EDITORIAL: America's Mandarins
Pseudo-holidays such as Columbus Day and Presidents Day give respite to those of us who live in traffic-clogged metropolitan areas. Millions of motorists experience the giddy feeling of doing the speed limit to and from work for a change.
The cause of this flickering good fortune gives less reason to smile. It's because those barely acknowledged holidays seem to exist mainly so most public employees can take the day off. They're about the only workers who get those days off. Yet, there are so many of them, they make a noticeable difference in traffic flow.
Federal, state and local government workforces now total some 21.9 million civilian employees. That's about one out of six working people in the U.S.
They are better compensated than the private sector workforce - by a whopping amount. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year U.S. private sector workers averaged $24.34 hourly compensation in wages and benefits, compared with $36.16 for state and local government employees and $44.82 for Uncle Sam's privileged elite. (The federal figures exclude postal workers and the military.)
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the average federal civilian worker earns more than $106,000 a year in total compensation - double the $53,000+ in wages and benefits averaged by private workers. Pay increases have been rising much faster for government employees than for private sector workers.
Historically, government pay used to be lower than the private sector's. Government jobs still were highly coveted because lower pay was seen as a trade-off in return for superior benefits and perks, especially job security. Now they have it all - extravagant pay, benefits and perks. Public employees enjoy terrific health coverage and defined benefit pensions - many of which are severely under-funded and are adding up to a massive burden on our children and grandchildren. Government workers get more paid vacation days, sick days, personal days and holidays than the typical private employee.
And job security, oh my! A public employee has to “go postal” by murdering bosses and co-workers before there's a clear-cut case for termination. Public supervisors end up tolerating unproductive or disruptive employees rather than undertake the Herculean procedures required to get rid of them.
Most get to retire at a far earlier age than private workers and with larger nest eggs - often padded by huge lump-sum payouts for unused time off accumulated over years. Unused, because they get so much of it.
Not coincidentally, government is the only industry in which unions are growing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 36.5% of government workers were unionized in 2005, compared with a measly 7.8% of the private sector workforce.
Government employees include police, firefighters, teachers and other public servants who are indispensable to a civilized society. People who put their lives on the line for us or educate our children deserve to be well compensated.
Except it's not the cops, firefighters and teachers whose compensation would strike most of us as excessive. Few of them work for the federal government, whose employees are feeding heartiest at the taxpayer trough. Federal employment is padded with lawyers, administrators, assistant administrators and assistants to the assistant administrators whose jobs are to produce a lot of paperwork made necessary to communicate with layers upon layers of other lawyers, administrators, assistant administrators and assistants to the assistant administrators.
The title of this article refers to the Mandarin system of bureaucracy in imperial China. For more than 1,000 years, the Mandarins comprised an elite class of citizenry charged with running government affairs. They adopted unique forms of wardrobe and appearance to set them apart from the common people.
The analogy with America's bureaucracy falls apart, however, in that the Mandarins were selected by merit and underwent rigorous training in civil service. They were the best and brightest administrators in their land. Does anyone care to make the case that America's government agencies are managed by the most capable people our country has to offer? And if not, does it rile you as much as it does me to see them consume so many of our tax dollars?
An article in the Aug. 15, 2006, Wall Street Journal described a sad counterpoint to this growing burden of government. Titled “Where Have All the Welders Gone …”, it told of a shortage of skilled welders despite growing pay and benefits. The American Welding Society predicted a deficit of some 200,000 welders by 2010.
Same story with the pipe trades and other skilled blue collar jobs. It seems a lot of people have figured out it doesn't make sense to aspire to such noble but hard labor when they can make even more money pushing papers inside some cushy government office.