Saturday, February 26, 2011

On Pay Cuts.

Wikileaks wasn't a big deal in my part of Afghanistan. The Governor occasionally asks me to stop taking notes during our meetings ("Hey Wikileaks, don't write this down"), but aside from cramping my habit of keeping a verbatim transcript of my life, it didn't really touch me. I was already a year out of China by the time the story broke, and the statistics here -- 9 percent literacy, 1 percent internet access -- meant it wasn't a big deal in Farah.

State got great press out of Wikileaks. "Wikileaks Proves Diplomats Doing Exactly What They're Supposed To" was a big leitmotif, and for a brief moment in time, State was feted as leading the charge for peaceful resolution of international problems. There was also the annoying undercurrent of "We Had No Idea Those Embassy People Were Actually Smart," but even that I'm chalking up as good press. The positives definitely outweighed the negatives, and I felt like State came out on top -- that people had come to know who we are and what we do.

State was briefly the golden boy of the Federal World. And consequently, I was taken completely by surprise when the House passed a 16 percent pay cut for Foreign Service Officers last week. It comes at a particularly bad time, smack in the middle of a two year pay freeze (which itself was hard to take) and in the face of a possible Government shutdown that may involve being furloughed.

But frankly, it's not about the money.

We're a small service, and the pay cut affects only junior and mid-level officers -- about 7,500 people total. You only take a pay cut if you if you're overseas, and the cuts only affect the Foreign Service -- the other agencies that live and work overseas are not included in this. State has been singled out. You can't help but feel like Congress is trying to punish the Foreign Service for something we did, but we don't really know what it was.

There's that old lingering perception that U.S. diplomats are the snobby elite, spending their time in Paris drinking champagne and mocking people who don't know which fork to use, and I have the feeling that THAT, somehow, is the problem here. But I thought, mistakenly it seems, that Wikileaks had cleared all that up -- that Wikileaks made it known that the United States Foreign Service isn't all champagne receptions and tea parties, and that the quiet work we do is helping the American cause, even though it's behind the scenes and most Americans are unaware of it.

I've committed to giving up two years of my life to live in Afghanistan. I'm not looking for thank-yous for it: I knew what I was getting in to when I signed up for this, and State has certainly incentivized my coming here. But to have Congress come back and say that giving up two years of my life to this place is worth 16 percent less than last year has weighed on me. A 16 percent pay cut is just the opposite of a thank-you; it's a direct statement that the work you do is not valued. It's hard to take it any other way, and it's particularly difficult to take when you're living on the edge of a rocky desert, 40 kilometers from combat operations and a thousand miles from nowhere.

Others in the Service are outraged about it, and there's been a flurry of well-written responses. My favorite, which I've re-read a thousand times, came from a friend of mine in Jordan. There's a movement to blanket congress with letters (I wrote mine, though not nearly as eloquently as others), though the Foreign Service undoubtedly lacks the numbers to make a difference. Even writing my Congresswoman felt futile, since I live in DC and my Representative in Congress has no vote.

My response has not been outrage so much as a lingering sadness; the entire ordeal (including some of the ugly, you're-probably-overpaid/stop-your-whining/if-you-complain-you're-not-a-patriot rhetoric it's stirred up) has made me question what I'm doing here. I had assumed upon signing up for this job that I'd have lots of these moments -- that I'd find myself questioning U.S. policy, or that we'd take repeated, terrifying incoming and I'd be unwilling to leave the base because of it, or that I'd miserable in the wake of casualties and question the logic of continuing on. But that none of that ever happened -- I've never wavered in my desire to be here or in my commitment to this place. At least until now, when the House voted to cut my pay. It really isn't the money (the bill is ambiguous and almost certainly won't pass the Senate or the President) -- it's the sentiment that goes along with it.

People have said that we're taking a pay cut because we enjoy our work too much, but that seems ridiculous -- like they should only pay people for working a job if it makes them miserable. The same cuts were recommended by the White House's Bipartisan Fiscal Commission, though budgetarily speaking, cutting 16 percent of 7,500 people's salary is not a significant figure, and it certainly doesn't explain why we alone were singled out. Moreover, the commission noted that even with the pay cuts, the Foreign Service will remain a highly competitive and sought after: some 25,000 people apply for 300 to 900 jobs annually. But I find that rationale to be wildly offensive -- that they can cut our pay with impunity because of how imminently replaceable we are.

