Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII.: Beggarly Compensation of United States Officials. - Taxation and Work: A Series of Treatises on the Tariff and the Currency
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CHAPTER VIII.: Beggarly Compensation of United States Officials. - Edward Atkinson, Taxation and Work: A Series of Treatises on the Tariff and the Currency 
Taxation and Work: A Series of Treatises on the Tariff and the Currency (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892).
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Beggarly Compensation of United States Officials.
A few words may now be rightly given to some of the subjects of our national expenditure and some directions in which our appropriations should be increased.
No other country denies to its principal executive officers a salary which should be adequate to sustain their position with dignity. No man in this country who might not well be ashamed of the miserable compensation of the judicial officers of the national courts, although the salaries of some of the judges of the lower courts were slightly raised by the last Congress. No one who gives any attention to the matter but would try to devise some method for relieving members of Congress from being the errand boys of their districts, by giving them at the public cost the assistance of such secretaries and stenographers as they might require. No business man but would advocate such payment to senators as would relieve those who have not a fortune from the necessity of practising law in the minor courts during the recesses of Congress, or from being in part supported by their business or law partners while in the public service.
Finally, no one who has become as well informed as the writer in regard to the excellence and thoroughness of the work of many of the subordinate officers in the departments would deny them a rate of compensation equal to that of a second-class bookkeeper in a merchant’s counting-room.
A small part of the money annually spent on remote improvements which have little true claim, would suffice to meet these requirements. The money proposed to be given to a few hundred sugar-planters as a bounty would cover a suitable increase to the niggardly standard of the present compensation of our judges and other public officers many times over.
I think the public has no conception of the meanness of the compensation of its principal officers and other public servants. I have before me a list of the chief officials and their assistants of the United States, numbering sixty-four persons: the Vice-President and eight Cabinet officers, $8,000 a year each; nine Supreme Court judges, $10,000 each, with a petty honorarium of $500 in addition to the Chief Justice; ten Circuit Court judges, $6,000 each, $60,000; one Solicitor-General, $7,000; the Treasurer of the United States, who is responsible for the custody and safe keeping of an income of over $1,000,000 a day or more, $6,000; thirty men whose entire payment is $235,500—less than $8,000 a year each.
There is not a lawyer capable of filling their place on the bench, and there is not an official connected with any considerable railroad, bank, insurance company, or other similar corporation, who would not be called upon to make a very large pecuniary sacrifice if named for any one of these places. It would not be difficult to name less than ten men, in business life, each of whom is in charge of affairs of vastly less importance, measured by the mere work to be done than our government officers, whose united salaries would exceed the payment of the thirty principal officers of the United States, omitting the President. I think I could name six men whose salaries exceed the thirty designated officials.
Passing to the grade below, we find Assistant Secretaries, the Comptroller of the Currency and his assistant, the Auditors of the Treasury, the Registrar, the Cashier, and other men holding offices of the utmost importance in the conduct of the vast affairs of the United States, numbering thirty-four, whose aggregate salaries come to $144,800—a trifle over $4,000 each; each one less than the salary of a first-class bookkeeper in any great bank, insurance company, or commercial establishment. It is difficult to express the sense of the utter unfitness and unsuitability of these payments.
The total payment of the sixty-four chief officials of the United States and their principal assistants is $381,300.
The salaries of the subordinates in the many departments of this government are in their wretched proportion corresponding to these payments made to the principal officers.
To one who knows anything—to any one who has even a very slight knowledge of the enormous volume of careful accounting and of thorough work which of necessity must be done in the conduct of the service of this nation, the only wonder is that without any true order of merit in the Civil Service, without any assurance of a tenure of office during efficient and honest service, and without any suitable provision for old age, men can be found who will bury themselves in these departments and do the work of which every merchant can have some conception when reading the condensed statement or account current of the United States with the Tax Payers which has been given in this treatise. It would be well if every one who holds any responsible position in business life would give attention to this matter and picture for himself the amount of work which must have been done in order to enable the writer to condense a complete analysis of the affairs of a nation so as to give it in a single column of a newspaper or on two pages of a magazine. (See Forum, Sept., 1891.) The reform in the Civil Service will not be fully accomplished until this wrong is righted by making an appropriation for the increased compensation of the judicial and executive officers of this government.
A very small part of the annual increase in the revenue derived from liquors and tobacco only would suffice for the purpose.
Having thus dealt with the present burden of taxation in this country, we may rightly consider some of the elements of comparative taxation which will indicate the transcendent position that we may assume when our own taxes are rightly adjusted.
We should never lose sight of the fact that our continental system of Free Trade among the several States of the Union saves us from the necessity of any army except for service as a border police. If our army were equal in magnitude to the average of the armies of the European States at the present time, the number of men in the prime of life who would be taken from productive work would be somewhere between six hundred and eight hundred thousand. Each one of these worse than idle men would consume the product of about one other person, while the time taken for camp duty and drill by men in the reserves would again deplete the product. Therefore our relative burden, measured in terms of work, is not over one-third that of European countries. Where it now requires the year’s work of about eight hundred thousand men to support our government, including our small army and navy as they now are, if we kept up an armed force equal in proportion to the men in active service in the armies and navies of Europe, it would require six to eight hundred thousand soldiers in addition; and as it requires about one other man’s product at the meagre result per man in most European countries to support one soldier, that would add six to eight hundred thousand more. The mere measure in money of the war tax of about one thousand million dollars which is now impoverishing Europe is but a slight indication of the true burden of the passive war which is miscalled peace. The actual European war tax, when computed in terms of work, is the correlative of thrice the whole work which we now devote to the entire support of our government, including pensions.
There are twenty-three million people occupied for gain in this country at the present time—men, women, and young persons, of whom perhaps eighteen million are men, many of them beyond arms-bearing age. The proportion of men in this country of arms-bearing age at the present time does not exceed fourteen million, of whom only about thirty thousand are taken away from productive work for occupation in the army or in the navy. Let it be assumed that our armed forces were increased to seven hundred thousand in active service in preparation for war and seven hundred thousand more supporting this force; that would come to ten per cent. of the workmen of the country who are of arms-bearing age, and would then become only equal to the European war tax.
Even this country could hardly bear such a strain. What must be the necessary effect of such a burden upon countries like Germany, Austria, and Italy, where the capacity or the productive energy of soil and labor combined under present conditions, is not one-half that of this country, with corresponding wages at one-third to two-thirds our rates? No wonder that the people in many parts of Germany are almost unfit to work, and are incapable of the maximum of production; no wonder that a loathsome disease called the pellagra, which is due to insufficient food, has devastated some parts of Italy,—the price that poor Italy pays for freedom from despotism! No wonder that Russia is famine-stricken.
But light is breaking: witness the recent treaty of reciprocity in trade between Austria and Italy—hereditary enemies,—Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and other countries, through which treaty for mutual service perhaps a considerable portion of their forces may be disarmed.
One who can read what is written between the lines of these figures which relate to armies may comprehend the advantage which this country might have over other countries, if we do not pervert our system of taxation so as to diminish our great advantage in productive power.
Light as our burden of taxation relatively is, it is so badly adjusted that its burden is much greater than can be indicated either by a statement in dollars or in days’ work.
What one can readily see in the figures and the facts may, however, disclose what one does not see so plainly.