Repost: Hug an illegal immigrant today! (August 2007)

What’s old is new! What’s old in this case is the following post, first posted nearly ten years ago in August 2007. Given Trump’s desire to deport pretty much anyone, it’s as topical now as it was then. And it’s one of my better posts. So time for a repeat. Enjoy!

Here is a basic truth about American history that you are unlikely to find revealed in our history books: our success as a country is due to immigration. Most likely, our country’s decline will start when immigrants decide to go elsewhere.

Immigrants have always been crucial to our country’s success. When we could not get enough immigrants, we captured slaves and brought them over here instead. Yet through much of our history, whether here legally or illegally, immigrants have been scorned. In truth, immigrants are the gasoline that fuels our economy. We say we do not want them in our country, at least the ones who are not here legally. Yet if they were to go, our standard of living would decline precipitously. Inflation would go through the roof. Immigrants make it possible for the rest of us to live the American Dream. My vaunted six-figure salary is directly due to the guy making $15,000 working for Goodwill who doesn’t seem to speak English and who hauls away the trash from my office everyday.

Thankfully, there is little chance that people will stop coming into our country, no matter how impressively we build our barriers. It does not matter how low on the totem pole immigrants will be when they get into this country. Invariably they will be better off than where they came from. Cleaning out toilets in airports may not be your idea of a great job. It is probably not their idea of a great job either, but it beats starvation, or regular dysentery drinking the polluted water back home, or raising an uneducated child in a tarpaper shack.

Thank goodness, we have people willing to clean toilets at any price. How long do you think your local airport would be able to stay in business if they had no one willing to do this disagreeable task? How many restaurants would be in business at all if all the illegal dishwashers and potato peelers in this country suddenly disappeared?

The argument I hear is that, “Well, if they all went tomorrow, businesses would have to raise salaries. Good Americans would fill those jobs. And what’s wrong with that?” As a liberal Democrat, I like the idea of our citizens making more money. I just hope it will actually improve their standard of living. I do suspect though that if there are 200 jobs needing to be filled and only 100 people willing to work for wages businesses can afford to pay, there are going to be some economic adjustments and they will not be for the better. Of course, businesses would do their best to cope. They would try to become more efficient and resourceful. At some point, we would end up with an effective unemployment rate of zero. Then the excrement would hit the fan. I am not sure which businesses would be the first to go under, but I bet people who are asked to do the most disagreeable jobs would be the first to bolt. Dishwashers would become very hot commodities. Those restaurants profitable enough to employ them at higher wages would thrive. Those which cannot, and restaurants tend to survive on tiny profit margins, would close shop. I can even see a new version of the draft, not to fight our wars overseas, but to make sure restaurants have enough people to serve meals, sweep floors and do the dishes.

Perhaps with higher wages more of us who are already employed would be willing to work a second job (if we are not already, trying to keep pace with the cost of living). At some point, that market would exhaust itself too. The likely result would be a phenomenon we remember from the 1970s: stagflation. Stagflation is rapid inflation during a period of recession. We would be lucky though if this were the worst of it. The short-term result would be that as unemployment up the food chain increased from the fallout, more and more people would be willing to work in these relatively low wage jobs. The effect though would be to push down standards of living for all of us. These jobs, while necessary, are simply not as productive as those that generally pay more money. Decreased productivity is one of the major drivers of stagflation.

A workforce of course is the fuel of any economy. We may think we can automate everything using computers, but even if that were possible, someone has to keep those computers going. Goods do not magically get from points A to B. It is our willingness to be employed, and in effect be the lubricant that keeps our complex society functioning, that makes our advanced society possible.

In effect, our economy, much like our social security system, is a great Ponzi scheme. Growth, as is always the case, comes from the bottom up. If we cannot convince lots of poor people to start at the bottom and engage in economic Darwinism to try to ascend the economic ladder, the system eventually collapses. I see signs of it already. My daughter, though she has never held a full time job and just recently graduated high school, refuses to work just anywhere. She has her standards. She has decided that she can work at a Barnes and Noble or a Vie de France, but not at a Bloom supermarket, nor at a McDonalds, nor at a Subway … in fact, her list of places she is not willing to work is much larger than her list of places she would work. Fortunately for her the labor market is pretty tight here in Fairfax County, Virginia so she has the luxury of being somewhat choosy.

Of course, she has to survive. If her choice were between starving and working at a McDonalds, I am sure she would choose working at McDonalds. However, why should she do what she considers demeaning work in a business that she does not like? For example, why work at a Wendy’s when she would likely be the only Caucasian woman working there and she cannot speak more than a dozen words of Spanish? Why get hot and sweaty trying to keep up with jangling timers continually going off on the French fries machines when she can work behind the counter in a nice, cool and air-conditioned Vie de France restaurant instead? Others, who came from a harder school of knocks, are supposed to work at Wendy’s. For them a Wendy’s job probably really is opportunity. She perceives it as a low-grade horror.

Arguably, if all the Wendy’s in America went out of business we would probably be a lot healthier. Still, Wendy’s alone pumps a huge amount of money into the economy. The parent company Wendy’s International had sales of $2.45 billion dollars in 2006, owned 12.7% of the burger market and employed 57,000 people. If it closed because it could not profitably stay in business, more than 57,000 people would be affected. Its suppliers would be laying off people. Cattle ranchers would reduce herds. Grain prices would fall. Perhaps other businesses would pick up its market. However, if we did not have enough people willing to work at the bottom of the labor scale the effect on the labor market would quickly spread across the economy, likely causing a chain reaction.

If there were no more immigrants I would end up mowing my lawn again, which might not be a bad thing either. It would cost me more to get my roof replaced, if I could find anyone willing to do it at all. Either my six-figure income would feel a lot more like a five figure income, or I would be a lot busier incompetently trying to do the things I pay people to do for me. I would have to hope that I would die in my bed. It is unlikely I could afford a nursing home at any price. It would be a luxury only for the richest among us. Perhaps the poor house would make a comeback.

While I do not particularly like the idea of immigrants streaming across our borders illegally, I also understand why it has been in our economic interest to look the other way for so long. That our standard of living is rising at all is largely due to our glorious cognitive dissonance on this issue. If we could actually fully enforce our immigration laws then within a year we would be protesting en-masse on the Mall in Washington demanding the immediate repeal of these laws. The last thing we will give up is our slice of the American dream. Immigrants serve us that slice.

