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From the Comments: Can Government Work be Cool Even if it Doesn't Make You Rich?

Replying to the earlier thread on the happy employees of various federal agencies, commenter Econowonk writes:

Although I am not looking for work, I check for jobs on a weekly basis to provide insight to friends and family. For probably 70% to 80% of entry level jobs government wages and benefits are substantially higher than similar work in the private sector. This was true in 2006 and 2007 even while employment was increasing.

Although the top 10%, top 1%, and especially the top .1% are grossly higher in the private sector, the vast majority of jobs provide better pay in the public sector.

Over the course of the last 10 years, these spectacular top wages kept workers in the private sector as lower wages with the hope of achieving the massive wage pinnacle, especially in the financial sector. As people, namely the type of people discussed in your post, look for work over the next few years, this same type of lower wage decision making seems unlikely.

That's a good point. Government pay scales are very good at the middle levels and not that good at the highest levels. They make you secure but they never make you rich. That means that they often attract people looking to maximize economic stability rather than maximize economic opportunity -- which tends to attract a less entrepreneurial sort of person. If you're really good at Finance, for instance, it would be strange to be an inspector at the Securities and Exchange Commission rather than a trader at a hedge fund (for the sake of that sentence, let's ignore the revolving door between the SEC and, well, hedge funds).

The catch comes if you're at the top of your agency. Being Secretary of the Treasury is a pretty good job. It doesn't maximize your income, but it compensates with fame and power. So too with other cabinet-level positions. But those jobs don't usually come from rising up the ranks as a bureaucrat. They come from making your name outside the government (Tim Geithner is an exception here. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers weren't.)

Which gets to a point Jim made in comments, and Alyssa Rosenberg made at Government Executive. If you can't sell the bureaucracy to top-flight talent based on money and you can't sell it based on the likelihood of fame, then you have to be able to sell it based on the attractiveness of the enterprise. A lot of extremely good people, for instance, come to work at the Washington Post, despite the fact that journalism doesn't pay as much as law and is an, ah, dying industry. But though working for Obama's White House has that reputation, working for the more far-flung, on-the-ground elements of his bureaucracy does not.

(Incidentally, I'll try to hoist comments onto the front page pretty regularly. So leave comments!)

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2009; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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"A lot of extremely good people, for instance, come to work at the Washington Post, despite the fact that journalism doesn't pay as much as law and is an, ah, dying industry."

Other less than stellar people come to WaPo because they know they can publish climate change lies in their opinion columns and retain the full backing of the editors.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 21, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I have 3 family members working for the gov't. One makes $70-80k, and the other two, a bit over $100k a year. They've nearly topped out and probably won't ever make too much more, but they got to those rates pretty quickly. I've also got two parents, former civil servants, who have nice pension plans and pretty decent health insurance from Big Brother, although I doubt current employees will get treated as well when they retire as my parents did. All but the 70-80k person have graduate degrees (J.D., Ph.d, etc.) and could probably make much more in the private sector, but, mostly, they love the job security (its very hard to fire anyone), the automatic pay raises, etc., and for my brother, its the never having to stay late (5? 5:30? something like that, and he's out the door). It gives him every evening free to pursue all his other interests in life, like acting in local community plays and other neighborhood events.

Nearly all of them have contemplated leaving for bigger paychecks but decided that, in the end, the security, friendly hours, and benefits made up for the upper limits on their pay, pay which they all survive quite comfortably on as it is.

Posted by: nylund | May 21, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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