Google+ Followers

Thursday, June 16, 2011

True But. . . (ouch)

I'm a federal employee and I've done well in my career. I'm a person who is motivated by providing for the betterment of others. Not making any claim of having the moral high ground here. It is just how my bio/emotional system fits into a natural social composite. What I am posting here is an Column from's Pay and Benefits Watch. I know there is a lot of truth here and I know there are lots of points for dispute. However, it is hard for the public that feels it pays our salaries to think they pay us more than they themselves are worth. It is a debate that only erodes the confidence in Civil Service as a calling. But, I am posting this because it presents the dilemma of over simplification when it comes to human welfare. – CPD

The Real Gap
By Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine

Editor's Note: This edition of Pay and Benefits Watch is a guest column and does not reflect the views of Government Executive.

Federal employees are still smarting over President Obama's two-year pay freeze, but for some Republicans a mere freeze is not enough. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, promises to eliminate tens of billions of dollars from the budget, and federal workers will not be immune.

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management argues that feds actually deserve a raise, not a pay reduction. OPM's 2010 annual report says federal employees earn less than their private sector counterparts, noting the pay gap grew from 22 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2010. This is surprising, given that federal employees received a 2 percent pay increase from 2009 to 2010 while economywide wages fell by 1.5 percent during that period. Nevertheless, public sector unions cite this data to dismiss claims of federal overcompensation.

Is the overpaid federal worker really just a myth? Not according to academic research. Economists have studied federal pay since the 1970s, and their methods and conclusions differ markedly from those of the government. Economists use statistical techniques that account for differences in workers' age, education, experience, gender, race, marital status and other characteristics.

Those studies generally have found a federal pay premium in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent, according to the 1999 Handbook of Labor Economics. A private sector worker earning $50,000 per year, for example, might receive $55,000 to $60,000 per year as a federal employee. The largest premiums are for lower-skilled employees, with smaller benefits as education increases. Interestingly, foreign studies also have found pay premiums for their government employees, suggesting government's weaker budget constraints allow public sector pay to rise above market levels.

Using the Census Bureau's 2009 Current Population Survey, the authors calculated an average federal pay premium of 12 percent over comparable private workers. Other studies tackle the issue from different angles, such as following the same workers over several years. Economists have demonstrated that private workers who switch to federal employment enjoy a substantial boost in wages.

In addition, feds quit their jobs at much lower rates than private sector workers, implying that civil service positions offer better compensation, job security and benefits. These retention rates persist even with the federal retirement program's shift away from a defined benefit pension structure, which was believed to account for low quit rates.

Why is this research so inconsistent with claims that federal workers are underpaid? Because economists compare similar workers, while OPM looks at similar jobs. This seemingly minor distinction between personnel and positions actually is important.

To estimate pay gaps, OPM surveys nonfederal positions, assigning each job a grade level based on its description and level of responsibility. A partner in a law firm might be classified as a GS-13, for example, while a junior clerical worker might be a GS-8. Compared to private jobs at the same assigned grade level, federal jobs seem to pay less.

One problem with this method is subjectivity: How can we be sure a particular private sector job is equivalent to a GS-9 rather than, say, a GS-8? And even if two jobs' responsibilities seem similar, how do we account for differences in job security, benefits, flexibility and myriad other factors that affect salary demands?

And there is a larger problem. According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal workers tend to be less educated and experienced than private workers at the same occupational level because the government hires people at higher grades and promotes them faster. A senior accountant at a federal agency, for example, might qualify only as a junior accountant in the private sector. This is why federal jobs seem to pay less, even while federal workers are paid more.

The federal pay system requires fundamental reform, starting with objective analysis from independent economists. Excessive salaries might be only a small part of the government's budgetary shortfall, but their existence implies government is not serious about fiscal belt-tightening.

Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jason Richwine is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

As Mentioned Yesterday - Electric-vehicle chargers arrive at Nashville hotel

Federal grant money will pay for 2,500 devices in TN, most in homes

ECOtality unveiled its first public electric-vehicle charging station Monday at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. The California company, a partner with Nissan, plans to have about 2,500 charges installed in Tennessee by year-end, most in the residences of people who have bought the Nissan Leaf or other qualifying vehicles.

Nissan’s electric-vehicle-charging partner unveiled a charging station in Nashville on Monday at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, the first of a network of public chargers the company intends to have in place in Tennessee by the end of the year.

California-based ECOtality Inc. has a contract to install residential, commercial and public chargers in six states under the federally funded EV Project, which uses grant money to pay for the manufacture and installation of the devices.

By year’s end, ECOtality will have about 2,500 chargers installed in Tennessee, although most will be at the residences of people who have bought qualifying electric vehicles such as the new Nissan Leaf, the company said. The grant will pay for the chargers, which cost up to $2,000 each for a residential installation.

The Loews site has four chargers in the hotel parking garage in spaces marked for “Electric Vehicles Only,” and since they were turned on late last week, “We’ve already had two Leafs come in to recharge,” said Loews manager Tom Negri.

While there is no cost to use the Loews chargers, the garage’s parking rates run as high as $4 per half hour, so the chargers are most likely to be used by electric-vehicle drivers who are guests of the hotel, ECOtality officials said. Some local rental-car companies have placed orders for the Leaf, and it’s expected that some renters would be out-of-town visitors who would stay at hotels that have chargers available, said Stephanie Cox, ECOtality’s area manager for Tennessee.

Depending on the state of charge in a car such as the Leaf, the vehicle could be recharged at one of the company’s BLINK public chargers in one to three hours, she said. The company also will install fast chargers along the interstates connecting Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga to accommodate travelers. Those can top off a Leaf battery pack in a little more than a half-hour.

