On the Value of Jobs

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I grew up in a working class enclave in San Leandro. My dad was a milkman. Our next door neighbor was an airplane navigator. In our neighborhood there was a plumber, a carpenter, a mailman, an Oakland fire department captain and two Berkeley Farms Creamery drivers who worked with my father.

Each job held a fascination for us kids, and our dads were very serious about their work. We watched the carpenter build custom furniture for his own home and were proud to be coached by a genuine fire captain in Little League baseball. Of course, we were on the edge of our seats listening to flight stories by the navigator who flew all over the world.

But the value of a day’s labor in America has become dangerously distorted.

The eye-popping paychecks in the financial services industry are dangerously undermining the egalitarian ethic that helped make America the greatest country on earth.

Wall Street’s outrageous pay packages are luring a disproportionate percentage of our most talented young people away from science, engineering, technology, teaching, medicine, architecture and the arts – jobs that are vital to America’s future competitiveness.

In the December issue of The Atlantic magazine, James Fallows interviewed Gao Xiqing – who oversees 10 percent of China’s dollar holdings. He expressed serious skepticism about Wall Street salaries: “I have to say it: you have to do something about pay in the financial system. People in this field have way too much money. And this is not right.

“Individually, everyone needs to be compensated. But collectively, this distorts the talents of the country.”

Xiqing noted how many bright, clever young people he encounters in China who seek to become financial wizards instead of scientists or engineers. When he asks them why, they point out all of the money made by their peers in the financial sector.

The passionate pursuit of an occupation is one of life’s most satisfying experiences. I know an artist who spent a major part of her life teaching so that she could practice her art, which now hangs in museums worldwide.

One great California political operative lives for the day he will elect an American president. A Bay Area doctor is one of the world’s leading specialists in reproductive medicine. There are thousands of journalists who breathe fire about their indispensable role as watchdogs for the public interest.

These workers are vastly under-compensated compared to their Wall Street counterparts.

Our civil servants are also undervalued.

France has an elite civil service training school called the École Nationale d’Administration. Each year, fewer than 100 students are admitted to the Strasbourg-based institution. Since its founding in 1945, 80 percent of the graduates have stayed in government, serving the citizens of France. The lure of socially valuable work – with far less pay than they might command in the private sector – keeps these star talents engaged in public service.

There are countless examples of brilliant individuals who have eschewed riches to perform extraordinary work for society.

Over 20 years as director of public works, Robert Moses built modern New York.

In 1912, Michael O’Shaughnessy accepted a salary less than half of what he earned in private practice to become San Francisco’s chief engineer. He went on to develop the Hetch Hetchy water system, which now provides water to 2.4 million people in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda and San Mateo counties.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton – who cleaned up New York City in the same role – has revolutionized urban law enforcement strategy nationwide and rewritten the manual on how to fight crime.

The Golden Gate Bridge is an enduring monument to the commitment of its builders, including chief engineer Joseph Strauss. Strauss conceived the original design, spent years building public support and oversaw the construction of the now world-famous span.

Each of our jobs is an opportunity to contribute to the community as well as a path to personal fulfillment. Making money is certainly important, but work means more than just a paycheck.

What ever happened to the concept of vocation in American society?

Clint Reilly’s initial foray into political consulting at age 23 developed into a successful 26-year career in politics, during which he founded the nation’s largest political consulting firm of its time. Reilly managed winning campaigns for a wide variety of high-profile candidates, including current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and former California State Senate President Pro Tem Dave Roberti. Recently, Reilly has led the battle to preserve media competition in the Bay Area via two landmark anti-trust lawsuits (Reilly v. Hearst and Reilly v. MediaNews, et. al.). Reilly was chairman of the board of Catholic Charities/CYO from 2002 to 2006 and is active in a variety of civic and charitable causes. This article first appeared on www.clintreilly.com/ and is republished with his permission.

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