Friday, 25 November 2011

Knowledge Is Power

Quite the dustup on Twitter today over whether or not Peter Mansbridge's salary should be publicly disclosed.  I came out on the side of the firmly against.

Emmett Macfarlane surprised me when he tweeted: "I am in favour of a 'sunshine' list for the entire fed govt, just like Ontario's." and quickly countered my reply with "People arguing a sunshine list doesn't "do" anything. Transparency is an end in itself"

I don't agree that Transparency is in and of itself a public good.  Whenever the public desires transparency it does need extra justification.  In the case of personal information I firmly believe (to paraphrase Carl Sagan) that extraordinary claims to individuals' private data requires extraordinary proof of public good.

When it comes to the individual salaries of public sector employees, I do not see any public value or public good in having that knowledge.  The problem with a salary is that it is highly subjective.  Many factors dictate what an employee is worth including skills, length of service, market employee works in, rarity or demand for skills and execution of said skills.  That's a small part of a much bigger list.  These and many other factors are what dictate the salaries managers approve for their employees.  This is why CBC hires managers, they are specialists in this area.  Do you have equal knowledge and ability as CBC management and as such are qualified to second guess their decisions? I highly doubt it.

If we want to know the salary of Peter Mansbridge, for that knowledge to have meaning we would need to know the justifications managers used for that salary.  Otherwise it is just a number.  A big number that is likely quite large in comparison to the majority of Canadians.  But that would be true for any anchor of a national news broadcast. So why would we need to only know Peter Mansbridge's salary and none of his peers in the private sector?  If we were to know his salary what would we do with that knowledge?

Knowing someone's salary gives you power over that individual.  Like any power, it should be used for good, for the betterment of all.  When it comes to salaries, I just don't trust society to be responsible with that knowledge.  We are a vain, petty, jealous, vicious species and when it comes to money all our worst traits come to the fore. 

But even if we were pure of intent and purpose, what does that knowledge give us?  What would it change or enable?  I honestly cannot think of a thing.  Feel free to prospose something in the comments.  Expand my knowledge here because I am drawing a complete blank.  This is why I feel that such knowledge would be abused.  When positives are absent, negative consequences will abound.

As voters we do have a right to know how well our tax dollars are being spent.  But that can only be done through comparitive analysis with similar private sector organizations.  Does the CBC have significantly higher or lower mangement costs than private interests such as CTV, Global, etc.?  That knowledge has value as it offers an opportunity to weigh the investment being made.  But that valuation is done not with individual salary data, but through the aggregate of all expenses.  Simply put, to evaluate the worth of CBC, we evaluate the CBC as a whole, not by micromanaging individual salaries.

So if you still believe that as a taxpayer you are entitled to know the salaries of public sector employees, please explain why you believe that and what you would do with that knowledge and power.  The answer "Because that is my money" doesn't cut it.  It isn't your money anymore, it ceased to be yours the moment the government collected it.

Give me the extraordinary evidence that such knowledge is a public good.


Ken Breadner said...

It's only a public good if it's pervasive. By which I mean NOBODY'S salary should be secret. It's only money: what's so shameful about that? Or maybe it might be a tad discomfiting for it to be public knowledge that Beau Prioleau on Mahogany Row makes, not ten, not a hundred, but two thousand times the hourly wage of Joe Schmo way down below. Or perhaps that Mary makes seventy percent of what Harry does for doing the same job. Bring it all forward and I've no doubt a lot of sleaze would melt in the light of day.

Catelli said...

Google ate my long winded reply. This one will be much briefer.

While you have solved the fairness issue by applying salary exposure to all, I don't think you have supplied sufficient good to overcome the harm. I don't think people are ashamed of what they make, they just don't want to be hassled by those that are jealous of them. I certainly don't want my lazy-ass cousin that I only see once every 5 years hitting me up for "family" loans (as an example). People can use public disclosure for selfish reasons and I propose that is a bigger threat then any proposed good.

Ken Breadner said...

I believe salaries--all of them--are public knowledge in several Scandinavian countries, since everyone's tax return is available online. Then again, Sweden is the country that gears the stiffness of its traffic fines to income--a routine speeding charge might hit you to the tune of a hell of a lot, if you're rich enough. Different culture over there.
That's me, living in the ideal world instead of the world as it actually is. I don't like that world.

Catelli said...

Wouldn't an ideal world eliminate the need for salaries? *grin*

In the case of applying fines in porportion to income, that can be done if we allow provincial courts to query the Canada Revenue database. Ind. income numbers need not be disclosed publicly. If there are goods that can be derived, there probably is a way to apply that good without full disclosure.

But If enough benefits are discovered, keeping salary information private may become moot as the correlation of the public record would allow someone's income to be easily derived.

Marc Bernard said...

Personally, I care far more about how much new prisons and fighter jets will cost, than what Peter Mansbridge makes.

Catelli said...

Well geez, you just had to spoil the discussion by bringing up more important and relevant issues!

Marc Bernard said...

A bigger salary would let me build a bigger bunker... :)