The good news is the immigrants who come to our country choose to come here, often at the cost of enormous peril. They understand the tradeoff. They will do our scut work for us, gambling that in time given their perseverance, luck and circumstance they will be in our shoes someday. They might aspire to be Bill Gates, but even if they only get up half the ladder, they are better off than they were. So are the rest of us.

Therefore, instead of railing against immigrants and protesting at local day laborer sites, as some want to do here in Herndon, Virginia, perhaps, if you speak their language, you should be thanking them for coming instead.

Retirement is great (for introverts)

So what’s it like being retired? I can faithfully report that it’s great! But it’s only recently that I figured out why it’s great. It’s great because I’m an introvert.

Doubtless you have heard stories about how many people are miserable in retirement. There is nothing to do, you hear. That is not a problem for me at all. I still like to keep busy, although I do it now mostly at home as opposed to doing it in an office. When I worked in an office though much of what I did was not a whole lot of fun. It’s the nature of work. I was fortunate enough to have a career that meant that a lot of work was fun, but a lot of it (probably most of it) wasn’t fun. The not fun part included a lot of management. That’s no longer a problem. To the extent I “work” in retirement it’s for fun, and it’s doing nerdy stuff that I enjoy doing.

My theory is that those who are miserable in retirement are extraverts. Extraverts thrive on social interaction. In retirement unless you plan your transition very well extraverts are likely to feel a loss of social connection. So lots of retirees volunteer, join clubs, hang out at church or engage in community events. If successful they can energize themselves socially the way they used to do when they worked. However, it is likely to be a challenge.

That’s not a problem for us introverts. We get energy not by cutting ourselves off socially but by engaging in problem solving activities that we enjoy. I have a long list of things I want to do, most of them nerdish, and it’s likely I simply won’t have time to get to more than a handful of them. There are so many choices on any particular day it’s hard to know where to start. And if I don’t want to start on a particular day and instead spend it surfing the web reading political content, I can do that with no feelings of guilt.

Curiously I still work, I just do the stuff I wanted to do when employed but largely couldn’t due to my position and responsibilities. I don’t require the income but it’s nice to earn some income, so I consult as work comes in. I have a website. People send me queries. I fix their Internet-related problems from the convenience of my office. I bill them and they pay me, usually through PayPal. Most of the social interaction is via email, but occasionally I’m chatting with a client on Skype, which I’ve done twice this week.

And while this nerdish work usually involves untying some electronic knots, occasionally I end up participating in a larger cause. I once wrote that I did some work for a porn star. I did not have to take off my clothes but I did have to fix her forum. I’m in something similar now. She’s a woman that used to be in the prostitution business (“adult professionals”, as she calls it) and is trying to organize these women. There are lots of problems if you provide sex as a service. Aside from the possibility of contracting a disease, there are a lot of creepy clients out there. This woman wants to create a service so vetted clients can connect with vetted “adult professionals”. No, this is not in the United States. I won’t mention too much more except I am part of a team she is hiring to get this done.

(I personally think prostitution should be legalized, taxed and regulated. Moreover, I certainly care about women so I want women that choose to be in this business to be as safe as possible. So it’s consistent with my values and furthers a larger cause. It’s safe to say that I would never meet such people otherwise. I have never used a prostitute and can’t imagine ever doing so. For a little while though doing work like this lets me peek behind the lace curtain and it’s interesting.)

When there are no clients who want to exchange my services for money, there are some open source projects I contribute to. Because I am no longer engaged daily with people doing information technology, I attend local meet ups instead. A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on cloud computing, comparing Amazon Web Services with Google Compute Engine. So I do get around socially among a limited set of people a lot like me, and it’s both fun and educational.

I had dreams of writing custom apps in retirement for paying clients but I haven’t even started looking at that. The other work has kept me too busy. And there are plenty of things I can do during the day that are not work related. I can go biking or walking, and I usually do one of these a day. My pension pays most of the bills. My supplemental income improves my standard of living but mainly keeps me engaged in a profession, helps me feel useful and makes me feel nerdishly happy.

I also do most of the household management. This probably falls into the category of work. I keep the books. I propose a budget. I track our spending. I do a lot of the housework and shopping as well. This sort of work is part of living, but I make it as fun as I can. One example: I’ve created a spreadsheet that finely estimates my probable state and federal income taxes, so I can carefully adjust withholding amounts.

So if you are introverted you are probably really going to like retirement. It’s you extraverts that have to worry. You will have to plan to replace the social interaction that came with work with a lot of other stuff instead.

For me this is truly the best time of life. I can spend most of my time doing stuff I like, without the crushing responsibilities that come with your middle years like child rearing, paying the mortgage and putting your kids through college. What to do next is never a problem. It’s almost guaranteed to put a smile to my face.

Readying for another adventure

So how is the retirement thing going, Mark? It’s been about a month since I retired. Is retirement boring? Stressful? Did it feel like jumping out of an aircraft without a parachute? Does it feel surreal? Am I ready to divorce my wife because we are sharing the days, nights and the same house pretty much all the time? I may have all of these feelings in time, but at least so far it’s going great and as for my wife, she’s proving surprisingly companionable.

Starting retirement off with a vacation was probably a smart move. It put a bookend on one part of my life and another bookend on another part of it. Coming home proved that while we may be retired, it’s not like our lives still don’t have their struggles. There was a refrigerator that died on us while we vacationed, which meant more days eating out of a cooler and cleaning out a super stinky refrigerator. Trust me, you’d prefer to change baby’s diapers for a year. And our house was broken into as well during our absence. It helps to be on beta-blockers. You can take the news like this without skipping a heartbeat or feeling the hair raise on the back of your head. Yet all this seems minor compared to the pleasure of waking up every day pretty much when I want to and knowing I won’t have a high pressure job to deal with everyday. That’s now SEP: someone else’s problem.

Our schedule is hardly blank. There are doctors’ appointments, meetings with realtors, events related to the church that I attend and the big one: fixing up the house. Yet despite these things, the main thing I notice is the absence of much in the way of stress. The first Friday back from vacation I had to go to the grocery store to buy some essential foodstuffs for the cooler. I was a bit bleary eyed at 8 AM because the cops were in our house until about midnight asking questions about the break in and gathering evidence. Sitting in my car at the entrance to our main thoroughfare I observed a long parade of cars coming down the street. It’s a Friday morning and likely all but a handful were on their way to work. However, I was on a short trip to the Food Lion. It seemed surreal that I could slip out to the store instead of dashing off to work. I’d read my email that morning, but it would be my personal email, not the fifty or so emails that a few weeks earlier would have waited me at work, all of which would have to be read carefully and some of which would require careful diplomatic responses.

Someone else’s problem.

