America's Public Servants Should Not Be Its Masters

More than three decades after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Thomas Jefferson, just short of his 65th birthday, put pen to paper yet again – but this time to reflect on his life’s work in public service in a letter dated 1807 to Count Diodati.  Jefferson writes, “I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service, and of retiring with hands clean as they are empty.”

Jefferson recognized that the purpose of his participation in public service was not to increase his private fortune, but to protect the Constitution of the United States of America to the best of his abilities.  He may have made mistakes throughout his political career, but he could retire with clean and empty hands in the knowledge that he did not misuse his political power and influence to unduly serve his own economic advantage.

Thomas Jefferson, Mount Rushmore

Jefferson wrote this remarkable yet all too often forgotten letter 203 years ago – the meaning of which should not be lost to public servants within contemporary American society.  19 years before his death at the age of 83, the third President of the United States had an appreciation for what many public servants fail to understand today: simply put, America’s public servants should not be its masters.

This past Friday, Mort Zuckerman, editor in chief of US News & World Report and chairman and co-founder of Boston Properties wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times in which he praises the efforts of public servants, such as the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who understand that public service compensation reform is essential to the fiscal health of the Garden State (Full text of The Financial Times article is included below).

Today, America’s public servants should ask themselves whether their life’s work in public service has resulted in “hands clean as they are empty” or whether they have misused their public office to serve their own ends.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

America’s public servants are now its masters

By Mort Zuckerman

Published: September 9 2010

There really are two Americas, but they are not captured by the standard class warfare speeches that dramatise the gulf between the rich and the poor. Of the new divisions, one is the gap between employed and unemployed that President Barack Obama seeks to close with yet another $50bn stimulus programme. Another is between workers in the private and public sectors. No guesses which are the more protected. A recent study by the Mayo Research Institute found that “private-sector workers were nearly three times more likely to be jobless than public-sector workers”.

Political tension is bound to grow when jobs disappear faster in the private than the public sector, just as compensation in the former is squeezed more. There was a time when government work offered lower salaries than comparable jobs in the private sector, a difference for which the public sector compensated by providing more security and better benefits. No longer. These days, government employees are better off in almost every area: pay, benefits, time off and security, on top of working fewer hours. Public workers have become a privileged class – an elite who live better than their private-sector counterparts. Public servants have become the public’s masters.

Take federal employees. For nine years in a row, they have been awarded bigger average pay and benefit increases than private-sector workers. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9m federal civilian workers was more than $79,000, against an average of about $50,000 for the nation’s 108m private-sector workers, measured in full-time equivalents. Ninety per cent of government employees receive lifetime pension benefits versus 18 per cent of private employees. Public service employees continue to gain annual salary increases; they retire earlier with instant, guaranteed benefits paid for with the taxes of those very same private-sector workers.

More troubling still is the inherent political corruption. Elected officials tend to be accommodating when confronted by powerful constituencies such as the public service unions that agitate for plush benefits and often provide (or deny) a steady flow of cash to election campaign funds. Their successors will have to cope with the inherited debt burden – and ultimately the nation’s taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointed out, spending on retirement benefits for California’s state employees is growing at three times the rate of state revenues, now exceeding $6bn annually and growing at the rate of 15 per cent a year. In other states, however, the politics of public pensions appear to be changing. In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, recently enacted a teacher pension reform that should save about $3bn over 10 years by increasing the amount workers must contribute. Illinois raised its retirement age for newly hired public workers from as low as 55 to 67. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, decided that even if it took bruising clashes with public worker unions, public service compensation reform was essential for the fiscal health of the state. His stance surprised many, but it made him a national figure.

There is no quick fix to deal with the billions in unfunded liabilities. Public service employees are almost impossible to fire, except after a long process and only for the most grievous offences. What is more, the courts have ruled in many states that pension increases granted by elected bodies are vested benefits that must be paid no matter what, precluding politicians from going back and changing past agreements.

The only fair solution is to take the politicians out of the equation and have fully independent commissions in charge, fixing the scale of salaries and benefits for public-service workers and establishing an affordable second retirement tier for new employees. More reasonable retirement ages should be in order, such as 65 for general employees and 55 for public safety employees. This would take nothing away from the existing benefits of current employees.

A fundamental rethinking of the public workforce is necessary. Americans cannot maintain their essential faith in government if there are two Americas, in which the private sector subsidises the disproportionate benefits of this new public sector elite.

The writer is editor in chief of US News & World Report and chairman and co-founder of Boston Properties