Topic: Government and Politics

Monday Links

  • Podcast: When Germany enacted their own “Cash for Clunkers” scheme, some of the old vehicles were illegally exported and sold out of the country before being destroyed. Could it happen here? Would that be so bad?

Lighting for People, not Politics

Unfortunately, there are many good (and sad) examples of Uncle Sam’s insatiable desire to regulate the smallest aspects of our lives.  Legislators can’t even let us decide which light bulbs to buy.  Government believes that it knows best, and is banning the venerable incandescent bulb.

Lighting consultant Howard Brandston makes a plaintive plea for lighting that serves people rather than politics:

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will effectively phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2012-2014 in favor of compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs. Other countries around the world have passed similar legislation to ban most incandescents.

Will some energy be saved? Probably. The problem is this benefit will be more than offset by rampant dissatisfaction with lighting. We are not talking about giving up a small luxury for the greater good. We are talking about compromising light. Light is fundamental. And light is obviously for people, not buildings. The primary objective in the design of any space is to make it comfortable and habitable. This is most critical in homes, where this law will impact our lives the most. And yet while energy conservation, a worthy cause, has strong advocacy in public policy, good lighting has very little.

He hopes for a congressional reversal of the ill-considered prohibition.  If that doesn’t work, people do have one more option:  stock-piling bulbs for future use.  Of course, that probably would lead to the creation of a federal light bulb police, tasked with wiping out the black market in incandescent bulbs.  “Use a bulb, go to jail” may become the newest law enforcement slogan!

Wall Street, Big Oil, and Federal Workers

What do workers in finance, energy, and the federal government have in common? Very generous compensation packages, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

When I posted federal compensation data last week, I received a flood of comments that disputed my contention that federal workers are overpaid. A common retort was that “federal workers are not burger flippers.” That’s true, but workers in the computer systems design, computer manufacturing, and chemicals industries are not burger flippers either, yet those folks also earn less than federal workers, on average.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy (Table 6.2D). Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, including wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation, which, indeed, includes burger flipping. (I’ve simplified the names of the industries in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the seventh highest average compensation of 72 industries. Compensation in the federal civilian workforce is topped only by compensation in three finance-related and three energy-related industries.

Should federal compensation be so high? We are always told that the 1.9 million federal civilian workers are “public servants,” implying that they are selflessly sacrificing for the good of the nation. I’m sure that most federal workers are dedicated employees, but looking at these compensation levels, I don’t see much sacrificing going on.

It is true that there are some elite agencies in the government that need to have high compensation levels. But the bulk of the federal workforce is in sprawling bureaucracies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has a huge army of about 100,000 workers. The main job of USDA workers is to administer farm aid, food stamps, and other subsidy programs. That sort of paper-pushing work is not rocket science.

The other point I made last week is that the BEA data makes clear that federal compensation has skyrocketed this decade. Figure 2 provides more support for that claim.

Federal civilian workers had the fifth highest average compensation increase among 72 industries between 2000 and 2008. Average federal civilian compensation increased 57 percent, which compared to the overall average increase in the private sector of 31 percent.

Let’s slow this freight train down. Federal pay ought to be frozen for a period of years, at least until the economy recovers and private sector pay starts catching up.

Costa Rican President Calls for New Constitution

President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has joined the trend in Latin America of calling for a new constitution that would expand executive powers and get rid of “unnecessary checks” on the president’s authority. Although Arias has less than 9 months left in office and can’t run for reelection, his brother and current minister of the presidency — a primer minister of sorts — has openly said he’s interested in running for president in 2014. A new constitution with expanded executive powers would fit him just fine.

Arias’ call has been received with broad skepticism. La Nación, Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, said that trying to make the government more efficient through a constitutional convention was like “killing a mouse with cannon fire.” The newspaper also said that the idea of dismantling the checks and balances on executive power sounds like an effort to create an “imperial presidency.” Maybe we should send our colleague Gene Healy to study the case.

However, the most disturbing aspect of Arias’ call was his harsh criticism of the media. Borrowing from the script of Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Arias described news outlets as “corporations interested in making a profit” that don’t necessarily pursue the “public good.” He asked the media to “tone down” its criticism of government officials, and said that journalists “should understand their role within a higher framework.” He complained that news outlets claim to represent the public interest, without any control or accountability.

That a politician with a thin skin complains about media criticism is hardly news. However, the fact that Arias did it while calling for a new constitution that would change the institutional and legal framework of Costa Rica (including the role of the media) should be interpreted as a threat to freedom of the press.

Most people outside Costa Rica see Arias as an accomplished democrat who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Central America during the 1980s. Most recently he attempted to mediate the conflict in Honduras after Manuel Zelaya was (legally) removed from office. However, many people in Costa Rica fret about what they perceive as an increasingly controlling style of governing by Arias and his brother, intimidating the media, bullying the opposition, crowding key government posts with allies and cronies, and now hoping for a dynastical succession in 2014.

In Massachusetts, the Rule of Law Dies

Lawmakers in the Bay State are rushing to change state law to make sure the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat is filled as soon as possible with a reliable Democratic successor.

Never mind that as recently as 2004 the same state legislature had changed state law to mandate that a vacant Senate seat could only be filled by a special election to be held within five months of the vacancy.

Before then, as in most other states, vacancies were filled by an appointment of the governor, with the seat coming up for a vote at the next federal election. But in 2004, the Democratic legislature changed the law to prevent then-governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming a Republican to replace Democratic Sen. John Kerry if he were to be elected president. Kerry lost to George W. Bush, but the law remained on the books.

That was then; now is now. With Democrats in Washington wanting to maintain their 60-vote caucus in the Senate, a five-month delay to let the people of Massachusetts actually vote on who will replace Kennedy has become an intolerable roadblock to progress. According to a report from Bloomberg News this morning, the Democratically-dominated legislature in Massachusetts is about to change the law back to allow the now-Democratic governor to appoint a successor within a month.

This is a textbook example of how politicians routinely ignore The Rule of Law in pursuit of political aims.

In his book, The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek devoted an entire chapter to the importance of the rule of law to a free society. “Nothing distinguishes more clearly conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles know as the Rule of Law,” Hayek wrote. He defined the phrase to mean “that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand,” and not subject to be changed arbitrarily depending on circumstances.

The Bloomberg story contained a less scholarly but equally sound critique of what is going on in Massachusetts: “It shows Democrats don’t care about principle,” said Massachusetts House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican. “They don’t care about debate. They don’t care about the rules. It really is disgusting.”