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The Rudest Question: "How Much Do You Make?"

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Let's say you and I are at a party.

We ask the typical questions:

"Where are you from?"

"What do you do?"

"How much do you make?"

Oh, wait. We're not supposed to ask that last question in polite company.

So why are we setting up expectations that citizens deserve to know this kind of information about public employees?

You know what I'm talking about - last week's story coming out of Bell, CA, where it was discovered that the City Manager of a 38,000-person city in Los Angeles County makes $800,000.

I'm an avid open government advocate who believes in the power of transparency to hold government accountable.

However, I think that knowing what our neighbors earn fundamentally alters the nature of our relationship, especially if we had an expectation in our mind and the reality was far higher than what we deemed to be "fair."

Yet there are examples of public salary search engines for Federal and state employees.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Or should taxpayers be privy to such private information because you're a public employee?

I, for one, don't think we should be asking such a rude question.

UPDATE: I found this Sunshine Review link to all public employee data. So it's all hangin' out there.

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Tags: 2, jobs, tech


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Comment by Bradley Martin on February 12, 2011 at 12:14am
I think having transparency is government is a good thing.  Georgia has very liberal open records laws.  For example, any e-mail or document can be requested via a Georgia Open Records Request.  All state employee salaries are located at  As a taxpayer its great to see what state employees make.  However, that doesn't tell the whole story.  For example, according to the most recent workforce planning document the average salary for a State of Georgia employee is $38,000.  So a "typical/average" employee would be 42 years of age with 9 years of experience with the State making $38,000.  That statistic seemed to show many citizens of our state that not every government employee receives a large paycheck.  Transparency for public money is a great thing.  I think as other posters have noted, the private sector is a different animal.
Comment by Anita Arile on January 20, 2011 at 6:14pm

UGH!! I really hate that.. the least our "leaders" could have done is use our "employee ID number" instead of our full name!!


let us expose ourselves needlessly online (heehee)...

Comment by Candace Riddle on August 6, 2010 at 5:29pm
I absolutely think that citizens have a right to know how much people in the private sector are making.

Even if you work in the private sector, and may be uncomfortable with it, it can work to our advantage. I recently heard a story out of South Carolina of an entire division's budget being cut. That division is now having to lay off, decrease pay etc. because the budget for payroll has been reallocated. Wouldn't you want the public to know this information? If they're calling your office wondering why service is taking longer than expected, I would want the information to be available to them so that they could see the department was experiencing a resource crunch due to decreased workforce and budget.
This issues may be uncomfortable for some in the public sector, but it can also be beneficial.
Comment by Gadi Ben-Yehuda on July 30, 2010 at 1:47pm
Sorry to skip over all the comments (and there were many, so please forgive me if I'm repeating what someone else said), but it seems to me that people do have a right to know what public officials and nonprofit executives make.

In the private sector, I know how much a good or service costs and I can choose to purchase it or not. I don't know how many other people buy it (though I can guess based on stock price or the traffic into and out of a storefront). But I can use my own judgement as to whether (a) it's a good deal and (b) if the value is worth the cost and if I can afford the price.

But with government goods and services, I cannot choose. I can't say "I don't want to give an foreign assistance this year." I am forced to 'buy' it, so I should know how much I'm paying for it. Every government worker is, to some extent, a "service" offered by the government. And I should know how much that service costs.

Nonprofits are in kind of the same boat, since giving money to them reduces my tax burden, in essence making them part of the government.
Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on July 29, 2010 at 11:56am
Thanks, guys, for getting it back on topic...hate to have folks going after each other more personally.

Yet, in the midst of that, I think there are some excellent nuggets from both Vlad and Harlan.
Comment by Vlad Malik on July 29, 2010 at 11:48am
@ Harlan Wax

I was using a much broader definition of politics, such as Webster's: "of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government", which covers this entire forum. I certainly didn't mean anything like "a call to arms", but I do understand the popular adage that "everything is politics" (whether originally attributed to Mann or not) to generally mean that our values and beliefs are manifested even in the most mundane tasks, in everything we say and don't think to say, which is particularly true when talking about government with other individuals interested in government in a space where government is the subject. To use another random quote: "People like to think that they can ignore politics. You can leave politics alone, but politics won’t leave you alone."

