about. If there is no benefit to getting a history PhD, then we people who advise applicants should point this out. Departments should restructure to produce fewer PhDs. Ideally, we’d setup alternative, less onerous programs for people who want to do research or learn research but for whom getting a PhD will not be remotely worth it. (Thesis generation is one of the stupidest skills to optimize for: People rarely write more than one; judging them doesn’t require having written one; the skills aren’t often transferrable, per se. It’s a nasty thing, for a lot of people. This doesn’t mean you can’t become a competent researcher!)

                I’ve been extremely fortunate that all the PhD students I’ve been involved with have gotten jobs that they like, roughly in the area (industry or academia) that they wanted. Computer Science is rather tricky in this way. (Note, apparently the US lifetime benefit of a PhD in CS over an MS is basically nothing….yeek!)

                Obviously, this doesn’t remotely help people already through a program. Other than expanding tenure lines, I’m not sure what can be done.

                • Linnaeus

                  If there is no benefit to getting a history PhD, then we people who advise applicants should point this out. Departments should restructure to produce fewer PhDs. Ideally, we’d setup alternative, less onerous programs for people who want to do research or learn research but for whom getting a PhD will not be remotely worth it.

                  We used to do what you suggest with the terminal MA degree, but most departments that I know of have abandonded that. You get a lot more labor out of Ph.D. students, for one thing.

                  Obviously, this doesn’t remotely help people already through a program. Other than expanding tenure lines, I’m not sure what can be done.

                  I’d definitely support that; in the meantime, it may be necessary to restrict the number of Ph.D. as you mention. But folks like me who likely won’t end up teaching need a different plan and if that means finding away to reinvent myself a little, even if the prospects aren’t great, well, that’s what I’ll do.

                • Yes, the UK has a terminal research master’s (the MPhil), but as it’s an exit route for failed PhDs and it’s rarely taken with intent. Thus it doesn’t seem to do a useful job.

                  I think the current oversupply needs to be properly addressed, but it’s hard to see that it will until the overthrow of the insane admin regimes occurs.

                • John

                  Terminal MA in history is, so far as I can tell, a completely useless degree. The people in the MA program at my grad school were basically treated like walking paychecks – the department took their money, and gave them almost nothing in return. The only thing it might have been useful for was getting into other PhD programs.

                • Hogan

                  “Terminal MA” always sounded like a disease to me. The great crippler of young adults.

                • In computer science, at least in the US, a terminal MS gives a large lifetime earnings benefit (taking into account the costs) over a BS. PhD does very little over the MS.

            • paleotectonics

              Not that long ago a Powerpoint pres.* took an email tour**, and made the annoying case that we are currently trying to prepare kids for jobs that, as of yet, not only do not exist, but have not been imagined yet. Plus the careers for those childrens’ middle age years, as those first careers will undoubtably become obsolete in their lifetimes.

              (*I do not want to hammer the thread by somehow linking a .ppt – just bound to cause me and others a headache.)

              (**Although I generally ignore such attachments, unless of course they involve the former finance minister of the Sudetenland and a fortune in Swiss Rupees and could I expedite the process of freeing them.)

              • paleotectonics

                And wordpress should be given tetanus with a rusty 16″ shell.


  • Joseph Slater

    I found two things interesting about this study. First, the vast majority of studies of non-federal government employees (state and local workers) show a somewhat similar effect (low-end workers are paid slightly more than in the private sector, high-end workers paid less). But further, the clear majority of these studies fairly consistently find that ON THE WHOLE public workers are paid less than private sector workers. See, e.g., the work of Jeffrey Keefe. The CBO study finds that federal workers as a whole are paid somewhat more than comparable private sector workers.

    Second, and related, the pay studies for state and government employees — at least the minority studies that find these employees make more than comparable private sector employees — are used in arguments about whether such workers shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights, because they drive up wages too high.

