Thursday, February 24, 2011

More on the budget

I have been hearing a lot about how overpaid federal workers are when compared to their private sector counterparts so I thought I would google "federal salaries" to see if I could garner some type of breakdown of workers and their salaries. Found that, as usual, the returned discussion of federal employee salaries leaned heavily one way (overpaid) or the other (underpaid) depending on its source. Analysis from groups like the Cato Institute claimed federal workers are making 50% more when including benefits and compensation, while analysis from sources more friendly to workers in general, and govt workers in particular, claimed a negligible difference.

Facts that seem undeniable

- The federal work force is a bit over 2 million strong. That number is about the same as it was when Ronald Reagan was president. In fact, from what I could gather about actual federal workers, only President Clinton reduced the federal work force. Conversely, President Bush II, dramatically increased the federal work force after 9/11, most specifically in the creation of the new Homeland Security department which includes the actual personnel of that department as well as a huge number of civilian contractors. So, there are less federal workers per citizen today than there was 30 years ago.

- The federal work force is composed of a higher percentage of white collar positions held by higher educated staff. It appears that thousands of blue collar jobs have been privatized in the past decade leaving the work force overbalanced with what would normally constitute higher grade, higher pay employees. One could still argue that these individuals may be overpaid, but it might be fairer to compare them to similarly populated industries as opposed to the general work force in its entirety.

- There are about 100 million employees in the public sector. The loss of manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years along with the growth of the service industry means that there is a higher percentage of blue collar (which usually equates to lower compensation packages) jobs than before and a much higher percentage when compared to the federal work force as noted above.

- In general, it appears that high-skilled workers in government are slightly underpaid, lower-skilled workers are slightly overpaid relative to the private sector.

- Benefits accorded federal workers are clearly superior to those in the private sector, less so if you compare them to private sector employees earning $80000 a year or more, but clearly better than the average private industry worker many of whom have no benefits whatsoever.

- Federal workers at the top of the wage scale make less than their private-sector counterparts, while the reverse is true for those with entry-level jobs. An easy example would be the president himself and his cabinet when compared to the CEO and other top executives at any large corporation.

What seems lacking in almost every discussion and article I read is an understanding of why public sector pay has stagnated over the last 30 years. So many people seem eager to blame the overpaid federal workers but no one seems interested in examining why private industry has done little to improve the compensation of its employees yet at the same time, has lavished huge salaries, bonuses and golden parachutes on those at the top. Hmmm.

Another interesting tidbit I found was that congressional staff pay has increased faster than inflation in the recent past. In other words, the very same people who want to eliminate federal workers and reduce their pay have been very generous with our tax dollars to those that work for them.

All in all, it appears that the savings which will be netted from freezing federal workers pay will be about $1 billion a year. In the face of a $1 trillion deficit, we need to find 999 more of these type of savings. Again, we are playing around at the edges here.

Finally, why is it the federal workers, state workers and lately union workers that are being targetted by (mostly) Republican congressman, senators and governors. Freezing their wages, eliminating their jobs, questioning their work ethic is OK, but when someone asks for a few percentage points in extra taxes from the super rich or (gasp), a salary cap on compensation at the top of the wage scale, then that is called socialism.

To me, the average worker in this country should be outraged that fellow middle class workers are being blamed for the deficit. If these savings actually net that $1 billion amount, that means these overpaid workers account for 1/10 of 1% of the budget deficit yet that is the focus of all the talk. Why aren't we talking about the other 99.9% of the problem???

Monday, February 21, 2011

Deficit Components

While it may have occurred since I started delivering papers in the early morning, this past weekend featured a setting moon along with a rising sun. In addition, the moon was full so the combination was quite remarkable. It was especially striking when travelling on the back streets where there are fields on either side of the roadway. The moon, stark white and full beginning its descent on one side while the rising sun produced pastel pinks and oranges on the other side.

A while back I saw a comedian, Dennis Miller I think, mention the national debt during his routine. He said what I believe reflects many people's thoughts, that the number is so big it is hard to get your head around it. I thought of that remark earlier today, and, in conjunction with all the doomsday rhetoric concerning the debt, I thought I would google "national debt" to see if I could get some data as to whom we owe this money. Do we owe the Japanese? Chinese? Australians?

Wikipedia detailed the debt in the following manner.

The national debt is broken down into two main categories:

1.Securities held by the public

Marketable securities
Non-marketable securities

2.Securities held by government accounts

It pegs the breakdown of these 2 categories as 60-40 where the 60% portion is held by the public. I think this means that 40% of the debt is held by one US government agency against another. For instance, the chart I saw showed that over $2 trillion was held by the Social Security Administration which I assume represents the amount of money that has been paid into Social Security by people over the years but not yet collected by retirees. Other agencies are listed as well. In effect, it sounds like we owe ourselves about 40% of the national debt. Which I guess also means that when we pay interest on this debt, we are paying ourselves as well. Interesting.

