Is Mitch Daniels Underpaid?

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Haley Barbour says the Indiana governor may need to focus on making money once he leaves the statehouse. Is his $95,000 salary enough?

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Governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana are both due to leave office soon, a subject they discussed in a recent episode of the Ricochet podcast. What should they do next?

For Barbour, the answer is, "Make a lot of money." That was his advice for Daniels, who recently ruled out a presidential run.

HALEY BARBOUR: He's going to have to look at Sherri and the girls and say, "You think I oughta make some money for a change? Marsha thought that was kind of an interesting idea at my house.

MITCH DANIELS: It's true that Haley and I did not pick the optimal 8 years, or 9 or 10 years of our earning lives to go into public service. But I wouldn't trade it. And I know that he wouldn't either.

It seems to me that this is a noteworthy exchange - mostly because Barbour states plainly a mindset that almost every politician shares - even though I don't know exactly how to respond to it.

Here are two options among many:

1) Governor Daniels earns plenty of money in government. His salary of $95,000 per year easily puts him in the top ten percent of earners in America. He earns more than double the median income in Indianapolis, where he works. And unlike the vast majority of Americans, he has the option of living free in the governor's mansion, free transportation to and from work, an expense account, great health benefits for his whole family, a permanent security detail, and a pension. Plus his position as governor creates certain lucrative economic opportunities: he could easily make good money giving speeches, or writing a book, or lecturing at a leading university. The idea that he has sacrificed in order to be governor reflects an out-of-touch, ruling class mindset. Yes, he may work long hours, but he isn't digging ditches. He's doing a job that is psychically rewarding and affords a lot of fringe benefits, prestige being high among them. Plenty of honest, hardworking people would gladly trade places and count themselves lucky. 

2) Let's be real. It's absurd that the Governor of Indiana only makes $95,000 per year. There are graduates of second tier law schools who make more than that right after graduation at jobs where they're mostly combing through discovery documents. Running a state government is comparable to being CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and pay should reflect that. Of course public servants are going to end their careers by cashing out in the private sector if their public service entails a huge opportunity cost in salary. Their friends are all making five or six times as much money while working shorter hours and forgoing all the awful parts of being in the public eye all the time. Do you really expect politicians to be immune to the human tendency to judge well being according to their peer group? And so what if they make more than the average American? Put Joe Six Pack in the statehouse, have him work from 9 to 5 with weekends off, and see how well an average person performs in a high pressure job that requires exceptional intelligence and stamina. Plus, fairness is beside the point. The taxpayer should set salary in a way that attracts the best candidates and incentivizes them against even soft corruption.

Where do you stand?  

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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