Category ►►► Improbable Parables

November 19, 2010

In Praise of (Some) Federal Employees

Improbable Parables
Hatched by Dafydd

A few days ago, Aaron Worthing, guest blogger at Patterico's Pontifications, published a column advocating we reduce government spending (hence the deficit) by drastically cutting both the workforce and the salaries of "civilian federal workers," otherwise unspecified:

I bet if we really, really tried, we could cut our federal workforce by 25% at least. In fact, if we really wanted to radically reduce the federal government, 50% is a very doable goal. I mean not all by itself, but in conjunction with radical reductions in the amount of work and regulation going on, it could be done. And I bet their pay could stand to be cut a tad more than just 5%. Likewise it assumes that we can only cut aid to states by 5%. I refuse to be so pessimistic.

Well believe it or not, I'm here to stick up for some civilian federal workers. Well, most civilian federal workers; heck, I'll even say the huge majority of civilian federal workers. But let me start by talking about one civilian federal worker, the one I know best: My wife, Sachi.

Background noise

Sachi is a civilian engineer employed by the Department of Defense, specifically the United States Navy. She tests certain systems, analyzes test results conducted by others, and trains ship's crew to carry out system tests themselves. The systems tested are vital not just to the mission but to the very survival of the crew; it's not an unimportant task or one that could be safely abandoned or significantly cut.

When Sachi is in the office, she works in a cube, or in the computer room, or in a conference room for one of too many team meetings. She is on several teams and is expected to keep up with and contribute to all of them, which requires more hours than are available in a day, even assuming she never had to eat, sleep, or go home.

Because of government cutbacks over the last several years, there is no longer free coffee available to employees... no sodas, no soda crackers, no doughnuts; in fact, they don't even supply free water. There are no Styrofoam cups, no plastic knives, forks, spoons, or even sporks. Anything the employees need, they must purchase themselves.

Work for the Navy and see the world

The Navy frequently sends Sachi on "TDYs," that is, business trips. (She says TDY stands for "temporary duty," but I think it really stands for "tedious.") On these TDYs, she gets to travel to exciting, exotic resorts -- Naval Base San Diego, California, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, or Wallop's Island, Virginia. Sometimes she gets to travel abroad, for example to US Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, on the Greek island of Crete; or the Japanese naval base in Sasebo.

Recently, she has only had to travel three or four months out of the year; but when she was more junior, she traveled six months, seven months, and in one year (we called it "the year of Hell"), she was away from home on TDYs about eight and a half months. She does get to keep her own frequent-flier miles, for the time being; but we rarely get a chance to use any, since we often don't know when she'll be able to take vacation time... a TDY can arise suddenly, scant days during which she must schedule her entire trip herself, making all air, hotel, and rent-a-car reservations -- while being restricted to only booking with companies that will accept the government per-diem rate (which many will not, because it's a lot cheaper than what they can get through ordinary bookings).

Romantic tropical cruises

Often the TDY includes several weeks under way; during those stretches, she is generally incommunicado: Yes, the cruisers and destroyers have internet connection; but the crew gets first priority on that, and Sachi is generally too busy to use it anyway. I get an occasional two- or three- line e-mail letting me know she's all right and alerting me to schedule changes that may require us to shift some planned event of our own (tickets to the local playhouse, some family obligation, a trip we had intended to make but now cannot).

Typically, during the under-way portion of a TDY, Sachi must work 18-hour days; but government regulations only allow her to claim four hours of overtime per day. That means that for a third of her work day, six hours, she is literally working for free.

Rolling in dough like Scrooge McDuck

For all this, she is paid about the same as an engineer with comparable experience at a private-sector employer like Raytheon or Northrop Grumman -- five figures, not six, and not even really close to six.

When she can claim overtime, she doesn't get double time or even time and a half; she is paid at exactly the same rate she makes during the normal workday. On TDY, she gets per diem; the government pays directly for her air travel, hotel, rental car, parking fees, taxi or airport shuttle, and pays a fixed-rate daily allowance for everything else, including food and incidental expenses she incurs over the weeks or months she's staying somewhere other than home. If she's frugal about what and how much she eats, she can come out a little bit ahead of the per diem. (Most of her co-workers "eat their per diem," literally.)

Credit where it's due

But hey, how about those "taxpayer funded" government credit cards? Sachi has a government card, but it doesn't work how most people seem to think.

