By Inga Barks
Let me guess, this Thanksgiving at dinner tables everywhere, the conversation went a little like this:
Grandma apologized for the smaller turkey and fewer apples in the pie because "in this economy" things are tight and prices are higher. Dad talked about how grateful he was just to have a job "in this economy," even though his pay was cut and his retirement contribution eliminated.
Uncle Earl bragged that his hours had doubled and he'd been promoted...for the same pay he already makes. His boss explained that even though Earl's a valued employee who deserves a raise, "in this economy" we're all doing more for less. And young Sally said she'd tried to get a job to help with college, but "in this economy" she's competing with 40 year olds with master's degrees for a gig as a coffee shop barista.
OK, so maybe that wasn't exactly how it went at your Thanksgiving dinner. After all, Thanksgiving is the day we all gather to be thankful for all of the opportunity afforded us in this great nation, not to complain. But I bet at some point, rather than the usual updates on aunt Bertha's bursitis, the subject of the economy came up. And I'll bet you a wishbone and a gizzard that someone at that table lost pay, lost retirement, lost a job, or is working more for less.
Except for one, small elite group of about 360 people who work for a nonprofit organization called the state of California. While our leaders have once again spent us into a deficit (at the moment hanging around $13 billion), and as they clamor for tax increases to cover their spending, some of those leaders saw fit to give pay hikes to their staff. And these aren't small increases either.
Why, this year on Thanksgiving Day the chief of staff for Senate Pro Tempore Darryl Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told his family that he got a raise of more than $16,000 a year! And he's not the only one. There were consultants to the legislature who received $11,000-a-year raises and some aides and press secretaries who merely got $5,000-$6,000 raises. But many of those pay increases brought those aides and consultants to anywhere from $65,000 a year to more than six figures at a time when private sector unemployment is frighteningly high and no one I know has a boss who gave them a $16,000 a year raise, do you?
And what was the explanation for these increases? According to an interview granted to the Sacramento Bee by Steinberg's press secretary (who didn't get a raise), they were merit-based. And besides, she explained, some of these employees hadn't received a raise in years. In years! Oh, the humanity!
My beef isn't with the employees who got the raises. I've seen how hard many of them work. But they work for a business that is failing. When the private sector boss sees that he's failing, he closes down. When he sees he's in the red, he starts cutting back. When the state legislature sees that it is in the red ($13 billion in red), it spends more? How does this possibly make sense?
Only in the world of the public sector does it make perfect sense to give pay increases to the gal who sharpens your pencils and answers your phone, right in front of your constituent who just lost his job. California isn't making enough money to pay the bills! It is making cuts to healthcare for the poor and indigent and cuts to education, and calling for tax increases on Californians of every income bracket, all while making sure its top aide is closing in on $200,000 a year!
I know it's all the rage these days to be mad at Wall Street, and while I disagree with the tactics of the Occupy movement, I do understand the frustration (or at least as much as it manages to articulate). But at least we can say this for Wall Street: tax breaks and bailouts aside, it has made its money selling us a product that we wanted. If we don't like the product or the return on our stock investment or if we're offended by the bonuses given to CEOs, we don't have to riot in the streets. We can stop giving it our money.
I'm not saying Wall Street doesn't deserve scrutiny. But what I am suggesting is that it is far more shameful that the very people who continue to fail us, continue to regulate us out of business, continue to make cuts to services we pay for, and continue to say we just don't pay enough, are continuing to reward themselves and their employees for the great job they are doing!
And I'll bet you a wishbone and a gizzard that they didn't have to sweat the price per pound of turkey this year.
-- Inga Barks, who hosts a talk show on KMJ AM 580, is one of three community columnists whose work appears here every Saturday. These are Barks' opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. You can email Barks at email@example.com. Next week: Ric Llewellyn.