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Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell
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Cheap Politicians


Now that the National Football League has apparently learned that it can be costly to hire cheap officials, perhaps the rest of us should learn the same lesson when it comes to government officials, whose bad calls can do a lot more damage.

What do we do when we want a better car, a better home or a better bottle of wine? We pay more for it. We definitely need a lot better crop of public officials. Yet we insist on paying flea market prices for people who will be spending trillions of tax dollars, not to mention making foreign policy that can either safeguard or jeopardize the lives of millions of Americans.

Any successful engineer, surgeon, or financier would have to take a big pay cut to serve in Congress. A top student from a top law school can get a starting salary that is more than we pay a Supreme Court justice.

No doubt many, if not most, government officials are already paid more than they are worth. But the whole point of higher pay is to get better people to replace them.

We may say that we want people in Congress, the courts or the White House who have some serious knowledge and experience in the real world, not just glib tricksters who know how to pander for votes. But we don't put our money where our mouth is.

Let's face it. You're not likely to get a good suit of clothes at a flea market. And you're not likely to get the cream of the crop to go into the government when they would have to accept a big drop in income to do so.

There are always going to be warm bodies available to fill the jobs in government. We have lots of warm bodies there now. There will also always be some people who are willing to sacrifice their family's economic security and standard of living, in order to get their hands on the levers of power.

These are precisely the kinds of people whom it is dangerous to have holding the levers of power.

Can we afford to pay members of Congress, the President of the United States, and federal judges the kinds of money that would enable us to tap a far wider pool of far more knowledgeable people with successful real world experience? We can't afford not to.

Cheap politicians are expensive in their reckless spending of tax money. It is the ultimate in being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

To get some idea of the cost, ask yourself: How much would it cost to pay every member of Congress, the president, and every federal judge a million dollars a year?

There are 535 members of Congress, so a salary of a million dollars a year would cost $535 million, or just over half a billion dollars. There are 188 federal appellate judges and one President of the United States. That's 189 more people, bringing the total number of people to 724, and the total cost to $724 million, at a time when people in Washington are talking trillions.

That is less than one percent of the annual cost of the Department of Agriculture. Put differently, we could pay all of these 724 officials a million dollars a year each — for an entire century — for less than it costs to run the Department of Agriculture for one year.

If we limited how long any given individual could hold office in the government — preferably one term — we could have highly knowledgeable people with real world experience in charge of taking care of the nation's business, instead of spending their time doing things to get reelected.

They would be a lot harder for special interests to bribe with campaign contributions, when high officials would face no more campaigns after getting elected. We don't need career politicians.

The best crop of public officials this country has ever had were in the generation that founded the United States of America. Most of the Founders had careers outside of politics.

Is all this a realistic prospect in the world today? Of course not! What is the most realistic prospect today is the status quo today.

But the New Deal was not a realistic prospect three years before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. It was not a realistic prospect in 1775 that the American colonies would become an independent nation a year later. The whole point of discussing new ideas is to get people thinking about them, so that they might become realistic prospects in the future.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



