The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

30 December 2005

On the cheap

While Thomas Sowell is usually among the sanest columnists around, he has seriously misfired with this Townhall item:

I don't make a million dollars a year but I think every member of Congress should be paid at least that much. It's not because those turkeys in Washington deserve it. It's because we deserve a lot better people than we have in Congress.

The cost of paying every member of Congress a million dollars a year is absolutely trivial compared to the vast amounts of the taxpayers' money wasted by cheap politicians doing things to get themselves re-elected. You could pay every member of Congress a million dollars a year for a century for less money than it costs to run the Department of Agriculture for one year.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a good argument for cutting Agriculture's budget.

But Sowell seems to be assuming that we have cheap politicians because anyone who's any good is working elsewhere:

You are not going to get the most highly skilled or intelligent people in the country, people with real-world experience, while offering them one-tenth or less of what such people can earn in the private sector.

Base pay for a Congressman in 2005 was $162,100, which will rise to $165,200 next year under a 1989 law which provides for an automatic annual cost-of-living increase unless Congress should vote to decline it. Considering how ingeniously this anticipated — and circumvented — the 27th Amendment, Sowell is clearly underestimating Congress' smarts.

Besides, there is scant evidence to support the premise that someone earning a million a year is less corruptible than someone making a meager $165k. Scribe points out:

While I won't quibble with Sowell on his comment that "we deserve a lot of better people than we have in Congress," I donít think a bigger salary will solve the problems of corruption in our government. The majority of our current Congressmen are already better off than most Americans.

If anything, you'd probably have to bribe them more to be able to get their attention.

Francis W. Porretto notes:

In the overwhelming majority of instances, persons pursue the positions they seek principally for their intrinsic satisfactions: the specifics of the work they hope to do. Extrinsic rewards such as money have a lesser part in their decisions.

The problem is not that we're failing to bid an adequate amount that would secure us the services of adequately wise and prudent officials; it's that we've failed to grapple successfully with the power of the libido dominandi itself.

And I propose a hypothetical question.

Suppose someone poking around the Library of Congress found an old document which, when analyzed, proved to be a legitimately-passed bill which fixed the compensation of Representatives and Senators in perpetuity at one dollar per year.

How many of them would resign their seats in response to this massive pay cut?

Posted at 6:02 PM to Political Science Fiction


As a veteran of the Jersey political wars, allow me to state the obvious. Anyone who gets into politics for the money will be handsomely rewarded.

Some of the ways in which this happens are legal (they become consultants), some are not (got an hour?). But handing these guys bags of money in hopes of making things better ("better people will apply") is inconceivable. Many of the reasons for this have already been cited, so there's no point in my repeating them.

By the way, in my personal and direct experience, many of the least competent and effective people I have ever met are extremely well-compensated CEOs.

Posted by: Mister Snitch! at 6:19 PM on 30 December 2005

Sowell isn't the first to float this idea. Sadly, Robert Heinlein suggested it before I was spawned (see Take Back Your Government, citation to follow).

I'd rather err in the other direction, if error it is. My dear Wyoming legislature features a majority who weigh against all forms of government intrusion into private lives, and their legislature pays so poorly that it must be a hobby, a distraction from their day jobs as ranchers, mineral tycoons, or oilmen (or maybe lawyers).

I'd say Thomas Sowell shat the bed on this one.

Posted by: Fûz at 7:38 PM on 30 December 2005

If everyone has a key to my house does that mean no one will rob me? Politicians don't need more money, they need background checks made public to the people before we vote.

Posted by: ceres at 9:25 PM on 30 December 2005

Several years ago Mad magazine posed this question: "Why should Congress get a cost of living raise when it is their job to keep the cost of living from raising?"

Long live Alfred E Neuman.

Posted by: Dwayne "the canoe guy" at 10:12 AM on 31 December 2005