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The Caliber of People Serving in Government

March 30, 1985

Reading the article (Times, March 4) about the return of former Atty. Gen. William French Smith to his home in San Marino, one comment caught my special attention. I quote from the article:

". . . his tenure in office altered his earlier opinion that the government is populated by people who sit on their hands (at least in the Department of Justice) . . . I have been comforted by the caliber of people government can attract at both the career-level . . . the political-appointee level . . ."

Well, well, well. Smith dropped his guard for a moment and departed from the anti-government rhetoric of his party and cohorts. As a person with a past career in county and state public service, it was rewarding to witness a bit of the truth slip out in contrast to the usual barrage of banal comments motivated by political expediency and/or strategy.

California's merit system is superior to the federal system because the examination process is more objective and stringent. As I recall, we--those of us who had achieved some administrative responsibility--would choose incoming state employees from the top three persons from a list of applicants who had successfully passed both written and oral examinations. Those selected were few indeed. Those not selected represented a large portion of citizens who did not meet the competitive standards of the California merit system. I suppose many of them had no choice but to turn to the private sector for employment, or perhaps with further effort and improvement of skills, did eventually gain a position in public service.

Why do I write this letter? Well, the American people have been "programmed" by the conservative party in power, by much of the press, and many private sector spokespersons to serve their own narrow ends. By denigrating government employees and government service, they have gained political power to use the "government" as they see fit--mostly to help the already favored and advantaged to the detriment of the lower-income and disadvantaged citizens, and to build up the military establishment for the huge monetary gains that come with that "game."

Of course there are some mediocre government employees, and of course bigness and bureaucracy can be a problem, and of course sunset laws and other measures can be helpful, but from my knowledge, and in my time, the best and the brightest often went into government service.

Naturally, more of these employees came from historically disadvantaged ethnic or racial groups--because the merit system gave them an even chance. After all, there is a large body of wealth and economic and social power that is inherited (read Lester Thurow's "Zero Sum Society" for the statistics), and no doubt many of these persons are bright and capable, often with superior educations, and it makes sense for them to stay with their inherited advantage.

I would also admit that the private sector attracts that special breed that we like to describe as "entrepreneurial" types. Buy or make something for a dollar--sell it for two or three. That, indeed, is the only way to make a pile of money and there are great tax advantages under our present system. That's fine. Our society allows for all kinds of personalities and forms of expression. It seems to me that we diminish some of the best in our value system by irresponsible political lies--or half-truths--about our government employees.

Those of us who have had a lifelong career in public service, under competitive conditions, certainly resent having a whole life's effort torn down by shallow, opportunistic political rhetoric. Your comments were appreciated, Mr. Smith! I.A. ABKIN

Santa Barbara

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