This week began with a flurry of talk about how much professors and college administrators are paid. Last week’s Oswegonian included a prominent article, the cover story, in fact, that included facts about payments for campus workers, some examples of staff salaries and analysis by economists who teach on campus. What the article did not include was an explanation about why this knowledge is important and worthy of attention from you, the reader. We will set out to elucidate these details.
Firstly, the pay information of state workers is public information. But why, when people treat this individual datum about themselves with a fierce degree of privacy? Because public workers are paid out of public coffers. Whatever else in life one may be certain about, one ought to add this to that list: the records of disbursement of the pooled funds must always be subject to audit of anyone contributing to the pool. In the case of dollars taken though tax via the government’s monopoly on the use of force, the certainty of the taxpayer that their money is being well spent will always be paramount. This certainty requires information, and part of that information is labor costs of the government.
Our search of public records and presentation through the public through our newspaper stated no opinion about whether the salaries presented were too high or too low. What it did was present the issue, allow readers to absorb the facts as they are and to form an opinion for themselves. In the case of the general reader, their taxes contribute to the payments made to public employees. In the case of the general student this goes doubly; both their taxes and tuition are diverted into these payments.
For the students studying to be become educators, it goes triply. Not only are they, as the rest of us, to be concerned about the efficacy of their tax and tuition, for them these payments are the future. How could any school, such as our own, with a strong and storied history of teaching America’s teachers recoil at something so basic and necessary as informing the next generation of educators about their value in the labor market? It would be an abominable shame to graduate a student from the school of education who was unsure about how quickly he could expect to repay his or her loans. Or how soon they could afford a home in their school district.
And yet, some were unnerved by our publication of this public data. That response is understandable. In one class conversation about the article, a professor remarked that information about people’s income that it was, “more intimate than their sex lives. You’ll talk about sexual exploits before you talk about income.”
However, the professor, lecturing on economics, continued by adding that the culture of secrecy engendered around matters of salary allows employees to be paid less than what they would otherwise command.
“Will employers use that to get a good worker at a lower wage?” he asked, rhetorically. “Absolutely,” he answered.
This point is probably most prescient. In economics, perfect competition, and thus the best most equal distribution of welfare between workers and employers, is only possible when each party is equally and adequately informed about the transactions they make. While this may not yet be the standard in the private sector, in the public sector, where we are invited to entertain the whims of our highest ideals and thereby reach higher it is both possible and reasonable. We ought to dream of a future where no one is underpaid for any significant length of time because information about the value of labor is freely available if only we ask, or search. Indeed, the value of each person’s labor is the only inherent market value one has, barring the value of his or her organs. Why allow this personal value to be unnecessarily eroded by something so treatable as asymmetrical information.
An example of where such a culture of openness could have helped is in the case of Lily Ledbetter. Ledbetter was, for most of her career, paid less by Goodyear for the same work of men who were paid more. But because the culture of secrecy around salaries, she only discovered this sad fact much later. When she filed suit, but her initial suit was dismissed because she did not file her complaint within 180 days of when this pay disparity started. The sole reason she missed the deadline: asymmetrical information. (Congress thankfully rectified this grave error with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which states that the filing deadline resets with the issuance of every new discriminatory paycheck). We cannot give lip service to Ledbetter’s laudable progressivism and with the same mouth perpetuate the silence that is the seed of her discontent.
In closing, here is a story. A boy growing up in a Catholic school was told that his most admired teacher, a priest, had taken a vow of poverty. This confused the boy, who always saw father rushing around doing important school business. He approached father one day after mass and asked, “Father, why would you do so much work if you are paid so little.”
Father looked the squarely at the boy. “Because, my son, what you are paid is not what you are worth.”