Final as in the last thing I’m thinking about when I go to bed. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a bit of a brain dump at the end of the day, instead of writing about the hottest topic du jour, so consider this a flagship post (N.B. even though my not-so-well-thought-out-or-composed trial balloon was pretty much a flop).
I have very mixed feelings about the announcement from the Pay Czar today that 7 of the firms receiving TARP money would have their salaries dictated to them, resulting in as much as a 90% pay cut (although I’ve also heard 90% was the average).
On the one hand, I figure if you dance with the devil, then you can’t complain when he calls the tune. And since in my estimation these firms should have been allowed to fail in the first place, I’m not exactly shedding any tears over their lost compensation. If they wanted to have control over their businesses, then they shouldn’t haven’t gotten involved with the government in the first place. Whatever Paulson said in that room that fateful day, the decision-makers still had a choice. That they chose poorly is really not my problem, and I don’t feel one bit sorry for them.
Yet, I have no way of knowing if any of those salaries being cut would be going to mismanagers or saviors of the bailed-out firm. Clearly if these firms are going to survive (and the taxpayers are going to have any chance of getting their money back), then we would want the smartest, most industrious, and capable workers in there plugging away, whether it’s in the mail room or the board room. But how is that supposed to happen if these people aren’t getting paid their market rate? Why wouldn’t they go somewhere else, or start their own private companies?
More importantly, what sort of precedent does this set? I understand that the Pay Czar’s actions are legitimized by Congress in the statute setting up the TARP program, but what constitutional authority ever gave any of them the right to dictate pay? The Commerce Clause? The General Welfare Clause to which Congress is now hitching its hopes on forcing people to buy health insurance? The answer to that question only raises much deeper and frankly hair-raising questions.
If Congress can constitutionally give the Executive Branch the power to dictate the pay of those who receive federal funds, what else can it do to those being subsidized? If the federal government is picking up the tab for any portion of your health insurance or health care, for example, what limits can it place on the way you live your life? Can it force you not to smoke? Not to drink? Maybe you won’t be allowed to go skiing or rollerblading without a special permit. Would motorcycle riding still be allowed? How about eating fatty foods of any sort? What happens to student loan recipients? Will their classes be decided for them? Their future employment?
Scoff if you must, but if the government can dictate what your intellectual and physical efforts are worth, then why can’t it also dictate what your actual life is worth? And don’t be confused into thinking that decisions concerning how much the government will pay for your health care, or what you will do to earn a living, are anything but a determination of how much your life is worth.
Like I said above, I’m ambivalent about the Pay Czar actions. While I’m not crying over some Wall Street fat cats having the their lucre cut off, I am worried about the seeming ease with which Americans are taking this news and their apparent lack of interest in what it could mean for them (and me!). Governments are dangerous, no matter what goodies you think you might personally get from them. A government that exercises control over any of our lives with fanfare from the constituents, or worse, with their apathy, is by far the most dangerous. Which government and which polity do we have now?
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