Those Pesky Facts…

Not long after Trump’s childish government shutdown ended, The Washington Post ran an article debunking five “myths” about the federal workforce.

The first myth on the list may be the most pernicious: that government workers earn more than their private-sector counterparts. As the article pointed out, this isn’t true if you are comparing apples to apples. Although workers with only a high-school diploma make slightly more if they work for the government, workers with professional degrees make somewhat less. But overall salary comparisons aren’t useful,

because “federal workers tend to be older, more educated, and more concentrated in professional occupations than private-sector workers,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. There are also comparatively few part-time workers in the government.

Other misconceptions included the belief that most people who work for the federal government are located in Washington, D.C. and don’t “rub elbows” with “real Americans”(actually, only about 1 in 6 federal employees work in D.C.), the belief that government is shrinking (actually, thanks to privatization, it has grown), the belief that private enterprises can deliver services at a lower cost than government (The Project on Government Oversight says that “the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services.”), and that it is virtually impossible to fire non-performing government employees (federal employees are fired all the time, although they do have more rights than private-sector employees, who basically don’t have any.)

The linked article includes data supporting each of its corrections, and it’s worth clicking through and reading it in its entirety, but I think the more interesting question involves the reason for these widely-held misconceptions.

I think it comes down to Americans’ ambivalence about government.

A persistent anti-government bias is a long-standing feature of American culture. Reagan’s famous quip that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is met with fear resonated with so many voters because skepticism about government is “baked in” to the American worldview.

Ironically, however, when most Americans are concerned about a problem, whether local or national, their first impulse is to insist that government solve it.

In a rational world (and yes, I know we don’t inhabit such a world), we would launch a national discussion about what it is we believe government should–and shouldn’t–do.

(Unfortunately, thanks to our deficit of civic literacy, most Americans don’t understand  that the answer to the the question “what shouldn’t government do?” is found in the Bill of Rights. As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do.)

If we could hold such a national conversation, we might come to some agreement about what we expect government in the 21st Century to do–inspect the food supply, keep airplanes from crashing into each other, protect us from criminals and so forth. We might also reinforce understanding of things government has no business deciding–what we read, who we love, whether and how we procreate or pray.

The lesson we should have learned from the government shutdown is that Trump and his abysmal Cabinet are–thankfully– a very small part of the federal government. Despite their incompetence, thousands of people in government’s much-maligned workforce go to their jobs every day to ensure that government functions as expected. They aren’t perfect, and the incompetence at the top does do considerable damage, but without them, we’d be up that proverbial creek without a paddle. And the creek would be polluted.

Perhaps if Americans had a common understanding of the pesky facts about what government employees do every day, we would be less likely to sneer at “government work.”


  1. Another insightful argument, Sheila. It seems to be within the eternal spirit of what it means to be ‘American’ is to be at best skeptical of government. When I hear vitriolic anti-government sentiment, it is difficult for me to separate such sentiment from folk who are basically living a preference ‘off the grid’ with an inmate fear of accountability to much of any form of authority. Healthy skepticism, however, is good for our country. Holding 800,000 federal workers and their families hostage to a broken political campaign promise was treasonous and the real threat to our nation’s security. Federal workers showed up anyway to protect our nation’s interest.

  2. From my perspective, this is the flip side of the capitalistic coin–markets good, government bad.

    It’s also erroneous.

    On Facebook, I was told to take my socialism and stuff it. When I reminded them the snow plows out plowing our streets before the sun comes up are socialist plows, she said, “They don’t have to be because you can hire your own snow plow.” [eye roll]

    Our educational system has clearly failed this country and so has our Fourth Estate. As a result of these failures, Fascism crept in and took over.

    Janet Yellen recently said, “Trump has no idea what the role of the Fed is in our country.”

    From D.C. to Muncie, Indiana, too much ignorance abounds.

    If our leaders are applauded and supported for their ignorance, it gives power to the ignorant masses who whisked them into power in the first place.

