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?