Are Government Workers Overpaid?

The Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards seems to think so and offers this chart:


The obvious problem here is that we have no idea what these federal workers are actually doing. When you think about what it is federal employees do, it seems to involve a relatively large amount of high-skilled professionals—lots of lawyers, for example—and relatively few people in low-skill job categories. It would be much more meaningful to look at the compensation of government workers compared to other people with similar jobs. It’s rough and anecdotal, but it is worth considering the fact that while you regularly here about people leaving the public sector to “cash in” at private sector firms, you basically never hear of the reverse thing happening. People leave jobs at law firms to go work in the civil service, but they don’t do it in order to earn more money.

Given the high level of unionization in the public sector, I do think it’s plausible that low-end government workers are earning more money than comparably skilled people might be able to garner in the private market. But one look at the 2009 General Service Pay Scale should disabuse you of the notion that a government job is a cash cow. People at the higher levels of the civil service are earning a living, but it’s much less than senior managers or highly skilled professionals can get in the private sector.