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Who pays more, government or business?

Who pays more, government or business?

I have been following with interest the battle over public-employee unions.

I have been following with interest the battle over public-employee unions.

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m not neutral on this subject but rather consider myself a pioneer in my antagonism to the unions.

I refer to the collective-bargaining units of cops, firefighters, teachers and office workers, which are sheltered by law from the vicissitudes of the marketplace and accorded privileges and perquisites that bargaining units in private industry could never dream of.

Now we are in the middle of a regular political donnybrook, centered for the moment in Wisconsin but building also in New York and other states, and I’m amused to see the arguments that are advanced in defense of the unions.

The one I like best is the one that changes the subject.

Listen to Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Clinton, for example:

“Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers. They don’t want stories about Wall Street bonuses, now higher than before taxpayers bailed out the Street. And they’d like to avoid a spotlight on the billions raked in by hedge-fund and private-equity managers whose income is treated as capital gains and subject to only a 15 percent tax, due to a loophole in the tax laws designed specifically for them.”

In other words, never mind whether police pensions are bloated; let’s talk about hedge-fund moguls. And when Republican governors try to do something about bloated public pensions, all they’re really doing is diverting our gaze from the private kings of greed.

Or listen to Paul Krugman, Nobel-Prize-winning economist, columnist for The New York Times and dependable advocate of Democratic positions: “What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.” Referring to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and to union demonstrators at the Wisconsin capitol.

Yes, if you’re not a fan of the super-rich, then you should support government office-workers getting free health insurance even if you don’t happen to have free health insurance yourself. Otherwise we’ll end up like Guatemala.

Then there is the question of whether government employees are overpaid. Do they make more or less than their “counterparts” in private business? I put counterparts in quotation marks, because it can be tricky finding the private counterpart of a motor-vehicle clerk or a police sergeant, but that’s always the question.

Not surprisingly, given what we know of human nature, the answer depends on what you’re predisposed to believe.

Fiscal conservatives and their think tanks produce studies that show one thing, labor unions and their allies produce studies that show another.

The National Institute on Retirement Security, an organization of public pension fund managers, says, “Employees of state and local government earn an average of 11 and 12 percent less, respectively, than comparable private sector employees.”

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says federal employees make 24 percent less than their private counterparts.

The Cato Institute, of libertarian persuasion, says that when you factor in benefits, government pay is 45 percent higher than private-sector pay.

As far as New York goes, I place greatest confidence in a report from the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy published in 2006, which compared pay on an hourly basis. (Everyone looks for an advantage. Hourly comparisons make government workers higher paid; educational comparisons make private workers higher paid.)

The Empire Center actually found that government workers were paid a little less than private workers when you consider the state as a whole, making just 87 percent of their private counterparts, but when you remove Manhattan from the equation, with its large numbers of fabulously compensated financial wheelers and dealers, the situation is reversed.

In 51 of the state’s 62 counties, government workers make more than private workers.

In the eight counties of the Capital Region, government workers made 117 percent of what private workers made. In Albany it was 120 percent. In Schenectady, the only county where government workers fell short, maybe because of the concentration of good-paying jobs at GE, it was 90 percent. In the Mohawk Valley it was 124 percent.

None of this takes into account the more generous health insurance, the earlier retirement, the fatter pensions, the longer vacations of government employees. Just pay.

I like the Empire Center analysis because I am swayed by my personal experience in the lowly world of local journalism, in which a government job doing something like writing press releases for the Office of Veterans Dental Benefits is viewed as a lucrative escape route, typically paying half again as much as the honest but laborious work of reporting town board meetings.

I know any number of people who have taken that route, swayed by the need to provide for their children and see to their own health and retirement needs. I know very few who have moved in the opposite direction.

When anyone tells me that government workers are underpaid, based on my own anecdotal knowledge, I can’t help but scoff.

And the same goes for staff workers of public-employee unions — the people who write the internal newsletters and field inquiries from reporters on behalf of NYSUT, CSEA, PEF and so forth, and who are paid out of union dues. Those too are plum positions, much desired by toiling journalists, not so much for job satisfaction as for good pay, good benefits and job security.

I do not address the more delicate question of how hard people work and to what extent their jobs are necessary, that is, whether my imaginary Office of Veterans Dental Benefits really needs a staff of communications specialists or whether it could get along just as well without.

Nor do I address all the $100,000 patronage jobs by which losing politicians are taken care of, the $70,000 payouts for unused sick and vacation time by which sewer department administrators are rewarded when they retire to Florida, the lavish inducements to government workers to retire early because they are too expensive to keep and we want to start fresh with new ones.

I leave all that for another time, just as I leave for another time my response to those bilious readers, Foxheads, who denounce me as a low-down liberal and degenerate Democrat. Little do they know.

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