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A supposed labor market distortion that I’d never considered is that government receives a “discount” on labor services because public employees’ income tax liability is returned to the very government coffers from which they are paid. Tyler Cowen regards this as a “wacky” idea, but not easy to refute. Suppose the income tax rate is 20%. If the government pays a worker $10, then $2 is returned to that same government via the tax. The net cost to government is just $8. But a tax “discount” on cost is not unique to government, though the form it takes may differ.

Who Gets a Labor “Discount”?

Does it cost a private employer more than government to pay a worker $10? It depends on the situation. Maybe more, maybe less. If the private employer pays the same 20% tax rate on its profits, the wage payment creates a tax deduction worth $2 in avoided tax. The net cost is $8, so there is no difference. However, a firm must be profitable to get that deduction, so unprofitable startups, strugglers, and nonprofits do not get the same wage “discount” as government. Of course, losses can be carried forward to reduce taxes if the firm ever becomes profitable, and non-profits have tax advantages of their own.

The value of the tax deduction (the private “discount”) depends on the tax rate paid by the firm. A profitable C corporation with a marginal tax rate of 35% (under current law) gets a steeper discount than a small businessperson in the 28% tax bracket. To some extent, a steeper discount subsidizes the cost of hiring employees who are highly compensated. A highly successful pass-through entity like a sole proprietorship, partnership or S corporation can face the highest individual marginal rates, so the “discount” for such a firm could be the largest relative to wages.

Economic Distortions

There are a couple of potential distortions involved here: one is the standard wedge driven between the value of workers’ marginal product and the after-tax wage they receive. This discourages labor supply. There is a second distortion to the extent that the “discount” gives government and profitable firms an artificial competitive advantage of over unprofitable buyers of labor services. Furthermore, the loss of the labor discount for firms falling into unprofitable positions imparts an undesirable procyclical element into the tax system, potentially aggravating episodes of under-production and high unemployment.

The government’s labor “discount” may reduce the available supply of labor to the private sector. Government does not operate under the profit motive, and unlike private firms, it need not concern itself with efficiency standards for survival. Government production does not face a market test, so it is difficult to measure worker productivity, which is the key to the efficient pricing and use of labor in the private sector. The penalty to government for paying an above-market wage is zero.

The same “discount” argument can be made for government contracts with private firms. The profits earned on those contracts are taxed by the government payer, so the total cost to the government is essentially discounted. Contracts between private firms are on the same footing if the payer is profitable, since the paying firm can deduct its costs from taxable profits. A payer that is not profitable is at a disadvantage. The government “discount” might not be the primary reason to suspect that government contracting is subject to distortion and inflated values, but it is a reason nevertheless. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “discount” creates additional leeway for graft!

Does the government labor “discount” really impinge on the federal agency budget process? I doubt that anyone having a critical role in the Congressional or executive budget process thinks much about it, to say nothing of agency hiring and compensation managers. Yet spending levels may “bake-in” a certain amount of over-payment of wages or fat in government contracts. In any case, historically, federal spending has not been tightly constrained by the flow of tax revenue.

Federal Wages vs. Private Wages

There is empirical evidence on government vs. private wages. These data are of interest in their own right, but since so much of the private sector receives the same tax “discount” as government, it’s not clear that it should cause much if any differential in pay. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) compared differences in compensation from 2005-2010 and again from 2011-2015 and found that federal wages and benefits exceeded private sector wages and benefits over both periods. The gap decreased with increases in education. For workers with a bachelor’s degree or less (71% of the CBO’s latest federal workforce sample), the gap was substantial. The difference was just a few thousand dollars for those with a master’s degree. The professional degree/Ph.D. category stood in fairly sharp contrast to the others, with private workers having a fairly large advantage. It is possible that the most highly-educated category, being the most scarce and probably the most specialized, has unique market characteristics. It should also be noted that the sample of federal workers was about 4 years older, on average, than the private sector sample, which might have skewed the results.

The CATO Institute used data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and found that federal civilian workers earned 80% more than private sector workers in 2016. The CATO report cites several other studies, including the CBO’s, which consistently find that federal workers earn more. This could be partly attributable to the government labor discount, bureaucratic laxity, the heavy unionization of the federal work force, and even the geographical distribution of federal workers.

Discount My Taxes, Please

The worst aspect of the tax “discount” on federal and many private-sector wage payments is the taxation itself. However, the fact that some firms and organizations don’t qualify for the discount represents a significant distortion. To some extent, labor input is discouraged for unprofitable startup firms, firms struggling for survival, and of course the non-profit sector. These organizations are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of resource allocation relative to those who qualify for the “discount”.

Nevertheless, this unevenly applied discount may be an unfortunate mathematical implication of a public sector with income-taxing and spending powers. The discount on wages and contract payments provides additional margin along which government can be wasteful. A partial solution is to maintain whatever firewalls exist between taxing and spending authorities, but that won’t unwind past distortions. Of course, the best solution is to shrink government: reduce taxes and reduce the federal role in everything from infrastructure to public health, dismantle the administrative state, and reduce military spending. I didn’t really need another reason to warn of the dangers of big government, but count this one as duly noted!