Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 18, 2010

“Losers by their patriotism”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 18, 2010

I know a man who was offered a high level political appointment in the Department of Homeland Security.  It paid slightly less than 145,000 dollars a year.

In a nation where the average family income is around 40,000 dollars, that seems like a lot of money.  It is a little less than he is now earning.  The cost of living in DC is about 15% higher than where he lives, so it would be a pay cut.

If he took the job, he would have to move across the country to live in Washington.  He would need to rent a place to live.  He’d have pay his own moving expenses.  He’d have to keep paying the mortgage on his current home, since the job life of a political appointee is about 2 years.

In return, he would get to influence policy and be permitted to work very long hours.  He would earn the opportunity to have every detail of his life examined by the media and by people opposed to his ideas. Any significant action he took would be guaranteed to be criticized by some important group.  At the end of it all, maybe he’d get to work for a consulting company and make up the lost income.  Maybe.

He said no to the offer.

I know another man who already lives in Washington, D.C.  Or close enough so he wouldn’t have to move if he were offered a senior level job.  I’ve known him for a decade.  I consider him to be dedicate to public service.

When I first met him he was a mid level executive.  After September 11, 2001, he advanced into a series of jobs with increasing executive responsibility.  In many ways, he made a difference.  The country was — at least at the margins — safer and more secure because of his efforts.

Several months ago he was offered and accepted a security-related policy position in the Obama Administration.

Last week I heard he left that job and accepted a position at a university.

He has two children just about ready for college.  As I heard the story, the university offered him a very good salary and tuition for his two children.

Homeland security begins at home.  He accepted the offer.

I’m not sure those two stories are especially unusual. Government has rarely been able to compete with the private sector when it comes to salary and benefits.  The country always seems to muddle through.  Talented people appear to show up when they are needed, regardless of what they could earn in the private sector.

The two stories would have been unremarkable to me had I not been reading Jake Rakove’s book Revolutionaries.  Rakove retells the story of the nation’s founders, but in a way that makes them appear much more human than heroic.  The book is not quite engrossing enough to be entertaining.  But it is leaving me with the sense the times Rakove describes are disquietingly similar to our own.  Not because we are on the brink of revolution.  But because contemporary government is again thirsting for the talents of men and women whose rational choice is to do something other than serve the public.

The anecdotes of today repurpose the nation’s founding concerns:

“If the Congress mean to succeed in this Contest they must pay good Executive Men to do their business as it ought to be & not lavish milions away by their own mismanagement.” Robert Morris, 1776

“A Soldier reasoned with upon the goodness of the cause he is engaged in and the inestimable rights he is contending for, hears you out with patience, & acknowledges the truth of your observations…. [But the same soldier would respond] that he cannot ruin himself and Family to serve his Country….” George Washington, 1776

[Securing adequate pay for officers remained] “the basis of every other regulation and arrangement, necessary to be made.” George Washington, 1776.

“[I]nterest is the governing principle” of all mankind.  The “motives of public virtue” that originally brought men to serve could not withstand the hard evidence that [Washington’s] officers were becoming “losers by their patriotism.” Quotes from George Washington, 1776.

Immediately after September 11, 2001, men and women from across the nation selflessly answered the call to help defend and protect a country at war.  That war has lasted longer than the first fight for independence.   Are those who remain in this apparently endless fight also at risk of losing by their patriotism?

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 18, 2010 @ 6:02 am

The moral of your tale depends on what the two men are doing outside government.

Does their work relate to homeland security? (I bet it does.) Will they continue to interface with government? (I bet they will). Will their private professional life contribute to the public’s benefit? (I bet so.)

Government – especially federal government – is not the only, or even most productive, place to serve homeland security or more broadly the commonweal.

Having said this, I know one of your two examples. In this case his leaving government is a particular loss because he was one of very few federal officials who could work effectively with those outside the federal sector.

Public service is an ethic, a goal, and an outcome that we cannot afford to restrict to those on the public payroll. Recognizing this broader reality for public service is especially needed by those in government service.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 18, 2010 @ 9:37 am

Phil, we may finally have found a topic where our thinking is not quite so aligned. Chris is making a very important point here, the subtext or side-effect of which is the danger of creating a fourth branch of government (without the same degree of checks and balances as the other three), if we follow the logical course of your argument too far.

I have witnessed too many examples in the national security and homeland security industries of outsourcing important policy and budget decisions that should be left to the discretion of officials within the executive branch. When an agencies have no choice but to go outside their staff to perform core functions, I think it’s clear we have gone from penny-wise efficiency to pound-wise foolishness.

