Sunday, August 21, 2011

Stop Reading Chain Letters, Seriously, Come On

So this has been making the rounds on Facebook lately. You may have seen it yourself; I've been hit from several sides by it:

Salary of retired US Presidents ………….$180,000 FOR LIFE
Salary of House/Senate …………………..$174,000 FOR LIFE
Salary of Speaker of the House …………$223,500 FOR LIFE
Salary of Majority/Minority Leaders …… $193,400 FOR LIFE
...Average Salary of a teacher ……………. $40,065
Average Salary of Soldier DEPLOYED IN AFGHANISTAN $38,000
I think we found where the cuts should be made! If you agree… Copy and RE-POST

The sentiment expressed by this... what do we use to describe it? Chain post?... is pretty obvious: if we're going to be making budget cuts, "I think we found where the cuts should be made".

Only one problem: are those facts and figures actually accurate? We need to figure that out before we get out the torches and-- oh, screw it, you lit the torches long ago. Well, it'd be a nice thing to know regardless. We wouldn't want to have our facts wrong and look stupid, would we?

There are two main things we have to cover: first, are these salary figures accurate and where did they come from. Second, we need to settle the 'FOR LIFE' side of the equation. This, it can only be assumed, refers to the pension that those officeholders receive upon leaving their respective bodies. We need to find out if they actually get a pension equal to their active-duty salary; and if not, what the pension actually is.

First, we'll handle the President. A current President's salary, most recently revised in the administration of Bush 43, is $400,000 per year, up from $200,000 previously. He also gets a $50,000 non-taxable stipend. But current Presidents aren't on the list. We want retired Presidents. While $180,000 is a commonly-given answer, their pay- their pension- is actually not a fixed amount. It is indexed to match the salary of current Cabinet members. That salary, along with many others in the highest levels of the executive branch, is part of something called "Executive Schedule". Executive Schedule covers top-ranked Presidential appointees, sorting their salaries into five levels, given Roman numerals I-V. I is highest. Everyone at a given level gets the same salary.

Everyone in the Cabinet sits at Level I. Which means, by extension, retired Presidents also get Level I pay. The salary there, currently, is $199,700. That's actually MORE than the angry chain-post claims by $19,700.

Just for fun:

*Also at Level I are the Director of National Intelligence, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, and the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

*Level II salary is $179,700. Sitting here, among others, are the Joint Chiefs of Staff and deputy secretaries.

*Level III pay is $165,300. Undersecretaries sit here. Yes, that is a different thing from deputy secretaries. Also sitting here, among others, are the Solicitor General, the directors of the FBI, DEA, Peace Corps, Office of Government Ethics, and Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and chairmen for the FCC, FTC, SEC, FDIC, OSHA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

*Level IV gets $155,500. Assistant Secretaries go here- yes, that's another level- along with various Inspector Generals. Also here are the heads of the Bureau of the Census, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Office of Science, Food and Drug Administration, Bureau of Prisons, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

*Level V gets $145,700. Among the people here are the Archivist of the United States, and heads of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Bureau of Mines, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

The other governmental figures, the members of Congress, match the figures shown here, at least, while they're actively in office. That isn't in dispute. However, the pension is not full. Nor is it immediate, or even automatic. In order to get any Congressional pension at all, members of Congress must first earn it by having served a bare minimum of five years in civil federal service. So if you serve two terms in the House and then lose out on a third term, you're out of luck unless you find some other governmental position in which to get that other year.

There are other restrictions as well. In Congress, you are not eligible for a pension until your 50th birthday, and even to get it then, you have to have served for 20 years or be part of nine Congresses. Other than that, generally speaking, you qualify either on your 62nd birthday, or upon having served for 25 years.

Your pension is figured combining your years of service with the average of the three years in which you earned the highest salary, along with factoring in (PDF file) which of two federal retirement plans you have. (They introduced a new system in 1987, the Federal Employees' Retirement System (FERS) and employees who started prior to 1984 were given the option of which plan they preferred, FERS or their current one, the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).) However, your pension is not indexed, like former Presidents, and your initial pension amount cannot exceed 80% of your final salary. CSRS sees you max out after your 32nd year. There is no maximum under FERS, but we'll calculate at 32 years there as well for comparative purposes.

