Public Employment: A Privilege or an Entitlement?

Ralph Heller

Last month marked the 206th anniversary of the first presidential cabinet meeting. It was on February 25, 1793 that President Washington summoned to his home the department heads of his government for a meeting. What has happened to colonial dreams of independence and democracy can be measured by how much of government today is beyond reach, even beyond the control of elected officials. While there are 66 words in the Lord’s Prayer, 286 words in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and 1,322 words in the Declaration of Independence, there are 26,911 words in the current federal regulation governing the sale of cabbage. This is what inevitably happens when the "hired hands" are given the keys to power. While most citizens have little difficulty understanding the Lord's Prayer or the Gettysburg Address, only a reckless fool would risk going into the wholesale cabbage business without a small army of lawyers and accountants at his side.

Spengler’s Warning

The words "bureau" and "bureaucracy" are thought of as being related to the French word "bureau," but this whole family of words actually comes from a Greek expression meaning "to be strong"—not necessarily useful or charitable, but "strong." Much closer to its Greek origins is the name by which Russians know their bureaucracy—the "nomenklatura."

Oswald Spengler customarily referred to bureaucrats as "technics," meaning "technocrats"—i.e., those who have mastered the intricacies of regulatory structures and public payrolls for their own sake. In the 1930s Spengler wrote a slim volume entitled Man and Technics, in which he predicted what awaits societies insufficiently wary of their bureaucracies:

"The history of the technics is fast drawing to a close. Already the danger is so great for every individual, every class, every people that to cherish any illusion whatever is deplorable. There is no question of prudent retreat or wise renunciation. Only dreamers believe there is a way out."

Are Bureaucracies Contagious?

Interestingly, Spengler wrote those words without ever having stood in line to be mocked and insulted as a "mere citizen" at a Nevada DMV office. Indeed, if there is one disturbingly distinguishing characteristic of this post-war half century it is that rapidly mushrooming numbers of public employees in all but one or two states have become as troublesome and arrogant as the federal bureaucracy, and they have learned how to guard their selfish interests.

NPRI recently reported that present and former public employees now constitute 32 percent of the members of the 1999 Nevada Legislature, including three of 21 state senators (14 percent) and 17 of 42 members of the Assembly (40 percent).

Accordingly, it comes as little surprise that teachers, police officers and other public employees enjoy influence in Carson City that mere taxpayers can only dream of. For example, since 1980 Nevada teachers and other education employees have enjoyed annual earnings gains that are three times the gains in earnings of private sector employees. And non-education public employees fared even better than teachers, registering earnings gains after inflation of over 20 percent. Especially significant is the fact that Nevada is one of only seven states in which city and county employees earn more on an average than state employees, and fully 30 percent more than private sector employees. In only two other states is the gap between private sector earnings and city and county public employee earnings as wide as it is in Nevada—Rhode Island and Hawaii.

The Secret Ingredient: Lack of Accountability

At the local level of government in Nevada nothing has done more to facilitate soaring government employment paychecks than lack of accountability. The city of Reno and its newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, have not reported detailed city payroll figures since 1984, and even then the accountability was sketchy.

In Las Vegas the Review-Journal has done somewhat better by at least publishing a year or so ago a list of all state, county and city employees who earned $100,000 or more during the previous year. Yet nothing else would impose discipline on city and county salary structures as effectively as full and complete public accountability—not "salary ranges," but actual earnings figures as they are reflected on W-2 forms.

Are not people who are constantly told that government belongs to them and who must pay the bills entitled to know how much they are paying each of their employees? The detailed financial accountability isn’t a priority, of course, because neither legislators nor local officials favor it. Oswald Spengler's "technics" are still very much with us, nowhere more so than in legislative offices and hallways where the state's citizenry is perceived as divided into three separate and distinct categories: (1) gamers, (2) public employees, and (3) peasants.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that while the personal incomes of Nevada residents were going up by only 2.8 percent last year, ranking Nevada 48th among the states, the presidents of UNLV and UNR were awarded raises of 4.5 percent, and their boss, the chancellor, was awarded an increase of over 5 percent.

Increasingly, the most unsettling news concerning public employment is kept from voters and taxpayers. For example, between 1990 and 1996, which includes 1993, a year of budget crisis, the public payroll in Nevada expanded by an average of 5.6 percent a year, compared to an average yearly increase in the other 49 states of just 1.5 percent.

The Great Disconnect

When the earnings of public employees are not reported behavioral as well as financial accountability is undermined, at which point teachers, firefighters and police officers begin to think of their jobs as "entitlements." It was recently revealed that two Reno police officers have long been on restricted duty because under federal law they cannot carry firearms. Four years ago one had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of abusing his daughter and the other had pleaded guilty to a charge of battery against his ex-wife.

Incredibly, Reno's police chief continued to praise both officers as he apologized for perhaps having to lay them off, and the president of the Reno Police Protective Association lashed out at the city attorney for insisting that the city obey what he called a "bad law." Obviously interested only in the officers themselves and in job security without reference to public sentiment, neither the chief nor the police union official posed the most important question of all: Would any civilian in Reno—especially any woman—approve of retaining on the city’s police force an officer who pleaded guilty to the charge of abusing a child? Indeed, do citizens want to keep on their payroll law enforcement officers who are even suspected of committing such offenses?

In Nevada today, as in Washington, a position on the public payroll is viewed as an entitlement, not a privilege—and no one has less to say about the situation than those of us who pay the bills. Oswald Spengler's "technics" are still in charge, and nowhere more so than in Nevada.

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor of Nevada Journal and Senior Research Fellow in Economics for Nevada Policy Research Institute. He can be contacted at