Revisiting talent in the public and private sectors

At the end of November, I mused about public sector’s problem of attracting and retaining top-notch talent:

Ben Bernanke’s salary as chairman of the Fed is just over $191,000. Henry Paulson as CEO of Goldman Sachs made $16.4 million according to Forbes. […] I find it very hard to believe that compensation plays no role whatsoever in an individual’s choice of employment.

This all seems terribly obvious to anyone who thinks about it, and Nate Silver has commented on the same phenomenon with a real-world example:

In retrospect, it is clear that regulators did not have the human capital to keep up with the financial industry, and to understand it well enough to be able to exert effective regulation. Given the wage premia that we document, it was impossible for regulators to attract and retain highly-skilled financial workers, because they could not compete with private sector wages. Our approach therefore provides an explanation for regulatory failures.

That is, the excessive wages paid by Wall Street not only lure talent away from other parts of the private sector, but also from the public sector, where employees are subject to government wage controls. The very people who might be the most capable of enforcing regulations on the banks instead wind up working for them.

This is a very real problem. Some of the work that I did in my first job after college at KPMG involved valuing intellectual property in conjunction with international tax disputes. We had our economists, and the IRS had theirs. The thing was, however, that our economists were better than the IRS’s, because if someone at the IRS was any good, we’d hire them away and treble their salary. Part of a good regulatory reform plan, then, would be to increase the salaries paid to employees at institutions like the Fed, the Treasury, the IRS, and the FDIC.

So how do we solve the problem? Tripling an IRS economist’s salary probably means they’re making in excess of $400K/year, which is more than the President makes. Is it feasible to have regulators that make more than the President?

2 thoughts on “Revisiting talent in the public and private sectors

  1. Solution? Put a tax on finance sector excess compensation, and put some of that money into a dedicated fund to hire regulators.

  2. Define “excess”. And you’re not allowed to mention AIG, or use populist arguments. And then tell me who it applies to, and what specific industries it applies to. (Insurance? Commercial banking? Investment banking? Derivatives only?) And then make an argument about why it should only apply to the financial sector as opposed to, say, the software business.

    And then tell me how you’re going to avoid the slippery slope problem where one tax spills over into other taxes.

    And then tell me how much you’re going to pay regulators bearing in mind that the president only makes $400K a year, and the chairman of the Fed only makes $192K/year. And then tell me how you plan to alter the federal payscales to account for your newfound pay structure for your new, whip-smart government regulators, bearing in mind that it’s not uncommon for private sector economists to make $300K/year.

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