The Death of Public Service

nurse and doctor

Public Service or Private Profit

Today’s villains are easy to spot – guns on their hips or chalk on their sleeves, riding red fire engines or garbage trucks. You see them everywhere you go, but especially in all the government buildings in town, in the courthouses, in the motor vehicle department, in the Post Office, in the neighborhood schools. Government workers.

They used to be called public servants. That label for those who were employed by governments came from a time when serving the public meant accepting meager salaries in exchange for the satisfaction of doing the nation’s work, helping fellow citizens. Nevertheless those salaries often allowed people to step out of the working class into the lower middle class. Middle class meant a leap in comfort and in financial security for the long term. It also meant respect and status from everybody else, higher or lower.

Now their salaries are no longer meager. Collective action by male policemen and female teachers, by white collar clerks and garbage men have created a social revolution. As governments grew in the 20th century, millions of American families wrestled their way into the middle class through public service. This was the great historical moment for the American middle class. Small businessmen, members of powerful unions, managers of fast food franchises, and many others rose into the middle class.

That was right for America.

Public servants kept rising. Just in my lifetime, the salaries of many cops, teachers and government office workers have moved them into the upper half of American families. It was a struggle to convince governments at every level to pay their employees as much as similarly skilled people made in private industry. In many cases, public servants gave up salary hikes for better benefits, income now for income later.

There were some who climbed the staircase even higher into management. Their salaries might reach over $100,000. That’s doing very well, unless you compare them to bankers or stock brokers.

Apparently that’s no longer right for America.

Now the favorite target for Republican politicians seeking ways to reduce government spending is the public servant and public service unions. Republican governors across the country argue that teachers and police and all the other employees of local and state governments make much too much money. They are feeding off the public, pushing our tax rates up, ruining state budgets.

According to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for 2009, public sector workers earned an average of 4% more than private sector workers across the US; the difference is mainly in more valuable benefits. Is that so terrible? How much can we save by cutting public service workers’ salaries and benefits? Should people working for the public be paid less than private workers? That tiny difference of 4% does not take into account the skill levels of government workers, the lengthy training that firefighters receive or the advanced degrees that teachers get. No matter how you look at it, government workers are right at the average American income. Is that too much?

Meanwhile, every government contract that is given to private corporations goes to pay the salaries of their multi-millionaire executives. Companies like Halliburton, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Electric use funds from huge government contracts to subsidize their executive pay scales. Why don’t we set some limits on how many of our tax dollars go into the pockets of millionaires?

Instead Republicans are going after one half of the middle class by trying to make the other half jealous. Across the country, Republicans are trying to privatize a wide variety of government services, to transform public service into private profit. They claim there will be a big savings. Maybe they’re right. Instead of offering people a job they could retire from, private companies could hire and fire, adjust to every market change, keep finding younger workers. They won’t have to spend endless sums on training and study. Hiring will be much easier when qualifications are lower.

Steve HochstadtMaybe public service is too good for these Republicans. There is too much public in it – too much attention paid to those way below the middle class, too much attention to diversity and equality.

Do we want our police departments and our schools, our veterans’ hospitals and our national parks to just focus on the bottom line? Is the public servant dead, to be replaced by the minimum wage private employee? How will that make our lives better?

Steve Hochstadt


  1. Steve says

    The fundamental difference between public sector salaries and private sector salaries is that public sector salaries are paid out of the taxes generated from the salaries and profits earned by the private sector. The public sector is not a producer of profits/GDP – it is a consumer.
    Hence, without a private sector there is no money in the kitty to pay the salaries or benefits of a public sector.
    With this simple fact in mind, everyone should be asking themselves how do they wish to spend/distribute the contributions of the private sector?
    Personally, I place a high priority on health, education, essential and community policing and security , essential support for retirees and the necessary amount of infrastructure and bureacracy to support such essentials – ie a civil service and politicians. However, this number of people is significantly below the number currently employed in the role.
    Public service used to mean serving the public. From a political perspective, it now means manipulating the public, fooling the public, cheating the public and attempting to govern every aspect of the public’s life. I don’t want my taxes paying for these services. I want less government.
    Every time you switch on television, we have 24 hour news and 24 hours a day, the news is focused on politics. Why? These people are afforded celebrity status and celebrity pay packets and yet their value to society in terms of their value add, their contribution to GDP is zero [minus, in fact]. We don’t need an army of politicians whose sole job is to pick fault with other politicians and try and criticise their actions without themselves offering a solution. The world has gone crazy and when we look at our debt and the financial position of our country and our planet, we see the result before our very eyes.
    Time for major change.

  2. says

    Once again, Steve has taken a big issue and told the story simply and well, but not simplistically.

    One of his cogent points raises the issue of what happens when government lets out a contract, so that a given job is done by ‘private sector’ rather than ‘public sector’ employees. What’s the actual difference? From my several years’ experience as employee of a contractor corporation, collaborating with government employee colleagues, here’s what to expect. For a given qualification level of employee, the government will incur much the same total expense either way. If the employee works directly for the government, part of the expense will go to that employee’s benefits and pension. For the contractor employee, the same part will go instead to the contractor CEO and to keeping up a plush corporate office.

    • says

      Joe Weinstein brings up real evidence for the argument that I would like to make. What advantage does privatization bring? Does it really save any significant amount of money? Would privatization simply mean that we exchange good middle-class jobs for low-wage jobs and bigger CEO bonuses? I don’t know where to get systematic evidence for what Joe experienced. But why believe the Republicans that privatization has all these advantages when they don’t have any evidence either?

      Steve Hochstadt

    • Ken Bear Cole says

      I was a project manager for an electrical contractor who predominantly worked on government contracts. The owners were not wealthy & our offices were not plush. We ran a lean operation so we could afford to stay in business. We made profits on most of our projects, but lost money on others. The reason that private contractors are hired is because the government employees do not have the staff or skills required to perform the project. Our employees were union workers and that was the required wage and benefit package that must be paid to any worker on the project, union or not.

      Complaints regarding government workers come from outragous benefit packages that do things like a minimum 8% annual interest rate for retirement plans.Paying teachers not to teach. Paying administrators $100K – $500K per year plus auto & other expenses. Every dollar spend on a public employee is overhead that does not make money for it’s citizens. many do not even pay state or local taxes. Things need to be reduced when we do not have the money. It’s just that simple.

  3. Nate says

    Funny thing there ~ I don’t see any republicans saying how they should pay their fair share of taxes or end corporate welfare ! oh no ~ let’s just screw more working class people .

    America must want this as they voted for it , you jackasses .

    • Ken Bear Cole says

      NEWS FLASH: All republicans are not wealthy. Some are government workers, union members, teachers, homeless or loosing their home because of unemployment. they are average citizens. Both Democrats & Republicans have extremely wealthy members within their party. People with PROGRESSIVE philosophies reside within both parties.

      People with money tend to spend it to boost the economy and charities. Poor people do not provide jobs. Those making over $250,000 per year pay 67% of all federal taxes received. So who is the jackass?


  1. […] Republican governors in Wisconsin and elsewhere have made a show of union-busting as if state workers are responsible for the nation’s economic woes, rather than the foreign wars that have poured a tidal wave of profits into the coffers of defense contractors. Cutting state jobs, again, disproportionately impacts Black workers. The same governors, by the way, seem unable to keep corporations from abandoning their employees and quitting their cities for foreign shores even though taxpayers outrageously subsidized those same corporations with tax-free benefits of all kinds to set up shop in their communities in the first place. […]

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