Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

America the Elitist

Posted by middlerage on November 25, 2010

Okay, let’s start by remembering the beginning of the financial crisis. During that November right at the end of shrub’s White House tenure. Remember bank bailouts? And hedge fund managers getting huge bonuses? Remember those corporate pigs sticking it to us? With no vaseline to help the shafting along?

Anyway, by way of that mnemonic introduction … there’s an awesome consumer protection column I follow over at msnbc.com called RedTape. It is full of outrages perpetrated by the corporate world – the kind that often make me want to stab my forehead with a fork. Like I say, I love it.

But lately, Redtape has veered off into a vendetta I just can’t generate much enthusiasm for – the salaries of government workers. Admittedly, Redtape’s outrage was generated by some…well…pretty outrageous instances, for example a California city mayor who was pulling down $500k a year for part time work that mostly consisted of rapping a gavel. Outrageous! I agree! However, like I say, it is getting unreal as the vendetta turns its baleful eye towards other government workers. For instance, police veterans and captains making six figure salaries. Firemen too. But why is that so wrong? What is it about the six-figure threshold that is so damning? I don’t get it.

So my differences with Redtape’s conclusions had been quietly simmering in the back of my mind, when I ran across this Daily Beast article taking the wind out of the sails of a New York Post article outraged over NYC public school custodians making $140,000 a year:

When the New York Post recently reported with some disgust that the highest paid janitors in New York City each make more than $140,000, it caught my attention. Typical Post-y puns decried how custodians were “mopping up” and “cleaning us out.” And Harold Levy, a former schools chancellor, was quoted as saying, “The idea that custodians make more than teachers is outrageous.”

The thing is, we have to ask ourselves a question here…Why Not? What is the real objection to a government employee working hard and making a very nice salary? How come it is okay for a suit over in the financial sector to pull down six to seven-figure bonuses for manipulating money and we are admiring of that? But it’s not okay for someone else, who is not…what?…special in some american-captain-of-industry way …to make a nice wage? There is no answer to the question. It is baseless, unanchored elitism. It is incoherent bigotry at all things government. The anti-government-employee-bigot grasps feebly for, “But they are paid from taxes! It is our money!” Don’t fall for this canard:

  • The money Wallstreet is manipulating into self-agrandizing greedy gorge? – your money!
  • The money Sears/Walmart/Target/Exxon/Comcast just stuffed into their wallets? Did you steal it? If not then it’s your money!

Pardon me while I invoke memory again. A zillion years ago it was a different time, much more fashionable to wield the “fag” word and despise homosexuality as some alien and weak and clownish affliction. I was onboard with this, and alas, I was in populous company. A college friend stopped me in my tracks when he asked the simple question, why? I grasped at feeble straws about religion and God and, and, and, and, …well… I was already migrating away from the silliness of organized religion at that point. Moralistic objections held no water, and were a path to hypocrisy. There just was no good answer to that all-powerful Why. I’ve never looked back, and have been thankfully free of that lousy bigotry ever since.

Invoking homophobia to battle salary elitism is a bit of using a sledgehammer to tap down a nail, but that experience has always stuck with me. It has stood me well in all sorts of situations. Sometimes you can stop the freight train of assumption with the simple question of Why.

When there is no good answer it makes the assumption foundationless. Why shouldn’t gov’ment employees be paid well? Sure, there are outrages, but there are outrages in any endeavour. I’m not supporting double dipping, or crushing pensions. But in the Great Wheel of Morality what, pray tell, is so amoral about being a custodian and so moral about being a hedge fund manager?

The Daily Beast author continues and makes my point well:

When I misbehaved at school […], instead of detention with fellow troublemakers, my punishment was to assist [the custodian…]. If you ask me, to empty trash bins and have smelly “trash juice” leak all over me, was cruel and unusual punishment. I scraped gum off desks, scrubbed graffiti off bathroom walls, and mopped the basketball court until it shined. And yes, I even had to clean and plunge a toilet or two.

It was disgusting and embarrassing. But I am more disgusted and embarrassed by the supposed professionals who look down their noses at the people who do their dirty work. They are the intellectual equivalents of middle-school bullies. [emphasis mine]

[…]

I can think of plenty of people whose salaries are offensive. Derek Jeter makes $22 million a year (excluding endorsement deals) to play a game that most of us would do for free, if we weren’t so busy working crappier jobs. (But perhaps that’s the Red Sox fan in me getting upset). […] Or what about New York Post Editor Col Allan, who reportedly makes almost $1 million a year to make sure his reporters keep the schoolyard stigma of doing a hard day’s work alive?

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