On public employees: some Greece with your Thanksgiving turkey

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Turkey with superimposed Greek flag

Are we turning into Greece on this Turkey Day? Discuss. Nicely.

In the previous post addressing an initiative that will come up next June, I’ve had the following exchange with friend-of-the-site FFFF’s Tony Bushala.  For some reason, it set me off enough to let it suck up an hour of my holiday morning.  Here goes:

Greg: The notion that California is “America’s Greece” caught my eye.

What makes Greece “Greece” today? Many cite overly favorable benefits packages. But, if I understand it correctly, that has included retiring at 50. By that standard, California is not Greece. Many of us here will be lucky to retire at 70 — if at all.

Another thing that makes Greece “Greece” is an atrocious record of collecting taxes due from its wealthy. Is California Greece in that respect? I’m eager to have that conversation. Of course, exempting the wealthy from taxation can have the same effect as their evasion of taxes — and I’m even more eager to have that conversation.

Tony: Um, most public sector employees can retire at 50 (cops/fire) 55 (non-public safety).

So while you’re toiling away ’til 70 and beyond be sure to thank your gov’t bureaucrat neighbor who’s been pulling down a hefty pension for 15 years and maybe even got second income going back to his old job, doing exactly the same thing.

Except for the grape leaves and the ouzo the system strikes me as very Greek-like, dysfunction-wise.

It’s a holiday weekend, so I think that a  meaty conversation is appropriate.  I started to write my response to Tony there, but in the process of baking it it heated up and exploded.  So I’m moving it to a larger container.  (“You,” as written below, refers to Tony — but, my guess is, not solely to Tony.)  I’ll publish it in a nice Thanksgiving brown.

Yes, as I understand it, being able to retire early has often been a perquisite of public service.  And, as I’m sure you know, it is conservatives (which I realize you’re not precisely or prototypically)  that have often pushed the “buyouts” to get rid of more expensive, longer-tenured employees so as to replace them with cheaper fuzzy-cheeked sorts.  The questions are:

(1) are the jobs public employees do ones that need to be done?

(2) is paying less for those jobs likely to affect the quality of who does them?

(3) is reduced pay a false economy, by making bribes and such more likely?

Reasonable people can disagree about these things.  I tend to answer them “yes,” you tend to answer them “no,” but I’ll bet that we have this common ground: the right answers vary widely across people and positions — and the likelihood of a “yes” answer increases with their salary and power.

I applaud your holding the police in Fullerton accountable for their actions.  At the same time, I can see the differences between cops who are smart and wise and who really deserve their money and those who are in the profession because they want to be able to drive fast and make people cower.  I’m willing to see us pay a bit more for the kind of people that I’m less disturbed about having guns, pepper spray, billy clubs, and the ability to use them with relative impunity.

Two things that I hate, as a “good government” liberal, are self-serving pols and sinecures for their lackeys and associates.  To the extent that your fire is trained on them, we’ll tend to agree.

The City of Bell example drives me into a frenzy not simply because of the literal or de facto cynical embezzlement of funds from a community that could not afford it but because — like the cops that beat Kelly Thomas to death — it tars a group that can and does usually do much better.  (Anytime a public servant is highly placed enough to set their own salary and benefits, my antennae go up.)

The notion that people can make substantial incomes on the public dime for doing very little also disgusts me — and insults the many people who truly do serve the public very well in such positions (who, in my experience, tend to resent the power and wealth of these “entourage” hires more than even you and I do.)  But how can we address this problem fairly other than on a case by case basis?  This is exactly where, in my view, a broad brush is not appropriate — and that broad brush is what I often see from libertarian critics of government.

One problem that I have — and I’ve been meaning to write about this, so maybe this long comment is a goad to doing so — is that charges of corruption seem to get thrown around in Orange County politics like confetti.  I’m sure that it’s out there — the record shows that it’s out there — but the charge often seems to becomes a first resort rather than something to be treated with appropriate gravity.  Criticism becomes an appeal to prejudice rather than to actual evidence.  We see so many charges of public wrongdoing on the blogs that they dilute ones built on actual indicators of wrongdoing.  (Sometimes I wonder if this is the point for some people: to elicit “corruption fatigue” so that people stop paying attention.)

I know that what you’ve presented above was just tossed off, but what bothers me is that it lumps many people who appear to me to be hard-working and effective public employees — because, yes, we do need social services and we do need enforcement of laws and regs that serve the public good — in with the relative few for whom public service is a scam.

The teachers that I’ve met in Brea seem creative and excellent.  The cops that I’ve met in Irvine seem exemplary and trustworthy.  The social services people I’ve met who work in Santa Ana seem competent and dedicated — and the problems with their performance seem largely to stem from understaffing, a false economy that can turn competent employees into Lucy and Ethel wrapping chocolates on the assembly line.  You want tp see an employee look clueless?  Cut staff enough to double their workload.

In Singapore, longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew Lee believed that government ministers should be well paid, the equivalent of a million dollars per year, in order to maintain a clean and honest government. In 1994, he proposed to link the salaries of ministers, judges, and top civil servants to the salaries of top professionals in the private sector, arguing that this would help recruit and retain talent to serve in the public sector.  This is not an absurd position; Singapore has prospered.

The problem is that some potential public employees slaver after that salary — and some critics see nothing but that salary.  The point is: pay enough so that good people feel that they have a stake in doing their jobs right to keep those good jobs and monitor them well enough to that they realize that they truly do have to perform so as not to be weeded out.

More than liberal or conservative, socialist or libertarian, Americans are pragmatic.  We want government that works; we resent sucking from the commonweal by public employees — and by private contractors too.
The actual disconnect is not so much between people who do or don’t tolerate a little polite corruption but between those who do and don’t want effective government regulation and services.  Some people critics a crippled and ineffective government, the better to evade its rules and keep the population docile and desperate.  Other just hate cynical self-serving and corruption.  As a good-government liberal, I can happily work with the latter.  The former exhibit a cynicism towards governance that I find no more tolerable from them than from the objects of their criticism.

If I had a wish to make for the Orange County political blogosphere, it is that those of us in the latter camp, from either ideology, recognize and support each other.  “Get rich quick — and unfairly — at the public expense” is unacceptable from either private or public actors.  But so is leaving undone what must be done.

If it’s not too much to ask, I hope that, given the extra time people have to think and write this weekend, we might be able to get past the usual name-calling and focus on a thoughtful conversation.  Notice that this paragraph is not written in brown: it’s addressed not to Tony alone, but to everyone.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)