I have listened both to Dennis Prager and Michael Medved attacking government credit cards, noting that thousands of civilian federal employees carry them. Both talk-show hosts told horror stories of employees putting bar bills, theater tickets, even visits to houses of easy virtue on their cards, thus (claimed the hosts) forcing taxpayers to pay for such utterly non-work-related products and activities. The scandal, the corruption!

There are a few people, just a handful, who have use of "official procurement credit cards," where the responsibility for paying them falls directly on the government agency that authorized them. Procurement officers use these government-owned cards, as the name implies, for procurement purchases; and what they are allowed to purchase on those cards is strictly limited. It's true that some people abuse their privileges, and this is a serious criminal problem; but that's a tiny fraction of those who have such cards.

And more to the point, procurement credit cards are only a small fraction of government sponsored credit cards, like Sachi's. In her case, as with those "thousands" of people, there are two important points most commentators, including Prager and Medved, misunderstand:

  • Government credit cards can only be used during an authorized TDY.
  • And the final responsibility for paying those cards falls on the employee himself, not on the government or taxpayers.

The feds are supposed to pay the specifically authorized charges (airplane tickets, hotel, etc) directly to the credit card account. But if they delay payment (or fail to pay at all), then the hapless employee must pay instead, else his own personal credit rating will take a hit, and he can be sued by the bank that issues the credit card. Despite the fact that the employee would never have incurred those charges were it not for being sent off on TDY somewhere, if the feds dawdle and dilly-dally on their payments, the worker can be socked with literally thousands of dollars in unpaid travel bills.

And don't think it never happens; many times, we have had to "spot" the Navy a few hundred or even a thousand dollars because of some idiocy about the expense report. Once, for example, they approved a particular hotel because it was within the government price limit; but before Sachi returned, the Navy reduced its limit, to less than the already-approved hotel charged... and then the Navy rejected the hotel expense because it was no longer within the limit! They refused, for a time, to pay the bill, which Sachi (relying on the earlier approval) had already charged to her government credit card.

Eventually the Navy relented and paid, but it took weeks and a special waiver from Sachi's boss; in the meantime, we had to pay the credit-card bill ourselves, borrowing the money from our personal savings account.

It's also nearly impossible to get those government credit cards actually to send a refund when one is due: They'll only send it if there is an actual surplus on the account.

Say you've paid $300 in advance when the Navy was laggardly; the Navy finally ponies up as well, which means the bank that issued the credit card owes you a $300 refund. You send in the paperwork... and the bank sits on it for four weeks.

But just before they cut you a $300 check, you go on another TDY. A TDY means airplane tickets and a hotel charge, which adds up to $1,500, let us say. But wait -- now the bank can't send your refund because (you knew this was coming) the account now shows $1,200 balance due ($1,500 charged minus the $300 surplus)... and they won't send a refund so long as there's a balance due.

Eventually the government pays the $1,500, which restores the $300 surplus; but the old paperwork for a refund has expired, and you have to send in the same forms again. And once again, before the bank gets around to cutting a $300 check, you're off on yet another TDY; and round and round the credit carousel goes.

I am Spartacus!

Why all this yammering about Sachi? Because I want to indelibly stamp a human face onto those anonymous "civilian federal workers," the ones about whose middle-income salary Aaron Worthing is so cavalier. And it's not just those employed by the DoD; tens of thousands of engineers and accounts, scientists and secretaries, personnel bureaucrats and middle managers work for the federal government yet don't receive those $300,000 salaries, those out-of-control pensions, or any of those infuriating perks.

Most federal employees are not even union members: According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009, only 28% of federal workers were members of a union. By contrast, 43% of local government employees were union members -- think public school teachers, police, and firefighters. (Among private-sector workers, 7.2% were union members.)

Most government employees get up, go to work, do their jobs, get paid a normal and not excessive salary, and wend their way home each night. But there certainly are some federal workers who lead privileged lives with lavish salaries and massive pensions, few responsibilities, and all sorts of special perquisites. They are what the Soviets used to call the nomenklatura, the privileged class of patronage appointees -- literally, the "list of names."

When ordinary employees of private companies see the lifestyles of the privileged and pampered, their blood justly boils over; but so too does the blood of the vast majority of the 3.5 million federal employees, the ones who don't live like Medicis in Renaissance Florence.

For some reason, when it comes to the federal government, conservatives who ordinarily try to see people as a collection of individuals instead see those dastardly civilian federal workers as a vast sea of undifferentiated and culpable leeches, a wild topiary that must be ruthlessly clipped and pruned into a more palatable shape.