No leave requests to approve. No employees to give me grief. No major milestones a year or two out to try to shoot at with the usual inadequate resources. No problematic management to deal with. Yet there were a few downsides. No more soup and salad from the cafeteria at lunch, and no view of the Shenandoah Mountains from my fifth floor office. Instead, I have a nice view of my backyard and the mostly empty looking houses of my cluster, empty because the occupants are out earning a living and I am on a pension.

For the first time in many months, I am home when the lawn crew comes by. I hear the mail carrier arrive. In the morning as I ingest breakfast I hear the cicadas, and even with the windows shut the sound is nearly deafening.

There are plenty of things to do, but we take them mostly on our own schedule. It includes teaching one class on Tuesday nights, a “job” I don’t need but I am happy to do and look forward to. Some of them I outlined a few posts back. I used to time appointments for my alternate Friday off, or late and early in the day. Now I time them for the middle of the day, when there is no rush hour to deal with. During rush hour it can take half an hour just to drive five miles. Without the rush hour, it’s about five minutes.

Instead of seeing the inside of the U.S. Geological Survey most weekdays, I’m about as likely to see the inside of the Lowes instead. Because when you are fixing up a house to sell it, you often need some of this and some of that, and it’s generally readily available at Lowes or Home Depot, and the Lowes is closer. The salespeople and cashiers are starting to look familiar, and despite its super size I am starting to find stuff on the first try, instead of wandering haphazardly up and down the aisles.

I like to think I’m a great software engineer, or at least a great manager of software engineers. Over ten years with the energy of the terrific team I led, we increased traffic on the web site I managed 615%, and put up a new site that got 190M page requests last year. Absent a large seismic event, these sites got more traffic than the USGS Earthquake site and at least anecdotally more traffic than any U.S. Department of Interior web site. Now, I am trying to master my new role of home handyman. Putting up a new screen door showed me that I’m not very good at it. When I discovered that replacing the floor to a bathroom would require removing our toilet, I decided to leave that to a professional. Still, most of these tasks are just challenging enough to give me some modest feeling of satisfaction. They can be done in a day or a couple of days, instead of the years it takes to put up a new highly trafficked real-time web site.

Instead of creating project plans with Microsoft Project, my new planning tool is a Google Docs document, a bunch of indented bullets all pointing to the goal of selling a house and moving into a new one. I strike through tasks as I finish them, and constantly add tasks I hadn’t thought of. With luck in six to nine months they will all be checked off, our life will be fundamentally rearranged and we’ll be relocated somewhere near Easthampton, Massachusetts.

One task on the list is to relocate our 24-year-old daughter first, currently camped in the bedroom she has inhabited for most of the last 21 years. Her apartment is leased and she will move in October. Tonight, she and my wife are sorting through stuff in her bedroom, for she has accumulated her own hordes of stuff over the years. She too has to reassemble her life. She has to start real life, and that involves charting her own life no longer tethered to the financial floor that we have provided.

Life is about change. Retirement should feel scary. It triggers image of old guys in shorts and white socks halfway to their knees holding on to walkers with tennis balls on the front. But it’s not about that at all. I am 57 and these days I am still considered middle age. This first stage of my retirement is about moving on and changing the scenery of my life. It’s about growing again, somewhere new, somewhere nice. It’s about a new journey.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I feel like I am ready for another adventure.

The countdown

I haven’t been counting. Really.

Counting down days until I retire, that is. It’s sort of expected, like you are chomping at the bit to begin a life of leisure. It’s the natural question from colleagues at work, all of who know I am retiring at close of business on August 1st. “How many days is it?” I hear regularly. It’s either that or “Where’s your countdown clock?” Some people get so anal about it they have one on their desktop computers telling them precisely how many days, hours, minutes and seconds they have left.

That’s not to say I’m not thinking about it. I certainly am. In a lot of conversations where I voice an opinion, I chime in, “but of course it won’t matter to me after August 1st.” A colleague in another office messaged me today. “Sixteen days,” she told me. Really? I hadn’t known. But since I was forced to run the numbers I realized she was off. Since I work a 5/4/9 schedule, I have tomorrow off, and two weeks hence I’ll have that Friday off as well. Which means fourteen workdays left.

I’m keeping busy trying to check out. I’m in middle management and run a national system, this one and that one to be specific (two different aspects of the same system, really), but only through August 1. Disgruntled employees of retirement age can simply retire abruptly and let those behind clean up the mess. That’s not my style. The engineer in me would not permit it, but this engineer is also pragmatic. I realize I can’t leave everything neat and tidy. In the ten years I have been working for USGS, a great place to work, by the way, my job has never been neat and tidy. Middle management never is. It’s about managing the chaos and herding the cats, and I have quite a team of talented but peculiar cats to herd. Mostly, at least in my case, it’s more about triaging the chaos and trying, however incrementally, to make systems and processes work in a more ordered manner. There is so much stuff to do that neither you nor your staff can possibly do it all. After a year or so on the job I realized that while I could be ambitious, I had to be realistic. My accomplishments, such as they were, could not be done on a fixed schedule, but would be spread out over many years. And being a manager, they would be accomplished by others. Mostly what I did was herd the cats. It’s that part of my job that I will gleefully give up. I love them all, but herding cats is hard work and arguably someone with better people skills can do a better job of it.

I certainly have an appreciation for middle management now. In many ways it’s where the real work gets done. Executives get to set goals. Those in the trenches get to dig them. Middle managers have to sweat through the murky business of turning goals into reality, as they are entrusted with resources (people and money) to make real things happen in the real world, but never close to enough of them. It’s challenging and pretty good paying work, but it is also draining. When earlier this year I realized I could retire this year with essentially no loss in income over my planned retirement in 2015, it became easier to say yes to retirement. I could another year wading through the middle management slosh, but there was little point.

So this is Entry #1 in a retirement journal of sorts, a prequel perhaps to set the stage. I know what I have to do before I retire. I have to give my employees a final performance appraisal. That’s always challenging since many employees take an assessment of how they do against some business goals as a certification of self worth, when it’s really just business and has nothing to do with how I think about them as people or professionals. It is tempting upon retirement to give them with a higher rating than they deserve. But that would simply make things more challenging for my successor. I don’t plan to do that. It’s also unethical. My last boss Susan trained me well on that.

