Maybe Our Public Officials Are Working ‘Too’ Hard

It doesn’t take much to start a tweet war, which is something that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley found out over the July Fourth holiday. Her tweet—Spending my 4th in meetings all day. #ThanksNorthKorea—set off a parade of angry rejoinders, pointing out how many other Americans, including soldiers, police officers and other emergency personnel, are working in far more difficult circumstances and make greater sacrifices for their country than she is in giving up her day off.

Yes, Ambassador Haley’s tweet was a little ill-considered: On the list of our concerns about North Korea’s nuclear aggressions—like the potential for an actual nuclear strike or all-out war against an unhinged tyrant—the inconveniences caused to public officials ranks rather low. Yet public officials are people too. Just as any of us would be unhappy if told at the last minute that we must cancel a planned vacation day for a workplace crisis, I’m sure Haley was disappointed to have her holiday plans upended.

The response to her tweet suggests that people aren’t just frustrated by unattractive complaining; many have a sense that our public leaders aren’t working very hard. Whether talking about elected leaders or corporate CEOs, the assumption often seems to be that the real work is done by the rank-and-file, who toil without breaks for low-pay, while bosses attend fancy events, play golf, and enjoy other perks of their positions, without having to do much real work.

But survey research suggests that stereotype isn’t accurate. In fact, those with higher earnings tend to work longer hours than those with lower earnings. That’s a big change from the past when those with more wealth also enjoyed more leisure time. But in fact, as explained in this National Bureau of Economic Research paper, while total hours worked declined for men during the 1900s, the share of those working greater than fifty hours a week started to rise in the 1970s, particularly among the highly educated and highly paid. Of course, these higher-earners are generally working in physically pleasant environments—they aren’t involved in backbreaking labor or braving the elements outdoors—but it does contradict the stereotype of the lazy executive sipping martinis and enjoying months-long vacations.

The public has more reason to be bitter when it comes to the pay packages received by public sector workers as compared to private sector workers. Especially when benefits are taken into account, people working for government tend to be much more highly compensated than similarly qualified workers employed by private companies, and this includes much more paid time off and shorter work weeks.

In fact, the generous benefits promised to state government workers, which taxpayers pay for, are a big driver of many state’s financial problems. People living in Illinois are facing a financial crisis that threatens to disrupt basic services, and have plenty of reasons to be frustrated by the unfairness of this system. For too long, government-worker unions have negotiated with elected officials who promise more and more generous compensation in return for their support. Taxpayers seldom have anyone representing their interests at the table. That needs to change and balance ought to be restored.

Yet the problem of the overpaid government worker doesn’t mean that most top officials are failing their constituents by not working hard enough. Taxpayers do have an interest in making sure that elected officials aren’t abusing their positions and taking needlessly lavish vacations on the taxpayer dime, but we should also recognize that we want elected officials to step away from work for their mental health and ultimately our own good.

In fact, we could use a lot more laziness in Washington. Certainly, we want Congress to get back to the business of repealing the Affordable Care Act and reforming our indecipherable tax code; and we want the White House working full-steam to roll back all the red tape that Washington has generated. But as for the red tape creators—the bureaucrats that populate our alphabet soup of agencies and lawmakers hungry to pass another counterproductive law just to show they are “doing something”—we’d all be better off if they spent more of their time at the beach, rather than working overtime to micromanage our lives.

Image: By Ben Woosley from Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A. (Bureaucracy is a Challenge) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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