7 Comments | Post Comment
I have been saying this for years. So, well said!!!
Comment: #1
Posted by: Steven Jeffcoat
Tue Oct 2, 2012 11:02 AM
I've never heard the one-term argument coupled with the executive-level pay argument. Great thought. Thanks.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Doug Morelly
Tue Oct 2, 2012 11:56 AM
The problem with Sowell's suggestion is that paying politicians more to get better service is not the same as paying executives more to get better performance. Politicians have ideological agendas; what they consider good performance depends on their political and economic philosophies. They are not in the business of providing consumers with better goods and services; they are in office to enact the kind of policies that they consider to be fair, just and equitable.
Moreover, how will higher salaries help politicians with more free-market views to get elected if voters don't agree with those views? If the voters want liberal candidates, paying prospective politicians more money to serve in public office is not going to change that. It may simply attract more intelligent, more persuasive liberals, and make it even more difficult to limit or turn back the growth of government.
Also, if a business pays its executives more money and they perform poorly, the business fails, and the mistake is self-correcting. Higher salaries may then be paid to attract more talented executives who are better at satisfying the wants of consumers. But government service doesn't work that way. The government doesn't go out of business if its employees perform poorly. On the contrary, its representatives simply create more bureaus to address the very problems caused by their previously poor performance, which then require more employees, thereby expanding the growth of government and adding to its already higher costs.
What needs to change is the system itself, and in order to do that, the political thinking of the average American has to change.
Comment: #3
Posted by: William Dwyer
Tue Oct 2, 2012 1:12 PM
I would be all for paying our Congress and President more if they were paid for performance like the rest of the real world. That means going back to what is Constitutionally mandated and not all this other nonsense. The top priority is a balanced budget, it is utterly ridiculous that American's put up with borrowing 42- cents on the dollar year after year. No more of this cutting around the edges, do away with Federal government loans on homes and higher education. The only exception is for the brave men and women who volunteer to protect us. The private sector did a fine job until Congress threatened the Banking industry. Scale back on the fat in the Farm Bill, farmers were used to taking risk and growing crops they can do it again. Completely do away with all the guaranteed loans to GM. Solyndra and all the other crony capitalists. Get the Federal Government out of education, we only get a dumber America when they get involved. Initiate a Flat Tax, after all it is about 'fairness". Let's have two tiers; 10% and 15% and that goes for businesses also. If you want free food, free housing, free phones join a commune, quit making the hard working Taxpayer's pay for you. See how long you can be a slug and get the freebies.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Marge Donaldson
Tue Oct 2, 2012 2:40 PM
If money is more important to a man than the privilege of serving one's nation, then he is unworthy of the office. Good men would be ashamed to take more than is already given from the widow's mite.
Comment: #5
Posted by: cathy jones
Thu Oct 4, 2012 8:47 AM
I love Thomas Sowell, but this is a bad idea. Instead, we should entirely focus on tying salaries to objective performance. For example, if Congress does balance the budget in a given year, they should be given a 25% bonus, and so on.

Raising their salaries is fine, but it's mostly a red herring when they vote on their own salaries even though it is not their money to give.

Term limits actually work against performance-based pay. They say, "we don't care about your performance, you will be fired after one term." So what ARE they being paid for? They are explicitly being paid for their ability to campaign to get the job.

Instead of term limits, I would suggest that Congressional seniority peak in the second term, rather than accumulating past that. It's long enough to learn the ropes, and hopefully not so long that they become entrenched powers.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Kevin
Wed Oct 10, 2012 10:39 AM
When politicians are over their heads with lies and deceit, don't have a
writer/teleprompter telling them what lies to tell, don't know anything about what
America needs (nor do they care), use Taxpayers money for extensive
trips/vacations around the world and come back empty handed, there's nothing
else for them to do but “Keep on interrupting, lying, deceiving and flashing those
pearly whites!!!”

Five (5) decades, politicians receive exhorbitant salaries, insurance, retirements,
etc. They've done nothing to earn it! They've sold Americans jobs and left
Americans with nothing. Do you think Taxpayers should be paying the bills?

Instead of ‘blowing smoke' and since you're lost as to how to re-create the textile
and furniture manufacturing jobs you sold to foreign countries,it's time for
Taxpayers to start cutting senators, congress people, and justices. The best thing
that ever happened to America would be send politicians back home with no
salary, insurance, and retirements! ! They've proven they're not needed! After all,
when arriving in DC, they didn't have anything. Now they're millionaires!
Something's wrong?

Put Governor of each state in charge and let them know it's a job, not a career
position. If they don't correct the problems, balance the budget, put trillions back
into savings and start working for the Taxpayers (as politicians were supposed to
do), then ‘YOU'RE FIRED' and Taxpayers will hire someone else. Our children and
grandchildren don't stand a chance if we don't start immediately fixing five (5)
decades of problems created by incompetent, corrupt, and greedy politicians.

If politicians cared about America/Taxpayers, they wouldn't have passed NAFTA,
CAFTA, FOREIGN Trade, just to name a few. In other words, the private
companies politicians bailed out knew they wouldn't make it, but they took
Taxpayers hard-earned money anyway because politicians gave it to them
without Taxpayers consent. Taxpayers are the losers! Incentives, bailouts and
handouts must stop immediately!

Folks, it's really quite simple!
Comment: #7
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Sun Oct 14, 2012 2:31 PM
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