The Faces of Government

Dissing civil servants can shore up and rally pro-business sentiments in troubled times.

I had dinner the other night with one of those villains, a "faceless bureaucrat" working as a wildlife biologist for the Department of the Interior in northern Florida. A college friend of my wife, she had spent many years in research on endangered species, and now has moved into an administrative position where she supervises the research of other wildlife scientists.

On Fox News and CNBC and in many other media outlets, you can hear scientists working for Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) being labeled "faceless bureaucrats," whose mindless, nitpicky regulations supposedly disable the economy. Many conservatives consider scientist civil servants to be overcompensated with salaries and pensions no one in the private sector can afford, thereby plunging America into debt.

After that dinner, I began to contemplate the term "faceless bureaucrats." Sometimes used as a casual aside, it's both derogatory and commonplace. By portraying that which is different from corporate practices as dangerous and trivial can serve to shore up and rally pro-business sentiments in troubled times.

The term "faceless" seems designed to evoke fear and anxiety without having to enumerate and defend specific charges. Even the investment bankers who invent and trade arcane financial instruments are never called faceless. Nor are the border control personnel who target another great scapegoat: undocumented immigrants.

What has our faceless Florida friend been doing with our tax dollars lately? Though the coastal area for which she is responsible has as yet been unaffected by the BP oil disaster, her department is charged with the task of documenting the conditions prior to the arrival of any oil that might reach it. If citizens are to be compensated for damages, the government must be able to demonstrate the relatively pristine nature of those shores before the arrival of the toxic oil--or the dispersants that were supposed to help minimize the spilled oil's impact.

Trouble is, of course, that if--as we all hope--the oil and dispersants don't reach that coastal area, her department will be blamed for wasting taxpayer money. Those funds, however, wouldn't have been spent were it not for BP's mistakes, criminal negligence, and ruthless greed. Our friend's department is also assessing the implications of climate change for the region's wildlife. The unusually warm weather in the Everglades is, she says, threatening the crocodiles. Rapid changes in their habitat are a tragedy from an environmental standpoint and may also destroy an important source of tourist revenue.

Are government bureaucrats overcompensated for these tasks? I've been unable to locate a statistical study of compensation for federal workers. But a recent study of state and local governments suggests they are not. "Public employees, both state and local government, are not overpaid. Comparisons controlling for education, experience, hours of work, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity and disability, reveal...a slight under-compensation of public employees when compared to private employee compensation costs on a per hour basis," according to this from the Economic Policy Institute report. "On average, full-time state and local employees are undercompensated by 3.7 percent, in comparison to otherwise similar private-sector workers."

With our growing federal debt and government regulations turning into the new bogeyman, I worry about the potential backlash against my friend the scientist and others like her. Yet wouldn't it be best to attack the deficit by ending the futile Afghanistan War or making corporations pay for more of the work caused by their messes?

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This column was distributed by OtherWords.