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An Arrogant Government Aristocracy Emerges

by Ralph Heller

year ago the following item was published in National Review:

Twenty-six tax collectors were killed in Russia last year and 74 were injured in the course of their work; six were kidnapped and 41 had their homes burned down.

What NR was reporting represented human tragedies, of course. Still there's a tendency, on reading the report, for a smile to begin to creep across a reader's face.

Those involuntary smiles remind us that here as well as elsewhere, government is widely regarded as the enemy. In all likelihood freedom depends on this continued suspicion of government, even if we register our hostility a bit less dramatically than they do in Russia.

Behind this almost universal hostility to government lurk two factorswidespread incompetence coupled with insufferable arrogance. These have been made more intolerable than ever in the United States since we began rewarding some government employees for their incompetence and arrogance by showering on them salaries and so-called fringe benefits 95 percent of them could not hope to earn in the private sector.

Did I say incompetence? It was at roughly the time that report about tax collectors appeared in National Review that Forbes reported a tale of positively useless security at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow:

…a naked Russian male successfully made his way into the compound, partook of the prodigious liquor cabinet of the charge d’affaires, and then refreshed himself with a shower.

An American diplomat’s wife discovered the happy fellow singing merrily in her bathroom, whereupon the White House Security Staff, the CIA, the FBI and the Joint Chiefs of Staff held a meeting to figure out (1) what to do about such lax security, and (2) how to keep news of the incident from the American people.

They needn’t have worried, of course, since the media was far too busy publishing biographical and anecdotal trivia to be bothered with real news. Indeed, on the day that issue of Forbes hit the streets, Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher, was breathlessly sharing with readers the shallow autobiographical musings of Bill Clinton.

I felt a special relationship to Elvis Presley because he was from Mississippi, he was a poor kid, and he sang with a lot of soul. He was my roots.

After all, with such exciting and compelling editorial fare available for publishers and editors, who could be bothered with something as mundane as government accountability?

The Government
Bureaucracy Eternal

As a matter of necessity there have always been government bureaucracies throughout recorded history—to enforce laws, collect taxes, fight wars and otherwise tend to the traditional functions of governments whether monarchial or democratic.

One of the more effective bureaucratic structures of ancient times was established by Caesar Augustus as he faced the challenge of consolidating and somehow governing the far-flung, heterogeneous lands that his predecessor had conquered. We know a bit about the manner in which Caesar Augustus managed his enormous realm by virtue of the fact that one of Christ’s disciples, Matthew, was part of the Roman bureaucracy in the frontier town of Capernaum—although he was known to his superiors and co-workers as Levi, not Matthew.

He was a tax collector although not the sort of tax collector we think of when our own IRS comes to mind. The Roman tax office in Capernaum was mostly a customs station, reflecting the fact that the earliest effective government revenue raising schemes were mostly taxes levied on goods in transit. Coin of the realm could be hidden from prying governmental eyes, but hiding shipments of goods in transit wasn’t so easy.

Matthew’s superior in Capernaum would have been a bureaucrat trained in Rome who upon appointment to his field station hired his own staff. We know also that on Caesar’s organization chart in Rome his bureaucrats in what we know as the Middle East reported to the Governor of Syria.

Perhaps this is the first distinction to note when comparing bureaucratic structures of yesterday and today; yesterday’s bureaucrats were actually responsible to somebody, whereas in modern-day Nevada, even a misbehaving police officer can sometimes not be fired because of a conveniently protective clause in a labor contract.

This, then, is at the root of today’s bureaucratic misconduct and high-handedness. As often as not our government "servants" continue in their positions utterly independent of what you and I may think of them. All too often today’s bureaucrats exist as a law unto themselves, answerable to absolutely nobody.

Indeed, following this spring’s congressional hearings on grotesques IRS misconduct, how many employees of the IRS lost their jobs? We humble taxpayers rest our case, your honor.

Nurturing Bureaucratic
Arrogance in Nevada

Just two months ago Nevada gubernatorial candidate Kenny Guinn addressed a meeting of unionized state employees and solemnly promised to "close the gap" between state and local government salaries. Behind this lurk comparative salary rankings that state labor leaders find troublesome, although exactly for the wrong reason. Only four months ago, Nevada Journal published state-by-state salary rankings as released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Nevada Education Association that disclose the "salary gap" that so upsets Carson City. Here’s how Nevada salaries rank among the fifty states:

Nevada private sector salaries 22nd highest
Nevada state employees 17th highest
Nevada public school teachers 12th highest
Nevada public school teachers 8th highest

This, then, is the "salary gap" a gubernatorial candidate thinks should be "closed" by raising salaries to the level of city and county salaries, even though all public salaries in Nevada are already substantially higher than comparable salaries in most other states and substantially higher than Nevada’s own private sector salaries.

In truth, city, and county government salaries in Nevada are all but out of control, reflecting salary growth utterly out of proportion to overall salary growth in the state, and the stage was set for today’s astronomic city and county salaries back in the 1980s. Here are Nevada salary gains for that decade, for the years 1980 to 1991 as published by the Rockefeller Institute:

Nevada private sector salaries + 53.6 percent
Nevada state employee salaries + 57.5 percent
Nevada city/county employee salaries + 82.3 percent

Painstakingly nurturing this runaway escalation in city and county salaries has been the Nevada Legislature, which could easily slow down the rapid salary inflation with a single measure: Require all cities and counties to annually publish the actual earnings of all city and county employees—not "salary-range" figures, but actual earnings as reflected on W-2 forms.