Congress currently gets an annual pay raise unless Congress votes it down. This is a different pay structure than the retired President. At no point in time do Congressional salaries and pensions of retired Presidents meet up in the way they do in the chain-post. The poster had to have gotten them from two different sources that were working on two different timeframes.

The older pension plan, CSRS, is figured as such:

High 3-year average X years of service X .025 = Annual pension

The newer plan, FERS, is figured as such:

[High 3-year average X .017 x years of service up to 20] + [High 3-year average X .01 x years of service past 20] = Annual pension

In 2006, the most recent year available, the average CSRS recipient was getting $60,972 annually. 290 people had retired under CSRS The average FERS recipient, of which there were 123, was getting $35,952 annually; this is the average newly-incoming members of Congress should look at. Individual figures are not given.

Let us assume, for theoretical purposes, the 32-year scenario for all, with three-year averages all locked at current levels:

House/Senate: $174,000
Speaker of the House: $223,500
Majority/Minority Leaders: $193,400

This means that, under CSRS, they would each get in annual pension:

House/Senate: $174,000 x 32 x .025 = $139,200 annual pension
Speaker of the House: $223,500 x 32 x .025 = $178,800 annual pension
Majority/Minority Leaders: $193,400 x 32 x .025 = $154,720 annual pension

And under FERS, there is no maximum, but it would take 66 years in Congress- which has never been done- to achieve 80%. After 32 years, it works out to 46% of that same salary:

House/Senate: [$174,000 x .017 x 20 = $59,160] + [$174,000 x .01 x 12 = $20,880] = $80,040 annual pension
Speaker of the House: [$223,500 x .017 x 20 = $75,990] + [$223,500 x .01 x 12 = $26,820] = $102,810 annual pension
Majority/Minority Leaders: [$193,400 x .017 x 20 = $65,756] + [$193,400 x .01 x 12 = $23,208] = $88,964 annual pension

Remember, those are theoretical, perfect, absolute-maximum pensions that someone could get, today, by leaving Congress. Not only is it nowhere close to the claimed amount in the chain-post, even in a perfect scenario, but the newer plan, FERS, which newly-elected members are placed into, gives them LESS money, significantly less, than the plan that the older members get. So the chain-post is way off here.

Next, we have the teachers. Their average is pegged at $40,065, but this number appears dubious. This number is overwhelmingly seen only in repostings. The most relevant things I could find that uses $40,065 as an average are here, the Elk River Public School District in Minnesota, where $40,065 is the median male income; here, Upper Little Caillou Elementary in Chauvin, Louisiana, where $40,065 is the average faculty salary in 2006-07; and here, Blanket High School in Blanket, Texas, where $40,065 is the average base salary for Blanket High's entire district. Frankly, these appear to be nothing more than lucky shots, because there are so many numbers thrown around in so many districts in so many categories that any given dollar amount is bound to match something somewhere. I shifted the average one dollar lower, to $40,064, and came up with schools in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and New Albany, Indiana. One dollar higher, $40,066, matches the average base salary for a district in Amarillo, Texas.

Blind luck.

As it happens, it's pretty hard to get a blanket figure for "teacher" if you're not really paying attention. When you look for it, you'll find they're usually parsed out by state, by experience, or by type of teacher, and while $40,065 never shows up, the numbers work out to where that comes pretty close to an average of some sort. (Although most of the groups show that $40,065 would skew a few thousand dollars low of average.) It may have been that someone took all the salaries in one of the lower-paying groups shown, smashed them together as a mean average with total disregard as to weighting, and used the result in the chain-post. However, it's almost impossible to tell what group they used.

The first Google result for 'average salary' takes us to, and the most popular search there is for teacher salaries. An average person needing to smash an average together would most likely go here to do it.

