There is a widespread impression that federal civilian and military employees are underpaid, that their compensation fails the "comparability" test with private industry, and that Ronald Reagan's proposed freeze of their compensation at present levels will cause them to desert the government in droves. The impression is wrong.

Federal salaries may not excite envy among those who regularly dine at Lutece and Lion D'Or, but they would astound the average American if he could penetrate all the bad reporting about "underpaid" federal employees. How many government employees do you think make more than $50,000 a year? A few hundred? A couple of thousand? Over 60,000 is the right answer, which helps explain why the Washington area leads the nation in the proportion of households making over $50,000 a year. Those 60,000 salaries include the pay of executive branch officials and the salaries and allowances of military officers, but not of the secret agencies like the CIA, where generous compensation has been the rule, or the Postal Service, where the average salary of the 600,000 employees is more than $22,000 a year, not counting benefits. There are private businesses where the boss makes less than that.

Do these people really leave the government in droves for higher salaries in private employment? No. The droves are not trying to get out. They're trying to get in. Two years ago, well before the recession became severe, over a million sought work at the Postal Service alone.

Newspapers and magazines continually tell us that government salaries lag behind those in private industry. One story puts the lag at 18 percent, another at 13 percent. What these stories don't tell us is how the government surveys that find such lags are conducted. Among their less confidence-inspiring aspects is that the surveys of private sector pay and the initial recommendation for pay increases are made by government employees themselves, who are, after all, the potential beneficiaries of the results.

The comparison is not made on the basis of comparing, say, what an accountant in government does against what an accountant in private industry does. The survey compares what the government accountant's job description says he does with what the private accountant actually does.

I think literary historians of the future will attribute the decline of the modern American novel to the creative energies absorbed by the preparation of such job descriptions. The smallest federal office will have at least one employee charged with producing prose that gilds lilies sufficiently to ensure his colleagues' steady progress up the fiscal ladder.

"Anybody who has ever worked in a government agency," says a veteran bureaucrat, Leonard Reed, "knows that job descriptions will endow a file clerk with responsibilities before which a graduate of the Harvard Business School quails."

Nor are their job descriptions matched against the entire world of private employment. Far from it. According to the General Accounting Office, the jobs surveyed "contain disproportionate numbers of jobs which were highly paid in the private sector." When a Washington Monthly editor investigated the 1979 survey, he found that only manufacturing and retail firms with more than 250 employees were surveyed, eliminating 96 percent of the manufacturing and 98 percent of the retail firms.

Last, but far from least, also ignored by the comparability survey, is the fact that the average federal employee has much greater job security (even with Reagan RIFs) and a retirement plan so generous that over a hundred thousand of its beneficiaries are now being paid more for not working than they ever were for working. That retirement plan, by the way, also explains why federal employees sometimes appear to be leaving in droves; they're leaving not because of the lure of jobs in the private sector but because federal retirement is so attractive.

Before we cut more programs for the poor, we should not only freeze government salaries; we should consider doing what we did in the early 1930s at another time of economic distress: cut salaries. We can exclude those at the lowest end of the pay scale, as indeed they were excluded in the '30s, offer special inducements to retain those who really can make a lot more on the outside, and give special help to those who have extraordinary financial burdens such as two children in college at the same time.

There are a few government jobs--several hundred executives at the very top, accountants, computer experts, enlisted technicians are examples--for which salaries have not been competitive. But this is the same problem boards of education are having with math and science teachers, and the solution is also the same--pay them more, don't give across- the-board salary increases to everyone else.

In addition to being able to compete for the highly skilled, we should be able to reward those who perform with distinction. The Reagan freeze proposal will in no way diminish our ability to do just that. Government employees can now receive as many as three raises a year: one by promotion; one by what is called a step or "merit" increase, which is usually too automatic to serve its purpose; one by the comparability increase. Only the last will be affected by the freeze.

I'm not against decent salaries. I'm not against employees' asking for all they can get. What I'm against is the kind of humorless self-righteousness with which these demands are being made today and the uncritical way with which they are reported by members of the major media who have similar salary scales and a profound disinclination to view such compensation as anything other than grossly inadequate.

When I worked for the government, we all knew about the fictitious job description. In fact, we had a writer-in-residence in my own office. His name was Victor and he was a master at depicting a GS14 as someone who has "extensive and frequent contact with key officials and top management of the same and other government agencies, state officials, private industry, and other groups in an effort to resolve different viewpoints regarding key matters of management and organization."

We were not above seeking the financial moon, but we didn't get angry when it was denied us. When I joined the government, I asked for $75 a day but grabbed $40 when it was offered a month later. I had found that my work was fascinating and that I liked serving the public a lot better than life on the outside. I think a lot of public servants could feel the same way today.

I don't mean those who have the dull, grinding work, but I do mean those of you who are reading my words at this moment who have the good jobs and know in your hearts you should thank God for them instead of indulging in the kind of self-pity that could some day bring you the same fate it brought the members of PATCO. Some of them were overworked and underpaid, but most were not. And when the public began to realize the truth, their cause was lost--and so were their jobs.