I’d like to ask you a favor. Just between you and me.

Look across to the opposite page. You’ll see a picture of Dean Pagani, who writes a weekly column, just like me.

What I’d like to know is, how much does Pagani get for writing the column? Look at his photo. Look at my photo. I should be getting twice as much, based on sex appeal alone.

But I don’t know. Nobody talks about it. Please call if you’ve heard anything.

It’s one of the modern mysteries of commerce and culture. We don’t know how much our friends and colleagues make — and nobody wants to talk about it.

The old prohibition was, don’t talk about religion and politics at cocktail parties. Well, heck, nobody worries today about making fun of Presbyterians and Republicans at parties. But ask a buddy how much he makes for performing actuarial magic at Travelers — and he’ll clam up like a mob boss before the grand jury.

Of course, the senior executives at publicly traded companies have their salaries and benefits and stock options and housing allowances and champagne allotments disclosed every year — so that Ralph Nader and Barack Obama can make fun of them for being overpaid plutocrats.

But for the rest of us cannon fodder, compensation is a mystery, unless we’re public-sector employees whose pay, at least in theory, is public information. Even then, there is much curiosity among the work force.

A few weeks ago, the Empire Center for Public Policy unveiled a new Web site (SeeThroughNY.net) that offered up the entire state government payroll database — with names and salaries and stuff. Needless to say, it bogged down almost instantly under a barrage of 40,000 unique hits. The policy guys said that many, if not most, of the hits came from state employees. See? We really, really want to know how much the guy in the next office, doing the same thing we’re doing (but not as well), makes.

Human resource professionals will attempt to deflect what they consider unhealthy curiosity about employee welfare by suggesting that comparative salary fixation is merely mental illness — that even employees doing sort of the same job, are not, in fact, identical.

Then, the HR devils will begin the chant about “intrinsic” benefits — those rewards that can’t be captured in something as crude as a paycheck, but are there for the taking by employees smart enough to recognize that they are working in the equivalent of the Garden of Eden.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. How much does the guy next to me make, in a really, really extrinsic sort of way? That’s what I want to know.

Women, of course, are particularly interested in this salary stuff, because men are pigs, and the instinct is to pay guys more than women for doing the same work, except for the lipstick breaks and stuff.

Government watchdogs are also very interested in compensation disclosure, both inside and outside the public sector. For instance, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick wants to use civilians to stand around road construction sites, instead of state police. The cops can make $40 per hour for such stuff. Civilians would get about $20.

But no curiosity about salary is as fierce as among the corporate teeming masses, as they peer from desk to desk, wondering how well they match up to the seemingly identical drone down the aisle.

As with all things in life, there is now a Web site designed to solve the salary mystery. Glass-door.com allows you to read reviews and salary data submitted anonymously by worker bees at many companies. The price of admission? You’ve got to submit your review and salary history.

Eventually, the Pagani compensation mystery will be resolved and vengeance shall be mine.

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About

The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.