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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How GOP, Conservative Media Leverage Public Worker Horror Stories

In my June 8 post on “The Recall in Broader Perspective,” I briefly referenced the GOP meme “that public workers have extravagant pensions, propagated by Republicans who amplify a few horror stories as emblematic of public worker retirement benefits.” It’s part and parcel of a broader Republican scam vilifying public workers as overcompensated in general.
For a revealing example, see Josh Barro’s Bloomberg.com post, “Does Obama Know Why the Public Sector Isn’t ‘Doing Fine’?” in which he spotlights city employees of San Jose, CA, where

…Costs for a full-time equivalent employee are astronomical and skyrocketing. San Jose spends $142,000 per FTE [full-time employee] on wages and benefits, up 85 percent from 10 years ago. As a result, the city shed 28 percent of its workforce over that period, even as its population was rising.

The unspoken, but unmistakable gist of Barro’s post is “See, those greedy public workers are responsible for causing their own layoffs.” Without even taking a look at nation-wide data, Barro is clearly suggesting in his post’s title that San Jose’s experience is somehow typical of public workers in cities across the nation. Worse, he takes it a step further and blames public worker unions in his concluding sentence, “If the president wants to know why state and local governments can’t afford to hire, he could start by asking his own supporters in public employee unions.”
That’s why Romney can say stuff about President Obama like “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message in Wisconsin?” and get away with it, while media dimwits point their fingers at Obama for his one gaffe in three years.
Had Barro clearly presented his horror story as an exceptional case, that would be defensible. Or had he backed it up with some credible national data, you could grudgingly credit him with a solid argument. But he didn’t do that because he couldn’t.
As David Cooper, Mary Gable, and Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute note in their report, “The public-sector jobs crisis“:

Despite these significantly higher levels of education–and contrary to assertions by some governors in recent state-level debates–the most rigorous studies have consistently shown that state and local government employees earn less both in wages and total compensation than comparable private-sector workers (Keefe 2010). Using data from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey and standard regression models for wage analyses, we compared the wage income of private-sector employees with that of state and local government workers. After controlling for education, experience, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, full-time/part-time status, number of hours worked, citizenship status, Census region, metropolitan status (whether residing within or outside the boundaries of a major metropolitan area), and employer size, we find that state and local government employees make, on average, 11.7 percent less in wages than similar private-sector employees.

if those greedy public workers can be faulted for their extravagant compensation packages, what should be done about their better-paid private sector cohorts?
Look, none of this is to deny that there are public worker pension/salary horror stories. But it takes a pretty shameless media to imply that extravagantly compensated public workers are the norm. Is it too much to ask that some honest journalists call Romney out on it?

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