I agree that some moderation is necessary, as well as adherence to a categorization that allows users to find content easily and follow discussion threads. What I disagreed with was the wording and tone you used. At no time did I suggest that you don't have a right to say it. Rather, I simply drew your attention to it.

You say making the comparison is a problem, but you have actually here made a contentful and personal comparison, a comparison of things that you can't compare if you will. I think your post clarifies your position, and I understand and agree with what you are saying. In fact, it is true of any full-time employment as compared to self-employment. If you do not make a "salary" and are not a public employee, then this blog post simply does not apply to you as a worker. However, if you hold government contracts and therefore fall under some legislation that discloses your income, it does apply to you and you are right, it makes an unfair impression to say "I have a $50,000 contract", if you may not see another for a year. You need the full picture. Unfortunately, demonstrating the full picture is not always easy. For instance, sales people making commissions, consultants making variable pay, and so on have a hard time with the banks' definition of "regular income".

In any case, this post does apply to all of us as citizens, precisely because of the differences you mention (e.g., "Government employees are not in a competitive environment wherein the information can be used to gain advantage"). Government workers are often unionized, they have secure jobs that generally pay well. They don't face the same challenges you are facing as a self-employed person, and maybe not even the same as private sector salaried workers. So, going back to Andrew's question "Why are we setting up expectations that citizens deserve to know this kind of information about public employees?". Do you believe that you as a citizen have the right (whether at the moment you are interested or not) to know how the government spends your taxes, taxes you work so hard for? To have transparent and have the ability to inquire why, say, one of those people with the secure job who face none of the challenges you have described makes 10X as much as you at your and other people's expense.
Comment by Vlad Malik on July 28, 2010 at 5:20pm
@ Harlan Wax

Thomas Mann just happens to be a person (maybe even one of some importance) who made the exact statement I was about to make, and I quote him so that it makes two people saying it instead of just one. Quotes also lead to more interesting discussions, as one considers the "context" in which the statements were made. I find this a reasonable rationale.

I think you raise an interesting discussion about the meaning political/"politics that is more than semantic. It goes to the core of the questions: What are we doing and what for? Perhaps I will post that as a separate discussion.

Perhaps my statement about censorship was too sensational. However, taking a superior and dismissive view of other people's dialog in a social environment ("most of the arguments here are nothing more than chatter") and advocating the use of authority ("group monitors") to control the "directions" in which "dialog" is allowed to "run". That doesn't sound right to me.
Comment by Peter Sperry on July 28, 2010 at 4:38pm
Check out the CRS report at the link below for an interesting perspective on the growth of federal salaries.

Their table indicates that between 1969 and 2010:

The average private sector wage increased by 732%

The average Social security payment increased by 725%

The average CSRS retriement payment increased by 595%

The Consumer Price Index increased by 577%

The average federal salary increased by 528%

Congressional pay increased by 409%

Looking at the year by year numbers, private sector wage rose much more rapidly than federal salaries in the early years so that even though federal salaries have rison more rapidly in the past 10 years, they still have not caught up with the Consumer price index, let alone the private sector.

And the growth in Congressional salaries has been the slowest of all. This may indiacte they are altruistic, scared of the voters or do not actually understand what happens to their standard of living when their salary increase trails the CPI by 168 points.
Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on July 28, 2010 at 11:44am
Vlad - two words: you rock!
Comment by Vlad Malik on July 28, 2010 at 11:25am
@ Rachel

Out of interest, I just looked up the policy in the province of British Columbia:

"(Executive Compensation Disclosure) was expanded to increase transparency and accountability… Disclosures must include an explanation of the employer's compensation philosophy, the objectives of the compensation program and what it is designed to reward, and how the performance payments for the top five executives relate to the organization’s performance targets. These reporting requirements are modeled on those of the Canadian Securities Administrators’ requirements of publicly-traded companies… The enhanced disclosure requirements apply to chief executive officers and the next four highest paid/ranking executives, where these positions hold an annual base salary of $125,000 or more. They must be proactively disclosed on the organization's website. (This disclosure) is in addition to the more basic salary disclosures employers make under the Financial Information Act for employees earning $75,000 or more."

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