So wildly out of control is public salary growth in Nevada that an imaginative Las Vegas businessman, Knight Allen, earlier this year compared public and private wages as reflected in a state report, "Nevada OES-1996," published by the Nevada Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation. Mr. Allen compared hourly wages for 127 job titles and came up with these unsettling statistics:

  • 65 percent of private sector job titles have a lower wage than the same position in state government.
  • 80 percent of private sector job titles have a lower wage than the same position in local government

Even so, Mr. Allen’s eye-opening comparisons still don’t take into account provisions for overtime and other special pay one finds in labor contract after public labor contract. Late last year, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was able to come up with some actual earnings figures for the year 1996 that are startling. For example, consider these salary and earning figures for fire department battalion chiefs—not chiefs or deputy chiefs, mind you, but battalion chiefs:

Salary Gross
Clark County battalion chief $69,565 $140,387
Reno battalion chief $58,400 $133,553
Clark County battalion chief $69,565 $128,181
Clark County battalion chief $69,565 $124,285

At least the Review-Journal did publish these startling figures for taxpayers in Clark County, but tax-payers in Reno have never been told that one of their fire department battalion chiefs in 1996 actually made 225 percent of his listed salary. But would the same editors who refused to provide such accountability also recommend that their readers patronize a supermarket that failed to provide itemized cash register receipts as patrons paid their bills and left the store?

Salary Secrecy: An Invitation
To Arrogance and Misconduct

Nothing quite so effectively strengthens and underscores a feeling of occupational independence in public employees as denying taxpayers information about how much they are really paying those employees. Bolstering democracy itself is public awareness of every taxpayer’s relationship to his public employees: "So long as I pay your salary and you don’t pay mine, you work for me; I am the employer and you are the employee."

When public employees are assured that their employers can be denied even such basic information as how much they are paying their employees, the door has been opened for the very arrogance that is so commonplace in too many city halls and other government buildings these days.

Freed from any sense of responsibility to the people who employ them and who pay the bills, too many public employees develop the idea that they really aren’t responsible to anybody. The New York Times just last year addressed this attitude as it sometimes manifests itself in police departments:

There is a widespread notion—rooted in ignorance, arrogance, prejudice and fear—that a police department can only be effective if a certain number of its officers behave like thugs. According to this notion, gratuitous brutality, a nasty attitude and the harassment of innocent people are essential components of police work.

The antidote for this, clearly, is repeated and emphatic reminders that the police work for you and me and we expect them to adhere to what we consider to be acceptable behavior standards. And nothing underscores this quite as dramatically as an annual listing of all police salaries and earnings—not by name, but by rank or job titles, reflecting the salary of each employee and his actual earnings as reflected on his W-2 form.

In other words, you and I have contributed as much as the public employees themselves to today’s insufferable bureaucratic arrogance by our failure—and the failure of our legislators—to insist on detailed accountability, and the result in too many communities is widespread and unacceptable misconduct.

Accompanying this article is a collection of just a few of the headlines from Nevada newspapers of the last six months indicating how widespread public employee misconduct really is. Worse, it appears that the ranking bureaucrats in this government aristocracy lack the willingness to fire offenders even following outrageous conduct.

Reno recently placed a police officer on restricted duty status after he had been convicted of domestic assault and battery against his ex-wife, but does this sound like a cop anyone really wants on the payroll? Another Reno officer was reinstated after having been fired in December following his arrest at Lake Tahoe on charges of trespassing, disturbing the peace and battery resulting from his participation in a brawl at a party attended by at least five police officers.

Yet much of this misconduct could have been predicted back in the days when Reno’s Gannett newspaper over a period of four years published photos of the city’s former police chief more often than it published photos of all other city and county officials combined—elected and appointed. The message conveyed was unmistakably clear: "We’re here to applaud and fawn over you, not to hold you accountable"—and the city taxpayers have paid the price.

Arrogance Flows
From the Top Down

As often as not our highest ranking elected officials—with one wary eye on the political dollars flowing in from public employee unions—have behaved no more responsibly than the public employees themselves. Only recently Nevada’s Board of Examiners—which includes Governor Miller and Attorney General Del Papa—ended up paying out $330,000 in a legal case they could have settled for $9,750, are paying out $525,000 on a suit that could have been settled for $49,000 after a boy was sexually assaulted at a state treatment center, and are stuck for $499,113 over a suit that could have been settled for $100,000.

Of course, it isn’t the Board of Examiner that’s stuck for the $1.3 million; it’s you and me.

In other words, our highest ranking public officials are guarding our interests almost as effectively as Uncle Sam was guarding the U.S. Embassy in Moscow the night when a nude Russian decided to stop by for a few drinks and a shower. But isn’t this to be expected when we foolishly permit to be established a government aristocracy that is held to lower standards than those of the people who employ them, which is protected from accountability, and which is paid more than the taxpayers for whom the coddled aristocrats work? u

Ralph Heller is senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal.


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