You get what you pay for

Henry Kissinger’s resignation from the 9-11 panel, occasioned by the demand that he reveal his list of consulting clients, will be mourned only by William Safire and others who would prefer not to know what went wrong, plus the Saudis and their friends, who will have to hope that the Bush Administration can find another chairman who will agree in advance not to mention the elephant in the living room. (Now’s the time to pound the drum hard for Warren Rudman.)

George Mitchell’s declination of the job of vice-chair — or at least the reason for that declination — is a different story. I don’t know enough about either Mitchell or Lee Hamilton to know whether the trade is a net loss or a net gain. But Mitchell’s stated reason — that he couldn’t afford to give up his legal practice for the term of the inquiry — ought to give us pause.

It’s part of the cost of what might be called the Cincinnatus Fallacy: the belief that public service is better performed when it is undertaken at private sacrifice. It explains why a Supreme Court Jusice is paid less than a fourth-year associate at any good law firm. It explains why the Secretary of Defense is paid less than anyone in the executive ranks of any of the major defense contractors. It explains why Wendy Gramm was paid more for attending an occasional board meeting at Enron than her husband was paid for his more-than-full-time work as a U.S. Senator. And, further down the scale, it explains why the best of my master’s students, the ones who win Presidential Management Internships, are expected to go to work for $33,254 a year, or something less than half the median salary for a new MBA.

Sometimes Cincinnatus is available: someone, that is, willing to do the public’s business at a loss, and then go back to his private plow without seeking o cash in. [Sometimes that’s someone simply too rich to care about the loss, which of course reinforces the class bias in the distribution of political power.] But sometimes he (or she) isn’t, and then we get one of two things: someone willing to work cheap because “cheap” is better than his next-best alternative, and is therefore not likely to be very competent, or someone who has figured out a way to use a spell of “public service” to enhance his private marketability, and is therefore not likely to be very devoted to the public interest even when nominally doing the public’s business.

When a major corporation wants to get its internal workings looked into by someone distinguished, it pays a market rate. Why can’t the Feds do the same? They do, sometimes, when hiring outside legal counsel. Kenneth Starr and his assistants weren’t expected to work at General Schedule wages, nor were the other special prosecutors. Why does the 9-11 inquiry deserve less?

And, in the long run, shouldn’t we stop being so penny-wise about the wages of the people who do the actual work? And, while we’re at it, could we stop passing out the casual insults aimed at civil servants that are so characteristic of American political discourse, especially though not entirely on the right? A number of people have noticed that the switch from private contractors to federal employees has substantially improved the courtesy and efficiency of airport screening, but no one seems willing to draw the obvious moral.

Right now, we’re getting, at the Federal level, substantially better than we pay for. But if we persist in underpaying and insulting the people who work for us, we may succeed in recruiting and retaining a group of civil servants who deserve low salaries and contempt. And that will cost us plenty.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: