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The Right-Wing Zombie Lie About Public Workers That Just Won't Die

A new study on government employees' earnings has the Right buzzing -- and some progressive pundits repeating the myth that government workers are "overpaid."

With the new year, we've seen a new round of attacks on working people. Just this week, Arizona Republicans introduced a bill attacking public workers that makes Wisconsin's look mild by comparison. And just in time to add fuel to the fire, the Congressional Budget Office released a study this week on government employees' earnings that has the Right buzzing – and even some progressive pundits repeating the myth that government workers are “overpaid.”

When it comes to wages and benefits, those government workers have unions to thank for their good fortune. The CBO notes that around 21 percent of the federal workforce is unionized, as opposed to the 8 percent of the private sector that enjoys union protections. Longtime organizer and senior fellow at the Citizen Engagement Lab Matt Browner-Hamlin pointed out to AlterNet that the private sector labor movement has been decimated by decades of concerted attacks, and indeed in the last year we've seen moves both successful and unsuccessful (Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio) to curtail the power of public sector unions on the state level.

And yet the pundit class seems entirely to miss the point. The Atlantic's Jordan Weissman delivered a typically glib read of the study, writing “The upshot: Federal pay might be too high overall, and it's probably not getting us a better government.” This, he said, is “more or less” the finding of the CBO study. That's actually a massive overstatement, and in the case of the “better government,” almost entirely an ideological read.

Browner-Hamlin said, “Pitting private sector workers against public sector workers is straight class warfare. Rather than helping lift private sector workers up to the salary and benefits public workers have, the effort is to pull public workers down to the depressed levels of their non-unionized, underpaid and un-benefited private sector peers.”

He continued, “It's much more beneficial for elites to have the 99% fight against itself for scraps than look at the source of their problems above them.”

The CBO's findings were much more complicated than Weissman's simplistic analysis would suggest. While federal employees with no more than a high school diploma made 21 percent more per hour—including their benefits—than private-sector employees of approximately the same level of education, those with a bachelor's degree were approximately equal, and federal workers with a doctorate or professional degree made 23 percent less per hour than their private sector colleagues.

But you won't catch too many pundits wondering if private-sector workers with advanced degrees are overpaid. No, instead it's time once again to call for pay cuts at the bottom—Weissman argues that “as an efficient use of resources, the current setup doesn't make much sense.” In other words, he thinks we should slash wages on the less-educated workers to be able to pay those at the top more money.

Why the obsession once again with cutting compensation for the working class?

“I was somewhat surprised that the initial reaction to the CBO study focused so heavily on the fact that federal workers with less education earn more in the public sector than their counterparts in the private sector,” Mark Price, labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, told AlterNet. “We probably owe the focus to the fact that the cover of the CBO report is the graphic comparing wages and benefits by educational attainment.”

Price notes that the fact that public workers make more, at the low end of the pay scale, than private sector workers isn't exactly news, even if it is providing grist for the class war mill right now. John Schmitt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that state and local public sector workers earn just below 6 percent more than comparable workers in the private sector—and women in the public sector make 7.4 percent more than those in the private sector. But when he adjusted for experience and education, Schmitt found that overall, public workers actually made about 4 percent  less than private sector workers. But instead of trumpeting the fact that the public sector provides a way for women and less-educated people to make better wages, have decent benefits, and support their families, the (white male) pundit class sees this as a negative, that those higher wages should be sacrificed in order to raise the pay of those who already make much more.

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