Assumptions about public officials’ salaries

The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for, in part, its reporting on the outsized salaries of officials in Bell, California. One of my arguments about the Times’s work in my thesis was that the Times did not sufficiently justify its assumptions about the proper pay for the officials it criticized, implicitly and explicitly.

Much of the reasoning the Times offered as to why the salaries of Robert Rizzo and co. were too high was by way of comparisons with other officials — state officials, national officials, officials in nearby towns, and so on. The Bell salaries trumped almost all of them.

But the reasoning entailed an assumption that the officials on the other side of the comparison were not simply underpaid. Rather than hint at corruption, the Bell salaries could have actually signaled problems in pay for other public officials. In other words, the reasoning assumed that the salaries for the other officials were appropriate.

The Economist’s recent reporting on salaries for officials in Singapore demonstrates that the Times’s assumption requires more justification. The magazine wrote:

It is a proud boast of Singapore that this very small but immensely wealthy city-state is the least corrupt and best place to do business in the world. And a chief reason for that, at least according to the politicians, is that they themselves are by some way the highest-paid elected officials in the world. Why would a minister bother with corruption, so the argument goes, when he can take home S$1.6m ($1.3m) a year for just keeping on the straight and narrow?

So it isn’t transparent that the officials in Bell could never have been “worth” the money they were paid.

That is certainly not to say they did deserve the money. I thought the Times did a good job in some cases of demonstrating corrupt practices in the city. But the initial concept, that the officials could have deserved their pay, needed more attention.


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