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In Favor Of Pay Raises On Beacon Hill And Beyond

Want better leaders in public office? Lure better candidates with salaries that give private sector jobs -- and special interest dollars -- a run for their money. (undone/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Want better leaders in public office? Lure better candidates with salaries that give private sector jobs -- and special interest dollars -- a run for their money. (undone/Flickr)

Our trust in government is in a tailspin. Congressional approval ratings are dismal. Voters are unhappy with the president and his party, but they are often even unhappier with his political opponents.

In light of all this, I have a modest proposal: Let’s give our leaders a raise.

Why would we raise the pay of people we think are doing a bad job? The answer, as any employer knows, is that increasing compensation is one of the best methods for increasing the size and skill-level of the applicant pool.

I admit that this is counterintuitive. Why would we raise the pay of people we think are doing a bad job? The answer, as any employer knows, is that increasing compensation is one of the best methods for increasing the size and skill-level of the applicant pool.

So why don’t we see pay increases as a solution to the problems of poor governance? Liberals often oppose raising salaries for politicians because they fear that doing so will contribute to increasing income inequality. Conservatives consider such pay hikes evidence of bloated government spending. Reports that Boston City Council is looking to increase its salaries have been called "shameful" and "disgraceful" and have been met with widespread disdain.

Unfortunately, this convergence of partisan views is deeply mistaken. For those who are concerned about budgets, consider this: Federal congressional salaries cost $95.8 million. With 2014 federal expenditures reaching $3.78 trillion, the pay to our public officials is less than .03 percent of total federal spending. Skillful politicians with the savvy to reduce unnecessary waste in other areas could balance out even significant increases in this tranche of the budget.

As others have shown in the case of nonprofits, neglecting to pay for high-quality managers and executives can have a substantial impact on the bottom line. Others have consistently argued that if we want, for instance, better teachers, we should pay teachers more. Why doesn't the same reasoning apply to our most high-profile public servants?

But don’t the poorest in our nation deserve a boost more than our politicians, many of whom are already relatively well-off? Certainly. But discussing government salaries in terms of moral desert is unhelpful. If you think our government should have a strong role in providing assistance to the worst off, then you should agree that we need adept and skillful leaders in positions of power. Having the political will and acumen to execute social programs effectively is no common gift, and the right person for the job might come with a hefty price tag.

Many high earners from the public sector would not make ideal politicians. But to discourage this whole group from political careers with comparatively low salaries does nothing to increase the set of potentially game-changing public servant hopefuls.

This leads into another concern people have about high pay for politicians: Many people think we should elect leaders who run for purely altruistic reasons, for whom financial incentives are irrelevant. Though this perspective is intuitively appealing, it rests, unfortunately, on a fantasy.

Purity of heart is neither a necessary nor a sufficient quality for a successful politician. Most everyone responds, to some degree, to financial incentives, and there’s no reason to assume a priori that those who find a higher salary appealing will be worse leaders. Since management and leadership are rare and important skills, we should realize that our political offices compete with lucrative positions in the public sector.

Having the political will and acumen to execute social programs effectively is no common gift, and the right person for the job might come with a hefty price tag.

One might still doubt that salary hikes would really increase the crop of potential political aspirants. Aren’t people drawn to politics for reasons of duty, prestige and power? Yes, but at the local level, the importance of which is often ignored, political careers are often weighed against other high-profile positions in the community. Healthy compensation could go a long way to draw more high-quality candidates into these vital roles.

But even at the federal level, experienced lawmakers and congressional staffers are offered extravagant wages to join private lobbying firms, which they do at a shocking rate. This revolving door between industry and public service contributes to the influence of special interests in politics. Increasing congressional pay is one tool we have to reduce the appeal for seasoned elected officials and their employees of taking their intimate knowledge of government elsewhere.

Just maybe, higher political salaries would motivate greater civic engagement in the population. If we think incumbents don’t deserve the compensation our taxes provide, we can make that known at the ballot box.

You might still think there’s something unsavory about having lavishly paid leaders. I agree. And more generous paychecks for politicians won’t solve all our societal woes, many of which are caused by partisan divides. But problems like increasing inequality and persistent poverty can only be addressed with competent governance. In a society where money talks, poorly paid public representatives are the leadership equivalent of a whisper.


Also today:

John Sivolella: Now Is Not The Time To Raise Salaries On Beacon Hill

Cody Fenwick Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Cody Fenwick is a writer and graduate student. He blogs on philosophical ethics at The Lives of Animals and contributes to The Life You Can Save blog.

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