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You know what I want (or maybe you don’t)


I confess to getting a good laugh out of the Steve Calabresi blog post Scott discussed yesterday, about how it’s just fundamentally unreasonable to expect a SCOTUS justice to scrape along on nearly $300K per year in salary, without expecting that he’ll accept a petit cadeau or thirty, from billionaires who just can’t stand the sight of so much human suffering.

I know this horse has already been beaten into the equine afterworld, but I can’t resist pointing out just how utterly fantastical the idea is that Clarence Thomas is underpaid in his primary employment. To view the evidence in the light most favorable to the metaphorical defendant, lets stipulate that we won’t even take into account that Thomas has raked in massive sums from a book advance, his wife’s enthusiastic wetting of her beak in the elysian springs of wingnut welfare, and who knows what else. Lets also ignore for the purposes of this analysis that being a SCOTUS justice provides the holder of the sinecure with almost unlimited amounts of psychic income, as various people lavish you with encomia that a mildly cynical person would consider about as valuable as the smile of a prostitute, but which I more than suspect many recipients consider nothing more than the public praise which is their due, after a lifetime of “public service.”

Even after all those extraordinarily generous caveats in favor of the case for paying Thomas, J., a whole lot more scratch, let’s do a simple comparison.

Job A. Supreme Court Justice

Lifetime job security. Odds of being removed are lower than that of the pope getting fired.

Spectacular pension benefits. In Thomas’s case, he’s been working literally for free since he was 59, because that’s the age at which he became eligible to retire at full salary, COLA adjusted ever-more, and all fringe benefits. (Side question for the economists in our midst. If you get exactly the same pecuniary compensation for not doing a job than you do for doing it, does continuing to do it count as a labor in terms of the technical definition of the latter activity?)

Extremely less than strenuous working conditions. Besides the obvious — indoor work with no heavy lifting — a SCOTUS justice can outsource literally 95% of the job to a gigantic bureaucratic complex that, via judicial clerks and Court staff, will do practically all of the job short of voting in conference and sitting on the bench during oral arguments.

Four months of vacation per year.

Job B. Partner at national law firm

Job security: Minimal and getting worse all the time. Partners are now routinely “de-equitized” if they stop producing enough business for the firm.

No pension. Feel free to fund your own retirement via a defined contribution plan, meaning you have to pay for it yourself. Also I hear Medicare Plan B is pretty good, although you have to pay for that too.

Working conditions: Although I’m not saying you’re going to be using a tungsten-carbide drill for the preliminary coalface scouring operations, your job, as office jobs go, really sucks, as it consists of horrible hours often doing mind-numbing work, that nevertheless requires intense concentration lest you screw something up badly enough to get your fellow partners to decide that they don’t want you around any more.

Vacation: You can take as much as you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work, so basically you can’t take vacations, except very occasionally, and always subject to last second cancellation, because of the whims of clients, judges, etc.

Again, EVEN WITHOUT TAKING INTO ACCOUNT PSYCHIC INCOME, how much more would you have to be paid to do Job B rather than Job A? Three times more? Five times? Ten times? I’m thinking at least a million dollars a year and maybe two or three.

Relatedly, why does Steve Calbresi think that $285K is a disgracefully low salary for a SCOTUS justice, but that $500K is fully adequate? Hint: What do you suppose Calibresi’s annual income is? I don’t know exactly, of course, but knowing what I know about salaries at elite private law schools and consulting/speechifying opportunities for senior professors at the those law schools, I’m making a highly educated guess of . . . let’s seen here, two plus five carry the one . . . Oh about a half mil a year, give or take. Quite a coincidence! Except that $500K per year doesn’t make you able to afford the finer things either, from the perspective of people — and there are plenty — who make three or five or ten or twenty or a hundred times more than per year. The point being that running the hedonic treadmill is always a Sisyphean exercise.

And here’s fun fact: When I was an undergrad in the early 1980s, the salaries of the presidents of most major universities in this country were considerably lower, IN INFLATION ADJUSTED TERMS, than Clarence Thomas’s current salary. Somehow these people at the top of an elite profession scraped along at the time, although of course in the years since what was considered a munificent sum for the university president is now — again, we’re adjusting for inflation here — considered inadequate to the needs of the Associate Vice Chancellor for Awareness and Student Wellness, or rather for all five of them.


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