My father-in-law, who is rare among his peers in his due-diligence to checking on the truth of statements sent via the interwebs, asked me to look into the claims in the video above. As with most partisan propaganda, this video has some truth to it, but that truth is bent all out of shape by its being taken out of context. It will help if you watch the video before going on as I don't summarize much of it here.
He was sent the link via a friend and the first thing I noticed is that the link throws you right into the pop-out, full screen version of the YouTube video. To get the page with links and, more importantly, the comment thread, you have to edit the link--and know what you're doing. As with all e-mails of this kind, who knows where along the way the link got edited in this way. But it is somewhat problematic because it subverts the very narrow possibility that viewers could be exposed to response videos, comments, or other forms of social interaction around this media.
It also raises the bar on what you'll have to do go to the website to view the video and find out more about the organization. Instead of just clicking on the link, you have to search for the webpage separately. I usually wouldn't imagine that this would be something the author of the video would like, but in this case, it doesn't seem to matter one way or another: the website is pretty sparse in terms of content. There is a lot of design, but not much filling the design. Basically it is a one guy's blog (with occasional contributions from three other people) looking like a big organization.
And more power to them. This is what the internet allows people to do: start organizations that would normally take a lot more capital and attention. According to the site, the speaker in the video above is also the founder. He balks at property taxes in Florida and decided to go on a personal quest to slay the Federal Budget demon. In addition to the blog, he gives little seminars around Florida to inform his fellow citizens about the horror of taxes, spending, and all the other appurtenances of the modern nation state. No real word on the blog about who he is, but the St. Petersburg Times did a little piece on him, saying that, in addition to being a self-declared "motivational speaker" (i.e. motivating you to hate taxes) he is also a professional poker player and Chairman of the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee. But more pertinently to his beef on property taxes, he's a real estate contractor who built a raft of houses for speculators in the run up to the housing bubble that hit Florida especially hard.
He first teamed with a real estate company that touted Florida real estate as a can't-miss deal. Then Ingoglia did the touting himself and did it until at least March 2007, when he told potential buyers at a "Real Estate and Wealth Expo'' in Los Angeles that they could clear $25,000 by reselling before their homes were even finished. His claims were backed by appraisals that local Realtors and statewide appraisal experts said were highly inflated, if not downright phony. [ . . . . ] In his first seminars, in 2007, he roasted Hernando County government for the huge bump in property tax revenue, created mostly by the huge bump in property values, created by what? Speculation.
So this guy is not necessarily non-partisan and he's not necessarily disinterested himself. This is all good to know, but the importance of the public sphere is that it is not supposed to matter what your political leanings are or where you come from or what you've done: your argument is supposed to be based on the strength of its rationality, the merits of your sources, and the clarity of your interpretation of those sources. Here, both the video and the website itself are rather unfortunate.
The beauty of the internet is the way you can both find information and cite it as a grounding source for your argument. You can also easily share videos and other media, making it a very good medium for productive intellectual exchange. But it can as easily become a mouthpiece for falsehood and half truth, particularly when you only employ the broadcasting functions and let the "public sphere" functions sit idle. Emails and web posts lacking any citations are bad enough, but because of the cultural role we give to television as a purveyor of truth, videos can even more easily project decontextualized facts as absolute truth. In this case, the video is not accompanied by any citations for its statistics, making it doubly hard to fact check him: not only do you have to look at the source to examine his interpretation, you have to find his source (if, that is, it exists.) This not only prevents a clear factual accounting: it also creates wiggle room for true believers, who are likely the primary target for the website anyway (more than half of the content of the site consists of comments made by other people.)
The overall argument of the video is that "Government" is out of control. It purports to provide data demonstrating this out of control level of government employment, and especially of salaries for government employees. Some of these facts are basically accurate, but even the accurate ones are taken out of context.
Concepts that are fuzzy: "government" and "since the recession began." The first is a standard conservative boogie-man. It is a catch all that acts like we should look upon this force with suspicion and derision. I totally agree with the idea that, as citizens, our primary role is to question the state and shape it in a way that is useful to us. That's the whole idea of democracy. More on this in a moment. In any case, this is a very loaded term in this set of discourse and it is never defined--precisely to allow the viewer to insert all their ideologically derived prejudices about what this means. This is standard fare in these kinds of videos and posts, so it's not of the author's creation.
More problematic in this video is the fuzzy date he uses in his chronology of when this explosion in government took on the current "gone wild" proportions. He says that "both parties" are responsible, but in the current climate (spoken by the chairman of the Republican Executive Committee) it is difficult to take seriously. Since most people don't use the textbook definition of recession, it is hard to parse when some of these events occurred. He uses 2009 as a benchmark number, but he says that congress used the recession to bump up government spending, creating a false causality. Many of the policies that caused the changes he mentions were in place well before this, and had little to do with the recession per se. And in response to the recession, the current administration has put a pay freeze in place to stem most of these changes, and congress passed a law last October that ends most of these pay raises. This fact is readily available - right at the bottom of the USA Today article on which the video likely based all its salary data.
Relative number of government employees compared to private sector employees: Over the last decade, number of private employees has only increased 1%; but government employees have risen 15%.
This is a common theme among conservative politicians and pundits. This is not true for Federal Employees as a whole (which increased only 7% fro 2000-2010), but the executive branch alone has increased close to that (16%). A good chunk of that is due to the doubling of employees in Homeland Security. But even that number (which is about 2.1 million employees) is hardly unprecedented and not at all an explosion: there were at least this many federal employees in the executive branch alone for most of the post-war period--and throughout the entire Reagan and Bush I administration. The 16% or so decrease started when Clinton took office and then rose steadily throughout Bush's presidency. Still, in relative numbers, the amount of federal employees per 1,000 members of the population is historically quite low. "The Government" increase in question was for the "war on terror" protection functions libertarians think "the government" should limit itself to anyway. So it is unclear what all the fuss is about.
