The recent wage dispute between Mayor Jerry Sanders and the San Diego firefighters brings up fundamental issues in respect to how government should run. One strain of the recent debate has revolved around normative issues like “fairness” and “equity” and the fact that more than a third of firefighters make over $100,000 and can retire with a generous pension at 50.

To me, these kinds of debates start one down a slippery and dangerous path.

When wages are thought about as a function of fairness and equity it becomes quickly apparent that two truisms exist — the vast majority of people think they are underpaid and think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. With these beliefs nearly universal, the exertion of power becomes the only way to sort out who is right and determine how scarce resources should be distributed. Government becomes a battleground between various groups who use levers of power to exert their demands — either for more compensation, to make up for the “lack of stock options in the public sector” or to “sock it to overpaid public sector workers who can retire 15 years before the rest of us working stiffs.”

It really isn’t too much of a reach to say that when we talk about fairness when distributing scarce resources. It isn’t too far until we are talking about asking “from each according to ability and to each according to his needs” as well as the kind of wallpaper that would look good at the dachas of party officials.

That is why a second way of resolving this debate is so attractive — using market signals to determine what wages are needed to attract and retain quality employees. Is recruitment a problem? Are too many of our employees quitting? Is morale so low that productivity is suffering?

Now I believe the answer to these justifies the mayor’s course of action. Perhaps I am wrong. I would hope today we could have a civil discussion about the questions posed above (I promise to respond often) because I fundamentally believe that when you talk about fairness when setting wages, one can never answer that question objectively and, instead, its resolution is determined solely through the use of pure political power.


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