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Most of the people who are making 100-200k would make at the very least double that if they were in the private sector. A GS-15 is equivalent to a Brigadier General(Who would be in charge of thousands of people). Now, keep in mind that some technology positions have inflated GS ranks because it was the only way they could get the salaries high enough to attract talent. Security analysts and programmers don't come cheap.

Working for the government can be great, depending on who you work for and whether or not it fits your personality, but don't be deluded into thinking that the majority of government employees have cushy, high paying jobs.

Note: Politicians and Senior Executive Service employees are a different story, many of them are overpaid and ineffective at their jobs.

Paywise they're peers to Colonels and Brigadier Generals, position scope tends towards being equivalent to Colonel (AF, can't speak to other services or departments), with SES employees being the civil service peers to General officers.

You're right, I was a rank off. That being said, a Colonel is often still in charge of a couple thousand people.

Absolutely, and the comparisons get kind of hairy sometimes. GS-12+ aren't all supervisory, it's possible to have GS-14 and 15s that are mostly specialists with few or no individuals in their direct charge. For those curious, the general mapping of GS grades to officer ranks:

GS-15 = O-6 (Colonel/Navy Captain)

GS-14 = O-5 (Lt Colonel/Commander)

GS-13 = O-4 (Major)

GS-12 = O-3 (Captain, this is the journeyman level for engineesr)

GS-9/11 = O-1/2 (Lt's, apprentice stage)

GS doesn't start at 9, though. The lower grades are typically limited scope, no supervisory responsibility, office jobs (secretaries, mail room, clerk, data entry, etc.). Or they're training positions, straight out of college an engineer may be a GS-5/7 and after 2-4 years a GS-11/12. They don't really have a clean comparison to military ranks, that I know of.

> They don't really have a clean comparison to military ranks, that I know of.

They do, but you have to start going into the enlisted ranks for best comparisons. GS-7 might be E-6/E-7, GS-5 would be E-4/E-5, etc.

It gets fuzzy. Enlisted responsibility is not strictly below officer responsibility, it's just different and somewhat overlapping once you get to higher NCO ranks. A high ranked NCO could be on par with a GS-12 in terms of responsibility scope, though perhaps not in pay. I'd agree that low GS grades (say 5-9) are probably akin to E1-E4, but starting at E5 or so (AF) you start gaining responsibilities (either personnel or materiel) that are more akin, not in kind but in scope, to lower ranked officers.

If you look at pay, a GS-7 makes less than I did as an E-4 in the DC/Baltimore area.

If you look at responsibility, it seems to fit.

I disagree. I worked with plenty of AF Col's in the 5-sided-puzzle-palace that managed offices with 15-30 folks. They worked alongside a GS-13 to GS-15 types.

What happens in D.C. isn't really representative of the rest of the military. A normal Colonel will be a Brigade Commander, in charge of at least 3 battalions, which each contain hundreds of people.

Well it simply depends on the scenario of the given agency/unit. In the Navy an O-6 may very well have a "Major" command that still doesn't involve more than 180 people and an individual ship.

Likewise just as D.C. has peculiar effects on the military rank of typical workers, so does it have peculiar effects on the civilian grade of workers, due to the position classification principle of "scope of effect".

I'm less familiar with the Navy than I am with the Army and the Marines, but wouldn't the captain of a ship with a crew of 180 warrant a sizable paycheck in the private sector? I began by talking about the number of personnel they would be responsible for, but someone else described the situation a bit better than I. AS they said, it really comes down to the level of responsibility. The government probably determined that being the captain of a ship worth tens of millions of dollars is probably roughly equivalent to leading a brigade of infantrymen.

I would say the CO deserves it.

But the Navy normally uses O5 to command ships of similar crew size. Very rarely, even O4... it all depends on what exactly the ship is, and what the expected mission set of that ship is.

Obviously the Navy wouldn't slot a random O4 into minesweeper command even though it's a small ship, so you're really talking about a "better than average" O4 even for those, it just reflects back to how scope of responsibility can change things even for the Navy.

This is where it starts breaking down though, as rank increases (GS or other) responsibility increases. This is often most clearly seen with the number of people you're charged with, but less clearly is when it's the work itself. Either as a specialist or leading a group of specialists, or managing particularly big projects (so you don't directly manage thousands, but the scope of the project may place you indirectly in charge of them).

Colonels at the Pentagon are a dime a dozen. But a Colonel in the field - away from DC - might be a base commander. When I was a civilian working for the military and participating in/attending meetings, briefings, etc., we didn't even stand for Generals entering the room (which is protocol) unless the General had at least 2 stars. . .and not always then, depending on the level of the brass in the room.

> Most of the people who are making 100-200k would make at the very least double that if they were in the private sector.

The base salary would double. However they'd be left without a pension, and other benefits though I think the pension is easily the largest monetary value.

OPM estimates that FERS pension and retiree health benefits add 18% to overall pay.

