“The Heroic ‘Sacrifice’ of Underpaid Elites”

Megen McArdle — love her — has a great post on the myth that government employees made a great sacrifice by entering “public service” instead of pursuing a more lucrative career in “Big Law” or some equivalent.  It may be true that some made a straight-up trade of money for public service, but I doubt many did.

My world is Big Law Lite, if you will.  I am currently a partner at a medium-sized regional law firm.  I make good, but not great, money.  In fact, I made considerably more when I was a partner in a much smaller boutique firm. 

I made no “sacrifice,” however, by deciding, along with my partners, to move our practice to a larger firm.  Instead, I took a significant pay cut for increased long term security.  Even so, my security is minimal, and my compensation by no means guaranteed.

That is because I am a partner in the firm.  As a partner, my compensation is contingent on (1) firm profits, and (2) my financial contribution to the firm.  As one who excels in litigation skills but sucks at new client generation, my compensation is at best tenuous.  Moreover, I pay all of my (a) payroll taxes, (b) health insurance and other “benefits,” and (c) retirement funding.  Every penny.  As a partner, I receive no “contribution” from the firm. 

People who complain about how much people like me earn have no idea how much we give up by working for ourselves, even in association with a firm.

Anyone who eschews the private sector for government work is trading high-end potential for security.  They are not sacrificing anything.  In the law world, for example, they have simply decided that the risk and stress of having to generate work and bill by the hour is offset by the job security, steady income, benefits, and pension of a government job.  I have no problem with that. 

My problem is with the suggestion that “public service” is somehow more noble than the grind and risk that actually creates wealth.  Megan puts it better than I can:  “One especially runs into the feeling that salaries are not fairly distributed–that it’s not fair that the work they love is so badly paid.  But that is the essence of fair; they get money, and you get to do the work you love.”

And to get that money, they invest and incur risk.  That risk, and the resultant (if things work out) money, is what funds the public sector.  Too many governments in this country have forgotten that, if they ever really understood it.

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Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 10:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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