Lipka: Selling our public servants short

In Maine, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Ohio, public officials and employees are being crucified. Our government workers have faced pension changes, disrespect of their unions, attempts to curb their First Amendment rights and a sharply negative characterization in the news media.

New Jersey, my home state, started the witch hunt a year ago when our governor, Chris Christie, decided to renegotiate teacher pensions. The only problem was that he “renegotiated” without a counterpart — he acted unilaterally. My high school was forced to fire over ten teachers, one with a baby daughter. Many other states followed suit.

Wisconsin and Ohio took disdain for public servants even further, attempting to strip them of their right to protest. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, claims that public employees have great benefits and are well compensated, despite massive evidence to the contrary. He then actively tried to prevent workers from striking to protest the elimination of those benefits.

In Maine, the governor is removing a mural in the state’s Labor Department that celebrates workers’ history. In Michigan, unemployment insurance has been virtually eliminated. What is happening to the government worker?

After reading these kinds of stories over the past few weeks, I decided to go on a Sorkin binge. I drowned myself in the patriotic, idealistic dialogue of “The West Wing,” beginning to hope that maybe someone, somewhere would take action to restore the positive image of public service. Will Bailey, a speechwriter on the show played by Joshua Malina ’88, delivered a rousing call to arms. “The government is a place where people come together and no one gets left behind, an instrument of good.” Needless to say, it was therapeutic.

Call me naive, but I believe in American government. I believe in people who serve our country, who take the jobs that don’t pay well because they want to make our country the best that it can be. Public service shouldn’t be a dirty word — running for office shouldn’t be synonymous with ambition and megalomania.

Luckily, Yale is one of the few places where it isn’t. Almost all of us did community service in high school; Dwight Hall is as integral to the fabric of Yale as the bulldog. Yale Law School, the best in the country for 25 years in a row, is more oriented towards public service than any other law school. Yale professors set up a website to redirect tax cuts to charitable donations. The Yale community is dependably charitable and politically active. The problem is that for a lot of us, all this stops after school.

A recent Yale grad just finished his third year at a top-three consulting firm. When a partner at the firm asked him about his next step, the grad expressed an interest in public service. The partner smirked and commented, “You know there’s no money in government, right?” He was right. Working in the public sector, despite the long hours, harassment from news channels, and general disregard of their work, doesn’t make bank. It’s hard to take a job like that: teachers hustled out of full pensions, low-level government employees taking pay cuts, and public servicemen denied their right to strike. These harsh realities are a huge disincentive.

Fox News astutely observed: “Cutting and capping these salaries … isn’t a good way of attracting talent in the future.” Unfortunately, they were talking about the fat cats on Wall Street who were bailed out with government money. As for the teachers, policemen and public servants, the media’s bloviators insist they are lazy and greedy. Talk about double standards.

The least that we can do to help support the backbone of our country is to try and fight the persistent negativity. Show support for your old high school teachers and don’t buy into the awfully low level of discourse. Demand better from your state legislators. Our teachers put in a lot of effort to help us get here. We owe them our support in this fight.

Carolyn Lipka is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.

Comments

  • jlinshi

    i see u c-lip

  • Dynasty

    Hear, Hear!
    The attacks from the right on public employees are really just another form of their crusade to destroy the safety net and the governmental structure that has existed since the New Deal. Having failed to “starve the beast” under Republican Presidents by defunding Federal agencies, they now seek to blame those who would serve in it.
    One troubling aspect of this is that it is largely occurring at the State level, where there is less of a buffer (is it called leadership?) to prevent this sort of demagoguery. It does show that one can do good (or bad) by being active at the state and local levels – and this is perhaps more within the reach of many of us than Federal government service is.
    In any case, if those of us who care about these things do not act, the consequences of our apathy are becoming more and more clear.
    Thank you for raising this important issue.