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Public Employee Benefits Are Out of Sync with Economic Reality

By Barry Fagin

“Hypocrite! You’re always writing about how government needs to be smaller. But you work for a government institution! Why don’t you write about that?”

I get e-mails like this from time to time, I assume from someone who hasn’t read a lot of my columns and instead just typed my name into a search engine. I’ve never made a secret of what I do, it’s on my home page and is deliberately easy to find out. Still, asking me to write something about government work strikes me as a pretty reasonable request. And with recent studies in the news about federal employee compensation versus the private sector, it seemed pretty timely.

Government compensation, like most compensation anywhere, is divided into salary and benefits (for those of us fortunate enough to have them). Let’s talk about salary first.

Regular readers know that I’m a computer science professor. To see how my salary compares with the private sector, I went to a well-known online database that tracks compensation for faculty in my field. It turns out my salary is well within the range of what private universities pay for computer science professors with my years of experience. Basically, as far as I can tell, my employer is paying market rates to fill a perceived need and meet its mission. If you want an experienced computer science professor, you have to pay us what we’re worth.

So it’s hard for me to get bent out of shape about my salary. I really like my job, but if I had to leave it I think I could get another one at pretty close to the same pay, if not more. That’s pretty good evidence that my salary isn’t out of line.

But what about benefits? Aye, there’s the rub. Benefits are a completely different story. As far as I can tell, they’re completely out of whack with economic reality, and are way more generous than the private sector can possibly match.

I’m approaching my 50th birthday, and I’ve been at my present job for 16 years. If I stay for only 6 more, I can “retire” and collect, according to my calculations, 30 percent of my present salary every year for the rest of my life. All at the tender age of 56. My financial planning software tells me I wouldn’t have to work ever again. And that doesn’t even count Medicare and Social Security. Once those kick in, I can really party.

But why in the world should I be able to coast like that?

You could argue, I suppose, that the government needs to provide this kind of retirement plan in order to be competitive in the marketplace. To which I say “Where’s the evidence?” Where exactly are the data that show applicant quality improves when benefits become that generous? Since there is no private sector retirement plan (that I am aware of) that comes even close to mine, a much more likely explanation is that government employees enjoy these benefits simply because we can get away with them.

So what should I do when I turn 56? Well, for starters, I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to work. If nothing else, it’s not smart to make your entire financial future dependent on the ability of the federal government to meet its financial obligations. Particularly one that’s dug itself into such a tremendous financial hole as ours has. I may stay at my current job, or I may go to the private sector. Hard to say.

One thing that I’d definitely like to do is organize people in my demographic. There must be plenty of newly AARP-eligible people out there who know that just because we’re legally entitled to slop from the public trough doesn’t mean we should stuff ourselves.

I know there are people out there who are prepared to accept cuts in spending, even on programs that benefit them, because they don’t want to contribute to the bankrupting of America. It’s just a matter of finding them and getting organized.

C’mon, everybody. Who’s with me?

This article was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette on August 18, 2010