Lebanon-based Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores has agreed to install the fast chargers at some of its interstate highway locations, and others will be positioned at places such as fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, ECOtality said.

The slower chargers will be installed at “restaurants, malls and shopping centers — places where people might stay for up to three hours,” Cox said.

But most charging will be done overnight at home by owners of the Leaf, the new Chevrolet Volt and other electric cars, ECOtality said. The company already has installed about 1,200 home chargers in the areas where the Leaf is on sale. Besides Tennessee, that includes California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas and the District of Columbia.

Ease 'range anxiety'

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides most of the electricity in Tennessee, can handle charging “millions of cars” in the overnight, off-peak hours without affecting reliability, said James Ellis, senior manager of transportation and infrastructure for the federal utility.

The public chargers, which are expected to be used mostly during the day, will “help relieve range anxiety” felt by electric-vehicle operators, he said.

The Leaf can go up to about 100 miles on a full charge, but when its batteries run down, it must be connected to an external charger, unlike the Chevrolet Volt, whose small gasoline engine onboard can recharge its batteries.

Operating a car such as the Leaf costs about 3 cents a mile under TVA’s current power rates, Ellis said.

Besides qualifying for free home chargers, early Leaf buyers can get up to $10,000 in federal and state tax rebates toward the car, which begins in the low $30,000s. The federal credit is $7,500, and there is a $2,500 Tennessee credit for the first 1,000 electric-vehicle buyers.

Contact G. Chambers Williams III at 615-259-8076 or

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thorium Challenges Nuclear Norm

TVA's Watts Bar nuclear plant runs on conventional solid radioactive fuel. Advocates for thorium molten salt reactors say their core cannot melt down, and is designed to shut down automatically in an emergency.

This article was in the Tennessean Opionion section. I've seen this claim before. Just posting it for your pondering on our energy issues. Note also that some hotels in Nashville are installing chargers for electric cars. Bet you never thought about that did you local gas stations? - CPD

Molten salt reactors safer, cleaner, cheaper

11:03 PM, Jun. 13, 2011

Written by
Robert Orr Jr.
Filed Under Opinion
Opinion Tennessee Voices

In her article in the May 8 Tennessean, “Advocates Want Reactors to Use Alternative Fuel,” Anne Paine quotes Paul Genoa, director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute: “There’s a huge investment and infrastructure in this country that goes back 50 years. You don’t just walk away from that and try the shiny new toy, even if the shiny new toy might work better.”

The “shiny new toy” is the thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR).

Mr Genoa’s use of the words, “might work better,” is misleading. In the 1950s, while Adm. Hyman Rickover was building his solid fuel uranium reactor that would power the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, scientists at Oak Ridge were designing a strategic bomber powered by a tiny, 3-foot-diameter molten salt reactor. The atomic bomber never flew, but the research was a complete success.

Research on molten salt technology continued until 1969 when it was, basically, put on the shelf, where it remains. The reasons had nothing to do with the brilliance of the reactor design, which performed flawlessly for 17,000 hours.

Indeed, if TMSR technology had been chosen in the 1950s as the path to the future, there is no chance that today there would be a groundswell of people like me and many others advocating a change to solid fuel reactors. The thorium community recognizes that the continuing disaster at Fukushima, Japan, is the wake-up call for a change in technology going forward, and we believe that it should be TMSR technology. As director of policy development for the NEI, Mr. Genoa should welcome, rather than pooh-pooh, a frank discussion of our ideas.

Let me count the ways TMSR is superior to current solid fuel reactors:

1. Molten salt reactors burn thorium, an element three to four times more abundant than uranium. America has already enough to power the country for centuries. Only 10 percent of the uranium we use is mined in this country.

2. Only a tiny fraction of uranium produces power, so it must be enriched, which is very expensive, while 100 percent of thorium is usable without enrichment.

3. TMSR fuel is a mixture of nuclear fuel and very hot molten fluoride salts, a liquid like water. TMSR cannot melt down, because it already operates in a molten state.

4. TMSR operates practically at living-room pressure. Solid-fuel reactors operate at thousands of pounds of pressure, hence their huge, expensive containment structures.

5. TMSR is “walk-away” safe. If anything goes wrong, even with no power or personnel, it will shut itself down automatically.

No disposal problem

6. All current solid-fuel reactors have to be shut down periodically to refuel after only 4 percent of their fuel energy has been used. TMSR is over 99 percent efficient and can be refueled while it is making electricity. Its long-term waste is measured in pounds, not tons, and is harmless in about 300 years, not 300 centuries.

7. The 96 percent of the fuel that current reactors do not burn ends up as very toxic radioactive waste with its vexing disposal problem. That waste can be burned in the molten salt reactor, as can plutonium from decommissioned weapons.

8. TMSRs are small, modular and can be manufactured on an assembly line, loaded on trucks, taken where they are needed and practically plugged in.

9. TMSR does not contribute to proliferation, and terrorists won’t care.

10. TMSR emits no greenhouse gases or other environmental pollutants.

I was privileged to address the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in Washington May 13. I praised Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander’s “Blue Print for 100 New Nuclear Reactors in 20 Years,” but I lamented that he calls for more solid-fuel reactors. Mr Genoa should join with Sen. Alexander, TVA and the thorium community to take a close look at the “shiny new toy” that is TMSR. It satisfies every wish in the senator’s blueprint better than any other technology in existence.

In his plan, Sen. Alexander asks rhetorically, “Isn’t it time we got back in the game?” The Chinese have already answered that question for themselves. Their answer is TMSR. What will ours be?

Robert Orr Jr. of Franklin is an attorney who advocates for the development of thorium as a source of fuel.