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.