Saturday, April 17, 2010


“It’s complicated being a public sector official. They have so much responsibility.” I paraphrase Tea Varrak, Secretary-General of Estonia's Ministry of Finance, on the April 5th television broadcast of Vabariigikodanik, defending state-sector salaries against criticism leveled by journalist Vallo Toomet. Toomet pointed out in a recent Eestipäevaleht column that state sector salaries are, on average, one-third higher than private sector salaries, and that only 12 percent of Estonian children surveyed by the finance ministry said they aspired to private sector work. Varrak repeated herself so many times that “it’s complicated” became her mantra. Toomet sat beside her and listened patiently. But he didn’t look convinced.

When I was growing up in North America we looked down on government workers. We thought of them as parasites or sponges. The government workers I knew were not lazy, but they certainly were not ambitious, and most all seemed to be looking for a comfortable, risk-free place to pass eight hours a day while earning a reasonable salary without being held accountable for much of anything. There’s an American joke about the public sector, where a male government worker can’t lose his job unless he’s caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. When it comes to job security, only the Vatican can offer a better deal.

Having spent most of my career in North America’s eat-what-you-kill environment, my sympathy for Toomet’s point of view will come as no surprise. And as a freelance writer in Estonia—a de facto and de jure entrepreneur—I find myself on the libertarian end of things when it comes to the size of government.

Hoping to support Toomet, I investigated what I suspected would be the other extreme: America, whose workplace Darwinism may be the world’s cruelest, and where admitting you work for the government generally will not win you friends. But the American situation was equally depressing. According to an article in Reason magazine, a recent report by the Cato Institute puts the average compensation of public sector employees at 1.45 times that of the private sector. Another study estimated the 2009 wage premium for public sector employees in the USA was 34 percent, and an astounding 70 percent when it comes to benefits.

But unlike Toomet’s polite patience with Estonia’s public sector, American readers found the sharpest, heaviest rocks to hurl. This comment spoke for many: “…public employees [were] the laziest fucks I’d ever seen, mostly concerned with passing the buck, ass covering and office politics…they couldn’t even articulate how they did their daily business. The management was utterly incompetent, yet vicious about protecting their positions and willing to throw lesser employees under the bus.”

Personally, I don’t have a problem with good managers earning good money, regardless of whether they work in the public or private sector. Also, the public sector is a bigger snakepit than the private, because, for the most part, bottom-line accountability is replaced by the need to create the appearance of being essential and important. So any manager who rises in the public sector must surely be a master politician and, we would hope, also good at his job. I also think it is only right that Eesti Energia’s Sandor Liive earns much more than President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. “Pay peanuts, get monkeys,” as the saying goes, and while I can imagine someone might want to be the president of a republic for reasons other than money, I would be suspicious of anyone who wants to run an energy company out of a sense of duty to the fatherland. And, it probably goes without saying, that asking someone to manage billions of kroons in assets for a civil servant’s salary is almost a guarantee of corruption.

I of course don’t like it that public sector employees earn more on average than those in the private sector. With risk is supposed to come reward, and earning one-third more for assuming very little risk just doesn’t seem fair. But more disturbing is the number of government employees in Estonia. According to statistics provided me by a colleague at Postimees, Estonia’s public sector employs 155,500 men and women, a total of 23.7 percent of the work force. That means one in four people you pass on the street is, in the ugliest terms, a charity case. Essentially, the rest of us have decided that it is critical these individuals live one-third higher on the hog in order to look out for the interests of the rest of us. That’s where I have trouble: one in four. Shouldn’t one benefit of an e-state be more “e” and less “state”?

