Up, Up, and Away!

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Don't
be surprised if Congress gets a pay boost this year. The hard-working
freedom-fighters deserve it. They haven't gotten a raise in –
let's see – a year! But before that, their last increase hadn't
been for – twelve months. And the last one before that –
fifty-two weeks. So it'll be four raises in four years.

The
raise will be for $5,000, bringing Congressional pay up to $155,000
yearly. In the last ten years, the boys in Washington have had their
salary increased $20,000. Of course, perks, like living and traveling
allowances, are on top of that.

But
don't consider the possibility of greed. The pay raise is automatic.
The poor guys get it whether they want it or not. The only way they
can prevent it is to vote NOT to accept the automatic pay raise,
but it's usually bundled in with the Treasury Department budget
and thus sort of slips through. And this handy law was no doubt
forced upon them by hostile Martians, against their will.

In
fact, one lawmaker spoke against the raise this year. Rep James
Matheson declared "We can't afford it; last year's government
surpluses are long gone. We are swimming in red ink, we are fighting
a war. We shouldn't be asking the taxpayers to pay us more."
Gee, Mr. Matheson, when did you guys ever ask? And there never was
any "surplus"; that was a bit of bookkeeping legerdemain
that would make Arthur Andersen gasp. And possibly the principal
reason we are "fighting a war" is to pour some money into
a moribund economy, in the hope, always flickering in the government
breast, that the economy can be stimulated by government spending.
(It is well-known, of course, that if we kept and spent our own
money, the economy would tank instantly.)

Personally,
I admire the wisdom that enables the rulers to decide who gets what,
and what's good for the economy, and what isn't. Obviously, pay
increases for Congress are good, while higher fees for me are bad.
For instance, when I check a patient's visual fields today, I am
allowed (yes, allowed!) to charge no more than 49; when I did the
same examination last year, I was allowed to charge 56. Some years
ago, I was allowed (!!) to charge 1500 for cataract surgery (for
a brief period, it was even higher), then it was reduced to 1200,
1100, and today it stands at about 800. I wouldn't mention this
if I had entered into a contract with the government (called "taking
assignment") by which I agreed to charge only what Uncle said
I could. But I haven't entered into any such arrangement. Somehow,
it's been calculated that, for doing the same job, I should accept
– under penalty of fine and/or imprisonment – an ever
smaller number, for the good of the economy, or something. Far be
it from me to complain. I'm sure lawyers are in the same boat. Aren't
they?

Perhaps
I might be excused, however, if I express just a bit of disappointment
at what seems like hypocrisy. I call myself a doctor, because I
am. What do the Congresspersons call themselves? Public servants.
We hear that so often we don't gag when the phrase crosses our ears.
Public servants? What does that mean? If they are public servants,
what are we, the public? The masters, right? What else could we
be? Well, how does it work when the servant tells the master what
he can charge for his services? How does it work when the servant
tells the master what he can or cannot do? And what in the world
is going on when the servants wake the usually-somnolent master
and inform him, "You're going to be paying us more next year,
like you have for the past few years, and will for years to come.
We'll tell you how much."

In
the land of the slave, and the home of the coward, the master says,
"OK, just send the bill. I'll pay it; I always do." In
the hypothetical land of the free and the home of the brave, the
master would say, "Pack up and get out. You're history."

Well,
I can dream, can't I?

July
27, 2002

Dr.
Hein [send
him mail
] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis,
and the author of All
Work & No Pay
, which will soon be available at Amazon.com.

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