President Obama's decision to give back 5 percent of his salary to show solidarity with the public workers who will lose money because of the sequester has been roundly dismissed as a cheap stunt. It's not that much money, after all, for someone who makes $400,000 a year and is given free room and board. And the president is already wealthy in his own right, having between $2.8 million and $11.8 million in assets, largely from book sales, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But that isn't the point at all. The fallacy in the giveback – and especially in the criticism of the president's giveback – is that it buys into the theory that people who work for government should be paid less than the rest of us, for no other reason than that a workforce long weary of the recession wants to feel someone is being punished for it.
What of the private sector? What of the people who made million and millions of dollars playing video games with all of our retirement accounts on Wall Street, screwed up the economy, and then demanded bonuses to convince them to stay in the jobs they had performed in so poorly just because they knew where the investment bodies were buried?
What about the obscene salaries paid to people who play professional sports? More to the point, what about the obscene profits that go to the owners of professional sports team – money they earned by doing little more than watching from a Skybox while their players risk career-ending concussions?
The question here isn't whether public workers and elected officials should be paid less because things are tough. The question is, how on earth have we arrived at our value system in determining who gets paid what?
Mike Rice, the Rutgers basketball coach recently fired for making gay slurs against his players – and generally abusing them – was paid $655,000 a year. And this from a public university. On what planet should a college sports coach make more than 50 percent more than the man responsible for running the country?
And what about members of Congress? They do pretty well, making $174,000 a year. But keep in mind that they have to keep two residences – one in DC, and one back in their home district. They get a small tax deduction for the second residence, but it doesn't come close to paying DC rent, even with roommates. They also, for the most part, work every single day, something most Americans don't do.
It's tempting to call for congressional and executive branch pay cuts when there are budget problems, but they won't solve the problem – and they could make things worse. Trim the salaries of people working for federal agencies and you'll just slow down consumer spending, which drives 70 percent of our economy. And cutting public salaries just gives the private sector ammunition to cut non-governmental salaries as well.
Even people who are not in unions have benefited from the battles public sector employees have waged for pay, occupational health and safety, overtime and the very concept of the weekend. Cut public salaries and private-sector salaries will follow. Except for those at the top, of course. They'll protect their own fat compensation packages.
Perhaps they could give back, as well – and not just by donating some of their salaries, but by ending offshore investment and employment strategies that take American jobs abroad and deprive the federal treasury of corporate tax revenue. Unlike Obama's 5 percent giveback, a corporate contribution like that would be more than just symbolic.