That leaves 60% owned by the public. Again, are they citizens of the United States, corporations, foreign governments?

Again, data was hard to decipher but it appears that about half of the "public" debt (which again is 60% of the total) was held by non-US citizens and institutions. Of this amount, about 66% was held by the central banks of these countries, in particular the central banks of Japan and China.

So, what does it all mean? I think it mainly means that the federal deficit is not a debt owed to people who are looking to bankrupt this country. I often hear some alarmists talk about the day when our debtors will "call our loans". As we live in a time of a global economy where all monies are tied together, I can not imagine the banks of the word deciding to foreclose on America as it would bring everyone down together. This seems true in light of the concern of countries like Greece and Ireland failing and all the effort extended to keep them afloat. Now times that by 1000 in regards to the United States.

But it also means that we cannot continue to forestall serious discussions about the debt. The problem is, you can't discuss something serious if you don't understand the problem, and if my experience today in trying to detail the minutia of the debt is typical, there are very few people who understand this topic. Unfortunately, there are many who are using the national debt for political gain regardless of whether then understand it, and in fact seem only interested in adding to the confusion about its true meaning as opposed to educating the people as to what it will take to reverse the process.

So, when you hear someone discussing the debt, listen for facts as opposed to opinions. You might find a dearth of one but a plethora of the latter yet it is the latter that seems to be driving the discussions.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Budget Battle

Much warmer weather recently so I am hoping that this past Saturday was the last day I will see single digit temps on my car's outdoor thermometer. With the warming trend, I have seen groups of deer with multiple members. Whole families (extended families?) coming out to forage for newly uncovered grass. A few mornings ago, I had one individual deer run alongside my car for a brief few moments. I had slowed considerably fearing it would bolt across my path so it just seemed to pace me for those few seconds then stopped running altogether. Makes me wonder if there are daredevil deer who enjoy the rush of adrenaline just as some humans do.

A while back I had a conversation with a new acquaintance about federal spending. At the time, I mentioned that we spend over $800 billion a year on defense (that is 25% of our yearly budget), and that any serious attempt to balance the budget will require a hard look at this huge number. At the time, my new friend seemed surprised that we spent so much money in that way. Yesterday, I saw him again, and we spent some time discussing the President's proposed 2012 budget. This time, his response to my question as to whether he saw confirmation that we are again allocating 25% of our expenditures to defense was that we should be spending that much money on defense (more if necessary to combat our enemies) and that we should stop spending money on education, community programs, etc, you know, all those liberal left wing areas.

Previous to that conversation, I read an interesting article in this past Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer written by Harold Jackson. It addressed his belief that there is selfishness at work, especially among those in the upper income brackets, and that this "unsated selfishness" is driving the newly dominated Republican House of Representatives to target those programs designed to help the poor. Without saying it so abruptly, Mr Jackson intimated that not only are the Republicans who are led by the new "tea party" conservatives without compassion, that additionally their association with the conservative Christian right smacks of hypocrisy in the face of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

If you have read my blog in the past, you will probably conclude that I disagree with my new friends belief in high military spending and low domestic spending, and that I agree wholeheartedly with Harold Jackson's article. And you would be mostly right although not completely.

My sentiments aside, I truly feel that there is an unspoken viewpoint, one that represents many people's perspectives but which is unpublished and non-existent over our TV and radio waves because it reflects a position that does not believe one side or the other is completely right.

Being conservative and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive attributes. There are certainly rich people who are selfish and uncaring. But the unwillingness to share is more the result of our society's obsession with material possessions rather than political affiliation. Taking care of ones own has mutated to ONLY taking care of ones own, and this attitude infects all economic strata of America. Perhaps we need to better flesh out our overall societal issues before accusing one side or the other of disdain for the needy.

Yet, I think most people disagree with those that claim that our federal dollars should not be spent on assisting the poor, who say that charity is the domain of the church and community, and that government assistance programs are veiled attempts to redistribute our country's wealth from the rich to the poor. Yet is not our government based on that timeless document that begins "We the People..."? Aren't our elected officials tasked with spending taxpayer money as we the people direct them? Whether they spend it on assisting the poor or buying weapons, they represent us in their decisions. So, when your congressman or senator votes to spend your money in ways that do not reflect your desires, you have that most powerful of tools, the vote, to make your will known. Do you want your money spent in America or overseas? Do you want your money spent to help Americans or kill terrorists? As I said above, I believe that most people seek a balance between these and many other priorities. Perhaps in the next election cycle we should express those priorities in the voting booth at a rate greater than the paltry 40% that voted in the 2010 election.