I differ in my concerns about this from many others in that I do not assume that private sector contractors, consultants and advisers are prone to unethical or corrupt, much less incompetent, conduct but simply that they must serve two masters: their client (the government and then only by extension the public) and their shareholders or owners. Never mind that the business’s shareholders or owners are also citizens with a vested interest in good government, these companies cannot legally put their patriotism ahead of profits.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 18, 2010 @ 4:46 pm


Outsourcing can be taken too far, can be framed badly, and managed horribly. There are distinct roles that should be performed by the government and not by others. Government service ought to be honored.

AND… there is entirely too little meaningful communication and collaboration between the public and private sectors. The divisions between the two sectors are often arbitrary, producing unnecessary confusion and mutual impediment.

I hope for the day when many more federal homeland security personnel have the background, personal inclination and strategic guidance to substantively and effectively engage the private sector: as contractors, as owners-and-operators of critical resources, and as citizens. I hope for the day when government officials are less inclined to command-and-control and more inclined to create-and-collaborate.

Not just to be provocative (though in these days it may be) I will quote the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The Tenth amendment has been neglected, misused, and abused in a variety of contexts. But it also sets out an essential principle of our Constitutional system. The federal role was conceived as quite limited. The federal government was only one of several contending expressions of government. Moreover, as a result of these limitations and contention, there would be preserved for the people a broad sphere where they would enjoy the “the right to be left alone,” in the words of Justice Brandeis.

I certainly hope that government service can attract many of our best and brightest. But I also hope that those in government service will be bright enough to avail themselves of the services of the fellow citizens.

In at least one of the two specific cases raised by Chris, I join him in grieving (truly) that the federal government has lost a very productive employee. It is a real loss. But I don’t think the nation has lost a public servant. He will continue as a patriot, a creator, and a collaborator. Especially if his (our) colleagues in the federal government will be open to this possibility.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

May 18, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

This is potentially an explosive post. No, scratch that; it is explosive, because it strips away a lot of nuance and lays it out there; well done Chris. So do the very best and very brightest serve their nation as a sense of duty or as a pragmatic ticket punch preparing them for their parlayed future as a high paid consultant or lobbyist?
It is easy to be cynical. There is so much to lay out here. In order to even get a shot at some of these aforementioned positions, ones ideology, political affiliation, and educational lineage are more important that their ability.
I know several people personally who have bonafides probably equal to or greater to those Chris speaks of who were told by lower level staffers of the current administration that their service was not desired. That’s akin to not wanted… I also know others who stalked hallways and slept with their phones waiting for their call to receive their booty, and they did.

What does that say about the process? Political appointee issues or growth of the patronage process started back with John Quincy Adams defeat. “To the victor belong the spoils” was first used in 1832 by Senator William Learned Marcy of New York regarding Andrew Jackson’s ascension.

So whether this is a political reality or the grey areas of corruption I leave to you. But make no mistake; winning political battles and elections pay. Maybe it has to in order to change and improve. I am not of that opinion. There is also no reason to party bash as they both do it. Nepotism, cronyism, coat tails, etc… it’s all part of the current process.

Now combine the arduous and theatrical process of confirmation. The hypocrisy is staggering. About two-thirds of United States Senators and 237 Congressman are millionaires. That’s about 50%. That compares to about 1% nationally. I believe that adds to the public disenchantment and reluctance to serve. Now more than ever, is it more important “who you know, not what you know?” Maybe it’s always been that way. But let’s move past the rhetoric and hyperbole.

Do we currently have the very best and brightest leaders shaping and forming our policies and future? No, in my opinion we do not. Do political appointees do better than career civil servants? I am unsure. Do a vast preponderance of the appointees care about what they do? YES, probably without exception. But does passion and political point of view make up for acumen and leadership skills? Tough questions.
Taking all into consideration, and the political climate, and the gridlocked Legislative Branch, and the economic realities of our past decisions, and the cost of living, and the diminution of public service for public sake and the picture perhaps becomes less hazy. Perhaps it isn’t related to the aforementioned climate at all. Has the rewarding of self and the focus on self become so imbued in our consciousness that it’s no longer about We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union?
In an era where many Americans feel disaffected, disenchanted, and disillusioned, is it any wonder that citizens feel or argue that they have no representation? So is the question really why; why should we serve? Patriotism has taken on its own definition and political weight. The DoD has been fighting two wars for nearly a decade. Does waving a flag make you a patriot or does reducing your consumption by 20%? The burden of those wars is not carried by the nation universally, but a very small constituency. Does saving money make you more of a patriot than buying American??
So what is the answer? Is this the how do you eat an elephant/one bite at a time story or has motive to serve and love of country been reduced to simply what’s in it for me? I guess you can ask the Goldman Sachs broker and the Marine Lance Cpl in Kandahar what they think.

