Thirty-eight thousand federal employees today, right now, make $50,000 a year.

Later this year more than 9,000 newcomers will be inducted into Uncle Sam's $50,000-plus club.

By 1983 there will be 100,000 "bureaucrats" making over $50,000.

In 1984, the final year of President Reagan's first term, the $50,000 group will number over 140,000. That is roughly the same number of people as in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., or Lincoln, Neb., or in all of Bibb County, Ga.

Because of the strange nature of the system used to set pay for the 1 million white-collar feds, our Ship of State is approaching the point where everybody eventually, from captains to deck hands, could wind up getting the same salary.

The thing is that pay for most feds (which is supposed to be equal to private industry) keeps going up while pay for U.S executives stands still. Each October when rank and file workers get raises, more of them move into the executive ranks. And the executives don't get raises, and some wonder why take the added responsibility when their paychecks don't reflect it.

The problem won't be solved until Congress and the White House (regardless of who occupies it) decide what a government executive is worth, and start paying it. According to the government's own data, people at the very top of the career federal ladder ought now to be receiving $71,734 a year. That is what federal pay experts say is about what those same officials would get if they worked for General Motors, or Kaiser, or American Airlines.

A lot of people, taxpayers, etc., wonder if any bureaucrat is worth $50,112.50 (the actual maximum salary). The government has about 1,500 vacancies at that level. While there is no shortage of applicants, there is, hiring experts say, a definite shortage of qualified people willing to come work for that salary.

At one time nearly all of the nation's best-paid bureaucrats were here, because this is the headquarters town. But as pay compression gets worse, more civil servants in the real world -- beyond the Capital Beltway -- find their wages frozen, while prices and nonfederal salaries practice upward mobility.

The current freeze because President Carter and Congress felt it was unwise and unsound to give top bureaucrats raises in 1978, '79 or '80. Carter had a change of heart, after the election, and recommended that his successor give U.S. executives the 16.8 percent catchup raise they had been denied during his term. Reagan endorsed the idea, then got political-economic jitters and backed off. Last week the House Appropriations Committee voted to extend the "cap" on top federal pay until Sept. 30. It is due to expire next month.

Compression will get worse the longer the cap remains on top federal pay. Whereas 38,000 people are now frozen at the same salary, that number will jump to 140,000 in a couple of years. And the "catchup" raises owed the executive will soon hit the 50 percent mark. That will be an IOU Congress and the public will howl about, for good reason.

There is adequate (some fear more than adequate) machinery now for government to get rid of deadwood at the top. There is no reason that top federal bureaucrats should not be paid what they are worth, and worth what they are paid. The same goes for members of Congress.

Unless the politicians allow some kind of executive pay raise this year, many of the best people will quit or retire. And some of the best people who can't quit (kids in school, mortgages and the desire to eat regularly) will not feel like giving their best. It probably wouldn't take much of a raise -- maybe the 16.8 percent catchup all at once is too much -- to send the executives a message that they are appreciated, and not forgotten Reagan and Congress can run the government with unhappy executives, but it works better the other way.