Private-sector pay in the public sector
January 16, 1986
The most common taxpayer complaint about Illinois public servants in any era is that they are overpaid. Reformers used to reply that better-paid public employees are less prey to the temptations of the bribe. These days they insist that better pay buys better educated public employees. Both claims are accurate, but what’s that to do with better government?
This version tidies up some of the loose ends left in the rush into print.
Tucked into the back pages of the State Journal-Register last week, on the same page as the Pet of the Week and news of a boil order in Pana, there was a brief item about the apparent dismissal of a top aide to the Illinois House leadership. The man is one of the more highly regarded of that legion of aides, analysts, and liaisons who collectively function as Edgar Bergen to the General Assembly's Charlie McCarthys. His departure did not surprise me—in an election year, many politicians have been known to eat their own young.
What did surprise me was that I was not reading about it in the obituary columns. Our hero, it seems, was being paid $69,500 a year. I would have thought that any man who'd just lost nearly seventy grand per plus a parking space would kill himself out of unsupportable grief. Had he been a legislator or member of the state school board, I would have attributed his failure to off himself to plain lack of imagination. Instead, I realized, he chose to go on living because salaries in that astronomical range are not that hard to come by in Springfield these days.
Mike Lawrence, the Lee Newspapers' estimable man in the statehouse, took up the issue of aides' salaries in a column last October. He noted that a dozen top Thompson aides, for instance, were being paid more than $50,000, and that a number of others under the age of thirty are paid anywhere from $37,000 to $45,000. Lawrence implied that there is nothing that a kid under thirty (what he called the "relatively unripened") is likely to know that makes him or her worth $40,000. Apparently there are those in the government who agree; one of Thompson's Wunderkinder was hired to run his Build Illinois program, which prompted someone to remark within hearing of the Chicago Tribune that the bonds will mature before the director does.
In a world which does not blanch at paying a Ph.D. in education $97,800 a year plus benefits (as the present state school superintendent is paid), salaries paid to state department heads and legislative liaisons and research staffs and top policy analysts and the like may seem modest enough. Lawrence is hardly the first statehouse journalist to raise an eyebrow at pay patterns; a few years ago the State Journal-Register's Al Manning similarly questioned their propriety, but that before he began making his living at the Illinois attorney general's office as a press secretary making nearly $43,000 per year.
The governor, school board members, and others responsible for setting executive and academic pay standards profess themselves helpless victims of market pressures. Their argument goes like this: 1) Government needs talented men and women; 2) the private sector does too, therefore; 3) public salaries must be kept roughly on a par with pace-setting private sector salaries in order to get and keep good people in public service.
Like most axioms about government, this one is plausible without being quite accurate. The private sector is not very well run either, which suggests that pay and proficiency are not dependably linked. More to the point, The argument over appropriate salaries for public employees has suffered because most such jobs have no clear counterpart in the private sector which might offer a standard.
It is true that "better money = better people" approach has stripped Illinois government of most of those colorful corruptions which so offend the middle class, with the result that polite Springfield today feels only slight compunction about inviting legislators or lobbyists to their homes. Alas, better money has not bought that much better government. Bringing the middle class into government has not made government better, only more middle class. And it has done so at some sacrifice of efficiency. The bosses ran the show in the old days, true, but at least the show got run, which has not been true during the last twenty years or so of governmental near-paralysis, drift, and vacillation.
Still more to the point is the fact that the rewards of public service are only partly material. What does a job as a deputy assistant something-or-other mean to a damp-eared college grad? It can't be just the money after all; a really hot young talent wouldn't move to Springfield for a hundred grand. What he does get is worth much, much more. He gets to boss people around, including some who are older than he is. He gets his own business cards. People feel compelled to laugh at his jokes (even if they are making better ones behind his back). He gets to pose as well-informed before a press corps that will take seriously whatever nonsensical things he says. He is listened to, courted, deferred to, seduced. He gets to park close to the door, send memos, see his name on reports he didn't have to write, maybe even ride in helicopters with the governor, all this while his classmates from pre-law days are still learning how to rig old ladies' wills. He is too inexperienced to quite realize that his authority derives entirely from his position and not his person. Pay? He ought to pay the state to have so much fun.