Beyond that, any effort I give toward my job is in some ways optional, because getting fired at this point is pretty much impossible, short of downloading child porn at work or something. Yet I plug away as if I will be doing this work forever, trying to maintain all my old habits, enjoy my work and revel in these last weeks of life in the office. We have a release to get out in a few weeks, hopefully before I officially retire, which was one reason I chose August 1st to retire. So with luck and hard work my team and I can check off that one. As for the stuff this team will have to do next year, which is supposed to be planned this year, I managed to jump through all the daunting travel hurdles to get one last meeting of my team last month to do the planning. This involved multitasking because I had another team of testers from out of town in an adjacent conference room testing.

There were other larger issues I did not want to leave to my successor, and for a while they will have “acting” in their titles. I brainstormed with my boss on who will act for me when I retire. We pondered the usual candidates inside the team and outside it. I was noncommittal on my preference. Their pick was from inside my team, but it only occurred after many meetings and nagging them like I was a henpecked wife, something that does not come naturally to me but which I learned was necessary skill for a middle manager who actually wanted to get things done. The other major problem was the looming crisis in project management, with one project manager about to retire and the official team lead detailed elsewhere for about three years. I found a logical candidate inside my team who I had mentored. Between them and the operations leader they will have to steer the ship until the next captain comes aboard.

I’ve also been working on transition notes. They will help those acting for me, but will be more useful for my permanent replacement, assuming he or she gets them. I won’t officially care once I am off the payroll, but I’ll make sure my boss gets them while I am on the payroll. He can figure out what to do with them, if anything.

It’s been a great ride steering this national system for ten years, but it’s past time to move on. Upon my actual retirement there will first be an eleven-day vacation. When I get back, I won’t be wholly unemployed. I have some consulting I can do as clients demand and interest allows. I won’t be starving in any event, so it’s something I can mostly pick up or put down as fancy takes me. I don’t want to become socially disengaged. I will teach one course on Tuesday nights at the local community college.

When not doing that, there are things to do to our house to prepare it to sell next spring. And daily walks and/or bike rides to accomplish. And I hope to see movies on discount days. I am not eligible for most senior citizen discounts, being just 57, but I can get a discount on coffee at McDonalds (a perk when you turn 55). Perhaps I will make that a weekly habit, as my parents did for many years, just to get out of the house.

Keep reading in the weeks, months and years ahead to learn how this goes. I should have a lot more time to blog in general, and it certainly won’t all be about retirement. I am hoping with the bulk of my professional life behind me, I’ll have time to breathe and blog more.

Passing through the retirement door

Deciding to retire so far has been all about getting our financial ducks in a row. I’ve been doing this for many years. The 401K seems to be large enough. The pension looks generous enough. Our liabilities are paired down: just $35,000 remains on the mortgage, our last debt. The daughter has graduated college and thanks to us does so debt free. Today she cemented a job that looks like it will at least be reasonably interesting, tangentially related to her degree, and which pays a decent wage (with benefits). Our financial adviser is pondering my last questions about whether to announce my early retirement. The gun is loaded and my thumb is on the trigger.

I had told my boss of the moment, Dane, that I planned to retire next year. I wanted to leave with everything neat and tidy, and I figured I needed about a year to do this. It’s the engineer and the professional in me. Now, I just don’t want to wait that long. It’s increasingly clear to me that leaving things neat and tidy can’t happen. There is too much organizational change going on. Still, it’s hard for me to put my finger on a primary reason I want to retire soon. There are lots of little reasons, though, even though I am only 57.

Unquestionably, I am tired of doing my current job. I realize I peaked a few years ago. Although I met my professional goals there was never a time to rest on my laurels. It’s just more of the often frustrating business of managing people and trying to do so with increasingly smaller resources. Management and supervision pay well, but the responsibility can be crushing and you rarely make people happy. That’s because if you are doing your job right, you are instituting change, and people naturally resist change. You have to coax them, and it works for a while, but not forever.

So you figure if you want to work, it would be nice to do something you enjoy more without losing your standard of living. With retirement of course, you don’t have to work, but if you do, you have the option of something that is more part time and pays less per hour. For me that probably means doing programming again because I sure don’t want to do more management. In any event, while I greatly admire everyone who works for me, we still often rub each other the wrong way. It’s too much time together. It’s thousands of conference calls and Webex sessions over ten years. Frankly, a lot of it is due to knowing people too well, and telecommuting often exacerbates it. I figure I’ll like them a whole lot better when I no longer have a power relationship with them, and see them a lot less, like at holiday parties. They might appreciate me more too. I am sure I wasn’t the most pleasant boss or leader at times. Distance may bring us both perspective.

It will be a pleasure to forget the details of my job. Every domain is full of domain details that only make sense to those who inhabit that world. My passion is information technology; my domain is hydrology. It’s the water domain with its myriad parameters and the thousands of electronic pathways and processes that we created to bring science to the public that feels overwhelming. It takes years to be proficient where I work, not because of the technology, but because the domain is so deep that gaining proficiency resembles a medieval apprenticeship. It will be a pleasure to unload the responsibility of worrying about release agreements. I won’t have to fret about people I manage who are also about my age also about ready to retire, full of domain knowledge, but with few coming through the ranks to replace them. Republicans have decreed that government must be smaller, and in the process they are cutting the legs out from the people who must carry the organization into the future. It is so penny-wise and so recklessly pound-foolish. But soon it will also be someone else’s problem: someone likely younger, with more energy, ready to make their mark on the world, and who will hopefully build on top of the infrastructure that my team and I spent ten years working on, but never fully completed.

A lot of people are retiring in my agency. The new leadership has come in with bold ideas for the future that may work or may not. One thing is for sure: it’s not the same place. The workforce is older and smaller; the offices are mostly vacant and quiet and the office feels more like a tomb than a workplace. It whispers to me: it’s time to leave.

Yet I still wonder if retirement will actually agree with me. There is no way to know until I try it. While I won’t have my somewhat lofty position and its status, I will have freedom again. I will move from something of a minor somebody to a nobody again: Joe Citizen with time on his hands.

It’s not too hard to see my future. The future most likely includes relocation, more my wife’s idea than mine, but now I feel vested in it. We hope it will be in 2015 and it will probably be the Pioneer Valley in central Massachusetts. It’s not hard to see many cruises in our future, and vacations in Europe and elsewhere. We tend to be cat people, but somehow I see a dog in my future. This is because I’ll want to get outside a lot, and I’ll want companionship, and it probably won’t be with my spouse due to her host of medical issues. I’ll also want it because I sense I’ll want some space. Just as coworkers, however nice, can be grating when they are so often in your face, a spouse in your face 24/7 can be grating as well. So I can see working part time, consulting probably in an office in my future residence, but perhaps teaching at a local community college, largely just to be somewhere else for a part of my day. I see daily hikes around Mount Tom near Northampton, Massachusetts. I imagine myself exercising at the local gym. I picture myself attending the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence Massachusetts.

