Does better pay buy better public servants?
January 26, 1989
Public pay is a populist shibboleth, and critics are probably correct to accuse me of reinforcing it. Certainly my class resentments were showing a little bit in this screed about how best to pay for public employees, but the questions it raises remain valid, if seldom addressed at the policy level. The best policy is to pay for each position enough that good people will be able to live decently, but also to pay them in part in the form of respect and autonomy and decent working conditions. Instead, in Illinois, we get pay being raised to compensate employees for the lack of respect and autonomy and decent working conditions.
The governor was on the radio the other day, talking about running for another term. He sounded reluctant. He's been a lawyer for thirty years, he explained. Most lawyers with that long a tenure in private practice are rich. Little Samantha, now ten years old, will be going to college soon. That's expensive, Thompson lamented, and "I'm not rich."
As is usual with the governor, these remarks lacked a great deal of wisdom. Unusually for Mr. Thompson, they at least had a certain relevance. The papers had been abuzz all that week with renewed arguments about how, and how much, to raise the pay of various public officials. A federal commission had just recommended that salaries paid members of Congress, top White House staffers, and judges be doubled. And in Springfield lawmakers rejected at the last minute attempts to raise pay (in the form of $6,000 stipends) for 131 of 177 members and boost pension benefits for other officials, including the governor.
Merit is a slippery standard for public service. I believe that some judges and lawmakers and department heads should indeed get raises; most however, ought to be sued for taking money under false pretenses. The problem is that my lists of the damned and the deserving are likely to differ from yours, as yours would from your neighbors—even though we might all cite the same reasons in defense of our choices.
Lacking any system to compensate public servants on a case-by-case basis, reformers opted years ago for a generic remedy: Better pay, they argued, will draw better people in general to public service. The plan proposed in effect to make government work for the larger public by paying bigger bribes to lawmakers, through higher pay, than the special interests do.
Has it worked? Higher pay has attracted more honest people, that's for sure. At the statehouse it's getting hard to tell the legislators apart from the Boy Scouts there for the tour. The problem is that state government hasn't gotten a bit better as a result. Honesty is a quality much over-valued in a politician. (Cowardice, both moral and political, is a more pernicious and a more common trait than crookedness.)
Indeed, judged by the standards of the society as a whole, our upper-level public servants are already rich. Federal district judges make $89,500 a year, for example; Illinois governors more than $93,000; university presidents, unbelievably, more than $100,000. These are breathtaking sums, yet Mr. Thompson is far from alone in describing the life such salaries buy as penury. In New York City, a U.S. district judge complained to the Times, "You've got to really worry: Can you buy a new pair of shoes?" I did not see any barefoot judges on my last trip to that city, although I saw lots of begging children. No doubt some were panhandling for food money, but I'll bet the brighter among them were collecting toward law school tuition.
The plea for more pay is couched more plausibly in terms of pride rather than need. In 1987 the partners in New York City's top- grossing law firms took home—I cannot bring myself to use the word "earned"—an average of $739,000 each. Local prosecutors have confessed to feeling "sort of embarrassed" as they stand across the aisle from defense lawyers who make ten times more money. I would be embarrassed to be seen in the same room with those guys, too—somebody might think we came in together—but I take these these lawyers for the people to mean that their colleagues (if not the world) must think them fools for working so cheap.
I can remember when being paid a lot of money was suspect, not praiseworthy. Certain of us believed with Balzac that money without honor is a disease (unlike honor without money, which is a sentence). Money, we insisted, is not the only or even the best measure of a life. Law, medicine, Wall Street, and big business are a few of the realms whose denizens do not agree, which is why the private sector offers an inappropriate standard for public salaries.
For one thing, public service provides rewards beyond money. Those demeaned prosecutors do not have to go home at night, as their courtroom opposites do, and tell their kids that they spent the day playing toilet paper to the world's assholes. A second New York federal judge (this one apparently well-shod) made that point eloquently to the Times a few weeks ago. The paid advocate, he explained, is obliged for the sake of a client to argue positions he may find personally repugnant. The judge, in contrast, is paid to serve justice, not a client. Tough work, to be sure, if done well. But our judge insisted that being a judge was the best job in the world for a lawyer.
Almost as good, we might assume, as being a governor. Does Mr. Thompson believe that he, as a LaSalle Street lawyer, would be toasted in China or consulted by presidents? Would Willie Nelson ever have opened his dressing room door to just another pudgy shyster who liked to dress up in cowboy boots on the weekend? Would he have been waited on and catered to? Given a chance to make law instead of just read about it? Of course not. We may assume that these non-pecuniary rewards of office are of value to the governor; often they have seemed to be the only reason he ever sought the post. Alas, he is greedy for both riches and rewards. Some Illinois governors may have honored the example of John Peter Altgeld; Thompson's secret hero would seem to be Ferdinand Marcos.
These days money has meaning only in terms of what it signifies, not what it buys. Ralph Nader has argued against the political dangers we face when public officials make more than four or five times what the average working person makes. They lose touch with economic reality, and so, in time, does the government they run. If the governor thinks it will be hard sending his only kid to college on an income of $93,000 a year, he ought to try doing it on one half that generous, as many thousands of other Illinois families must do. If he did, we might yet see steps toward reducing college costs in this state. Since he won't—the governor not only does not live like most Illinoisans but seems offended by the idea—we will not see those reductions.
Nothing is less becoming to those who have too much than their complaint that they don't have enough. We are a country in which an educated woman can justify $100 haircuts because (as Phyllis Rose explained it in a recent essay) being humiliated by arrogant hairdressers will "keep well-heeled women attuned to the plight of the scorned and the unfortunate"—and the rest of us won't be able to tell if she's joking.
Money is what we value when we have nothing else of value. A while back, an up-and-coming Loop lawyer was shot to death while resisting a holdup on a Chicago el train. Asked to explain what the world had lost by the attack, all that the victim's best friend could think to say was, "He would have been rich." That makes a sad epitaph—for him and us. ●