In any case, the real scandal here should be the pittance of jobs added by the private sector over this period. It is much larger and supposedly far more dynamic: if it is this bad at creating jobs, why are we putting so much faith in it to get us out of this recession.
Second claims: regarding the number of federal employees making over $170k. As I said above, almost all of this data is derived from a USA Today article from 2009 charting changes to Federal Employee wages from 2007 to June 2009, mostly as a result of pay hikes approved by Bush II and a new National Security Personnel System approved by congress in 2004 (and targeted at the defense department.)
Two things are important to note here. First, though the data in the USA Today article appears accurate (I can't find a place where these numbers are listed), the benchmark they choose is somewhat arbitrary - except that it provides a seemingly shocking conclusion. When you say that there is a tenfold increase in the number of people making over $170k, it sounds like a lot. But there are no relative numbers given and there is no sense of what these increases were for. In terms of relative numbers, it is important to consider two things: the number of people given the raise relative to the total number of employees and the percentage of the actual raise over their previous wage. 10,000 people in the DoD--which according to the data above, employed 737,000 people) is a drop in the proverbial bucket (it is about 1.4% of the entire workforce) And if the benchmark were "over $155k" (which was one of the previous maximum pay-bands) there might have been little increase at all. These were doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and career managers in the DoD. Many of the career public servants in question had already qualified for the highest pay available and the goal of the legislation was to reward those who were doing better with a pay raise that would put them closer (though still about 20% off) with the average pay they would receive in the private sector. In other words, these people weren't suddenly given $170k/year: they were given raises from something like $150k or $155k. Choosing this benchmark is designed to have the effect of being a dramatic rise; it would be just as accurate to say something like 1.4% of DoD employees were given raises of 5-10% to place them closer to parity with the private sector.
On this note, relative to their skills and what they could get in the private sector, government employees are compensated less than their private sector counterparts with equal educational and professional qualifications:
A disproportionate number of federal employees are professionals, such as managers, lawyers, engineers and scientists. [This is backed by] a 2002 study of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It found that federal salaries for most professional and administrative jobs lagged well behind compensation offered in the private sector. The CBO study concluded that the best way to measure the difference is to compare government jobs with those in the private sector that match the actual work performed. The CBO found that salaries for 85 percent of federal workers in professional and administrative jobs lagged their private sector counterparts by more than 20 percent.In other words, though the statistics in question are accurate, it is a misleading comparison.
Among lawyers, for example, the average pay in the federal government was about $127,500 a year in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average lawyer in the private sector earned $137,540. And the starting salary at large law firms in Washington, D.C. -- where most government lawyers work -- is $160,000, and can grow to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
Second, is the reason for this new pay scale. CEOs are always defending their excessive pay with reference to the market competition--they are required to get paid in this way in order to attract the best talent. When Bush and the predominantly Republican congress approved these pay band increases, it was with an eye to giving merit pay--MERIT pay--to people who were highly qualified and high performing. According to the CRS report about this program,
At the end of each appraisal year, an employee is assigned pay shares based on performance that represent percentage increases in pay. Lower-performing employees may receive fewer pay shares or no pay shares. An employee must acquire at least a satisfactory performance rating to be eligible for any performance-based bonuses.In other words, this was a program designed to incentivize performance in exactly the way free market promoters find the public sector lacking. It was designed by people with this in mind and there was the unexpected consequence that many more people qualified for merit pay than they thought would. In any case, it was not some random pay raise: it was designed to introduce market incentives into the public sector. Now those same free market denizens howl when public employees get paid close to their private counterparts.
As that article points out, congress voted in 2009 to end these pay scale changes, effective 2012 and the current administration gave smaller raises in 2009 (2%) than any administration since 1975 and as it doesn't--but as is easily discoverable from the OPM--Obama put a cap on pay in 2010 and 2011.
So in terms of raises, the recession has actually spurred the government to change the policies that were increasing this level of compensation. Both congress and the administration are already changing this system so the alarm seems overblown.
Third claim: 21 million government employees = 16% of the voting population = 32% of electorate (because each government employee has "at least one person close to them" who will vote for government) = a huge "special interest"
This is the big punchline, but now we're playing fast and loose with numbers. 21 million "government employees" is not anywhere near the total federal employees, so it must include some amount of state and local government employees. But this is a pretty arbitrary accounting. Why not also include government contractors? People who receive government subsidies? People who drive on public highways? The premise is that, because people are paid by the government, they will never vote for a contraction of the government. If only the average person was so easily swayed by their own material interest--then arguments like this guy's would have almost no purchase on the popular imagination. As the article where he gets his data mentions, there had already been movement on the payment of government workers, and earlier eras (such as the Clinton years) have seen a contraction of government workers. So while the theory he presents might make sense, it doesn't stand up to empirical data.
But more important, the whole idea of government is that it is supposed to operate in all our interests. To say that only government workers have an interest in the continuation of "government" overlooks the basic fact that government is supposed to operate in all our interests: that's why it is called the "public sector." The answer to the problem of government not seeming to operate "in your interest" is not to get rid of it altogether, but to force it to reform in a way that will work in your interest. This is certainly what real estate speculators like this fellow and big investment firms like Goldman Sachs do all the time. And targeting the employees - many of whom are professionals who are taking a pay cut in order to perform public service - as the cause of the problem is getting really old.