    Wait until the Medicare For All propaganda heats up both the conservative and liberal media circles. There will be plenty of facts needing corrective measures from all the peddling of lies and deception by our industry-owned politicians and the media.

    Get ready…

  3. Every day that Congress uses its power to play power games against each other instead of doing the business of the people by solving problems is another day that the anti-government forces win their argument. And that anti-government segment of society is growing every day.

  4. “The first myth on the list may be the most pernicious: that government workers earn more than their private-sector counterparts.”

    Common sense tells you that the private sector is “in business” to make money; not serve their customers or the public. I received a letter from Indiana Public Retirement System (INPRS) regarding a change in my public employee retirement fund payment process. “Effective January 1, 2018, the Indiana Public Retirement System has contracted with State Street Retiree Services to pay retirement benefits for the Indiana Public Retirement Fund. This means payment of your monthly pension benefit will now be handled by State Street.” This is privatization, or outsourcing if you prefer, of our pension funds now in the hands of State Street Corporation, an American financial service and bank holding company. State Street Corporation is the 2nd oldest U.S. bank and is on the list of banks “too big to fail”.

    To maintain enrollment in the Public Employees Retirement Fund; we were required to file a completely new enrollment to assure we continue receiving our monthly pension benefits. I E-mailed my Democratic Rep. Dan Forestal to question this privatization but he SAID he knew nothing about it and would have a staff member contact me. His Chief Legislative Officer informed me “this is not privatization; they merely changed from the company they had been using for three years to State Street Retiree Services”. We had not been informed of the initial privatization – or outsourcing – of our pension funds and she obviously had no idea what “privatization” means. The lack of knowledge and awareness shouldn’t have surprised me but it did and my concerns regarding continuation of receiving my pension fund grow under our current “leadership”.

    “In a rational world (and yes, I know we don’t inhabit such a world), we would launch a national discussion about what it is we believe government should–and shouldn’t–do.”

    The Indiana Public Retirement System is responsible for pension funds for all Indiana retired Public Employees, Teachers, Judges, Police Officers, Firefighters, Excise, Gaming and Conservation Officers, Prosecutors and Legislators. It is not only the public effected by “what we believe government should-and shouldn’t- do”…not here in Indiana.

  5. Government investment has ALWAYS created around 75% of the jobs in our country. The myth game shifted into high gear with Reagan/Regan and the lunatic Milton Friedman’s misguided theory of supply-side economics.

    The myths are perpetrated by Republicans for the benefit of Republican donors/owners. The lie is obvious. No other symptom is greater than the above-mentioned outsourcing behavior of our government. STILL, the government grows and the services it once operated become even more inefficient. BUT the donors are making tons of taxpayer money.

    Aren’t Republicans great at exploiting capitalism just as Marx said they would?

  6. Several years ago, POGO did a study comparing salaries of gov’t and private employees. It turns out that for (I think I have the numbers right) 33 of the 35 federal job classifications studied, privatization costs the gov’t more. Often twice as much as having the job done by a gov’t employee. The difference involves the management fees charged to the project by corporations, which go to executive salaries and shareholder dividends.

  7. When I first moved to DC I met a woman who told me, “People go to New York to make money. People come to D.C. to make a difference.” By and large, my experience confirmed that.

  8. TSA,food inspectors,and such are paid chump wages. though they seek a better return for their time in employ with the goverment,most ,make wages that barely stay above a poverty level. when sen and congress people make statements like”they have i phones”..again,these sen,and congress people do not,walk with the working class,or break bread at the same has a objecive,depending on what side they stand on,instead of actual journalism,they will quote crap that will make any of these worker choke one up. anything to slant for so called smaller govermentm,i.e. take it from the worker first,as usual. sounds like wall street garb for all working,forgot,millionaire media people,hyping for billionaire take it all.

  9. All businesses and the government employ the same HR practices around pay. They benchmark to understand the labor market for particular skills then, in order to obtain qualified employees, they offer competitive pay and benefits.

    It’s too bad we didn’t use the same practice for President because even though he declined a salary he’s worth much less because he’s qualified for so little.