But when? Likely formal retirement won’t wait until in May 2015, my original plan. Now I am thinking I will retire this summer. I won’t leave things neat and tidy for whoever fills my slot, but I will leave with our release agreement largely accomplished and with all software tested, released and stable. I feel some responsibility to bring to a close the major activities I started. But I can’t wait that much longer. I am restless. I want to walk through that retirement door, even if it means a slightly smaller pension. I’d rather buy a year of leisure instead. I will be grateful to be able to retire so early, and have what I hope are many good years ahead of me.

Because I know it’s going to be a one-way door. The last door is the one where you exit this life. This new room will have many chambers, but it really only has one exit. The challenge will be to make the most of the time ahead of me and to do so happily and with gratitude for having the time to enjoy more of life. I just need the courage to pull that trigger.

Soon. Very soon I expect to be filing the retirement paperwork. I first want to hear from my financial adviser.

All the lonely offices

In February I will celebrate my tenth year of working at my agency. As I near that milestone, it’s hard not to see that a lot has changed.  Some things have not changed at all. My building is still the same. The view out my window of the parking lot and (on clear days) the Shenandoah Mountains is still there. What’s missing is a whole lot of people. It’s like something out of a Beatles song:

All the lonely offices
Where did they all come from?

Ten years ago, my office was a bustling place. It was not completely full, but it mostly was. It was even fuller ten years earlier when I hear the cubicles put up in the hallway outside my office were also full. Today it is mostly silent. It feels more like a tomb than an office building. In an office, people are supposed to scurry past each other regularly and chitchat over the office water cooler. That was then.

The other day I had my annual physical. I sent a note to the only two people on my floor that might conceivably wonder where I was. “I’ll be in by 9:30. I doubt anyone will notice.” Of course they did not. One works from home most mornings until the traffic abates. The other takes advantage of telecommuting, so she often works from home. But when she does come in, I’ve been at work for a couple of hours already. And I’ve been there working in silence, with pretty much only the drone of the heating unit near my window for company. I figure I could arrive at work at 9:30 and say I’ve been working since 7:30, and absolutely no one would figure it out. I could play hooky pretty much every morning, but I am still up at 6:30 anyhow, and slogging into the office.

A few weeks ago, around 8 AM someone actually showed up at my office. She works in Denver and was visiting on business and making the rounds to say hi. It was good to see her but she was expecting, like, people to be around. I was pretty much the people.

What’s going on? Why are my days at work so empty? Part of it is incremental retirements. It’s one of these things you don’t notice because it is happening so slowly over many years. One day you look around and hardly anyone is there. Some offices still have names on the door. Many of these names are from people who are retired, in many cases years ago. Many often have official occupants, but they are part-time occupants at best. They prefer the convenience of working from home because there is no commute. And here in Northern Virginia, commuting is often a slow and painful hassle. It’s not so much for me, since I am only three miles away. I don’t mind having a place to go to during the day. I’m much more productive there, even when it was bustling, than I am at home with a whiny cat and noise leaching from my daughter’s bedroom.

The office is disappearing, and I for one am sad. It’s not that the work has gone away. It still gets done, but much of it is done via telecommuting, usually from home. They are easy enough to chat with via instant message or telephone, but they simply aren’t in the office with me. They are becoming disembodied voices on the phone. Many of them feel about telecommuting the way NRA members feel about their guns: they’ll give it up when I pry them out of their cushy home office.

What’s missing is the social life, hitherto an important part of working in an organization, and I believe a key reason why work became meaningful. It’s nice to chat with a colleague on the phone, but it’s not the same as having them down the hall for a random chat. Talking to someone face to face is a high fidelity experience. An instant message is like a telegram. Without interacting with them face to face regularly, I’m less likely to learn about their hobbies and their struggles. They become dispassionate people, almost abstract. This makes it hard to know when there are things bothering them. They might be seething about something but it won’t be obvious from a text message. Even a phone call won’t necessarily tell me. However, while they may be seething, they often think that I am picking it up when I am usually clueless.

It’s the new virtual office and it has its benefits and its downsides. But I also miss, how shall I say, the dearly departed. I miss most of those now retired people who I interacted with regularly. They are pretty much gone and permanently disconnected. It’s a shame because for the most part they were interesting people who I enjoyed getting to know. But they’ve moved on. For the most part I have no idea what’s going on with them unless they happen to show up for a holiday party or when someone else in the office decides to retire and they come to celebrate, and maybe not even then. These people who were once so passionately vested in their work, full of creativity and doggedness, have moved on. I hope it’s to a happier place, but for those of us left behind the emptiness is sad and getting sadder.

A space consolidation is underway. New people are supposed to move in and fill these empty offices but they have been saying this for years. It will be good to have more people around, but they will largely remain strangers even if I see them regularly, because their work and mine simply won’t intersect.

I have eighteen months or so before I join the retirees club. Maybe when I do I’ll find out where they all went. I am hoping that there is a party underway, and they invite me inside.

Furlough Diary, Day 3

Our bathtub is looking real nice after its caulking yesterday. With time to spare and prohibited from even touching a government-owned device, this currently “non-excepted” i.e. furloughed federal employee has time to play Tooltime Tim. Unfortunately, I’m not terribly skilled at home improvement, given how I messed up my last three attempts to caulk our bathtub. It always comes out looking amateurish. Thanks to being furloughed, I had time to approach this problem in a more systematic way, which meant the innovation of going to YouTube and finding a video to see how professionals do it. Of course! I should have used masking tape! My new caulking now looks professionally done.

We’re not supposed to be doing any government business because the government doesn’t want to compensate us for it when no money is appropriated. Most federal employees I know simply don’t have an off switch. We are vested our work. Yeah, I know that goes against the stereotype of a federal employee as a lazy, unmotivated, obese grade C student. The truth is just the opposite. While I cannot do any work, I can, as a taxpayer, check the web sites I managed (well used to manage) to make sure they are still up. They are, probably thanks to Greg, the one “excepted” employee still at work, just forty-two elect in an agency with over 8000 employees. There are no employees in the field to calibrate any of the gauges reporting our real-time information, so it’s mostly running on autopilot, as is most of the “non-essential” federal government, despite that this data is needed for flood forecasting and all sorts of public safety needs. Maybe if it were our job to kill people instead of help save them then we would be excepted.

