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Saturday, September 11, 2010

America’s public servants are now its masters

America’s public servants are now its masters

By Mort Zuckerman

Published: September 9 2010 22:49 | Last updated: September 9 2010 22:49

There really are two Americas, but they are not captured by the standard class warfare speeches that dramatise the gulf between the rich and the poor. Of the new divisions, one is the gap between employed and unemployed that President Barack Obama seeks to close with yet another $50bn stimulus programme. Another is between workers in the private and public sectors. No guesses which are the more protected. A recent study by the Mayo Research Institute found that “private-sector workers were nearly three times more likely to be jobless than public-sector workers”.

Political tension is bound to grow when jobs disappear faster in the private than the public sector, just as compensation in the former is squeezed more. There was a time when government work offered lower salaries than comparable jobs in the private sector, a difference for which the public sector compensated by providing more security and better benefits. No longer. These days, government employees are better off in almost every area: pay, benefits, time off and security, on top of working fewer hours. Public workers have become a privileged class – an elite who live better than their private-sector counterparts. Public servants have become the public’s masters.

Take federal employees. For nine years in a row, they have been awarded bigger average pay and benefit increases than private-sector workers. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9m federal civilian workers was more than $79,000, against an average of about $50,000 for the nation’s 108m private-sector workers, measured in full-time equivalents. Ninety per cent of government employees receive lifetime pension benefits versus 18 per cent of private employees. Public service employees continue to gain annual salary increases; they retire earlier with instant, guaranteed benefits paid for with the taxes of those very same private-sector workers.

More troubling still is the inherent political corruption. Elected officials tend to be accommodating when confronted by powerful constituencies such as the public service unions that agitate for plush benefits and often provide (or deny) a steady flow of cash to election campaign funds. Their successors will have to cope with the inherited debt burden – and ultimately the nation’s taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointed out, spending on retirement benefits for California’s state employees is growing at three times the rate of state revenues, now exceeding $6bn annually and growing at the rate of 15 per cent a year. In other states, however, the politics of public pensions appear to be changing. In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, recently enacted a teacher pension reform that should save about $3bn over 10 years by increasing the amount workers must contribute. Illinois raised its retirement age for newly hired public workers from as low as 55 to 67. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, decided that even if it took bruising clashes with public worker unions, public service compensation reform was essential for the fiscal health of the state. His stance surprised many, but it made him a national figure.

There is no quick fix to deal with the billions in unfunded liabilities. Public service employees are almost impossible to fire, except after a long process and only for the most grievous offences. What is more, the courts have ruled in many states that pension increases granted by elected bodies are vested benefits that must be paid no matter what, precluding politicians from going back and changing past agreements.

The only fair solution is to take the politicians out of the equation and have fully independent commissions in charge, fixing the scale of salaries and benefits for public-service workers and establishing an affordable second retirement tier for new employees. More reasonable retirement ages should be in order, such as 65 for general employees and 55 for public safety employees. This would take nothing away from the existing benefits of current employees.

A fundamental rethinking of the public workforce is necessary. Americans cannot maintain their essential faith in government if there are two Americas, in which the private sector subsidises the disproportionate benefits of this new public sector elite.

The writer is editor in chief of US News & World Report and chairman and co-founder of Boston Properties


FT.com / Comment / Opinion - America’s public servants are now its masters

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