SOME YEARS AGO a self-made man, prosperous and religious, well known in his community and cited many times for his civic works, was convicted of sexually molesting little boys and sent to jail. I was appalled at the sentence, thinking that jail would do the man no good when what he really needed was psychiatric help. I set out to write a column but was dissaded from doing so by a colleague. No one wants to read a defense of perverts, he said.
Now I feel in somewhat the same situation. I am about to write a column in defense of federal workers and I know -- know as sure as God made little green apples -- that no one wants to read it. I am going to say that they are picked on, not appreciated, scape-goated and being treated unfairly by that nicest of all nice guys, Ronald Wilson Reagan.
I wonder sometime if Reagan believes what he intimates about the worth of federal workers or he simply knows a good thing when he sees one. They are, after all, wonderful scapegoats and politicians have been using them for years the same way comedians use mother-in-laws. But like mother-in-laws, they are funny or incompetent only in the abstract. Chances are the ones you know are good at what they do.
No matter. The federal worker is perceived to be some sort of lethargic slob who sits at his desk, cutting out paper dolls, passing paper, taking long coffee breaks, listening to the phone ring and counting the days until retirement -- at an imagined pay-and-a-half. He is compared always with the wonderfully efficient worker in the private sector who, afraid of being fired and determined to help his company turn a profit, comes in early, works late and never goes home with so much as a paper clip in his pocket.
It is for this reason that president after president has run on a platform of making the bureaucracy more efficient, which is to say more like private enterprise. Jimmy Carter was going to clean up the bureaucracy and so was Ronald Reagan. All they have both managed to do, though, is kill morale and the two of them have combined to hold down federal salaries, especially those in the highest grade. These people have not received a raise in 5 1/2 years and all that President Reagan has proposed for the federal work force in general is 4.8 percent. In an era of double-digit inflation, that means a net loss of income.
No one (certainly not I) would argue that there are no deadbeats in the federal system, or that the bureaucracy's attempt to protect the good as well as the bad worker hasn't tarnished the image of the entire work force. But to a degree, that is true also of private industry, especially where there are unions.
In fact, those of us who work and have worked in the private sector know that it is not all that it is cracked up to be. I worked places where overtime was considered an employe right, where the boss used the mailroom to send books to his daughter in college, where some employes took bribes, where no one would answer the phone before 9 or after 5, where files were routinely lost and where no one -- almost no one, anyway -- cared at all about the customers they were were being paid to serve.
This is true of large hunks of American industry. Just today, the information operator in Washington told me the New Republic magazine did not exist. (Maybe he reads The Nation magazine.) GM put the wrong engines in Oldsmobiles. In each case, the common problem probably was size. These corporations, like the federal government, experience problems having to do with the scale of their operations. They are too big to properly supervise employes. They are too big to have personal relationships with their workers and they are too big for their workers to feel a personal stake in the fortunes of the company.
These companies have much the same problems as the federal government, yet people don't blame the workers -- or don't only blame the workers. Instead, they recognize managerial and institutional problems. When it comes to the federal government, though, the problems become personalized and the bogey man that gets trotted out is always the federal worker. He and she are blamed for things over which they have no control. It's unfair. They deserve a decent raise, but if they don't get that, the least they could get is some respect.