05/02/2011 11:23 am ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

Public Service and Public Ethics

Watching former New York Comptroller Alan Hevesi getting carted off to jail was a disheartening experience. Hevesi holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and for a number of years, taught state and local government and legislative process to graduate public administration students at Columbia. I directed the masters program in which he taught, and he was a well qualified and competent instructor. Presumably, somewhere in his doctoral studies or in his career as a professor at both Columbia and Queens College, he must have read some of the literature of public ethics. Sadly, there is little evidence that any of it registered, or perhaps he just thought it didn't apply to him.

Human beings are never perfect, and whether it's former Governor Elliot Spitzer's attraction to call girls, Congressman Rangel's collection of rent regulated apartments, or the more garden variety alleged corruption we see with New York State Senators Pedro Espada, Joe Bruno and Carl Kruger; there is no shortage of unethical politicians. While corruption is probably more widespread in the private sector than in government, we find it more shocking and disturbing when it takes place in the public sector. Private thievery is certainly equally unethical, and its impact can be broad and substantial, but public corruption is violation of our community and our shared resources. It somehow hurts more when someone steals from the public.

This is because public corruption is an attack on our community -- it robs us of resources and our perception of a safe and secure public order. When the people protecting us from evil doers are themselves corrupt and evil, what chance is there for honest people to lead a decent life? The most profound danger of a decline in public ethics is its impact on our sense of community. In this era of trickledown economics and the extreme glorification of the profit motive, we have come to venerate wealth as a value above all others. Service to others and to the well being of our community is still valued, but I sense that the notion of public service is slipping out of favor.

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" was the challenge that John Kennedy famously set in front of us when I was growing up. Twenty years later Ronald Reagan was telling us that a government that could give us anything we wanted could also take away everything we already had. Kennedy's goal of community service had been subtly replaced by Reagan's concern for possessions. Public servants gazing at the riches of an ever wealthier private sector started to wonder why so little of that highly valued material wealth landed in their pockets?

When our public officials accept lavish vacations or limo rides, do they feel justified because they work so hard for so little material reward? When did material reward become more important than dignity and self-respect? When did our leaders become too busy to take the time for ethical reflection? I imagine this sort of internal dialogue in the distorted brain of the corrupt public official: "Let's see, this guy will fly me and my family to Israel and Europe first class and host us at fancy resorts ... I was so busy asking what I could do for my country that I never took the time to take my kids to Disney World when they were young ... I suppose I owe it to my family for all the late nights doing the public's business ..." Is that the way the ethical slippery slope looks?

There is no question that we have had higher levels of public corruption in the past. But that does not excuse its presence today. My fear is that the number of corrupt elected officials will increase dramatically in the coming decades. The basic problem is that elected officials must spend more and more of their time begging rich people for the cash needed for political campaigns. The technology of campaigning is getting more elaborate and more expensive. In addition, the public's effort to regulate and fund political campaigns is weakening. Our courts continue to equate spending money on campaigns with the right to free speech. The amount of money spent in a modern political campaign is staggering. Unless you are very rich, winning in politics requires constant fundraising.

Our elected officials may start off as honest reformers, but after a time, they find themselves socializing and befriending people whose money generates a lifestyle that the typical public official can barely imagine. Most public officials are honest and are able to resist the temptation to join in. But some are more easily tempted and the temptation will become even more common in the coming years.

What can we do to combat public corruption? First and foremost, we must set a high standard and hold public officials to that standard. Corrupt public officials should be punished and the media should continue to make sure that everyone knows when the "mighty have fallen." Second, we need to focus attention on honest public officials and celebrate their integrity and their service to the public. Third, we need to pay public officials enough salary to raise their families. Being a state legislator is considered a hobby or a part-time job. Most legislators must hold second jobs in order to make ends meet.

In a 2007 study, the Manhattan Institute reported that New York State legislators were the third highest paid in the United States at $79,500. Indiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Nebraska and half a dozen other states paid less than $15,000 a year. The idea behind the low pay is that the legislature only has to meet a few months of the year and then the citizen-legislator can return to small town America and run a business or a farm. This is a nostalgic throw back to a simpler time and a less complex economy, society and government.

Sadly, in some states it is an invitation to corruption that may be even more of a problem than the constant need to raise campaign funds. What is the logic of asking people making less than $100,000 a year to steward a $132.5 billion state budget? That's how we run things here in the Empire State. Instead of elected officials directing the bureaucrats, policy is made by paid lobbyists. Interests groups and their lobbyists are the only people with the resources needed to keep track of what government is actually doing.

The complexity of modern government and the potential for conflict of interest require that the people running our government focus their attention on the public's business. In order to do this, they must be paid a decent salary, and they also must be prohibited from generating substantial amounts of outside income. If we genuinely believe that public service is a noble calling, we need to be willing to pay for it. If we don't, let's not be shocked when we "get what we pay for."