And perhaps we need to remind our elected officials, both on the left and the right, that compromise is about finding common ground and then working as adults to fashion the best possible budget which reflects the best in our priorities.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Garden Revival

If you live anywhere near the Philadelphia area, you are probably sick of winter by now, especially the recent cycle of precipitation, frigid cold, slight warming trend then back to precipitation again. As a respite, my wife and I went to Longwood Gardens this week. What a great way to get refreshed and be reminded that spring will come. Whether you know an orchid from a palm tree, a few hours amidst the flowers and plants, is a soothing salve for winter's doldrums. From the moment one enters the main conservatory, you experience a constant influx of scents, colors, and textures. How amazing is it that nature includes such an abundant variety of flora. (Perhaps there is a lesson there in man's tendency to fear and isolate those that are different rather than relishing those difference). I highly recommend a visit. And, if you don't have the time or resources to visit a place such as Longwood Gardens, even a trip to a flower shop or nursery might help. Anything to help change your perspective and attitude.

Speaking of attitude, this past week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan. I have read a few articles about him in the last few days, both pro and con. First, to be honest, I was not a fan of President Reagan; didn't vote for him either time. The articles I read that agreed with my opinion, reminded the reader that he raised taxes multiple times, doubled the national debt, and began the trend called supply side economics (also called the trickle down theory) which I believe started the middle class's road to its current stagnating standard of living. Those articles that extolled his Presidency focused on his winning the cold war, but mostly emphasized the change of attitude that he brought to a country that was in dire need of uplifting.

It makes me wonder if that, ultimately, is how we currenly elect our presidents. Who will make us feel more positive about today and the days ahead? Clearly, President Obama won that battle hands down over John McCain in 2008. Obama was younger, with fresh ideas and the energy of youth while McCain clearly represented the past in both his views and his age. So, where Reagan, to me, communicated a simplistic view of the world where good and evil were clearly defined, he also gave us an outlook that gave us hope for the future. In effect, Reagan was a successful president in one major area; the country felt better about itself and therefore began to move forward. Attitude!!

Don't get me wrong, we need more from our leaders than a smile and a happy face. But perhaps a little "the cup is half full", might be enough to energize our citizens to spend some money and our business community to hire some new employees. We need to get the cycle going again and perhaps a Reaganesque attitude will help prime the process.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Castaway and Cast Ahead

An overnight rain/sleet storm left a nice coating of ice on everything this morning. While it took me an extra 45 minutes to get through my route, I was still able to deliver all my papers despite the difficult driving conditions.

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail shall... Oh that's for postal workers, sorry.

This afternoon, I caught about an hour of the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. (Talk about the maturation of an actor. Does anybody else remember him in the TV sitcom Bosom Buddies?) There is a scene where he realizes that he is finally leaving the island that was his home for over 4 years, and as the profile of the island begins to fade away, I thought I detected a note of nostalgia, or at least tenderness for the island. At that moment, rather than feeling animosity towards a place from which he felt trapped, he seems to be experiencing a fondness for his soon to be ex-home.

At least that is what I thought. And it reminded me of the current unrest in Egypt. I am certainly no expert on Egypt. But I do know that this is a country which has had the same leadership (Hosni Mubarak) for just about 30 years. A country that is unlike most of its Arab neighbors in that they do not exhibit an outward hatred towards Israel. A country that has been an ally of the United States, again, unlike many Arab nations. A country where religion does not drive its politics. In so many ways, it is a country with traits that are not only more like the western world, but which we wish other countries in that region would emulate.

Yet, many of its people are unhappy.

One has to wonder if, once Mubarak is out of power and a new leadership takes hold if some of these same protesters will look back at the last 30 years with a hint of wistfulness just as Tom Hanks did as his makeshift raft drifted out to sea. Will this truly mark a turning point in the history of the country and prove to be a step forward towards an even more free society? Will the grass be greener on the other side?

Most likely, the change will be neither all good or all bad. I guess that is what makes change so hard to undertake, both on an individual or group level.

As an individual, there are the inevitable questions as to whether the change was for the best or if the old ways would have worked out eventually. Or worse, the desire for the time before the change, whether that change was adulthood, marriage, parenthood or simply old age, can sometimes dominate one's thinking to the point that no experience of the present can match what has come before. Unfortunately, so many of those memories are filtered to remove the unpleasant aspects so that they may be comfortable, they do not reflect reality.

The same can be said for those wishing for a return to the old days, as it relates to the country. It reminds me of a cartoon I once saw where the father was walking through knee deep snow while he told his son that he remembered when the snow used to be chest high. Of course, looking at his son, we see that the snow is chest high on him. So, when you hear someone pining for the old days, ask them what specific time frame they pine for? Invariably, you will find that it was a time when they were children or young adults with little responsibilities.

So, to the people of Egypt, I wish good luck with this history making change. Let's hope that as they cast away the old regime, they are able to make their new vision come true. But don't be surprised if there are Egyptians who look back on the days of Mubarak's reign with nostalgia. Especially when that nostalgia is rooted in a perceived stability that can come from 30 years of the same leader.