Finally, with all this friction, disarray, and uncertainty it should be no surprise that qualified professionals question the value of public service. Is this a symptom of future challenges we will face?
To the victor goes the spoils…. So who is really on the losing end of this?

Sorry for length; thanks Chris

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 18, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

Phil, once again I find myself persuaded to agree with you. (In the end, it didn’t prove all that hard.)

I tried to draw a harder distinction in my original comment than I thought might exist between us, and, as it turned out, your subsequent response added a lot for us all to think about. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to look for more opportunities to create-collaborate, and that public-private partnerships should play a bigger role in our efforts to secure our communities and the nation.

As you note, the Tenth Amendment has recently attracted a lot of attention (some quite negative and inappropriate), but I fear its meaning has been taken out of context more often than not. Looking, as you do, at its sentiments as a call to work together and find the right form of governance (not necessarily government) to address problems should be a guiding principle for all of us to follow, as it certainly was the impetus for establishing a limited federal government.

Given the problems we have created, though, I wonder whether we have bit off more than we can possibly chew. I am particularly concerned that we have painted ourselves into a very tight corner when it comes to local and state public safety officers. This week Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report commented the combined effect of these officers’ pay and benefits and their political influence, especially the spending of their unions on elections, and wondered whether their remuneration (including very lucrative and underfunded pensions) will lead more communities to declare bankruptcy.

The fire service, for one, has all but abandoned hope that it can get its way by working within state and local government to improve either efficiency or effectiveness. Instead, its leaders have turned to the federal government and asked it to take a more activist role in funding and regulating its activities in an effort to promote staffing, equipment, and response time standards that will protect their jobs but may not protect their communities (at least not from the threat of insolvency).

True patriots exist in both the public and private sectors. But so do some real scoundrels. Hopefully, we can find the will and the way to reward the former and reform the latter.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 20, 2010 @ 9:29 am

Love the post and comments. But my take is different. Political loyalty to the President is now the rule. Centralized government not unlike the old Soviet State. No second opinions, no diversity of interests expressed on policy. All must be aligned for both maintenance of political contributions and reelections of incumbents. It is only one part inside the beltway as William Grieder pointed out in his 1994 book “Who Will Tell the People.” And in realiy complacency is the norm and policy in US leadership circles is largely reactive, not visionary, and not allowing in depth analysis of many issues and in particular those grounded in science and technology. The government is out of date in may ways but largely due to the narrowing interests of the monied and teh leadership. Most flag ranks in the military which has maintained high standards of duty, trust, honor, is now devoted to where they will work post-active duty. What has this cost the people of the US? Benefits/costs seldom assessed for political systems but this accounting cannot be postponed forever.

Comment by Citizen Joe

May 20, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

Government has failed those who profesed election promises capturing our entrusted vote and government has failed all of us for where is the versatility, the creativeness, the intellect, the voice of the people, the entrepreneurial zeal and so on and so forth all stymied by the self-interests of a grid-locked beltway and incestuousness of man placing all in much peril and ultimately leading to man’s demise and darkness in thought and achievement….

I have pointed to the fact that the German-led EU would be downsized to only ten nations, all subservient to Germany and the Vatican….We the US would be enslaved by you Mr. President and your administration….as your budget and our debt skyrockets and your hopes to impose tax and fee will only lead to Not only our distinction as a superpower transitioning us to third world status at best!

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
aka Joe Citizen

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 23, 2010 @ 8:59 am

It should always be remembered that the Constitution of the United States derives from “We the PEOPLE” not from the STATES as they existed when the Constitution was written. The opinions of Chief Justice Marshall confirm this fact.

The failure of National League of Cities v. Usery a leading 10th Amendment case to withstand the test of even several decades indicates that except for ideologues and those who believe that the STATES are dominant in the Federal System as designed by the Constitution, the 10th Amendment is of limited importance. It probably still serves to limit the rapid deterioration of STATE government authority and capability to deal with policies and issues impacting the polity of the US.

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