It’s a strange business being furloughed. It’s sort of like living in limbo. In past furloughs we were retroactively paid, but that is less likely this time with our ornery congress critters, who already forced many of us to take unpaid furloughs during the spring and summer, and are probably not in a mood to compensate us for their inability to simply do their jobs. While prohibited from doing actual work under penalty of law (but it’s hard to see how it can be enforced, with the enforcers likely furloughed as well), being furloughed also means you can be recalled at any time and if called in you must report. Which means looking for other work to fill the gap is not really an option, unless it is work that you can quit it at a moment’s notice.

Do you know any employers with these kinds of options? I don’t. I think panhandling qualifies, as long as you carry your cell phone with you so your boss can reach you. Moreover, if you feel so fed up with the whole furlough situation that you just decide to quit, well, good luck with that. The HR department is non-essential too, which means they are also furloughed.

Lincoln freed the slaves, but apparently an exception was left for furloughed federal employees who really cannot find employment elsewhere and thus cannot earn a living. Ironically, I have found a way to earn some money while furloughed. I have a small business as an IT consultant that I do on evenings and weekends. I can now do this work during the day and feel guiltless about it, providing I have some work to do. I do have some. One client wants to hire me to do some changes to their user interface, but is busy with a product release, thus I don’t have a good set of requirements to start work. My wife’s boss may give me some programming work, which is fine although I don’t know Python (I’m sure I can pick it up) but I can only do it if I can drop the work at a moment’s notice when and if I am called back to work. It looks like it’s going to be a long wait.

It’s a shame because I have plenty of time during the day which means while furloughed I could get this consulting work done immediately. Instead I am caulking the bathtub. And installing a new toilet seat. And buying cat food, hitting the BJs and the Wegmans. And blogging. In general, I am tackling all the chores I would do before we hope to put the house on the market in 2015. So there will be more caulking, painting, cleaning the deck and pulling weeds in the days, weeks and maybe even months ahead.

What is missing for me is the sense of dread I felt in 1995 and 1996, the last time federal employees were furloughed. Granted if this extends long enough, my feelings may morph to concern and then panic. I don’t feel the need to tighten my financial belts at the moment. We will keep spending as we always have and really I have no idea how to turn it off. How do I tell my wife not to go see the specialist she needs to see? How do I tell the credit union I don’t think it’s advisable for me to make my mortgage payment for a while that I am contractually required to make? Fortunately, my wife brings in some income and we have enough in savings to tie us over.

So my concern is not so much for me but for those much further down the federal civil service ladder, not to mention the huge array of contractors and businesses dependent on federal spending. Many of these GS-5 through GS-12 employees are living at the margins. It may not be popular to hear it but they generally earn considerably less than those in the private sector doing equivalent jobs. They work for the government in part because they like their work, are excited about their missions and in part because of the benefits, which are pretty good, particularly if they make it to retirement. But they are getting squeezed and they have been kicked around a lot already. Many were furloughed for days and weeks earlier in this year due to sequestration.  There have been no cost of living raises for over three years, but their rents have gone up. And then there is the morale problem, kicked around by a Congress that treats them with contempt. These employees are simply scared, living paycheck-to-paycheck, convenient piñatas for mostly men in Congress with no sense of empathy to smash at.

Many of them are professionals in the best sense of the world. This includes people like my brother, a NOAA meteorologist, who is chomping at the bit to go back to work. He knows his research has a real world impact. He cannot work, at least not legally. I suspect a fair number of my employees, particularly those doing software development, are still busy at home coding away on their personal computers, wholly uncompensated, waiting for the day when they will get paid again and can do their small part to make our troubled world a better place.

If only Congress would let us.

I’ve grown accustomed to her face

I’ve grown accustomed to the tune that
She whistles night and noon.
Her smiles, her frowns,
Her ups, her downs
Are second nature to me now;
Like breathing out and breathing in.

Henry Higgins
“My Fair Lady”

The popularity of TV shows like “The Office” are easy to understand when you spend much of your life in the office. Offices are mini communities, except you see largely the same faces every day. Most of us spend much more time with coworkers than with our spouses, our children or even our pets. Unlike the latter, you don’t usually choose your coworkers. You can’t vote them off the island. You just make the best of them and hope they are not too toxic.

Occasionally you are blessed with someone singularly unique to hang around with for a decade or so. For nine years I have been blessed to have my boss Susan three doors down the hall. Today we said nice things about her, ate cake, drank punch, gave her presents and plaques, and basically said goodbye. For Susan is out the door tomorrow. She is retiring from the federal government after a career of thirty years, ten of them in her demanding managerial position. Like Captain Hornblower she has been directing our ship adroitly. But unlike the taciturn Hornblower, she has done it with smiles, intelligence, wit, laughter, great dedication, tenacity and millions of emails and text messages. How she made it that long without psychiatric assistance is a mystery; how she bore up so well under the stress of it all an even larger one. Unsurprisingly, she had more than her fill of it. Like others I have known with her responsibilities, the moment they are eligible for retirement they are out the door. I cannot blame her.

Susan is (was) an awesome boss, human being, manager and general person. This would not be obvious to anyone unless you observe him or her day after day. You see the crap they are given, the politics they are embroiled in, the money they must adroitly manage and the thousands of regulations they must adhere to and you wonder how anyone could possibly do it successfully. Her GS-15 salary was very good, but not nearly enough to adequately compensate her for the multidimensional problems thrown at her by the complexity of her job.

People at her level that I observed in the past had certain attributes. First, they were generally promoted to their optimized level of incompetence. Second, they came burdened with inflated egos. In short, power tended to corrupt them and make them ineffectual. It was just the opposite with Susan. Her competence was beyond dispute. As for an ego, she had none that I could detect. She was grounded, realistic, pragmatic and empowering. She saw herself as one of the guys. She rarely issued orders. Rather she spent most of her time closely listening. She saw her job as giving people like me the resources we needed to excel. She fought for those resources tenaciously day after day. How could we not give her our best in return? I certainly gave her mine, or aspired to do so when my human limitations encroached.

She is all this and just delightfully fun to be around. I am one of many of people in the office who frequently go home to difficult family situations. Susan was almost always sunny. She hummed in part to let you know she was coming to see you. She laughed a lot. She drew you into intimacy by sharing juicy bits of gossip.

She is also incredibly brilliant and incredibly perceptive. I don’t know how I know since I keep my cards pretty close to my chest for the most part. But somehow I know that she knows who I am inside better than any person I know, including my spouse. And it’s all cool. She sees the warts and pimples but chooses to focus only on someone’s positive aspects. Mostly, she is filled with honest mirth. She is someone who in spite of her stressful job has this ability to be happy almost all the time.