Smashing a mean average together from the 10 categories shown produces $43,934.20, a little less than $4,000 short of the given average. So that's not what the originator did, not precisely. But it is close enough to imagine that this was done somewhere or other. Just not at

An actual average, however, is available via the National Education Association. (PDF file.) The average for all classroom teachers was estimated, for 2010-11, to be $56,069, up from $55,202 the previous year. The chain-post's number now looks fairly wildly off.

As for a soldier in Afghanistan, $38,000 matches the number given in the fourth Google result for "average annual salary troop afghanistan", something on Yahoo Answers talking about one specific rank in one specific branch- a tech sergeant in the Air Force.

The Army base pay scale is shown here; the equivalent rank is staff sergeant. $38,000 is higher than any of the figures listed; the highest is $34,088 for a staff sergeant serving for over 6 years. (Privates are started at $17,611 for the first four months.) However, that is only base pay.

An average is even more problematic to track down than that for teachers, because of the sheer number of variables and bonuses that get in the way of producing that nice, clean single average. I was never able to get that straightforward average. The three most relevant are hardship pay ($225 a month, or $2,700 a year), combat pay ($150 a month in Afghanistan, meaning $1,800 a year), and family separation allowances ($250 a month, or $3,000 a year). Combined, that's $7,500 tacked onto your base pay right there if you have any dependents, or $4,500 if you don't. There is also food allowance, clothing allowance, hazardous duty pay, and various other factors.

There is one more, fairly major oversight made by the chain-post: when in a combat zone, a soldier's pay becomes tax-exempt. That provides a substantial boost to someone's salary. It's not going to get anyone swimming in champagne, not by a longshot, but it's nothing to sneeze at either.

Suffice to say, on what has been supplied, $38,000 is certainly one possible number, but a more responsible thing to do is give a range, and while it's a rough, broad estimate, an average soldier in Afghanistan could probably expect between $30,000 and $60,000, somewhere between 'pretty bad' to 'actually fairly decent'. Were I to venture a guess of my own, I'd settle on something around $50,000, give or take. But don't take that as gospel.

So where does this all leave us? Let's revisit the chain-post:

Salary of retired US Presidents ………….$180,000 FOR LIFE
Salary of House/Senate …………………..$174,000 FOR LIFE
Salary of Speaker of the House …………$223,500 FOR LIFE
Salary of Majority/Minority Leaders …… $193,400 FOR LIFE
...Average Salary of a teacher ……………. $40,065
Average Salary of Soldier DEPLOYED IN AFGHANISTAN $38,000

And now, let's revise it to reflect the actual numbers we've found.

Salary of retired US Presidents ………….$199,700 (and rising) FOR LIFE
Salary of House/Senate …………………..$174,000, then $35,952 FOR LIFE
Salary of Speaker of the House …………$223,500
Salary of Majority/Minority Leaders …… $193,400
...Average Salary of a teacher ……………. $56,069
Average Salary of Soldier DEPLOYED IN AFGHANISTAN depends on A LOT OF THINGS but is probably between $30,000-60,000, TAX-FREE

The sentiment of the chain-post- that elected officials make much more in comparison to teachers and soldiers- is accurate. However, the exact numbers are almost completely wrong, mostly in a direction that makes the differences more stark than in reality, and the Congressional pension numbers are ridiculously off. And the tax-exempt status of the soldier in Afghanistan gives a big boost to their entire pay structure.

This chain-post is an example of the phrase 'garbage in, garbage out'. It looks to have been put together very lazily, with bad and very possibly outmoded data. Someone probably got angry, had general, predetermined ideas of what the numbers were going to be, threw together the first numbers they could come up with that looked right, and made a post out of it. As such, the numbers only have the most threadbare of resemblances to reality.

To borrow Politifact's rating scale, I rate this chain-post Mostly False.


Anonymous said...

I have a headache.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with the headache.

Ryan Shaughnessy said...

Woohoo, I read it; I read it all...5:11am, I had to do it for the OP putting in so much time to vet this BS; thanx
-Ryan S, MN