By contrast, a rare bit of good news comes from the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which has announced that, beginning in March, its database of consumer complaints will be opened to the public. Industry groups had heretofore successfully lobbied to prevent the disclosure of this information, which can give consumers early warnings of defects in toys, appliances, and other products.
One has to fear that the new Congress will attempt to reverse this decision by the CPSC. According to a November report in the Wall Street Journal, Republicans were already planning to take on the newly established Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” How quaint and unrealistic those words sound today. But when John Kennedy spoke them fifty years ago, they inspired much of the nation. And for Kennedy they were not just words for that day. When he accepted his party’s nomination six months earlier, he said, “The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”
Kennedy could call on his countrymen to do their part because he had done his. He had not only served in World War II, he had done so heroically.
I fear the ability of subsequent American leaders to ask for sacrifice ended when the educated elite began to avoid service in the military in the mid-’60s. This was understandable because of Vietnam. But the more a leader began to excuse his own failure to serve, the harder it became to challenge his fellows to do what he himself had not done. And it has now been forty-five years since the educated elite acknowledged its obligation to serve.
The tragedy of the 1960s is that so much that was good—the antiwar movement, the rights revolution that led to major advances for blacks, women, and gays—gradually morphed into a concern for personal rights that brought about the “me decade” of the 1970s and the explosion of personal greed that followed in the ’80s. But that doesn’t mean we should discount the immense accomplishment of the ’60s, including Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, for which, by the way, John Kennedy should share the credit. In achieving his overwhelming electoral victory in 1964 and in getting his programs enacted, Johnson consistently emphasized that he was carrying out programs initially proposed by John Kennedy, whose popularity after his death considerably exceeded its depth or breadth during his lifetime.
One exception where Kennedy did receive the credit is the tax cut he had proposed in 1962, which finally got enacted by Johnson in 1964. The Republicans love to describe this as the “Kennedy tax cut,” without mentioning that it cut the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent—twice what it is today.
While the Republicans are likely to be reckless in slashing the budgets of other government agencies, they are likely to be entirely too generous to the Pentagon, blindly accepting military requests without regard to real need.
Winslow Wheeler, one of my favorite Pentagon critics, points out that you can add the defense budgets of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba—and then double the total—and it’s still less than the present Pentagon budget.
Yet while spending billions on complex high-tech weapons systems, many of which are of questionable need, the Pentagon consistently lags in developing the simple tools combat soldiers require. The most conspicuous recent examples have been the body armor and adequately armored troop transport vehicles needed by our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historically the Army has been behind in the development of rifles for infantrymen, and though this magazine advocated drones as early as 1982, it took more than a decade for the Pentagon to get serious about developing the weapon that now seems so valuable.
Obama’s proposal to freeze federal pay is not the outrage that liberals like Paul Krugman have painted it to be. There are a lot of overpaid or very adequately paid civil servants, especially in the managerial levels, where excessive layering is the rule, with far too many chiefs and far too many deputies.
But there is a problem with Obama’s freeze, and it is that, where salaries are too low—and some are—they can’t be raised to attract the kind of talent the government needs. An example is the salary for oil rig inspectors, which starts at $47,448. This simply does not compete with what the oil industry itself offers promising engineers.
I’m sure part of this problem rests with the inspection agency itself, now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement. If the agency were determined to pay its engineers more, it could find one of those clever bureaucrats capable of writing a job description that would persuade the Office of Personnel Management to authorize much more generous compensation for the rig inspectors. (These job descriptions are an art form in the civil service, capable of endowing, in the words of the late Leonard Reed, “a file clerk with responsibilities that would make an MBA from Harvard quail.”) But I suspect the managers are more concerned with holding on to enough of the agency budget to pay their own $150,000-plus salaries.
Another problem is that Congress didn’t give the agency enough money. In fact, it got $67 million less than the Obama administration had requested. This is doubtless the result of the clever lobbyist’s strategy of appearing to go along with reform, only to then persuade Congress to cut the budget for enforcement of the reform.
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