by Conor Friedersdorf

In my post on how professional elites are recruited and hired, the line I wrote that's getting the most attention is as follows:

Though it isn't defensible, it is unsurprising that a lot of people who eschew offers to work at these firms, favoring public sector work instead, imagine that they are making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work. The palpable sense of entitlement some of these public sector folks exude is owed partly to how few of 'our best and brightest' do eschew the big firm route (due partly to increasing debt levels among today's graduates, no doubt).

A reader writes:

Can you explain more about why it is not "defensible" for people who have turned down the big law/corporate route for government to feel some pride about it?  I mean, people who do that shouldn't be smug pricks about it, but if you're giving up money and professional standing for public service, you're not allowed to console yourself with just a little self-righteousness? Anonymous please, but I'm a Harvard law grad who was a summer associate and turned down all my offers for a government job that paid less than half the salary (which made my peers think I was defective in some way), and I'm still in Club Fed eight years later.  I made the right choice for me -- decent hours, more substantive and interesting work and responsibility, usually on the side of good instead of evil, and my wife and I make enough in our govt jobs that we have to worry about the AMT.  But as my friends from law school, some of whom were idiots, make partner and sprint ahead in the money chase, am I showing a sense of entitlement if I feel a tinge of envy? The self-righteousness is what gets me out the door in the morning....

I am very sympathetic to this person, and I must concede that self-righteousness can be a good thing if it gets him out of the door in the morning. In my experience, however, an excess of this attitude causes some of the better compensated workers in DC and its environs (state capitals too, for that matter) to conceive of their very employment in the public sector as a favor to the taxpayer. The core of the problem is that rather than comparing themselves to their fellow Americans, appreciating that they're better compensated than the vast majority of them for doing relatively enjoyable work, and being cognizant of their privileged position and the special trust it entails, this subset of professionals compare themselves to a tiny elite, correctly judge that they're worse off, and justify all manner of behavior accordingly.

To wit, another reader writes:

What you completely left out of your rant about “elites” is their grades and the difficulty of those programs. Firms that wine and dine summer associates don’t just hire any schmuck who gets into Harvard and skates by with Cs because his dad is a senator. They’re wining and dining the top tier of honor students in some of the most difficult and renowned programs in the world. People who can get a 4.0 at Ivy League grad schools are people who can work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, for months on end, and not complain about it. Doing what these people do is so brutal that movies have been made about it. If you resent those elites, if you really can’t grasp why people will spend so much to have them on board, it’s because you don’t know what it’s like to work that hard nor do you know what those people are really capable of.

And for those elite people working in the public sector really is a huge sacrificenot just financially, but mentally. They’re the best and brightest, and when they go into the public sector, everyone around them is not. They’re getting paid crap for putting up with the people who couldn’t hack it in the big firm jobs. Meanwhile they know their career advancement is limited because being in government keeps them from doing the fund-raising work that gets political appointees those really juicy jobs. And no matter where they go half the people they meet automatically assume they’re just lazy crooked asshole government workers. Why should people degrade themselves like that when they can work in the private sector and be celebrated?

One thing that's surprised me as I've watched folks in my age cohort move from college to professional schools to highly paid careers is how rapidly they shift their baseline for what is normal. People who were happily buying Natural Light and eating microwaved Maruchan Ramen a few years back earnestly insist that their $165,000 salary isn't so much when you think about it, what with taxes, the cost of living in their city, the expense of dry cleaning... and that they really need a doorman building ("Do you know how hard it is to get packages delivered when you work 80 hours a week!") and a fancy car ("I can't show up to work events in a Hyundai"). I am talking about people who haven't even had kids yet.

I understand how this blinkered assessment of reality happens, and how it spreads in social circles so that even law school friends who aren't making big money find themselves thinking of big firm salaries as normal. I also see how this unhealthy attitude helps explain the middle-aged DC lawyers who started out in politics to do good, congratulated themselves for forgoing big law firm salaries, and justified their eventual turn at the public trough by thinking, "I know how the game works, I've sacrificed more than most to do good work, and sure, my 26-year-old self would've considered what I'm about to do unethical, but I'm tired of being the only one who isn't playing the game, and now I've got a family to think about."

Below the fold, other reactions to that passage:

One reader writes:

Why the snide tone?  In fact, it is a sacrifice (for lawyers, and, frankly, for just about anyone) to work in the public sector, given, at least as a baseline, that my work hours are roughly equivalent to those of my colleagues in private practice, my salary a fraction of theirs, and my income-to-debt ratio inequitable by comparison.  I don't think I have a "palpable sense of entitlement," though given your analysis of the private sector, it stands to reason that I'd be entitled to one if I did.  (Not to mention that my work is constitutionally mandated, and so, along with United States postal workers, federal legislators, the federal judiciary, and the President, I think I have a decent foundation for the sense that what I do matters -- regardless of what the kids over at Wachtell Lipton are up to.)