    BUT the vast majority of federal sector unions CAN’T negotiate about compensation: they are legally barred from bargaining over wages or benefits. That’s not true of almost any state public sector labor law — almost all allow bargining over wages, and some benefits (although usually not pensions).

    Bottom line: even if one accepts the CBO’s finding that federal workers are, as a whole, somewhat overpaid relative to private workers, and even if one finds that troubling (and I agree with the OP that it’s quite arguably not troubling at all), this is not a product of public sector collective bargaining laws.

    • Ben

      You’ve exceeded the intellectual output of McArdle’s entire career in four short paragraphs. Well done!

      • Joseph Slater

        Well talk about damning with faint praise. . . . Seriously, thanks.

    • mpowell

      I’ve always felt that having the job security that a union brings actually serves as a benefit of a job for most people. To get the same quality of worker without a union, you probably have to pay them more (in the long run).

  • TT

    My beef with the feds is that they make it so frigging complicated to apply for a position at any level that you just give up in frustration. At least that was my experience ten years ago.

    • Mac


    • wengler

      You forgot to fill out form T539-2G that waives the government’s liability in case of a trans-dimensional warp accident.

      It really was your fault.

      • And you left a comma off the FC-65/.43a, “Form For Commenting On Another Commenter With Intent To Criticize,” so you’ll need to withdraw that comment.

        Unless, of course, you fill out Form Zed Zed Zed Alpha 984326 (after 8PM, 4327)\/Don’tsleepinthesubwaydarlingFTANGFTANG, “Reporting Misplaced Comma on Form FC-65/.43a, “Form For Commenting On Another Commenter With Intent To Criticize.”

        In triplicate. By the pale moonlight.

  • DK

    I think you mistake what Drum’s mistake is here:

    Hiring working-class people hurts the quality of the federal bureaucracy?

    I think what he’s suggesting is that whether you hire “top-level managers and other professionals” is what determines the quality of the work done by organizations – that you can pay the line workers poorly and treat them poorly but with excellent supervision you will still have organizational excellence. That is standard neo-liberal nonsense (it’s the same thing we see with corporate ed reform) and strikes me that it’s spoken like someone who’s never had a real boss – who often impede excellence.

    • LKS

      I think what he’s suggesting is that whether you hire “top-level managers and other professionals” is what determines the quality of the work done by organizations – that you can pay the line workers poorly and treat them poorly but with excellent supervision you will still have organizational excellence. That is standard neo-liberal nonsense…

      IME, it’s standard business-world nonsense and always has been. It’s not even neo, let alone neoliberal. Indeed, it dovetails perfectly with anti-democratic conservative elitism.

      But you’re right – it’s nonsense.

      …and strikes me that it’s spoken like someone who’s never had a real boss – who often impede excellence.


      • Holden Pattern

        But everything can be Taylorized!

  • John

    Hiring working-class people hurts the quality of the federal bureaucracy? Should you need a master’s degree to work for the Postal Service? A Ph.D. to hold a mid-level job in Commerce?

    I don’t believe that anyone you are disagreeing with has said anything like this.

    • It’s part of the stealth History PhD WPA plan. Erik knows that there are people with power who like nothing better than to piss off a liberal, so he’s brier rabbiting them.

  • c u n d gulag

    “This might sound cold-hearted to some, but this is exactly the opposite of what the chart should look like if we’re interested in attracting the best and brightest to public service, and keeping them there.”

    So, Jordan, the best way to attract newer, better, and brighter workers, is to be cold-hearted to the old ones.
    Good to know.

    Yes, that’ll attract the people you want! That’ll instill confidence in their future governmental employment and careers!

    And then what?
    We can’t afford to be warm-hearted to them in the future, when want to attract newerer, betterer, and brigterer, workers.
    So, OUT with that lot.

    I think I now understand how Megan McGarble-Barble got her job.

