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With which I buy civilization

February 21, 2010

In a recent conversation about the plane crash in Austin, Scott Madin mentioned the following quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“I like paying taxes.  With them I buy civilization.”

This, of course, related to Sen. Scott Brown’s insinuation that anti-government terrorism is largely understandable, given the presence of government that oppresses the populace through the collection of taxes.  The dogma of government and taxes as *the problem* is more than just the province of conservative politicians.

Take Forbes magazine (please).  Earlier this month, they published a summary of “America’s most miserable cities.”  Among the considerations: unemployment, weather, commuting time, sports championships, and taxes.  I think it’s obvious that Forbes is being somewhat light hearted here.  Even many non sports fans would likely concede that the local team winning the world series, is at worst, uninteresting.  Certainly, Forbes’ list shows sensibilities finally tuned to the interest of suburban car owners who like sports.  Still, there is a world where taxes are exchanged for vital social services– services that alleviate many people’s misery.

In the wake of a violent attack on rank-and-file government employees, it’s also important to note the regularity with which the media demonizes public employees.  In the last year, my local newspaper has published investigative reports about overtime pay in the Syracuse police department, and the “high” salaries paid to k-12 teachers during these hard times.  Just today, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle implied the inappropriateness of state employees’ salaries during the current economy.

What the media hasn’t noted is that in this economy, public employees are doing more with less.  As the face of government, public employees are also finding themselves dealing directly with the anger and frustration of the populace– anger stoked by the kind of sensationalism conservatives and the media are peddling.  Many of us are making far, far, less than someone with similar qualifications might make in the private sector ($100,000/year for someone with a Ph. D. and 20+ years of experience doesn’t strike me as absorbent).  A good many of us accept relatively low pay because we believe in government.  If only more people would do the same.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ajoye permalink
    February 22, 2010 5:03 pm

    Great post. It always disappoints me to see how many people seem to resist the idea that public employees should be fairly compensated for their work. My mother is a public school teacher and I am likely to end up working for the state or city myself, so it definitely hits close to home.

  2. Maud permalink
    February 24, 2010 6:36 am

    A lot of this, I think, is the calculated product of the kyriarchy’s pervasive efforts to misdirect the anger and resentment of those who are struggling or insecure economically away from those responsible for those conditions, and toward either those who are still worse off (they’re after what you’ve got!) or those who are slightly less at risk (they’ve got yours!). Though people who work for the government are not overpaid by any means, they do usually have certain employment advantages, just as do union workers, over those with the most tenuous hold on the middle class. The only times in my working life when I had health insurance were when I worked for a state university and when I worked for a county agency. Comparisons of compensation received by public and private workers which are used by the right to stoke this resentment often include the cost of the by no means exorbitant benefits package which is part of the public employees’ compensation, without such costs included in the rate of compensation received by those in similar jobs in the private sector, either because of deliberate dishonesty in the data being compared, or because at the lower levels at which I and many others worked, those benefits simply don’t exist in many or most equivalent private sector jobs. Naturally, the economic burdens on both the individual and the community of the lack of those benefits in the private sector is left out of the comparison, and the picture drawn is a completely inaccurate one of exorbitant compensation and lavish benefits.

    Those jobs, too, have been more stable than in the kinds of industries which have been swept with large layoffs. Government agencies don’t get bought up by speculators who buy up companies and break them up for profit. Until the right came up with “out-sourcing”, that great scheme in which the public can pay even more to have the same services provided by people who are not actually answerable to them, the majority of government jobs tended to be fairly stable because what government provides is not trendy products but basic services which are needed on an ongoing basis; if you hire someone to pave roads this year, there will still be roads for them to pave next year – at least until conservatives convince us to sell all the roads to allow the private sector to operate them more “efficiently.”

    So part of the constant effort to misdirect the anger arising from economic insecurity away from those actually causing it is to get people to focus on the two advantages which have been fairly common in government and union jobs, i.e. greater stability and health insurance (the value of which is often misunderstood as being part of salary or hourly pay), and think, “Hey, they have something I don’t, and I’m paying taxes to support their jobs.; obviously I’m being ripped off”, instead of, “Hey, they have basic worker protections; I should have those, too. We all should.”

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