Pessimism in Historical Perspective

Pessimism about potentially life-enhancing technologies is not new. The Twitter account Pessimist’s Archive (a favorite of the internet guru Marc Andreessen) chronicles the unending stream of pessimism with old newspaper excerpts. 

Pessimistic reactions range from merely doubtful (such as this response to the idea of gas lighting in 1809, or this one to the concept of anesthesia in 1839) to outright alarmist (such as this 1999 warning that e-commerce “threatens to destroy more than it could ever create”). 

In some cases, the pessimists insist that an older technology is superior to a new one. Some, for example, have claimed that an abacus is superior to a computer and a pocket calculator, while others claimed that horses are longer-lasting than the dangerous “automobile terror.” 

Selective Service: End It, Don’t Mend It

The leaders of the Army and Marine Corps made headlines Wednesday when they called for expanding the Selective Service System to include women.

In response to a question by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, stated “I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft.” Milley’s counterpart, Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller, said after a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that registration was a step that any young American must take on the way to adulthood. All U.S. citizens should be included, Neller said, “now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat jobs] don’t exist.” He continued, “It doesn’t mean you’re going to serve, but you go register.”

The logic seems unassailable. If the military no longer discriminates against women who are qualified to serve, why should registration be limited only to men? And if the law remains unchanged, and compels only men to sign up, it will only be a matter of time before an equal protection challenge is brought before the courts. 

Over at the Washington Post Online, I suggest a different idea: rather than requiring women to register for the draft, let’s do away with Selective Service altogether, for women and men.

Former USTR Rob Portman Opposes TPP for the Worst Reasons

Yesterday, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), a former U.S. Trade Representative during the George W. Bush administration, announced his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

According to Reuters:

Portman, from Ohio, said the Pacific trade deal fails to meet the needs of his state’s workers because it lacks an enforceable provision to fight currency manipulation and because of new, less-stringent country-of-origin rules for auto parts.

“I cannot support the TPP in its current form because it doesn’t provide that level playing field,” Portman said in a statement.

The announcement is significant because passage of the TPP will rely on broad Republican support and because Senator Portman’s credentials (as former USTR and member of the Senate Finance Committee who represents a traditionally trade-skeptic region of the country) have earned him a prominent voice on trade policy in Washington.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in January

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have identified the worst case for the month of January.  It was the case from Suffolk County, New York, involving now former police officer, Scott Greene.  He was convicted of repeated instances of theft.

According to the evidence introduced at the trial, Greene would target Hispanic drivers, pull them over, order them to surrender their wallets, or invent a reason to search their vehicles and then steal cash located inside.  By stealing from persons he thought were illegal immigrants, Greene thought his victims would not come forward to file any complaint.  And he would enrich himself by using his police powers.  Prosecutor Tom Spota called Greene a “thief with a badge” and says he will be seeking the maximum possible prison sentence–about four years.

Alas, there are problems in the Suffolk department even beyond Greene.  The recently departed chief, James Burke, has been indicted for abusing a suspect and then coercing his subordinate officers to cover up his crime.  Local community activists say the department is so corrupt that they want a federal takeover.  Stay tuned about that.

Using Congressional Budget Rules To (Not) Save Money

A new health club opened in my neighborhood recently and I told my wife I wanted to join it. She agreed, providing that I gave up something we were spending elsewhere to pay for the $1,200 annual membership.  I don’t want to give up anything fun so I decided to adopt the Congressional approach to budgeting to achieve such savings.  It turned out to be a snap.

The first thing I did was claim $150 in credit from a restaurant app I use called Open Table.  Each time I use the app to reserve a table it gives me the equivalent of $1 towards a future meal.  Since I got the app five years ago I’ve never gotten around to using these, but now seems a propitious time.

Next, I let our discount deals expire with the cable company and the newspaper. Each has a base price it offers subscribers, but if I call and threaten to stop my subscription they give me the discount for new subscribers. So I let each expire for a week and then called to get the new subscriber deal again. Together, that saved me $850.

Federal Workers Earning More Than $100,000

A new investigation by ABC7/WJLA reporter Chris Papst highlights data on the number of federal civilian workers earning more than $100,000 in annual wages. Using data from the Office of Personnel Management, Papst reports:

… last year the number of federal employees making more than $100,000 topped 500,000 for the first time. That’s 25 percent of the entire federal workforce of roughly 2.1 million. In the last 15 years, the number of federal workers making $100,000 increased from 66,116 to 509,025, a nearly 800 percent increase.

The chart below shows Papst’s data. The number of high-paid federal workers soared during the 2000s, but has grown more slowly in recent years. There is stark contrast between the George W. Bush years and the Barack Obama years. The number of federal workers earning more than $100,000 more than quadrupled under Bush (83,532 in 2001 to 389,828 in 2009), but has risen 31 percent since 2009 (to reach 509,025 by 2015).

What explains the spendthrift record of Bush and the more frugal record of Obama? Partly, Bush wanted large pay increases for the uniformed military, and to gain support he agreed to large increases for the civilian workforce. Partly, the new pay system in place for the Pentagon in the later Bush years inflated civilian Pentagon pay, as described by Dennis Cauchon. And partly, the Obama frugality was the result of a three-year partial pay freeze backed by the Republicans and approved by the president.

 

For more on federal pay, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Data note: figure for 2002 in chart is estimated.

How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” As I’ve written before, there are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program:

It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.