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A Voice from Fly-Over Country
December 30, 2009

Wag the Dog
by Robert L. Hale

MINOT, NORTH DAKOTA — In 1997, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman starred in a film titled “Wag the Dog.” The film portrayed a sex scandal involving the President shortly before the election. De Niro, a Washington spin doctor, was brought in to distract the electorate and save the election. He hired Hoffman, a Hollywood movie producer, to help fake a war to distract attention from the scandal.

The president’s advisors expressed initial skepticism, arguing that the plan was too absurd and the public would not fall for it. De Niro and Hoffman assured them the public would, saying “they always do.” Sure enough, the president was reelected.

Today, we see the reality of “Wag the Dog” being played out in Washington on a daily basis. The spin doctor’s assurance the public will “fall for it” seems to be holding. Global warming, health care, cap and trade, bank bailouts, a $14-trillion debt, and “we can spend our way out of the recession” are all promoted as necessary. The public is repeatedly told that if these issues are not immediately addressed and action taken, catastrophe is sure to follow.

On December 13, 2009, Larry Summers, the President’s top economic advisor, informed the nation, “Everybody agrees that the recession is over.” Although time will tell, this assertion does not match the conclusion of most private economists.

These pronouncements are certainly reminiscent of the scenario of the movie. Yet, another tail-wagging-the-dog scenario is being played by our federal and local governments, possibly an even more troublesome one.

Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association, told USA Today that federal employees make 26 percent less than private sector workers for comparable jobs. The average federal worker’s pay is now $71,206. However, the facts find the average private sector salary to be $40,331 — or 76.6 percent less than federal employees’ salaries.

This recession has pushed almost 7.5 million into unemployment. That number continues to increase every month, and there is no end in sight to layoffs. The 2 million-plus federal workforce, however, is expanding and is receiving significant pay increases. Federal employees are not experiencing a recession; they are experiencing unprecedented growth and financial gains.

The tail is most certainly wagging the dog. Public servants are no longer servants by any understanding of the term. The average federal “public servant” earns more than those who pay that salary. While average taxpayers suffer, federal workers prosper. Those at the top of the federal food chain do even better.

At the beginning of this recession, only one Department of Transportation employee was receiving a salary of $170,000 or more; 18 months later, 1,690 are. The number of federal employees receiving salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14 percent to 19 percent of the federal workforce during the same period, not including overtime or bonuses.

Those in the private sector, being taxed to fund federal wages and benefits, are receiving little or no salary increases. Between 17 percent and 22 percent of the private workforce is unemployed, has stopped looking for work, or is involuntarily working less than 40 hours per week. The tail is most certainly wagging the dog.

The same is true at the state level. States large and small are paying state workers significantly more than their comparable private sector counterparts. For example, North Dakota’s private sector work force has a mean annual salary and benefit package totaling $41,053 per year. State employees have an annual package totaling $51,948 — 26.5 percent more than their private sector neighbors whose taxes fund this package. It is likely we would find the same at the city and county levels.

When the dog finally realizes what is happening, it is likely to begin chasing the tail.
When the tail is caught — and it will be — the consequences will be painful for everyone.

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A Voice from Fly-Over Country is copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Hale and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

Robert L. Hale received his J.D. in law from Gonzaga University Law School in Spokane, Washington. He is founder and director of a non-profit public interest law firm. For more than three decades he has been involved in drafting proposed laws and counseling elected officials in ways to remove burdensome and unnecessary rules and regulations.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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