Federal Pay: Misteakes Wuz Made

Tuesday - 8/7/2012, 2:00am EDT

In September 1999, NASA (and the taxpayers) "lost" a $125 million Mars orbiter, which after getting within 36 miles of the Red Planet, zigged when it should have zagged.

The problem came, not in the design or the actual flight, but because of a math/communications error. NASA engineers and scientists were using the metric system. The private contractor that helped build the vehicle was using the English system of inches and feet. It could happen to anybody.

Despite its many triumphs (like the successful Moon landings) before and since, NASA will never fully live that down, even though it was a contractor problem.

Bottom line: When you are measuring something, anything, make sure you and the people on your team — or the group you are competing against — use the same yardstick. Which is what the people, who are trying to figure out whether you are overpaid, underpaid or paid just right, ought to do. Because obviously that's what some of the people comparing federal vs. private sector pay are doing. That, in part, would explain why one group of statisticians finds that federal workers are paid 50 percent more than they would get doing the same job outside government. And it also explains why another source (the Labor Department) says feds are paid 20 percent less than non-feds doing the same jobs. And why a bipartisan congressional study group concluded that feds earn about 2 percent more than private sector workers.

Studies showing feds are underpaid use only salary data. No fringes are considered or counted during the matchups, although many people, including Presidents Carter and Clinton, said they should be.

Studies that conclude feds are overpaid don't take into account that the government pays everybody the same for the same job and grade level, regardless of their race or sex. When overlaid with a private sector program (where women and minorities are often paid less for a variety of reasons) it appears the government is overpaying.

It also helps/hurts that before most people undergo a study, especially about or by the government, they have already decided the outcome. If you want to "prove" feds are overpaid use one system. If you want your "facts" to prove the opposite, you use a different measuring device.

The late Gore Vidal once said something to the effect that history is sometimes based upon the agreed-upon-facts, whether they were true or not. Too bad he never wrote a book about federal compensation.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore and Amanda Iacone

Urinating on a jellyfish sting won't reduce the pain. And vinegar may or may not help depending on whom you ask. Salt water or hot water followed by topical lidocaine or benzocaine is the best bet, according to a new report in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Read the full report here. Or read some alternative advice here.


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