She also hired me, for which I am eternally grateful, in part because I got to know her as a result. She brought me into an organization that let me use my talents to their fullest extent. She allowed me to make major changes to the system that I manage, and take it into whole new directions that have proven very successful. She cajoled her management to support me and played a sophisticated ground game to make sure the resources I needed were there. She saw me through a few personal crises and coached me through various issues with people on my team. She channeled not just excellence on the job but modeled how to live a happy and successful life.

Come Monday when I return to work though her office will be vacant, her pictures off the walls, her name off the door, her email accounts removed and her electronic accesses taken away. There will be no daily sunny presence with a smile on her face humming in the hallways. There will be no one with quite her wit and style to banter with. Work will feel more like work and less like fun.

I’m sure we’ll keep in touch, send each other the occasional personal email, see each other at sporadic functions like holiday parties, but of course it won’t be the same. She has moved on and so must I. All relationships must end, or at least change to be a shadow of their former self. But god, I will miss having her around. Like Professor Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, I find that I’ve grown accustomed to her face.

Transitions, Part 3

When it gets a little too comfortable or too familiar, life seems to conspire to kick you in the pants. If you are seventeen going on eighteen, this is the time of year when you are about to graduate high school and are thrust, usually with some trepidation, onto a larger and more chaotic adult stage. If you are a civil servant like me, age 54 going on 55 next year, you are pondering a looming transition called “retirement”.

For me, the transition from high school to college was more welcome than scary. Unlike the singer Vitamin C (Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick) whose high school memories must be pretty good, mine were anything but that. My fond memories extend primarily to a few teachers who inspired me. The high school I attended did not. I felt bound for success elsewhere whereas my apathetic classmates seemed bound for a surfboard and lives full of loafing. While I hope they did not turn out that way, thirty-five years later I still cannot be bothered to go to my high school reunions. I’m not sure any of my classmates’ names would even ring a bell.

In my spare time at the church I attend I facilitate a youth group. They are a tight, eclectic and interesting bunch, and one of the few reasons I have to hope for our future. It would be hard to overstate how intelligent, compassionate and interesting they are as near adults. It’s unclear to what extent our church molded them, but as long-term recipients of years of religious education this group of high school students have bonded amazingly well. And yet next month they will be handed diplomas and will likely never see each other again, at least as a group. Before they tackle the world of adulthood, they get to lead a youth service planned for later this month and give the congregation their thoughts on this transition. Tonight, as one of the adult advisors, I get to facilitate planning for the service.

Meanwhile, I get to ponder transitions of my own. I am now a year away from being able to retire. I doubt I will retire the day I turn eligible, but it is strange to be able to count when that date could be in months rather than years. While no one is forced to retire when they are eligible, I am beginning to wonder if I will be nudged, if not shoved in that direction. The federal workforce, already actually quite lean (about 150,000 fewer employees than when Ronald Reagan was president) is likely to get leaner in the years ahead. I will be watching legislation carefully. I suspect Congress will be eyeing our pensions fund for cuts. I doubt I will come out unscathed. I may find it advantageous to retire to avoid pension cuts that might happen if I hung around. My pension may be cut regardless. I sense a job transition is ahead for me and it is likely to be sooner rather than later.

Knowing that my time as a civil servant is likely quite limited, last week I was pondering if I should attend a conference in June. I can go myself or send someone else instead. Perhaps I should go and consider it a perk of the job. On the other hand, if I were to retire within the next few years, the value of my attendance would be diminished. Instead, I should send others further away from retirement instead. This is one small sign of many that another transition is looming for me.

Just like the seniors in our youth group so used to hanging with each other that their pending separation is likely a cause of anxiety, I am having mixed feelings about my retirement. If you are happy with your work, why retire? I work with a wonderful staff of dedicated professionals, we do excellent work and unlike many jobs, the meaning of our work is quite obvious and easily measured. Moreover, I am paid very well to do it. In short, I am in my optimal comfort zone, productive and generally happy to do my work. A transition, even for the alleged comfort zone of “retirement”, is not necessarily comforting.

My office

For I know I would miss certain things, like doing excellent and meaningful work. I would also miss my employees and those who work for me who are all wonderful folk. You cannot help but think of them more as friends than colleagues after a while because you see far more of them than you do of any of your friends, including often your spouse. I would miss my boss, who can retire soon herself, my chain of command and the ancillary support staff who supported me. I would miss chatting with Melissa down in the credit union, the wonderful soups in the cafeteria and the opportunities to regularly travel the country on someone else’s dime. I would miss the view from the fifth floor of my office window. At the same time, I know it is pointless to hold onto these things. The institution I am a part of will change with political winds, which are likely to be harsh. People younger than me with arguably more talent are ready to assume my work, and really should. I know I cannot hold onto this good job indefinitely and even if I did it would not stay the way it is.

What would I do to fill the void it would leave in my life? I know I would keep working, at least part time, but I also know whatever I do next is likely to feel anticlimactic. Professionally, I have peaked. Teaching or whatever next career I pick will probably have its own unique challenges. Like the seniors in our youth group, I too will have to step into my own murky future.

Just like our youth, which get to try to enjoy the ephemeral feeling of a last month together before they step across a one-way threshold, I too sense a one-way threshold ahead of me and I sense I will be taking that step sooner rather than later. Life is mostly about change. It is sometimes good, sometimes bad but most often a mixed experience. It’s about moving outside your comfort zone whether you like it or not if life gets too comfortable and embracing the less comfortable. Ideally retirement is about moving toward a more comfortable zone, but there is also a great deal of comfort from forty years of meaningful work in the workforce. Finding a next job, albeit a part time one will be in some measure a move back toward the comfort of the workforce. My boss will likely be younger than me, my coworkers probably far less fun to be with.

And the comforting view outside my window is definitely going to change.

Am I overpaid?

The Washington Post, the newspaper of record in this federal city and whose suburbs I inhabit decided to poll the country. The subject: me, or more specifically, the 1.9 million employees of Uncle Sam, and whether Joe and Jane Citizen thought we were overpaid and under qualified for our jobs. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the country does not have much good to say about us. Fifty two percent of Americans surveyed said people like me were overpaid, while only 33 percent thought we were paid the right amount. More than a third of those surveyed thought we were less qualified than those with similar positions in the private sectors.

