Thursday, April 28, 2011

Public service really is (at least sometimes) service to the public

I am a graduate research assistant at the university where I am a graduate student (there's a redundancy in there somewhere, but I've a cold and don't feel like correcting it or making this already-too-long sentence as pithy as it ought to be). My job involves processing a collection of papers from a local governmental agency and as a result, I run across a lot of papers from the Cook County government. (N.b.: 1) I am not saying I am processing the official papers of the Cook County government papers, just that I run across some such papers in the course of my processing; 2) for those who don't know, Cook County is where Chicago is; so it's a pretty important county.)

Almost nothing that I see is particularly interesting. Indeed, much of it is quite boring: I'm talking land deeds, legal descriptions of property, workaday correspondence about such exciting matters as plats of wells and highway easements. There really isn't anything incriminating, either, despite that county's reputation for corruption. (I don't deny the corruption was there, but I am saying that the evidence for it hasn't made it into the collection I am processing.)

My point is this: much of the work is tedious [see update below], but it's work that someone has to do, and it is work that helps our economy move along. A multitude of things would be much more difficult, or even impossible, if we did not have people, including elected officials, take care of such mundane things.

I write this because I occasionally hear about how public officials really don't perform a public service at all, but simply leech off the public. Their jobs are hard, and not one I would enjoy having. What I mean is, for all the sturm und drang about who's hiring who, who's breaking what election laws, who's caving in to which special interest, there's a lot of hard work that these people are doing and it should at least be recognized.

Of course, there are qualifications: county commissioners and county presidents have lawyers and accountants and deputies at their disposal who are civil servants and who do a lot of the grunt work. I realize that when the county president signs a report on property lines, he or she did not necessarily read or understand it fully. But he or she has to deal with this stuff all day long and is held (rightly) accountable for signing off on it. A lot of government work is dreary and grim.

Of course, also, there are problems. I'm not denying that some very bad things happen. Even without corruption, not all benefit from these practices of government (just ask anyone whose property has been condemned and who didn't receiving anything like a "just compensation," or worse, whose property has been declared a "blight" and received even less). If we factor in the corruption, well....things just get really bad for a lot of people (but pretty good for a few). Finally, even without the corruption or the perverse results and differential benefits of government policy, there's the megalomania of the local politician who wants his or her hands in everything and who wants to mayor? to governor? to president?

But there is a real service provided.

Update 4-29-11: When I wrote above that "much of the work is tedious," I was referring to the paperwork performed by the county-level government officials and not to the work I was doing. Similarly, when I said that such work was "is work that helps our economy move along," I definitely wasn't referring to my job. I'm grateful for it, but it's not the most pressing need of the ages.

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