THE DESK –I am going through a box full of old love letters I wrote from New York City to my future wife back at UT. It was my first job as a journalist and I wrote her, proudly, that I was making $104.55 a week, minus taxes, etc. Take home: $88. Today that isn’t much money, but remember it was a long time ago. Indeed, when I got my first big scoop, I ran into the newspaper’s City Room, yelling, “Stop the chisels!” The reason we are discussing my paltry salary is that incomes in America vary greatly, but what is anyone worth? As much as you can get.
People become worked up over the enormous salaries of star athletes. Astros’ pitcher Dallas Keuchel has turned down the club’s offer of $17.9 million – yes, $17.9 million – for one year, in hopes he can do better elsewhere. In basketball, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors this season is being paid $37.5 million (I’m rounding off these millions). The Houston Rockets’ James Harden gets $28.3 million. Harden’s teammate, Chris Paul, signed a four-year $159.7 million contract with an annual average salary of almost $40 million. The Rockets entire payroll is $135.8 million, but fifth from the top. In football, the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan is the highest paid quarterback in the NFL, with an average annual salary of $30 million. Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins is second with a salary of $28 million per season. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is now the third highest-paid QB in the league at $27.5 million per season. For the 2014-2015 season, the minimum salary in the National Football League is $465,000 for a rookie. Average length of an NFL player’s career: 3.3 years. So get it while you can, Bubba. We must remember that these enormous salaries are what the owners offered, figuring that they will get back far more. After all, these billionaires didn’t get rich by being stupid, unless you consider Bud Adams, who inherited an oil company. As for the athletes, are they supposed to say, “No, I’m really not worth that much.”? Then shove some chips back across the table?
How much are you worth? If it’s not enough, move. At the top I mentioned my first salary as a journalist. The late Houston Mayor Bob Lanier started out after UT as a sports reporter for the Austin American (as it was then called). One night he was walking by the desk of the aged sports editor and happened to see the editor’s paycheck on his desk. This veteran was making exactly $14 more a week than Lanier, causing him to go to law school, and ended up as mayor of Houston, living in mansion on River Oaks Blvd. with a tennis court. I once asked him if the story about the paycheck on the desk was true.
“That’s a damned lie!” he stormed. “I broke into his desk.”
How much do our members of Congress receive in pay and pensions? It has been stated through social media that members could retire with the same pay after only one term, and that members do not pay Social Security taxes. Wrong on both counts. They don’t get a full pension after one term or several. And they pay Social Security taxes. Do you ever wonder who has the time and energy to spread such tripe? There is the angry old man on his computer in a bathrobe in his basement late at night passing on rumors and paranoid tales like these. Hey, angry old man, find something productive to do: adopt a highway. The rank-and-file in both houses of Congress are paid $174,000 per year. Leaders get more. Their pensions are the same as all federal employees using a complicated system that, like many private pension plans, is based on how much they put in. Are they worth $174,000? That depends on how your member votes.
Benjamin Franklin thought members of Congress should work for free, but Ben was rich. So was Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who proposed that members should be paid $5 a year so that no one would take the job for profit. (A sideline: I was visiting Charleston, South Carolina, and a distinguished looking gentleman approaches me on the sidewalk and asks if I liked Charleston. I say yes and mention that the Pinckneys are buried in that cemetery a few feet away. Signed this and that, philanthropists, etc. I explain the family history. As he leaves, he sticks out his hand and smiles. “I’m Albert Pinckney.” Note to self: Be careful when you blow, blowhard.)
Supreme Court justices are unique. As bait to get them to leave the bench, they are the only federal employees who can retire at full salary. In order to qualify for a full pension, retiring justices must have served for a minimum of 10 years provided the sum of the justice’s age and years of Supreme Court service totals 80. Since most of them are pushing the century mark, this covers a majority opinion. Associate Justices of the Supreme Court earn an annual salary of $255,300, while the Chief Justice is paid $267,000. There’s a catch: in order to retain that full salary, if said judges are in decent health, they can be called on to work until they die. I’m not sure if any of them have been recalled. Texas legislators are paid $7,200 plus a per diem of $190 to cover their bar bills. They meet for 140 days every two years. The feeling is that Texas would be better off if they met for two days every 140 years.
Remember the story of the plumber fixing a guy’s sink, and the guy says, “How much will that be?” The plumber replies, “Four hundred dollars.” The guy explodes: “Four hundred dollars! I’m a lawyer and I don’t charge that much.” The plumber says, “Neither did I when I was a lawyer.”
Ashby works at email@example.com