Let's use as an example someone with 20 years of federal service and a highest 3 years salary of $150k. The FERS benefit is roughly 1.1% * 20 * 150k = $33k/year. That's a 25-year annuity of $450k. To accumulate $450k over 20 years, that's about $12k per year, or 8% of income. People who serve longer will get a bigger pension, but the nature of the $100k+ positions in the federal government is that they require advanced degrees, extensive work experience in the private sector, etc, which limits the overall length of service.

If you're an educated professional (say an antitrust economist at the DOJ), you'll make a lot less money in federal service even accounting for benefits. On the other hand, if you're a document clerk, you'll make a lot more.

Pension's great, but you don't come close to making up the difference between that and receiving twice as much of a salary.

The government has significantly _lower_ turnover than the private sector, which isn't what microeconomics says we would see if the workers could make that much more by leaving. It's more consistent with the suggestion that the workers would make considerably less if they left.


1. Microeconomics is seriously, perhaps completely, wrong; or, 2. Federal employees are much more motivated by non-financial rewards, such as the satisfaction of public service, than the rest of us, and are, therefore, better people than the rest of us; or, 3. They couldn't make more in the private sector, and would probably make less.

Take your pick.

The three options you listed don't even begin to describe the multitude of reasons that a person might choose to work for the government.

There are people who enjoy public service, that doesn't make them better or worse than the rest of us. I served in the Army for almost a decade, it doesn't mean I'm better than anyone.

The "can't make it in the private sector" argument is ridiculous. Everyone who has ever worked at a sizable organization, both for the government and in the private sector, has known someone that was completely incompetent yet still remained employed. Sometimes people just slip through the cracks, it doesn't matter where you are. What's funny is that on one hand we have civilians saying that federal employees couldn't make it on the outside, and on the other side whenever someone gets out of the military, there will be those who say its because that person "couldn't cut it." It's childish and counterproductive nearly all of the time.

Two reasons that come to mind that you haven't mentioned are free travel and a stable employment situation. Right now things are kind of screwed up, but generally speaking, government jobs are stable. You might have to move, but at least you know that you'll have a job unless you give them a good reason to let you go.

One of the smartest people I know has been a software engineer for about 5-7 years, he gets treated like crap at his private sector company, and makes well below market value. I honestly have no idea why he stays at his company, but I do know enough to realize that I won't be able to explain it with a mathematical model.

First, these models are looking at individuals' behavior on average.

Second, if you want to be an infantryman, fly a jet, work with missiles, etc, most of the jobs are military. And there are subcultures found only in the military that some people find very appealing. The models are smart enough to consider such factors.

But the motivations and cultures of the military and civilian employment writ large are VASTLY different. Lumping the civilians in with the military and declaring it all good is way too simple. There are huge chunks of the government where the work is really no different than similar work in the private sector.

The postal service and UPS is only one example -- there are some unique functions and activities in USPS, out in rural areas, but the vast majority of it is pretty much the same as USPS. Wanna bet that postal workers are paid more than USPS workers? Or on their turnover ratios?

It isn't too hard to see the best parts of the government, they're pretty interesting and do important stuff. But those parts make a surprisingly small fraction of the total activity.

#2 is a strong factor – it's not even better people so much as different motivations. If you believe strongly in, say, open data most of the jobs are in the public sector. If you like working with public domain data, again, there are only so many places where that happens.

There are also other, less appreciated aspects: e.g. federal employees work is in the public domain by default which means a lot of people can work on open-source software without fighting corporate culture:


The number of jobs where that's true is a small subset of the number of jobs which pay more in the private sector.

The other big factor you're missing is the stability: if you have a family, disabilities or health problems, etc. something like the startup scene is a lot less appealing compared to a job where there are legal mandates against death-march project management. Given the skew towards mid-to-senior level positions, I'm also sure that a lot of people saw the appeal of an employer which has strict rules against age discrimination, too.

This is not to say that they couldn't make more money but that they're making tradeoffs for the likely future value based on their personal risk exposure. Arguably #1 is true but really it's irrelevant because anything as complicated as your career seems outside of the scope of microeconomics.

Do those salary numbers include the benefits like retirement? Public jobs are one of the few pension gigs left. Also their health insurance is pretty good.

The health insurance is actually pretty bad and really expensive. The pension isn't that cushy either. They changed the pension system in the mid-80s, but people still spout off the false notion that you're somehow set on a government pension.

My understanding is that the health insurance is still better than what is typically available for private sector employees. The pension system is not nearly as good as it used to be, true, but it does exist, which is not true for most private sector employees.

I've worked both sides of the fence, so I'm not flinging arrows.

Same here. The 4 different insurance products I've used in the private sector are much better than I ever had access to as a government employee.

Nope, just salary.

also include in your exception list, political appointees. I haven't scanned the whole list so I am wondering if the members of the Whitehouse staff, Congress, and similar, are available? The Whitehouse has nearly 500 listed on their site.

The sheer number of government employees is amazing especially when you consider you have to add on top of these numbers those at state, city, and local, levels.

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