Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fair Pay for Federal Employees?

I won't argue that less-educated federal workers receive better wages and benefits than their private-sector counterparts. The non-particsn CBO's recent report is accurate and well-considered--it doesn't address pay differences among state and local public employees.

Source: Congressional Budget Office

My question is: is that a bad thing? At the low-end of the wage scale, these higher salaries and benefits create just the kind of middle-class security that most Americans aspire to. It’s also worth noting that minorities represent 33.8% of the federal workforce, about 4% more than the nation’s as a whole.

There are certainly cases of wage and benefit negotiations gone absurd, in which workers extract unreasonable pension commitments or counterproductive job protections. Still, perhaps the worse outcome, is the retreat from principles of employment and retirement stability for entry-level workers (who lack golden parachutes) across much of the private sector.

One reason for the gap, explains the CBO, is that public employees receive defined-benefit pensions rather than defined-contribution 401Ks. At their best, such pensions guarantee a decent quality of life in retirement with less vulnerability to market fluctuations and underfunding. At worst, governments agree to unreasonable commitments that later unwind in recriminations on all sides.

The crucial difference between defined-benefit and defined-contribution is that the former commits to provide funding equal to the need of those enrolled in the system; whereas, the latter commits an employer only to a certain level of funding regardless of eventual enrollee needs.

This report won’t end the debate over public sector salaries, and it may inspire questions over the efficacy of 401Ks and other private-sector compensation practices. It does shine some light on the issue of workers’ compensation that deserves attention as part of larger discussions of equal opportunity and a just society.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Going into Sexual Debt and Abortion Bankruptcy

Disclaimer: I am not nor have I ever been pregnant.

People aren’t perfect, and no amount of coercion or punishment makes them otherwise. More often than not, building up the retribution for our myriad transgressions only increases the body count. And yet, for much of civilization’s history, social contracts have aimed to inflict a maximum of pain in order to deter wayward members of the flock from violating principles endorsed by the powerful, with or without popular support.

A mid-Victorian debtors prison
More recently, enlightenment thinkers, social scientists, and policy makers have moved towards preemptive education, relatively moderate punishments that preserve that the health of the offender, and rehabilitation as alternatives to the truly punitive. Thieves now surrender their liberty instead of their hands, adulterers file for divorce rather than flying from stones, and debtors enter bankruptcy instead of prison.

This trend towards rehabilitative, or at least non-lethal, treatment of taboo breakers continues today, but it remains controversial. Traditionalists dislike aiding non-conforming, “deviant” individuals whom they find offensive. Our national conversations about sexuality, marriage, and abortion are a case in point, one in which many people leave hurt and unsatisfied who might have found a better fate with the right map and counsel.

Comprehensive sex education in schools is more effective than an abstinence-only curriculum in limiting HIV transmission, decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies, and delaying the onset of sexual activity. Nonetheless, some parents and politicians demand an abstinence-only curriculum, despite its counterproductive results (abortion and teen-pregnancy rates rose at the height of federal funding for abstinence-only programs), because they are unwilling to empower adolescents to make informed decisions about their
sexuality that may not align with traditional values.
Pregnancy and abortion rates rose
under abstinence-only

Values should not be taken lightly. A common morality is one of the keystones upon which societies and nations build their cultural edifices. A question, however, should be put to a given set of values: does their idealized application render a more favorable outcome than a more pragmatic alternative? Prohibition is a case in point; the dream of many teetotalers rendered nightmarish by the realities of the rest.

Sometimes, hard-line values give way to a more pragmatic posture that is healthier for all concerned. Societies once threw debtors into prison (and Australia) without counsel to arrest their descent or mechanisms to escape from their misfortune. Not until 1898 did America establish an enduring code for bankruptcy to protect companies from their creditors, for instance.

Today’s network of credit counselors help individuals and organizations keep their houses in order. Personal and corporate bankruptcy laws provide alternatives to forced flight and hard time. Debt and bankruptcy still carry stigma--few look forward to devastated credit and broken dreams--but society has recognized their existence and taken measures to reduce the rate and impact of catastrophic failures. People may grumble about moral hazard, but few are clamoring for work houses and prison sentences.
Abstinence-only is an American phenomoenon
Sexual education is a comparable issue in the 21st century. Sex without intimacy is no prize, nor are STIs, unwanted pregnancies, or abortions. At the same time, sermons and scare tactics do very little to avert potential mistakes and tragedies. Rather, in order to reduce the incidence of a host of troubles, it makes sense to prepare young adults as fully as possible to understand the choices they will soon make.

Not even the most fervent abortion-rights activist cheers when the procedure takes place, but the right to control one’s own body is one worthy of protection. Condemning a woman to a life she did not seek is as callous as imprisoning a debtor for mistakes made or fortune’s frown. In both cases, accurate education and the right tools reduce the risk of unwanted outcomes in a way that scare tactics and retribution can’t match. With that in mind, let’s embrace sex-ed that places students before the sanctimonious and promotes a healthier, more-satisfying (sex) life for all.