That suggestion, of course, has not been made. When historians search for searching for some summative phrase to label James Thompson—something to match Altgeld's Lone Eagle or even Walker's "the people's governor"—they may settle on The Spoiled Brat. A few years ago the governor, in a celebrated moment of pique, sniffed, 'I'm not a clerk." Indeed he is not. But neither is he the precise equivalent of a chief executive officer of a $12 billion-a-year corporation, as he likes to style himself. For one thing he shares responsibility for running Illinois with coequal bodies such as the General Assembly. For another, if one considers services as well as cash, Thompson's compensation package bulges quite amply.
Lacking any reliable external standard, salaries of top staff are set by internal standards. The governor's own salary used to be a cap on salaries in executive departments, but that benchmark derived from a concern about etiquette more than equity, and he has been passed by dozens of people in recent years. One would have to be pretty cynical to believe that Thompson may have deliberately hiked staff pay in recent years to make his own $58,000-a-year salary look all the more mean by comparison. Well, not that cynical.
Today, if A. gets $50,000, and B. down the hall thinks she works just as hard as A., she wants to know why she can't get $50,000 too. And there's no good argument against giving it to her. Also, in a town, or rather a community, in which everybody important knows how much all the other important people are paid, salary is a measure of clout.
Besides, the guv likes to be liked. Giving a raise is his way of telling someone he's doing a good job. (One of the advantages of being the CEO of a state is the chance it gives you to be generous with money you didn't earn.) Lawrence referred to Thompson staffers as "acolytes," and indeed raises are given much like benefices. Or, to shift metaphors, the governor bestows raises on favored courtiers much the way indulgent monarchs used to give away duchies. (No king, a governor can nevertheless bestow titles, as is evidenced by the number of major departments and commissions now headed by former members of Thompson's personal staff.)
Thompson's bright young things could indeed do better in the private sector. Honesty may be the best policy (I refer here to honesty as a moral category, not a legal one) but the money is better in corporate law or public relations. (Often the fat salaries former aides and administrators command buy their contacts—a genteel form of pimping.) Judging a job by what you can get out of it seems a poor philosophy for public service. A government—and here I do not speak only of Thompson's, which in many respects is better than most—which cannot attract its more able citizens without recourse to extravagant bribes confirms its rottenness.
I am persuaded that the difficulty in attracting those able people has less to do with the rates of pay than with the conditions under which that pay must be earned. One of those conditions is having to live in Springfield, a problem Thompson has eased by making Chicago the capital of his government. Another is political interference, a third is lack of any shared public purpose, a fourth, probably, is parking. Who knows? This is a topic I may take up again in columns to come.
It is nice to dream about a day when people will brag about their early years in Springfield the way they might about their tours of the brothels in Bangkok, or of bar fights they survived in Juneau. Until then, we will have to listen to complaints such as this one, from Paul Simon. Simon, who is a wealthy man by every standard except that of the U.S. Senate, complained to the press not long ago that a bench-warming guard for the Chicago Bulls gets paid more than does he and his colleagues. (I suspect that Simon is bothered less by the difference in pay than by the lack of respect he supposes that difference reflects; the one vice more common among politicians than even greed is vanity.)
I am tempted to make several replies to Mr. Simon's lament. The obvious one was made originally by Babe Ruth who, when asked to justify the fact that he was being paid more than the President of the United States, replied that he'd had a better year than Coolidge had. One may argue whether it is easier to pass bad law than execute a fast break in the NBA—the Gramm-Rudman bill, which Simon voted for, is the legislative equivalent of Thursday night D league basketball—but I do not intend to argue very hard. Instead I will rely on Charles Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, who editorially chided Simon in his November issue. "Senator Simon, there is an intellectual and moral challenge to making this country's laws that I hope, upon reflection, you will realize is considerably more exciting than sitting on the Chicago Bulls bench," Peters scolded. "Man, you're at the center of the arena, you're having fun, you sweat to get your seat, you'll sweat to keep it, cease this self-pity . . . ." ●
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