Monday, November 29, 2010

In a stupid and cynically symbolic move, Obama freezes pay for federal employees

Freezing the pay of government employees is like, in an American context, cutting federal funding for public broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts:

Big headlines, minimal actual impact on the budget.

But, of course, government is an easy target. People generally want government to do what they want -- and to be there when they need something (you know, like disaster relief or police protection) -- but don't want to pay for it.

And while even in this time of economic crisis companies are making huge profits and CEO are taking home huge salaries and bonuses, government employees can easily be scapegoated as the problem, or at least as a large part of the problem, even if they aren't.

It's not about reality, it's about public perception -- and conservatives have managed to convince much of the public that government employees are all a bunch of overpaid layabouts with their snouts in the public trough. So instead of cutting defence spending or setting taxes at reasonably progressive levels, even this Democratic president, however generally un-progressive, decides, out of cowardice and desperation, to take what seems to be the easy way out:

President Obama announced a two-year pay freeze for civilian federal workers on Monday as he sought to address concerns over sky-high deficit spending and appeal to Republican leaders to find a common approach to restoring the nation’s economic and fiscal health.

The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice and that sacrifice must be shared by employees of the federal government," Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference.

"I did not reach this decision easily," he said. "This is not just a line item on a federal ledger. These are people's lives."

He called federal workers "patriots who love their country" but added that "I'm asking civil servants to do what they've always done" and sacrifice for the good of the nation. 

Well, it's great that he says nice things about government employees and claims to be sensitive to "people's lives." I'm sure those on the public payroll really appreciate his support.

But please. Who else is being asked to sacrifice for the good of the country? Millions of jobs have been lost and people without any clout in Washington or on Wall Street are having trouble putting food on the table for their families, unable to care properly for their children, many swamped by massive health-care bills, sinking ever further into debt, but the wealthy, including the very top of the plutocracy that continues to benefit from massive income inequality, haven't really been asked to sacrifice anything. But of course they count for more than those millionaires in the civil service, right?

Honestly, is it fair that the wealthy -- including especially the super-wealthy, those who finance the Republican Party -- object to any increases to their income tax rates, even back to sensible Clinton-era levels, while civil service pay is being frozen and, on an even more serious level, the poor and unemployed are being denied, by Republicans, unemployment insurance extensions?

The anti-government, pro-plutocracy Republicans ought to bear most of the blame, but it's President Obama who has backtracked on ending the deficit-exploding Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (repeatedly kowtowing to Republican demands), put together a right-leaning "bipartisan" deficit commission that, predictably, is targeting essential entitlement programs, and, now, targeted federal employees, many of whom are just trying to get by and hardly get paid the way many in the private sector do.

Democrats generally oppose the freeze, but of course Republicans love it:

The early reviews of President Obama's plan to freeze federal worker pay are in -- and it gets a resounding "F" from just about everybody outside of GOP leadership.

Michael Linden, a budget expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the plan is small potatoes that risks driving away valuable civil servants with little budgetary upside.

"Bluntly doing it this way, we risk cutting off our nose to spite our face," Linden said in a phone interview. "We risk not hiring good people, we risk not giving a raise to people who deserve a raise, and we miss not cutting the pay of those who deserve a pay cut."


"The vast majority of federal employees are middle-class workers. That's who we're asking to take a hit," Linden explained. "Maybe we have to ask them to take a hit [but] certainly we shouldn't ask them to take the hit before the wealthiest two percent. Maybe down the line we'll ask middle class to take the hit. But I'd really prefer not asking them to take the hit at the start."

Larry Mishel, director of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, was equally blunt.

In a statement Mishel warned, "In the context of the deficit, Obama will get chump change from freezing federal pay, and will only enlarge the degree to which federal pay lags that of the private sector (a gap of 22%, according to the federal pay agent's report)." 

At FDL, Scarecrow calls the freeze "pointless." At TNR, Jonathan Chait calls it a "gimmick." And Chait is right, I think, that even the politics won't play well for Obama:

I'm just not sure the politics will actually work so neatly. A policy like that only works through the context in which it is communicated to the public. And the context will be that liberals and moderates dismiss because it's a stupid policy, and conservatives attack it because they're partisan Republicans. The end result will be Obama proposing a policy initiative that's mildly harmful and panned by all sides.

There's a certain class of moderate Democratic strategist that thinks symbolic moves like this brilliantly capture the center, but I'm not sure it really works like that. Instead, it will be reported on the evening news, with a complaining comment from a liberal, a sneering comment from a conservative, and a dismissive comment from a Centrist Budget Wonk who says you have to cut entitlement spending. 

But here's the president appealing to that "class of moderate Democratic strategist," hardly a major electoral demographic. Maybe a few self-styled centrists will like the freeze, but it won't accomplish anything in terms of meaningful deficit reduction and will just end up further alienating liberals and progressives to Obama's left. (And Republicans will oppose Obama no matter what in any event, so why even try to appease them at all?)

So what's the point? Or is it just that Obama needed to make a move, any move, even a symbolic one, even a stupid one?

He didn't, but he did, and that's just the sort of leadership, or lack thereof, we've come to expect from him. In a time of genuine crisis, we need better. Much, much better.

Labels: , , ,

Bookmark and Share


  • Once again, Obama has bought into a blatantly false rightwing meme. In this case, that federal workers are overpaid relative to private sector workers. The only study I am aware of on the topic shows that federal workers, when you control for qualifications and experience, are paid less that comparable workers in the private sector. What federal workers are is better qualified and more experienced.

    By Anonymous PTEC, at 3:02 AM  

  • When it comes to standing up to the wealthy and powerful, Obama's model for leadership is the Kevin Bacon character from Animal House. "Thank you sir! May I have another?"

    By Blogger john horse, at 7:02 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home