Government Workers vs. Self-Employed: A Financial Comparison

When discussing what level of compensation is appropriate and affordable for government workers, it is helpful to make apples-to-apples comparisons between public and private sector workers. In this analysis, the ultimate private sector taxpayer, the self-employed worker, is compared to the typical state or local government employee in California. In both cases, the annual compensation used for comparison is $70,000, which is the average base salary paid to state and local government employees in California (ref. U.S. Census data for California: State, and Local). But the impact of benefits paid by the government employer, combined with the impact of mandatory employee contributions (taxes, retirement set-asides, and healthcare costs), yield dramatically different end results in terms of total net compensation. Both the self-employed worker and the government worker make $70,000 per year. But to say they make the same amount of money is grossly misleading.

The table below, “Total Compensation – Gov’t vs. Self-Employed Worker,” begins to illustrate this disparity. The difference between total compensation and gross earnings in the case of the self-employed worker is zero. There is nobody paying for benefits beyond what the self-employed person earns. Whatever amenities they need to purchase, they have to pay for out of their gross earnings.

In the case of the government worker, there are a host of employer funded benefits; only the basic ones are covered here, using conservative assumptions. If it is assumed the average household health insurance coverage is $500 per month, [...] Read More

Pricing A Taxpayer Bailout of California’s Pensions

Last month both of California’s largest government employee pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, released their portfolio earnings numbers for the most recent twelve months. In a statement released on January 24th, “CalSTRS Calendar Year-End Investment Returns Show Slight Gains,” CalSTRS disclosed “Investment returns for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) ended the 2011 calendar year posting a 2.3 percent gain.” CalPER’s statement released on January 23rd, was titled “[CalPERS} Pension Fund earns 1.1 percent return for 2011 calendar year.”

These funds, and the rest of California’s many local government employee pension funds, are still clinging to long-term rate of return assumptions of between 7.5% and 7.75% per year. So how much would taxpayers be on the hook for if rates of return stay this low?

The first step towards determining this would be to estimate the average pension paid out to a state or local worker in California, based on recent retirees who have worked a full 30 year career. Despite the claim that “The average CalPERS pension is $2,220 per month” (made yet again in the final paragraph of their above-referenced press release), for a more accurate figure, one must look at the average pension awarded recent retirees, based on a full 30+ year career. The problem with the low figure used by CalPERS and others is that it includes people who retired decades ago [...] Read More

Preserving America’s Middle Class

To say America’s middle class is threatened is a common refrain. But there is no malevolent force operating to shrink America’s middle class. America’s middle class is challenged by the momentum of history. Technology automates jobs at the same time as the capacity of foreign manufacturers continuously improves. At the same time, American taxpayers confront the challenges of providing for an aging population as well as choosing what is affordable from an expanding array of social welfare and safety-net choices. In some respects, America’s middle class is a victim of its own success – we live longer, we have better medical technology, our productivity is continuously improving, and American military power – expensively purchased – enables competitive global commerce. Here then, relieved of ideological cant, are the reasons for America’s shrinking middle class:

(1) More money is needed to take care of retirees, and investment returns will no longer cover most of the costs. America’s aging population creates higher demand for liquidity, because retired people need to sell assets to generate cash to pay bills. As an ever higher percentage of America’s population are retirees, there will be more sellers in the investment market, dampening prices and price appreciation. This will lower rates of return on retirement investments and, in turn, all assets.

(2) Advancing technologies have automated millions of jobs. From office information systems to robotic manufacturing, innovation has eliminated the need for millions of highly educated, highly skilled workers. Despite rising productivity, workers have been relentlessly displaced. Entire [...] Read More

The Faces of the Forgotten 33%

Last month a post entitled “America’s Forgotten 33% ” described those Americans who are not members of the elite 1% super-rich, nor part of the privileged 20% who work for the government, nor among the nearly 50% of America’s population who are, apparently, poor enough to avoid taxes altogether.

Who are these forgotten 33%? Who is this one-third of America, people who, compared to the other two-thirds, pay far more in taxes than they receive in return? Who are the faces of the forgotten 33%?

They are small business owners who can’t compete with the crony capitalist captains of big business, who use their financial influence with legislators to enact regulations that small businesses can’t possibly afford to comply with. They are independent contractors who work multiple jobs to earn a mid-five-figure annual gross income, yet pay nearly 50% in taxes on every extra dollar they make (25% federal, 9% state, 13% social security and medicare). They are small investors whose retirement savings lose value at the same time as government employee pension funds beat the market using high-frequency trading and other manipulative tactics that individual value investors can’t hope to emulate (and hold taxpayers accountable to cover the difference when they don’t beat the market). They are parents who can’t get a decent education for their children in public schools, because the teacher’s union makes it impossible to fire bad teachers, and creates a self-serving bureaucracy where administrators outnumber teachers. Parents who have no chance to influence local or [...] Read More