When Being Absolutely Correct Just Isn't Enough: Rand Paul & Federal Workers Edition


Here's Sen.-Elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the November 7, 2010 edition of This Week:

"The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year," Paul said. "The average private employee makes $60,000 a year."

And here's PolitiFact, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning media watchdog site published by the St. Petersburg Times wishing that statement away:

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a federal statistics-gathering agency, federal worker compensation in 2009 averaged $123,049, which was double the private-sector average of $61,051. That's a gap of almost $62,000—and is pretty close to what Paul said on This Week.

However, that figure includes both salary and benefits. This is a legitimate number to raise, but using it requires more explanation than Paul gave it. Since most people usually think about how much they, their spouses and their colleagues get paid in salary alone—not salary plus benefits—we think most people hearing this statement would assume that Paul means that the average federal employee gets paid a salary of $120,000. That's simply not true….

But let's return to Paul's assertion. Paul said that the "average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year." Most people hearing that would assume he was talking about salary alone, but  he was talking about total compensation, including benefits such as retirement pay and paid holidays. Although studies show federal employees typically earn more than their private-sector counterparts, the difference is nowhere near as much as the doubling Paul says. So we rate his statement False.

Whole thing here.

PolitiFact's reasoning here is baffling, to say the least. Currently, federal workers pay 1/14th of their pension contributions. And if President Obama asks them to contribute 50 percent to their retirement, as his debt commission's early recommendations suggest, just watch them howl about a pay cut. 

As somebody who works for a nonprofit that does not contribute anything to my retirement account, I may be particularly sensitive about the issue, but I know for damn sure that if I'm pulling a salary of, say, $60,000 a year and my employer kicks in $15,000 or $10,000 or even $5,000 toward my retirement, I'm damn well gonna feel like I'm making well north of $60,000.

The same goes for medical benefits that require a zero or near-zero contribution from me. Indeed, every employer, HR person, and jerk in a bar will tell you that total compensation (salary, benefits, and other perks) is what matters. Far better to take take a job at $60,000 that comes with $10,000 in retirement contributions and free medical care than one that pays $65,000 with no benefits, right?

Beyond that, PolitiFact rates its subjects on what it calls the "Truth-O-Meter" and prides itself on being nuanced. At the very least, Paul is technically correct, especially in a world where medical benefit plans are due to be assessed taxes based on their perceived similarity to Cadillacs. To call Paul's statement flatly False bespeaks wilful bias, not nuance. They could have at the very least rated the statement partly or mostly true. Especially since it's, well, completely accurate.

In fact, would all readers who don't consider employer contributions to retirement accounts as part of their annual "makings" please contact me off-list? I humbly request that you sign over said non-compensation to me and my kids.

Hat tip: Mollie Hemingway's Twitter feed.