This morning, just like every morning, I was roused at around 11 by my butler Coleman. Technically, we here in the D.C. area are supposed to be at work by at least 8:30, but nobody pays any attention to that around these parts.
I had a leisurely breakfast of mimosas and poached eggs with a side of venison sausage, which I had my staff make last week after I shot a deer that was simply ruining my award-winning topiary display. I read the latest in the Post while my bath was drawn and my suit was chosen and laid out for me.
Today was sunny, so I thought that perhaps it would be nice to drive my convertible 911 to work, but Coleman mentioned that there was a chance of rain, so I elected to use the Range Rover. Thanks to our taxpayer funded private road system, getting to the office took no time at all.
Technically speaking, I don’t work for a government agency, so I don’t have it nearly as cushy as my friend Dave over at the Department of Agriculture, or Alicia over at the EPA. Occasionally Alicia will invite me over for lunch at their dining room, but only on special theme days. Like last week it was a Roman-style luncheon complete with feathers and buckets, and a few weeks ago the theme was “the first bite is the best,” where you take one bite of, say, a New York strip steak and then throw the rest over your shoulder on to the floor. I remember at one particular gathering last fall, one of the servers (who was this perfectly funny illegal immigrant from Honduras, which is really all we use at the agencies nowadays, and they get paid about $50 an hour, which is really a pittance when you think about it, and his name was “Enrique” or “Omar” or something like that) tripped and dropped an entire tray of champagne all over the floor, and Alicia’s department chief took her head out of the bucket by her chair and said, “Oh well! Guess we’ll just have to fine DuPont another billion or so!” Oh, how we laughed!
I truly believe that there are people in this country who think that we actually live like this. That everything is just buckets of free money from the sweat of the taxpayers, or that our jobs are pointless and redundant or that we don’t actually have to do anything. And it certainly doesn’t help when reports like this one come out:
“The Washington region has emerged from the recession looking even more affluent compared with the rest of the country, boasting seven of the 10 counties with the highest household incomes in the nation, new census numbers show.”
One of these counties is Arlington County, where I currently live. I don’t know that I feel particularly rich. I mean, my bank certainly doesn’t think so. It’s hard to feel like one of the affluent when you still feel an odd satisfaction about your mattress finally being off the floor.
When people see stories where the premise is “D.C. = rich people,” they make that leap into “government worker = rich people,” which is a little like making the assumption that everyone in Vegas is a casino owner.
Yes, there are wealthy people in the D.C. area, but none of them are working directly for the government. The highest paid government worker in the United States is the President, and his salary is $400,000 a year. Government workers are paid on what is called “the GS scale,” where the highest you can go is a GS-15 Step 10, which as of January, 2011, was $129,517 before taxes. There aren’t very many GS-15’s around. There are also Executive Service, Senior Level and Science and Technology salaries which go a little higher, but that maxes out at $179,000. The traditional right-wing, teeth-grinding fantasy is that every janitor sweeping up the interior of the Department of the Interior is making $90,000 a year, but actually they are down around the GS-5 or GS-6 scale, where they max out at a little under $40,000 before taxes. And since every politician has figured out that the best applause line that they can give their constituents back home is a pay freeze for Federal workers, it looks like there isn’t a lot of upward mobility in their pay.
Much is made of the “lavish benefits package” that government workers have, and yeah, from what I understand of it, it’s a good one. But I don’t know that it’s “lavish.” It probably just seems that way because everybody is now officially used to getting garbage benefits from their employers. When you live off of Spam and Wonder Bread, tuna salad on wheat starts to look pretty good.
So where are all these wealthy, affluent people in and around Washington coming from? They come not from working for the government, but from the other two major industries in the area. One of them is lobbying and trying to influence the government, and the other is doing all the work that the government does not want to do, which is known as “government contracting.”
The lobbying thing you guys all know about. There are the big boys like PHARMA and the Chamber of Commerce, not to mention the AFL-CIO and AFSCME and the like. But there are also the trade associations, which are the crews of smaller and more specialized lobbyists. If you talk a walk around Old Town, Alexandria, you will find the American Staffing Association, the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, the National School Boards Association, the Helicopter Association International, the National Sheriffs Association, the American Correctional Association, and so on and so on. All of these groups are there to make sure that the government doesn’t do something that they don’t like, and all of these groups have staff and in-house counsel and guys that they know on the Hill and blah de blah de blah.
That’s not a bad way to make a living; particularly when 99 times out of 100 politicians are coming to you for a campaign handout instead of you having to go them to plead your legislative case. But the real heavy duty money comes from government contracting. You would be amazed or appalled at how much money the government throws away because they are terrified of being seen to “grow government.”
There are defense contractors (Pentagon City, Rosslyn and Tyson’s Corner,) defense subcontractors (Skyline, Fairfax, Annandale,) and the 8A subs, who are everywhere. There are the IT contractors, chief among them being Booz Allen and Hamilton, who recently went from being a private company to one that is publically traded, if that gives you any indication as to how business is going.
The common narrative is that your average government worker is content to sit around in his office and do absolutely nothing until the day he retires, but what really happens is that he works feverishly for about ten years on low salary with ok benefits, networks with the contractors that he comes into contact with on a daily basis, and then leaves the government, takes his rolodex with him, and gets a job with one of those contractors for tons more money. And why wouldn’t he? Since the government is afraid of “growing government” and will pay through the nose to keep that from happening, there’s way more money on the “quasi-private” side of things. If you think of D.C. in terms of baseball, working for the government is the farm system, and working for the contractors is getting called up to the majors.
I don’t know if this is good or bad, but what I do know is that when people gnash their teeth about “fat cat government workers” and then go on to claim that “government creates no jobs,” I wonder what universe they are living in.