Wednesday, December 28, 2005

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 but because we deserve much better people than we have in Congress.

Paying every member of Congress a million dollars a year is absolutely trivial compared to the vast amounts of 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 Agriculture Department one year.

There is no point complaining about the ineptness, deception or corruption of government while refusing to do anything to change the incentives and constraints that lead to ineptness, deception and corruption.

You won’t get the most highly skilled or intelligent people in the country, people with real-world experience, while offering one-tenth or less what such people can earn in the private sector.

An economics professor at a leading university earns more than a member of Congress or a justice of the Supreme Court — and a surgeon earns at least twice as much as an economics professor, though still only about a tenth what a successful corporate executive can make.

How many people in the top layer of their respective professions will sacrifice the future of their families — the ability to give their children the best education, to have something to fall back on in case of illness or tragedy, to retire in comfort and with peace of mind — to go into politics?

A few people here and there may be willing to make such sacrifices for the good of the country. But, by and large, you get what you pay for. What we are getting as cheap politicians are often a disgrace — and enormously costly as reckless spenders of taxpayers’ money to keep getting re-elected.

Whatever the problems the country faces, the No. 1 priority of elected officials is re-election. Nothing does that better than handing out money from the public treasury. Cheap politicians are expensive politicians, costing the taxpayers more than a trillion dollars a year.

If you have trouble visualizing a trillion, just remember that a trillion seconds ago, no one on this planet could read or write. A trillion seconds is thousands of years. That’s the kind of money our cheap politicians spend to keep getting re-elected.

Since re-election is the key, term limits are effective only in so far as they get rid of re-election. If the limit is three terms, then two of those three terms will be spent trying to get re-elected — and the third term will be spent trying to get elected to some other office.

Term limits need to make it nearly impossible to spend a whole career in politics. One term per office and some period of years outside politics before running again would be a good principle.

Many people today marvel at the leaders who created the United States of America. Most of the Founders of this country had day jobs for years. They were not career politicians.

George Washington, who took pride in his self-control, lost his temper completely when someone told him a decision he was going to make could cost him re-election as president. He blew up at the suggestion he wanted to be president, instead of serving as a duty when he would rather be back home.

Power is such a dangerous thing that ideally it should be wielded by people who don’t want it, who would rather do something else but are willing to serve a certain number of years as a one-time duty, preferably at the end of a career doing something else.

What about all the experience we would lose? Most of that is experience in creating appearances, posturing, rhetoric and spin — in a word, deception. We need leaders with experience in the real world, not in the phony world of politics.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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