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The National Institutes of Health have been without a permanent director since the end of 2021. But not for lack of trying: At least two good prospects "have walked away," according to the Wall Street Journal — not only out of concern that the role has become more politically contentious since the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because the pay is too low.

How to address the first concern is a bit of a long-term project. Answering the second objection, however, is refreshingly straightforward: The NIH job, and government jobs in general, should pay more.

As an Executive Schedule Level IV job, the NIH director pays about $200,000 a year. That's more than most Americans make, but it's below the average salary for an American physician — to say nothing of a physician with a complicated political and administrative job. Indeed, hundreds of NIH staffers earn more than the director under a federal program that allows medical professionals to be paid more than standard government employees, albeit generally less than someone with their skills could earn in the private sector.

That's created an anomalous situation where if President Joe Biden were to try to play it safe by simply nominating the head of one of the NIH's component institutes to run the whole show, he or she would have to accept a pay cut in exchange for a job that's almost certainly a bigger headache. The salaries paid to the heads of medical schools and people who run research labs in the private sector, meanwhile, are even higher.

Unfortunately, the problem of relatively low public-sector pay is hardly limited to the NIH.

Pay for top government administrators has risen broadly in line with inflation from its 1990 level, which means it's declined relative to average wages nationally and declined precipitously compared to the earnings of top executives in the private sector.

In his provocative and underrated 2019 book, "Who Wants To Run?: How The Devaluing of Political Office Drives Polarization," political scientist Andrew Hall shows that low salaries for state legislatures deter moderate candidates from even seeking office. While conventional wisdom tends to disparage the professional politician and celebrate the idea of amateurism, in practice asking people to do a full-time job for low pay means it's mostly done by fanatics and ideologues. And while members of the U.S. House and Senate do better financially, most federal officeholders come from local or state office. So the polarization induced by underpayment filters up through the system.

Staff salaries on Capitol Hill are extremely modest, which increases the burdens on members but also degrades the legislative branch. Congressional staffers are generally smart, hard-working and very young — often alarmingly so to my middle-aged self — in a way that tends to deny members the kind of access to seasoned policy expertise that would be useful in writing laws and conducting oversight. The system works, to the extent that it does, because skilled members cultivate kitchen cabinets of outside advisers. But this kind of informal advice invites bias and corruption.

The situation is not all that different in the executive branch. It's rare, mercifully, that a job simply goes unfilled. But underpaying executive-branch staffers — especially for the mid-level roles that lack glamor — tends to encourage two kinds of employees: Those who plan to stay only long enough so they can go through the revolving door for more money in the private sector, or hardcore ideologues.

The NIH position is hard to fill perhaps in part because it's not the sort of job that attracts people with strong partisan or ideological motives. But just because you can fill other jobs with people with strongly held views doesn't mean you should. The government needs competent, fair-minded managers and skilled professionals at all levels.

Of course, raising salaries would lead to the usual objections about spending too much of taxpayers' money. But — if I may mix my currencies, if not my metaphors — it's penny-wise and pound-foolish to nickel-and-dime people who oversee billions of dollars in federal grants, or whose regulatory decisions affect the entire economy.

Meanwhile, precisely because federal pay scales are relatively low, the government must increasingly turn to a nest of private contractors to do its work. There are some good reasons to prefer the flexibility of outsourcing. But oftentimes it's just an expedient way to secure the services of skilled workers outside the normal salary schedule. That works as a patch, but over the long term erodes the capacity of the state and inevitably leads to conflicts of interest.

Senior leadership, meanwhile, can't be outsourced. These are critical jobs that should be swamped with well-qualified applicants, not cases where the president needs to go begging. And even Republicans who are skeptical of "big government" should see that leaving government departments rudderless doesn't make them any more efficient. In the public as well as the private sector, spending what it takes to get good people is easily worth it.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."