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Does better pay buy better public servants?

Illinois Times

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.

I also addressed this topic here, and the related topic of public workforce quality here and here.


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 New York 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 hat they do. 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 New York 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. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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