No, I do not want my child to be schooled via internet, and I am happy my tax money goes to pay teachers’ salaries, as criminally and shamefully low as they are. But a state which has figured out a way to allow voting and collect taxes via the internet surely ought to consider applying those technologies to its fisheries department, which, at least last year, still required the purchaser of a salmon permit to play hooky from work, drive to an office on Viljandi Highway between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., where, if the fisheries department employee wasn’t ill that day, he would manually type your name on to a license. I didn’t want to spoil the mood in the fisheries office by raising the issue, but it seemed obvious that there might be a role for the e-state in that transaction, allowing the state to fire that employee or, better yet, send him to the river where he could both protect Estonia’s natural resources and generate new revenue by catching poachers.

Prime Minister Ansip, if I’m not mistaken, not so long ago floated the idea of eliminating county level governments. More than a few politicians have suggested we could live without reisisaatjad (bus attendants). And I’m sure it isn’t only fishermen in Estonia who see opportunity for the e-state to provide savings in our bureaucratic goings-on.

While those public sector employees in the United States may still earn more, there is consolation in knowing there are fewer of them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly eight percent of the American workforce has government jobs. Of course, add some for “contractors” employed to fight wars, add 2.5 million for public school teachers not included in that number, and you’re still only looking at one in ten. If Estonia truly wants to lead the world in something—and have western nations beating a path to its door to really learn something—it might consider e-solutions as a way to greatly reduce the size of government.

But most disturbing isn’t that Estonian government workers earn more, or that there are so many of them. It’s that a young Estonian would aspire to that as a career. Recognizing the truth of Shakespeare’s line about the devil citing scripture for his purpose, I know that just because a survey says only 12 percent of Estonians aspire to the private sector, it doesn’t necessarily mean that 88 percent aspire to careers in the public sector. It could very well be that many of this 88 percent want to run NGOs which combat human trafficking or fight AIDS. Or perhaps they wish to become Catholic priests. Or nuns. Or, in the best case, they want to be teachers. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

The news for any of the 88 percent thinking about a career in government is this: taking a risk-free job is very much like marrying a woman for her money. As the saying goes, “marry for money, and you’ll earn every penny of it.” Government work isn’t easy, and my brief exposure to it has led me to conclude I wouldn’t want to work in that snakepit. And so while I don’t like that they earn more than we do, I can live with that fact. Hell, let them keep it. But I say we do some barnacle scraping, trim the fat, and let those that remain be people we respect and value. And, with so few of them left, we’ll sleep well knowing they’re earning every penny.


llustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer. Read it in Estonian in Postimees. Department of Shameless Commerce: Inherit the Family available from Amazon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fluent Enough

“He is having an operation in your leg,” said Andrei’s wife in English. She was explaining why Andrei hadn’t been by to pick up the New Yorker magazines which I save for him. She spoke a mix of Russian and English, and I tried to respond by doing the same.

“Potom kogda ja dayu zhurnali yeyo?”

Liina was seated on the couch and positively howling at the conversation. Not that her Russian is that much better: it’s just that nobody’s is as bad as mine.

As a fisherman and a lover of rural Russia, I often understand a good deal of the Russian language. I just can’t speak it. But if my partner in conversation is patient, I have never had trouble communicating the point I need to make. And in almost every instance, Russians have shown great patience with me. Like three years ago when they arrested me.

I was camping and fishing in the Russian arctic when two fishing inspectors landed in a helicopter and asked why one Canadian was alone on the tundra. “Yesli võ vernitye sleduzhii nedel,” I told them, “zdyes ochen mnogo gariyachi estonski parni.” They thought that was pretty funny and so they asked me for a drink. I gave them each a cold beer which had been soaking in the river and that loosened them up enough that they weren’t shy about demanding vodka. One wanted to repeatedly stand and make toasts to “druzhba” between America (same as Canada in his mind) and Russia. Not wanting to insult them, I responded by raising my glass “za rõbalka” and “za zhenshina,” and soon we were all so drunk we had to sit on the ground. Then they asked me if I had any “pornograficheski zurnalõ,” and I had to confess I didn’t. “Rõbalka zurnalõ?” they queried. I didn’t have those either, but I had to admire their priority ranking in reading material.

