I was once the token scientist member of a team that was tasked with buying a research building for a government agency in Northern California. I know nothing about construction or real estate, but was there to describe how much space it takes to install a wet lab, what computer networks are needed for intensive data computations and the like.

The team included a veteran of many such junkets from whom I learned a great deal. I looked at a building that I judged fit for purpose and he said “Come with me”. He opened what looked like a broom closet and pointed to an exposed part of the wall structure. He then said a series of words I can’t precisely recall, but it sounded something like this:

“Do you see those? Those are 9-framis rebolted I-frame lattice Acme doo-hickey beams. They can’t stand cross-twisting sheer forces over 10,000 thingamabobs”.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means that if a Northridge-style earthquake happened here, this building would probably fall over and kill everyone inside it”.

“Good to know” I said.

Climbing on the roof of another building, he walked far from where the realtor directed our team on a bright sunny day and found a pool of water, proving that the roof was warped at the level not visible to my untrained eye. I also learned that day that when a $25,000 air conditioning unit is sitting on a building for sale and looks strangely new and is not even bolted down, you should expect the original, old, broken unit to be back in its usual place by the time you make your purchase.

This talented government professional’s annual salary was less than one third of the commission that the realtor stood to make on the sale of the building. How much money he saved the taxpayer that day would be hard to estimate, but it was certainly many times his annual salary and perhaps as much as his lifetime salary.

Imagine now that “overpaid government workers” like him continue to be denigrated in the public square and continue to have their wages cut. How long will it be until one of them decides that a donation from a slimy realtor to their kid’s college fund is enough reason to overlook a few pesky 9-framis rebolted I-frame lattice Acme doo-hickey beams? Or even more likely, how long will it be before the best professionals leave the public sector, and the only people who will take poor paying (by private sector standards) professional jobs in government are those who don’t even know what a 9-framis rebolted I-frame lattice Acme doo-hickey beams is?

The reality of government is that the spread between what an employee makes and the amount of money they influence can dwarf that seen in the private sector. If you don’t want to see billions of your tax dollars go to waste, as they did on contracts in Iraq, then you should be more than willing to pay top dollar to government professionals who have the brains and integrity to keep a careful eye on your money.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys