“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”*
As a matter of disclosure I must confess to conservative tendencies. They manifest themselves as membership in the Republican Party, that rag-tag but august collection of –isms often confused with big cigars, private jets and seven-figure private sector employment. More accurately, my particular flavor of this pathology is personal freedom, common defense and deference to established law as opposed to outcome-based judicial fiat. Yet, somehow, I and mine have become the enemy of all I hold dear.
I am…gasp…a public employee.
In circles both big and small within the conservative movement I have become anathema, a pariah, a parasitic creature both slovenly and voracious. I work a “non-punishing schedule” (Ann Coulter), am “overpaid” (The Wall Street Journal) and receive lavish, nearly gluttonous fringe benefits (Powerline). Visit the comments section of nearly any national conservative blog, offer a suggestion that public employee pay is not our biggest problem and wait to be pummeled. A guy from Minnesota who has “started a number of businesses” informed me that government was “way too big” and should be trimmed by firing significant portions of the inept workforce.
When did I become the enemy? At what point did public employees cease to be necessary to the smooth functioning of society?
In my community, at any time of the day or night, professionally trained police officers and firefighters respond at a moment’s notice to life-threatening emergencies. Three-foot blizzards rarely close roads (any roads, let alone major arteries), with crews working around the clock to ensure safe passage. Trimmed lawns and lush flower beds in city parks are tended in ninety-degree heat by minimum wage seasonal employees squirreling away money for college. Potholes get filled, traffic lights maintained and business atmospheres enhanced by men and women making competitive salaries, decent benefits and defined-contribution retirement schemes that do not include life-long medical coverage.
I have seen all of the horror stories - Department of Transportation vehicles that “sleep four,” public employees surfing the Internet for hours at a time or e-mailing their latest lover. In some states, police officers retire at up to ninety percent of their salaries wth full medical coverage after thirty-years service. There, I'd have retired three years ago at age fifty four making.... Wow. Got it.
I’ve also seen men and women who have been awake for two sraight days investigating a murder, SWAT members surrounding a house in sub-zero weather (or worse, in nearly one hundred degree heat), and a good friend – a teacher - who graded papers at sporting events while the rest of us drank beer and watched the game. My wife, when she was Deputy City Manager for a municipality, generally worked sixty hours a week - no overtime because her position was exempt from Federal guidelines. Her “lavish fringe benefits”were modest, but included having our street plowed early in the removal cycle because she was respected by the drivers. And, she's cute.
“I’ve worked in the private sector,” Dr. Stantz said ruefully to Dr. Venkman in Ghostbusters. “They expect results.” Well, so do citizens. Rightfully so. They call my department over a quarter million times a year with problems for us to solve. Now. That, of course, doesn’t count the requests of the rest of the city, or of elected officials or the walk-in business. Yet, somehow, we are “wasteful” because we have the excess capacity to handle days when everyone in the city (160,000 strong) seems to need something.
I guess I will never get it. At least, where police officers are concerned, people still tell us thank you. As a certified outsider, that seems to offset all of the pundits who can say whatever comes to their feverish minds and make another trip to the fridge while I patrol on a bike in the middle of summer. “Aren’t you hot?” I am often asked.
Damn right I am.
*Pogo, Walt Clark, 1970.