 I very much agree that this work matters. And re-reading the passage, I regret the tone.

Says another reader:

My mother decided to take the PhD route instead of the law route, getting her doctorate in social policy from an "elite" school in that field (Brandeis / Heller School).  Over her 35 year career, she has been a research & policy analyst for the state - in the juvenile justice bureau of the DA and the family crimes bureau of the AG, a researcher for a prestigious private firm, as well as working for an academic policy institute.  For the last 4 years, she has been one of the few researchers with any high level experience (perhaps the only research analyst) for the Department of Youth Services here in Massachusetts, a bureau that handles juveniles who commit crimes.  She has never adopted any of the entitlement you have mentioned, but has been an unusually devoted and dedicated public servant as well as being underpaid for that matter.  In a strange coincidence, she emailed today to inform me that due to draconian budget cuts at the state level, she is being laid off.

And another reader:

I do take serious issue with your view of those who "eschew" the corporate world in favor of working in the public interest.  These individuals forfeit up to 2/3 of their potential income to help those who need, but cannot afford, the services of an attorney, or to take a commission in the armed forces, or to ensure that our criminal laws are properly executed.  To dismiss that as "imagined sacrifice," is unfortunate.  Would you say the same of someone who donated 60% of his or her earnings to worthy causes?  Without these young men and women willingly accepting a much less lavish lifestyle than their peers will live, the "American divide between elites and non-elites" would only grow wider, along with the gap in the quality of legal representation available to those on opposite sides of the divide. 

And yet another reader:

It is difficult to offer analysis without understanding what you mean: how is this "palpable sense of entitlement" exhibited, and are you suggesting that, even if such a sentiment exists, it somehow impairs the public sector work performed by these professionals?  How so?  And if you simply don't like what you perceive as the supposed attitude  of Ivy League graduates in the public sector, but that persona does not adversely affect the quality of their work, then what is your point?

I disagree with both your premises and your inferences.  First, I know few people who feel that "our best and our brightest" necessarily are represented by holders of Ivy League degrees.  Many of the "best and brightest" people I know went elsewhere for their degrees; some of them possess no post-secondary degree at all; and some just happen to have Ivy League degrees.  Among the latter cohort, I never have found it more typical to find a "palpable sense of entitlement" than among the others.     

And what exactly is your foundation for asserting that "no doubt" these supposedly entitled professionals are "eschew[ing] the big firm route" "due partly to increasing debt levels among today's graduates"? Can you  show that more of this "eschewing" is going on today, statistically, than, say, among the Harvard Law School graduates of 1985?   Due to aid that is structured as grants rather than loans, my children will graduate with less debt than either my husband or I did.  My progeny attending Ivy League schools have received by far the most generous grants compared to siblings attending other schools.  Are proportionally more Ivy League professional school graduates even choosing the law firm route than in years past?  Indeed, can you show that offers of employment both in big firms and in the public sector even are being sought by the same new graduates, let alone weighed equally in their minds?  Your assumption is that a new graduate will seek both types of employment, either foregoing public sector work merely for money or martyring herself thereafter by lording that "choice" over those who do not possess Ivy League degrees.  Even the personality type who is inclined thus to crow probably doesn't have either the audience or the time once engaged in real day-to-day professional practice on behalf of the government.      

I have been lucky.  I have been able to sustain a family and build my children's educational funds by doing what I love to do.  We have never possessed or wanted lavish things.  I did not "eschew the big firm route": I knew it was not for me, and I knew that government pay would be the price of my career calling. I never imagined I was "making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work"--which was, by the way, far more difficult for me to find, as a new law school graduate,  than a law firm job would have been.   It would have been an enormous personal sacrifice to do a kind of work I did not want to do, and in which I had no intellectual interest, for the sake of a bigger paycheck.   

I seriously considered only two career choices: joining the FBI as a Special Assistant, or working as a prosecutor.  Neither I nor any of the hundreds of public sector attorneys I have worked with has made a show of "eschew[ing] offers to work at these firms": as with many professional jobs in the public sector,  there exists no law firm cognate for what I wanted to do with my professional life.  Do you truly think Ivy League graduates--or anyone else in daily professional practice--make a habit of exuding "entitlement" as they carry on with their work?  Do you think anyone cares where I got my degrees?  In twenty-five years of practice, no one has even asked.    

Thanks to everyone who wrote in on this one, whether to agree or to set me straight.

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