Opinions, of course, may or may not have a basis in fact, but particularly in a hurting economy, it’s understandable that so many would feel miffed at us feds. After all, our jobs are very secure and come with a pension component (although it is significantly less for those hired since 1984). We can select from a broad cafeteria plan of health insurers and Uncle Sam will pick up somewhere between half and two thirds of our premium. We even have 401-Ks or their equivalent, something called the Thrift Saving Plan.

With nearly thirty years as a civil servant, I’ve seen this show before. It often peaks before elections when Republicans are trying to get back in power. Federal employees make easy targets. It’s not like we are likely to dissent, at least not very much, and we certainly cannot go on strike, as it is illegal. So we make for convenient piñatas right before important elections. Republicans are making snarling noises about cutting our inflated salaries once they control Congress again.

In fact, few in the private sector even consider federal employment, in spite of the obvious benefits. Why? Well, federal employment has an undeserved reputation for not being meaningful work. Citizens seem to understand that when you join the civil service no matter how much talent you have, your salary will be limited by law. So why try harder when recognition will come mostly in the form of pats on the back, rather than cash in the pocket?

There is no question that President Obama lives quite comfortably on his $400,000 a year salary. Only four elected officials make more than $200,000 a year, including the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This is obviously not small change, but with a 1.9 million federal workforce, that says a lot. The Senior Executive Service consists of about a few thousand high level managers, often with political appointments, who earn about $146,000 to $200,000 a year. As a percent of the total workforce though, the SES is tiny.

The “rank and file” civil service workforce consists of people like me, usually attached to the General Schedule. Under the General Schedule, the complexity and responsibility of your work is assessed at a grade somewhere between GS-1 and GS-15. The median grade is probably close to a GS-11. A person at the GS-11 level typically has a college degree along with at least several years of specialized experience. Within each grade, there are ten steps, and steps bring a higher salary (but not a promotion) based on satisfactory performance. You never get above a Step 10. A GS-11 Step 5 makes about $57,000 a year, but the actual amount depends on the area where your job is located. Obviously the cost of living in Washington D.C. is a lot higher than in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A GS-11 Step 5 in the Washington D.C. region is making about $71,000 a year.

Since the public thinks we are so overpaid, you would think the competition would be keen for most jobs. In some cases, there are hundreds of applicants, but often the list of qualified candidates is small. Sometimes there are no qualified applicants at all! This is because many jobs are quite specialized. For example, where do you go to find new hires for inspectors for the Transportation Safety Board? Not a whole lot of us can piece together the causes of transportation accidents. There are many jobs like this in the federal government. There are also many jobs like mine in the computer and information technology area. So it’s easier for me as a supervisor to find qualified applicants.

After 28 years, I have progressed from a GS-4 clerk typist to a GS-14, one step below the highest rank in the civil service. In the interim, I acquired a ton of experience, lots of sterling performance reviews and a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from George Mason University. My salary is in the six-figure range. Am I overpaid? You be the judge.

I am responsible for a large, real-time web site. We serve critical near real-time data, as well as a wealth of historical data used in studies and analyses, from redundant hosting centers so our system never goes down. Flood forecasts are developed from our data and many decisions are made as well that can save lives and minimize property damage. Data constantly streams in and is put on the web and all of it has to be both timely and as accurate as possible. In a typical month the site I manage gets thirty to 50 million successful requests. My employees and me must make sure our frequently queried real-time data is available 24/7/365, including during major storms. I have four employees who report directly to me, and five others whose time I buy, either part time or full time. I make more than $120,000 a year, but less that $130,000 a year. We run the whole operation for about $1.3 million dollars a year. Am I overpaid?

Or take my boss, a program manager. She is a GS-15, the highest you can go in the civil service. She manages twenty to thirty people nationwide, has overall responsibility for her entire program, deals with innumerable reporting requirements, large customer communities with diverse needs, has a fistful of certifications that demonstrate her competency in areas like project management and manages her whole program, worth about $6 million a year. I don’t know her salary, but it is probably between $140,000 and $150,000 a year. Is she overpaid? Could it be that a comparable job in the private sector with this level of visibility and responsibility would pay better? It would not surprise me. I suspect she is underpaid.

Or what about a new employee I recently hired? She hesitated to take the position when offered. Why? It did not pay enough. That’s right, she made quite a bit more in the private sector than she would if she joined the public sector because she would have started as a Step 1. However, I was impressed enough with her qualifications to go through a convoluted process so the government could just match salary in the private sector. Is she overpaid too? That does not seem likely. Now I could have thought like a Republican. I could have saved the government money by hiring someone less competent and maybe at a lower grade. Would this have been a smart thing to do given the complexity of the system I manage and its critical nature? Or would it have been pennywise and pound foolish to do so?

The truth is, at least here in the Washington metropolitan area, it is hard to convince any candidate who does not already live here to take a position. Why? Because of the cost of living, but also because of other negatives, like the Washington area’s legendary traffic jams. If you are lucky enough to work eight-hour days, you often have to tack on another two hours or more for commuting every day. Even GS-15s like my boss live modestly. $140,000 is certainly a lot of money in Sioux Falls, South Dakota but not in Reston, Virginia. If you lust after a good single family house in a respectable neighborhood a few miles from work then be prepared to pay at least $500,000 for the privilege, and this price is after the recent decline in home prices.

I do not think that civil servants are overpaid; I think we are fairly compensated. A GS-11 Step 5, my hypothetical “average” civil servant, doubtless depends on a spouse’s income, or is living a very modest lifestyle because $71,000 is not enough income to purchase even a townhouse around here, unless you want to drive two hours to get home. I am certainly grateful for the steady income, in good economic times or bad, as well as our benefits, which twenty years ago were seen as good, but due to the decline in many private industry benefits, now look excellent. Nevertheless, I also know no matter how innovative and creative I am, I cannot be a public servant and make $200,000 a year. The same is not true in the private sector. You can ascend to salary levels as high as your talent takes you. Any performance bonus I get is likely to be in the 1.5% to 3% of salary range, if I earn anything at all. It certainly helps pay some bills and an indulgence or two, but it won’t make me independently wealthy.

So some perspective please. If federal salaries seem higher than the median private industry salary, it’s not necessarily because we are overpaid. It is because the government does not need the equivalent of a lot of busboys, retail workers, truck drivers and hotel maids on its payroll. (Because that kind of work is very generalized, it is typically outsourced.) Most federal jobs require rather specialized skills and the vast majority of us have bachelors or graduate degrees because we need that level of education to perform competently in our jobs.

If you are unhappy with the way government is run, look to policymakers. They decide what government shall be. My job is to deliver it and I am glad to do so at a fair wage and to the maximum extent of my talents.