I'm going on leave in a week, if the military can fix our runway so my plane can land. It's definitely time: we've been running ragged implementing a thousand different programs and hosting visitor after visitor, and an ugly internal fight with the maneuver unit over our housing has left all the civilians on edge; it will be good to get away for a few weeks. But it will also be good to get away and take a deep breath and re-examine all of this.

I like living in Farah and I love working with the military, and I don't feel like I'm done with my experience here. But the pay cut has engendered in me a significant homesickness, and made me focus on what I'm missing instead of what I'm gaining from this experience. I toyed briefly with leaving -- Afghanistan is what the Foreign Service calls a "no-fault curtail" posting, so you can cut your posting short at any time without any negative financial or career impacts -- but I think that impulse has passed and I'm back to committed.

I have been questioning, though, if instead of eking out time to study Pashto during the day, I should be eking out time to study for the GRE -- if it isn't time to reconsider this career and begin taking more concrete steps towards quitting and getting my PhD. I've heard others in the Foreign Service say similar things about moving on. I doubt that Congress's intention with this pay cut was to push us towards the door, but that may very well be what ends up happening.


Donna said...

There are a lot of smart people in the FS. But, frankly speaking, you're one of the smartest and best that they have (also one of the funniest, but that's a story for another time). So it would be a shame if they lost you. That said, I think you should take the GRE. It never hurts to think about the Next Big Thing.

Or, you know, transfer to Jordan.

Dakota said...

The problem is that the GRE involves math, and math is significantly more of a psychological burden than pay cuts. Even basic arithmetic saps my will to live.

Donna said...

I'm terrible at math - you should see me helping my 5th-grader with fractions and division. But given multiple choices and a time constraint, my brain pulls together, so I did fine on the GRE. Plus which - if you're applying to grad school for a liberal arts type degree, they aren't going to pay much attention to your math score. And the rest of the test is loads easier than the foreign service exam.

That said, there are tons of interesting things you can do without a PhD, so if you can avoid giving years of your life to it, there's nothing wrong with that, either. Of course, there are tons of interesting things you can do that don't involve goat slaughter, but you haven't let that stop you.

Dakota said...

I can't think of anything interesting that doesn't involve goat slaughter. That's actually what I was looking at PhD programs in -- custom butchery.

Donna said...

I can't imagine why you and Bart don't hang out more often. You could butcher goats, and he could butcher... turnips? Dragonfruit? Parsnips?

And I will blog about it for the both of you.

You should know that his colleague received a goat for his birthday. Seriously. They snuck it upstairs and put it in a box on his desk. Later, the goat went to "live on a farm." Or so I was told.

Mark Sieffert said...

Custom goat butchery. Perhaps you mean mobile abattoirs. They're the next big thing here in Wisconsin where it's really hard to find someone to butcher anything for you. Unless you're Cargill and have tens of thousands of animals to process and have access to hundreds of illegal immigrants to do it for you.

But then again, our governor is taking aim at teachers and the University system. So maybe you don't want to come here.

I don't think you should read much into the House bill other than that the tea partiers feel like they have a mandate to cut,cut, cut, but only have the courage to go after the small things that won't hurt their base: teachers, foreign service, NPR, Americorps, etc.

Don't take it personally. We appreciate what you're doing.

Heller said...

I'm a prior resident of FOB Farah. I randomly stumbled upon your blog. Well done. You can find my name (and a bit of a hand print; I fell) scrawled in concrete outside the entrance to Camp Farley.


Dakota said...

I'll look for it. Were you EOD? I actually wrote about Farley, though I didn't use his last name -- is the link to it.

Heller said...

I sure am. Derek's team member.

What do you do over there? We were there at the same time, possibly met. Haha


Jill said...

This was one of the posts that should have been circling around ...

BTW, I've had a few people donate money towards GS Cookies. If you have an address to receive them, I have 7 or 8 boxes I'd like to send your way once you get back from your R&R!

Brian... said...

Very well written, keep up the good work.

Dakota said...

@Heller -- I'm one of the civilian embeds with the PRT (from the Dept of State); I've been here since July of last year, so we definitely overlapped.

@Jill -- your generous cookie offer intrigues me; I'll shoot you an email. Thanks!

Heller said...

Haha yup we were definately there at the same time. I'm pretty sure we used to project movies on the wall just outside your window. We had commandeered the 'tower' right behind your building, in the garden...Although it isn't much of one. Isaf and Nato (as we called them, the two LN workers) seemed to care about the place enough.

I recognize quite a few of the people from your pictures as well.