February 27, 2009

Below their pay grade

Salaries for public servants should be raised to draw the best and the brightest

When I woke up Monday to find that my apartment’s hot water was out—dashing any hopes I had for starting the week out on the right foot, or, at the very least, showered—I decided to take a snow day and plant myself on the couch for a few hours of mindless television. Flipping through the cable news channels, I was treated to a chorus of “Roland Burris must resign” segments, all with the same embarrassing shots of our doddering, feeble excuse for a senator stumbling to explain how trying, but failing, to pay-to-play is somehow more noble than trying and succeeding. (The fact that Burris couldn’t scrounge up even a few bucks to throw in Blagojevich’s direction is an even more depressing indictment of his ineptitude.)

Seeking solace from the general insanity in Washington, I turned to ESPN in hopes of catching a baseball preview, or, at least, a competitive eating contest that my roommates and I could bet on. Instead, two now-unemployed sportswriters were yelling at one another about a recent controversy at the University of Connecticut, where a reporter pressed men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun about the appropriateness of his $1.6 million salary—the highest of any state employee—in light of the recent economic turmoil.

As one of the talking heads on ESPN pointed out, the question was a bit unfair—Calhoun’s basketball program, which is consistently among the most successful in the nation, brings in tens of millions of dollars for UConn each year, and his salary is in line with that of other top-tier coaches across the country. The outrage aimed toward Calhoun (and the resentment towards his indignant response) seems rooted in a widespread but ultimately flawed sentiment. In general, the taxpayers who pay government employees’ salaries believe that it would be in some way indecent for the salary of a government employee—whether it be a basketball coach, legislator, or regular bureaucrat—to vastly exceed their own.

Unfortunately, as the Burris and Blagojevich scandals prove, we’re getting what we pay for. At one time, the allure of public service may have been enough to attract the best and brightest to government jobs. But the disparity between compensation for leaders of private industry and those who instead choose to serve their country has become so dramatic that one has to question whether a rational person would go into government.

Consider, for example, the financial experts who could best formulate the solutions to the crisis: as the president of a large national bank, a CEO could expect to take home a salary of around $5 million before bonuses, stock options, and access to private jets. By contrast, Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, tasked with the entirety of the country’s financial system, will earn a mere $191,300. In other words, the country’s leading financial expert won’t make enough money next year to be one of the wealthy people President Obama wants to raise taxes on. (Obama himself makes $471,000 a year, which is less than one of Calhoun’s players will make next year for sitting on the end of the bench for the Charlotte Bobcats, and, adjusted for inflation, is about a third of William Howard Taft’s salary in 1909.)

It would be easy to dismiss such examples as extreme. But take, for example, a kid from Indiana who might be weighing enlisting in the army (salary: $29,960) against, say, becoming a telemarketer (salary: $33,521, plus added bonus of not getting shot at). There might be more pride in or satisfaction with serving one’s country, but $3,500 represents an entire year’s worth of car payments or utility bills.

When government service makes so little financial sense, the likelihood of either 1) idiots or 2) idiots susceptible to corruption being drawn to the profession skyrockets. Because their salaries are not enough to ensure their families’ financial security, politicians like Blagojevich oftentimes put their own financial security above the interests of the state. Throughout the wiretapping scandal, nobody dwelled on the reason that the governor of one of the country’s most prosperous states would need to auction off a Senate seat—it was much more fun to try to identify what species of dead animal resided on his head. But $155,600 a year doesn’t approach fair compensation for a job that, done correctly, involves 70-hour weeks, daily commutes across the state, and a high level of intelligence. It’s not difficult to understand that someone who has to fight for the privilege of such a grueling schedule and small salary, especially without being afforded basic job security, might use the means at his disposal to unlawfully send money flowing in the direction of his family.

Uncompetitive salaries also discourage the great minds of the state—leading doctors and lawyers, or even just upper-middle-class parents from the suburbs who know how government affects ordinary people—from enlisting in the bureaucracy or subjecting themselves to the rigors of the campaign trail or political life.

There will always be exceptions to the rule—the selfless and devoted public servants who have carried this country though its darkest hours. But if the American people were truly committed to attracting top-shelf talent to political work—the political equivalents of championship coaches—they would pay government employees at competitive rates.

Justin Sink is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science. He is the editor-in-chief of the Maroon.