Worthing (look back at the beginning of this post if you've forgotten who he is) suggests we could "cut our federal workforce by 25%" (875,000 people suddenly out of work), though "50% is a very doable goal" (1,750,000 hitting the bricks). Over the short period of time generally proposed for such pruning, there is no possible way for private employers to pick up all that abrupt slack. Hundreds of thousands would be out of work for months and would not find a job paying even decent wages for years. (It would also likely devastate the private-sector engineering workforce as supply suddenly skyrockets at the same time that demand drops.)

But it's not just the number of newly unemployed people; in many areas of the federal government, especially in the military, civilian employees are already understaffed and stretching their resources. Where Sachi works, they are woefully underfunded and understaffed; were the Navy to cut even 25% of jobs, vital areas of training and maintenance would be completely shut down, because there simply wouldn't be enough trained engineers to handle the demand. I'm sure the same can be said for NASA, for military hospitals, for the FBI, or even (I'm holding my nose and typing one-handed) for the IRS.

The federal government has grown like metastacized cancer -- but grown for many decades; and it will take many more decades to shrink it again. You can't just slash jobs, slash salaries, and expect critical tasks now performed by the feds to be picked up overnight by the private-sector workforce.

This is why I am a libertarian, but more specificaly, a gradualist libertarian: I want to see the federal bureaucracy shrunk to about a quarter of where it now stands -- but over a long period of time (say 25-35 years), and with a corresponding reduction in federal responsibilities, spending, and taxes. Gradually, no abrupt and radical surgery, giving our economy time to adjust... and unleashing businesses, small and large, from crushing taxation and draconian regulation, so that it's able to take over functions the private sector hasn't performed (or done only as a government contractor) for many years.

And that is why I'm damned tired of conservatives talking about axing federal (nameless, faceless, inhuman) employees and slashing their salaries with the same ignorant callousness liberals use when talking about "balancing the budget" via staggering tax increases -- that always manage to exempt the nomenklatura who propose the tax hike in the first place. It's not only unbecoming and offensive, it's adolescent thinking (teen logic)... and it gets in the way of finding a realistic and workable way to reduce federal intrusion into our lives.

Please, people; the next time you hear someone say "let's just throw 25% of the federal workforce into the private sector and let them fend for themselves," think of real human beings, like Sachi, who work just as hard as you, who perform very important tasks that no single private company could undertake at this point in time, and for which they are paid no more than you. A few really are cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash, but the bulk are just working stiffs.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 19, 2010, at the time of 6:41 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

Who Let the Dawgs Out?

Improbable Parables
Hatched by Dafydd

This post was actually hatched by Lee R. Porter.

You've seen me mention Lee before, and I might even have discussed his "Parable of the Chained Dog." He's one of my oldest friends, and I value his insight and input on most issues of the day. Except when he disagrees with me, in which case his ideas are completely weird and wrong.

Fortunately, this is a case where he agrees with me -- and is therefore absolutely correct. So without further dithering...

The Parable of the Chained Dog

It seems there was an old dog on a chain out in his owner's yard. Every day, all day long, the dog was kept on that chain.

Many of the people in the neighborhood knew why that dog was chained up: some time back, it had chased a kid down the street, knocked him down, and bit him. But because the mauling didn't seem severe, and because the dog's owner agreed not to let the dog run loose, neither the victim's family nor the community at large insisted that the dog be destroyed.

Time passed, and things changed in the neighborhood. The boy who had been bitten... well, his family moved away, and so did some other families. New neighbors moved into those houses.

As events tend to do, the biting incident receded in people's memories; and most of the folks who were new to the neighborhood never even heard about it in the first place. Within a couple of years after the victim's family had moved away, people who saw the poor, old dog on his chain began to feel sorry for him.

The owner started to get some complaints about his inhumane treatment of the animal. The owner tried to explain why the dog was chained up, but people told him sure, maybe the dog bit that kid; but after all, that was a long time ago, and it only happened once. Others wondered whether the kid had somehow incited the dog to attack him, and still others suggested -- in an accusatory way -- that the dog had probably been mistreated as a puppy.

A lot of the people doing the complaining didn't even live in that neighborhood, but eventually they got their way. The dog was taken off his chain.

We all know what happened next. That poor little girl; what a senseless tragedy. Why was it so difficult to remember the reason for the chain?

Why is it so hard, even impossible, for some people to understand?

© 2005 Lee R. Porter, all rights reserved

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 25, 2006, at the time of 12:07 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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