    “Atlantic” really, really needs to either upgrade their hiring requirements, or check to make sure that “The Onion” isn’t somehow or other putting in some of their comedy-writing applicants into the “Atlantic’s” database.


  • LKS

    It’s not always clear to me which of the following people like Weissmann believe, but it has to be at least one:

    (a) the more education and/or better upbringing you have, the more suited you are to do any job; i.e., a Ph.D. from a wealthy family will be a better fry cook than a high school dropout from the barrio;

    (b) the value of work should be determined by the educational and/or social attainments of the person doing it; i.e., a Ph.D. from a wealthy family should earn more as a fry cook than a high school dropout from the barrio;

    (c) the difficulty of a job is entirely a function of the intellectual effort and/or education required to perform it; ergo, being a fry cook is easy!

    The reality, of course, is that these jokers would make shitty and even dangerously bad fry cooks.

    Also, I haven’t read the CBO report, so I don’t know if it adjusts for regional differences in cost of living. CoL is high in the DC area, especially housing costs.

    • Hogan

      In both the federal government and the private sector, compensation may depend on a number of factors that can be observed and measured. CBO sought to account for differences in those factors—education, occupation, years of work experience, geographic location (region of the country and urban or rural location), size of
      employer, and certain demographic characteristics (age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, immigration status, and citizenship).

    • Anonymous

      This is a most excellent post– point a is especially relevant when it comes to education “reform” and those that stress the centrality (to the exclusion of all other factors, practically) in improving our educational system. Pay teachers more– get better teachers! Because if you went to an ivy league school you are by definition the very bestest at everything!

      • Anonymous

        I meant centrality of teaching (if anyone is reading)

      • That’s not quite the theory, but nice try.

        • Anonymous

          What exactly is the theory wise man?

          • dangermouse

            My theory is that if you stopped huffing paint fumes your reading comprehension might improve

            • Anonymous

              wow. Quite civil.

              • DrDick

                I thought so.

    • John

      Not that I agree with Weissman, but surely his point is not that the government should be hiring PhD’s to be fry cooks and janitors. His argument seems to be that janitors and fry cooks working for the federal government should make wages comparable to what people in those professions make in the private sector, and that the savings from doing so should be applied to offering more money for the positions that do require advanced degrees, in order to attract better people to those positions.

      I disagree with the zero sum nature of this argument, but it’s not the argument that you and Erik are claiming that he is making.

      • wengler

        But of course this denies the way that government generally does things. There is a lot more internal promotion in government jobs than in other jobs because there are a lot more incentive to stay in your job. So chances are your supervisor positions in government are people that have worked at many other lower parts of the chart in their department.

        • John

          What do supervisor positions have to do with anything?

          • wengler

            He was saying to take away money from workers and give them to supervisors like in the private sector. I was saying that the government tends to promote from within and cares much less about being competitive in pay for management positions.

            • John

              No, he was saying to take away money from unskilled workers and give it to people with college and post-graduate degrees.

    • Furious Jorge

      I don’t come from a wealthy family, but even if I did, I’m sure I’d make a lousy fry cook.

  • Steve LaBonne

    I’m a (local) government employee with a Ph.D., so I theoretically get the short end of the stick. But I fully support the relatively more generous treatment of less educated workers; it’s what the private sector should look like if our society were closer to being a just one.

    • DrDick


    • Anonymous

      Exactly. We can continue to argue that our society is just because everyone has a shot at winning the life lottery if they just work hard enough (of course, not mathematically possible or true) or we can simply distribute the fruits of our collective productivity more equitably. This seems to be the right way to go. Everyone has basic needs that must be met.

      • Or we *could* recognize, as Buffett’s Fair Ecomomy puts it, that no one makes a fortune in this nation alone, and that there ought to be an acknowledgement of that fact in the tax system.

        For instance, the guy who cleans the highway of debris keeps the entrepreneur’s Merc from blowing a tire on a broken bottle, so he can go and economically rape a third world nation.