    Imagine anyone who inherited a huge and very successful business that went bankrupt six times under his watch.

    He’s an empty celebrity with zero applicable experience yet enough rural Americans and Putin carried him over the finish line simply on the basis of propaganda that taught them that no qualifications are necessary for government.

    When crooks enter politics everyone loses.

  10. Todd, @ 7:31 am :
    Wait until the Medicare For All propaganda heats up both the conservative and liberal media circles. There will be plenty of facts needing corrective measures from all the peddling of lies and deception by our industry-owned politicians and the media.

    They have already started. The Corporate McMega-Media will never let Medicare for All receive an impartial hearing. If you watch cable news you are deluged with ads for Big Pharma.

    Two pieces concerning the Government at local all the way up to Federal:

    1.) There is the expectation that Government at all levels works for the interests of the people. We elect the people who represent us. As examples we expect the water we drink to be free of contaminants and harmful toxins. We expect restaurants and groceries to follow proper hygiene proceeds. We expect banks and other financial institutions to tell the truth about their lending and investment practices.

    2.) Now we have the other part of Government that is influenced by large corporations and lobbyists who have as their primary interest the profit motive. Laws can be written that serve and protect their interests at the detriment of the proles. Pay day lending scams and pollution standards can be weakened. The “watch dog” agencies can be staffed with corporate insiders and/or underfunded.

  11. I had another pleasant experience with my local Social Security office (no joke, in and out in 15 minutes and my problem was solved with no hassle). I made a point of telling the person I dealt with that government employees are unfairly dumped on and that I thought they were doing a great job. What a smile I got back!

  12. Let’s tell it like it is. Democrats are wimpy about defending their views, and despite their intelligence, aren’t always persuasive in putting forth their arguments.

    Democrats need to find their voices in defense of socialism. Currently, they are pushed around by Republicans who imply Marxism and public ownership of the means production are what Dems favor. I’ve never met or heard or seen a Democrat who favors either. Socialism, as promoted by educated Democrats, implies a public debate over what societal responsibilities the government should assume versus which ones should be left to private industry. There are many topics that are appropriate to that discussion. Predatory drug prices come to mind. How much debt it is appropriate to burden graduates with is another. Medical care for all is yet another. The list is long.

    By aggressively insisting that the debate be joined on those terms, and not in terms of some phony view of how socialism is an unpatriotic and pejorative term, Democrats can educate the public in a way that helps them understand what Democratic policies are truly all about. We need to grab this cudgel from our Republican adversaries and conduct our discussions on a more semantically correct basis. Telling it like it is may not always win the day, but it will always make for a much more productive discussion.

  13. I believe that if you are suspicious of government you shouldn’t work there. I don’t know of any other enterprise where you can come in and say “I don’t believe in the work that is being done here. I think we should shut it down.” and be able to continue working there. If you don’t believe in protecting the environment, you shouldn’t work for the EPA. If you think privatization is the way to go with education, don’t work for the Dept. of Ed. I worked for the SC state dept of mental health for many years & we were told at one point we would need to function more like a “business.” Well, every therapist and psychiatrist I knew in private practise never took indigent clients and yet they made up 75% of our clients! So go figure how that was supposed to work out in reality. More emphasis on “productivity” by employees which was measured by “billable” hours. And then we won’t even begin to discuss the effect Medicaid regs put on state provided services. Privatization never looks at providing services for those who can’t pay. Talk about comparing apples to roast beef!!

  14. I remember my days as a federal civil servant (GS-9 Chemist at NIMH). Every year the Washington Post reported (1) the parity study that routinely showed government workers earned about 90% of private sector pay and (2) the pay raise with the new list of salaries (federal salaries are public information, unlike the hush-hush private sector). In odd years, the raise brought us up to about 95% parity with the private sector; in election years we got much less.

    Civil Servants – here’s a story – I applied for social security online during the shut down. Sunday night before the government reopened, I received an email from an SSA employee asking for more information. I responded and a day later was told that everything was in order and when to expect my first check. That is the service in Civil Service.

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