On today's front page (3/1/11), USA Today alleges that public workers in Wisconsin earn more than private sector employees--a finding at odds with much of the research on public/private compensation.
Under the headline "In Wisconsin, Private Sector Pays Less," reporter Dennis Cauchon argues that "Wisconsin is one of 41 states where public employees earn higher average pay and benefits than private workers in the same state."
This "USA Today analysis" suffers from the same fundamental error as Cauchon's previous attempts (Extra!, 1/11) to paint public workers as overpaid: the failure to control for factors like the type of work performed, experience and education. The paper does not try to hide this; as Cauchon writes, "The analysis included full and part-time workers and did not adjust for specific jobs, age, education or experience." But this failure to distinguish between different types of work renders the comparison entirely meaningless--unless you think that teachers and fast-food clerks ought to get exactly the same pay.
Near the end of his article, Cauchon quotes a critic:
The Economic Policy Institute research on this (2/10/11) found "that Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8 percent less in total compensation per hour than comparable full-time employees in Wisconsin’s private sector." Other research on private/public compensation reaches similar conclusions (Center for Economic and Policy Research, 5/10/10). Other newspapers, like the New York Times (2/26/11), offer a range of studies, many of which support the conclusion that public workers earn less than their private-sector counterparts.
Given the headline and thrust of the article, USA Today and Cauchon are sending a clear message: Economists don't know how to evaluate compensation as well as we do. But they give readers no reason to believe that they're right. What they do offer is a valuable boost to Republican governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker.
Please let USA Today know it is meaningless to compare compensation without adjusting for the type of work performed, as well as for factors like education and experience.