        The guy who kept the tire intact deserves a piece of that windfall.

        • Anonymous

          Why would I argue against that? Of course I believe that.
          I wouldn’t put too much stock in Warren Buffet’s Fair Economy however. The man is very skilled at gaming the tax code. He really talks out of both sides of his mouth.

  • mds

    Yes, if only these uneducated folk had pursued, say, teaching degrees. Then no-one would begrudge them their public-sector pay and benefits.

    • Uncle Kvetch


  • Hogan

    It’s about time someone had the courage to say that we need more income inequality.

    • Linnaeus

      Isn’t that Tyler Cowen’s beat?

      • Downpuppy

        Nah, it’s McAddleds. She also weighed in on this, although (this may shock you*) without thinking or fact checking, much less wrestling that demon, arithmetic.

        *Or not

        • mds

          Actually, Cowen just recently was caught out by John Quiggen doing exactly what Hogan mentioned. It turns out the combination of inequality and lack of social mobility is the best of all possible worlds, because otherwise socialism.

          Naturally, this comes from someone who will never be called on his flagrant, deliberate horseshit by his employers, because he’s spent the bulk of his career insulated from the free market by wingnut welfare. His morally bankrupt whoring** is what the Koch boys pay top dollar for.

          See also Krugthulu.

          **I don’t wish to imply that actual sex workers are contemptible. It’s just very difficult to otherwise sum up so pithily the behavior of someone who sells his intellectual integrity for money.

          • DrDick

            Sex workers at least provide value for their pay.

    • Steve LaBonne

      That revolting thing is that these hacks probably DO pride themselves on their courage. They’re fighting Liberal Fascism, after all.

      • Joshua

        Take away the probably there. They really do think they are saying great truths that must be said, speaking truth to power even (the labor unions and librul media, of course).

        I can practically hear squeals of delight every time I see a new David Brooks article about forcing people to “take their medicine.”

        They are monsters. All of them.

  • Njorl

    Forget the fairness aspect.

    The point of government is to provide services to the populous. The point of business is to make money. While there is some overlap in practices, it is not close to being complete.

    In business, if I can increase profits by providing crappy service – lowering costs more than I lower receipts – I do it. In government, the customer service is the point. If I hire no-nothing clerks to interact with medicaid patients, I can save money on their pay, and also save money by slowing down the allocation of medicaid services, but that defeats the whole point of the government program.

  • wengler

    Here’s what these hacks don’t understand. The federal government has a transparent wage scale so men and women get the same amount of money for the same job. No savings there by screwing women out of money. Not efficient.

    The federal government is highly unionized so ancient concepts like defined benefits retirement and comprehensive medical still exist. You know the sorts of things that CEOs think that only CEOs should get these days. Damn workers thinking they should get to retire and get to go to the doctor when they get sick. They don’t have this problem at Wal-Mart.

    • Linnaeus

      What’s frustrating to me is to see so many people say, “hey, I don’t get that, why should they?” And the downward spiral continues.

      • paleotectonics

        Yes, dammit, this!

      • wengler

        Yeah spite will work for awhile, hell maybe forever in some parts of the country, but it won’t work everywhere all the time.

  • dangermouse

    They could always like, raise taxes on the wealthy a tiny percentage, then use that to pay white-collar employees more.

  • rea

    The solution is not to cut the wages of the public sector workers making (barely) a living wage, but to assure that no one in the country who works is paid less than a living wage.

    • wengler

      But those were to be my slaves when I become king!

  • Herbal Infusion Bagger

    It should be pointed out that a lot of the Federal jobs at the HS level or lower are for posts with background checks for poor credit, or a criminal record. Which will screen out a lot of people with psychological/social/substance abuse/poor work habits issues that are going to be more prevalent with folks in the HS dropout or HS-diploma only than those with college degress.

    So it’s not that surprising that a Fed that can pass a background check is going to earn more than your median personal in the same educational cohort.

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