The Joy of Government Employment
“Actions speak louder than words” is my favorite adage.
“Government employment” is my least-favorite kind of employment.
Oh yeah, and I’m a government employee of the state of Virginia. (Despite much confusion, George Mason University is a public school).
This trio of propositions seems terribly awkward. How can I detest government employment while choosing it for myself, all the while loudly insisting that “actions speak louder than words”?!
Simple: When I name “government employment” as my least-favorite kind of employment, that doesn’t mean that I think government employment is bad for the government employees themselves. On the contrary, I maintain that government employment is usually fantastic for the government employees themselves.
My claim, rather, is that government employment is typically a terrible deal for taxpayers.
How is government employment fantastic for the government employees? Let me count the ways:
Cash salary is usually somewhat higher than cash salary for comparable private-sector workers.
True total compensation - salary plus on-the-books-benefits plus unofficial benefits - is almost always much higher than true total compensation for comparable private-sector workers. Most notably, government employees have high job security, often verging on perfect job security. While this benefit does not appear on any accounting statements, it is worth a bundle - especially during recessions and for lazy and difficult workers.
Even in well-defined government jobs - like janitor or math teacher - you have more slack to goof off and screw up than in the private sector.
In vaguely-defined government jobs - like mid-level regulator or English professor - you have almost unlimited slack to goof off and screw up. Many of my students have been federal employees, and they see co-workers openly watching Netflix all the live-long day. Good grief, a professor can even blog and call it work!
If you take pride in what you do, you can still do a good job. But you totally don’t have to.
How, though, is government employment a terrible deal for taxpayers? For all the same reasons that government employment is a great deal for government employees. Taxpayers habitually pay well above-market wages for seriously sub-standard work. Often for products they never wanted in the first place, because the IRS does not take “no” for an answer.
Upshot: Once you understand my words, my actions and words are in harmony.
As an economist, I know that government employment is a blight upon the economy.
As a government employee, I know that government employment is great for me.
Still, doesn’t my conscience bother me? Not much, because:
I have immense pride in my work, so I deliver high-quality teaching and research even though I could keep my job and current salary with crummy teaching and zero research.
I’m a whistleblower. I go out of my way to let taxpayers know they’re being ripped off.
If I quit, taxpayers wouldn’t get their money back. Instead, my compensation would almost certainly be wasted on other government employees far worse than myself.
Actions do speak louder than words. I choose government employment for myself because government employment is great for me. None of that changes the fact that government employment is terrible for taxpayers.
Indeed, government employment is terrible for society as a whole. If we were all government employees, what would our inflated salaries even buy us?