I once lived in Kiev for six months where I had the perfect opportunity to learn Russian. I took a private instructor but soon got bored with the standard language texts. After all, I knew enough to get around, could point and grunt in stores when required, and considered myself “fluent enough” for every activity except negotiating contracts (which I did in English, anyway) and getting a good haircut (which were always crap, even in my own country). And so my language teacher and I skipped to poetry. Nina, my instructor, gave me poems from Akhmatova’s Evening and Plantain to memorize, but I liked Pushkin better. “Na holmah Gruzii” felt like something you’d recite to your fellow fishermen while standing atop high, windy ground. A feat I in fact performed for the Russian fishing inspectors, since it turned out we had six hours to kill together until their helicopter returned. By the time it arrived we were fast friends, and they promised to return a week later to meet the gariyachi estonski parni. Which they sure enough did and then promptly arrested me for a visa violation. They couldn’t get the Estonians on anything worthy of extradition, so I was the only one to be taken out on the helicopter, filmed the entire time by a team of Russian television journalists from the program Vesti. They wanted to interview me but I had to demur. “Võ gavoritye pa angliski?” I asked, to which they replied in the negative. “Võ viditye kak ja gavaryu pa russki. Kak mõ delayom intervyu?” They saw my point and so they only filmed me packing my things and being whisked away to the police station.

Everyone couldn’t have been more friendly, which I have been told is not always the case when you’re arrested in Russia. They offered me food and served me coffee while we all sat around in a room trying to figure out how and when I entered their country and why my name wasn’t on the manifest of one of those fancypants, thousand-dollar-a-day fishing camps where westerners pay to catch salmon. After having established that I was not a rich foreigner, not a terrorist, and that I was living in Estonia, the supervising officer (an Armenian woman) determined she could now write the protocol. This entailed a long list of questions, which included all my family members’ names and birthdays. It seemed to deeply disappoint the Armenka that I did not know my parents’ birthdays. “No u menya yest ochen mnogo armenski drugi,” I said, as if that might compensate. She didn’t appear to believe me, so I named them: “Abalian, Shadigian, Oganyan, Voskanian, Zehtabian.” The names read like a poem, and she melted before my eyes. We were now best friends.

She spent ten minutes on one question which I could not understand, finally rising in front of me to cross her fingers in a hatch pattern, as if showing bars of the prison cell window I would occupy. “Nyet, spasiba!” I cried, and she exploded in laughter. Later I determined she had been asking if I had ever done prior prison time. Luckily, she answered the question on my behalf in the way of an innocent man.

Later that evening I was paraded before the top miliits officer. He was impeccably dressed, wore shined shoes, and was topped with a forashka, the military hat the size of a serving tray. He listened patiently as the Armenka presented my case. He looked me over, noted verbally and in writing that I was not a danger to the motherland, fined me one thousand rubles, and offered his hand. “Izvinitye,” I apologized, “schto võ dolznõ rabotat sevodnya vecher.” He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s my job,” he said.

They did not deport me, though it did take two days to find a friendly helicopter pilot who would take me back out to the tundra. I remember well my triumphant return to camp. As we made the landing approach, I saw my fishermen friends scramble under bushes in case it was another raid. And I remember vividly how the pilot threw me a salute as he lifted off back into the bluebird sky. For at least a moment, I felt I understood the beauty of Russia and just how deep a Russian soul may run. And I was grateful for how tolerant they are of those who abuse their language as they pretend to attempt to learn it.

It’s said that prison is the fastest, most efficient way to learn a language. I’m glad I didn’t get the chance to find out. There are other opportunities, too. Like talking with Andrei’s wife. Or with Andrei, who is having an operation in my leg. Or chatting with a babushka on the tram. But to my eternal shame I’ve not taken advantage of those opportunities. Instead, ya sidu i zhdu, hoping that the language will come to me.


Illustration Cyrillic Sea by Hilde Kokk De Keizer. Read this story in Estonian in Postimees. Dept. of Shameless Commerce: Inherit the Family available from Amazon.