We've heard a lot in the past couple of years, pro and con, about escalating CEO compensation, but it seems to me at least one argument in their defense has merit. It is important to pay enough to recruit and retain the best talent available in the highly competitive global marketplace.
What seems strange to me is that those who believe this is true, that you have to pay well to attract the best talent, usually don't accept the same argument when it comes to government employees. One of the more dangerous consequences of the financial crisis is how governments at all levels are, in effect, cutting off their noses to spite their faces. In the rush to balance their budgets, some are indiscriminately firing, freezing and cutting pay, and cutting pensions--too often impacting the people who actually make government work.
We need to take a hard look at pensions, but it is important in a fair society that reforms take into account the fact that over the years many public employees helped meet government budgets by forgoing salary increases in return for ironclad promises about pension benefits.
Our education system turns out students who will have to compete in that same global marketplace. Doesn't it follow that our teachers' pay and benefits should be competitive enough to attract first-class talent? We need capable, dedicated first responders--police and fire department personnel -- to meet the global and local threats we face. Yet financially strapped state and local governments are drastically cutting their pay and benefits. Do we really want to lose the best and brightest among them?
At the federal level, do we want to cripple the agencies in charge of food and drug safety? How about the National Institutes of Health or the Center for Disease Control? Don't we need the best in the FBI and the Inspector Generals' Office to fight waste and fraud?
Federally employed scientists working at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey have been responsible for enormously important inventions, from the Internet and GPS to the bar code and the micro chip. Do we want to cut their funding so drastically that such achievements will not be possible in the future? From the Commerce Department to the State Department to the National Science Foundation to the Patents and Trademarks Office, we need to recruit and retain the very best if we are to compete successfully with China, India and other rising powers.
As I write this, we are doing exactly the opposite. We are losing the very people we need to make us successful. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers student survey, the number of students planning to work in the public sector has dropped by 40 percent. Federal government retirements have increased by 24 percent in the past year. It is estimated that over 20 percent of all federal employees are eligible for retirement. Can you imagine what would happen to this country if 10 percent or 20 percent of our most experienced federal government employees suddenly walked out the door?
Yes, there are those who think they would welcome this. Just get rid of all those overpaid government jobs, they say. The fact is, there are fewer executive branch civilian employees today than there were when Richard Nixon was president. As for public employees being overpaid, the Congressional Research Service reported that the average private-sector salary in 2010 for a recent college graduate was $48,661. Entry-level federal workers start at $34,075, or $42,209 for candidates with superior academic achievement.
Is there waste in government? Of course, just as there is in most human activities. But if you think it can be rooted out by congressional fiat, you are dreaming. You need dedicated, smart, qualified people on the ground to smell it out and fix it.
Most people in government are not there just to make money. They want to make a difference, but they do need to provide for themselves and their families.
What we need in the complex world we live in is smarter government, and to do that we must recruit and retain the best.
Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. Senator from Delaware. Please visit www.tedkaufman.com for more information.
This piece first appeared in the Wilmington News Journal.