Are we watching? Do we care?

In the April 18 edition of Newsweek, columnist Philip K. Howard published a “Dear Congress” letter setting forth several national policies that are broken, and demanding that they be addressed and fixed. This is similar to the open letter that was published in this space on April 3 that “gently but firmly” demanded strong leadership from Rep. John Campbell to address and resolve the problems with illegal immigration.

As a practical matter, with all of the political polarization and other problems facing our great country, mostly there is no one left but “We the People” to take action. Are we watching? Do we care? If so, we need to persuade our public leaders that getting and staying elected is not the same thing as governing.

In addition to illegal immigration, some of those areas that must be addressed are sunset provisions for all federal agencies, the reduction of the welfare system for both the poor and the wealthy, requiring new public employees to invest in 401(k) programs for their retirement, just like workers in the private sector, and the failed and hopeless policy of drug prohibition. All of these have an enormous negative impact upon our federal budget deficit, and there appears to be no good faith effort by Congress even to address, much less resolve them.

Two additional areas that simply must be addressed are the entitlements of Social Security and Medicare. Painful as it could be, we must understand that if Congress had indexed the retirement age of 65 to increases of life expectancy when it implemented these programs in 1935, people would not be eligible today for these entitlements until they reached their middle 70s. So since the national government simply cannot remain solvent by paying entitlements at this rate, we simply must increase the ages of eligibility.

But when addressing our budget deficits, there remains a huge issue that is almost never even mentioned that will go a long way in helping us regain fiscal solvency, and that is the federal ownership of land. Most people do not realize this, but today the federal government owns about 650 million acres of land, almost 30% of our country! This property is held as national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, Indian reservations and military reservations, and for the good of the country’s economic health, this landowning should be reassessed.

Of course, no one is proposing to sell Yellowstone, Yosemite or any of our other national treasures or military reservations that are necessary for our security. But the federal government also owns huge tracts of forests, deserts, meadows, mountains and shore lands. It would be better for everyone if that ownership were significantly reduced. (And if it is Native American land, give it back to them and let them run it!)

What would happen if some of this land were to be sold to the private sector? In addition to the monies received from the sales, the privately held land would also generate property, sales and income taxes, all of which would reduce the government’s financial deficits.

But the benefits would be much more than financial. Not only is the federal government the largest polluter of land in the country, it virtually never manages property nearly as well as people do in the private sector. Why? Today the Bureau of Land Management, for example, leases out public grazing lands at artificially low rates to politically powerful people, who, in turn, have no incentive to keep from overgrazing it.

Put yourself in their place. If you had a lease to graze your cattle on government land for five years, you would want to maximize your short-term revenues as much as you could, without consideration of what it might do to the land. So you would tend to overgraze it. But if you were the owner, you would have incentives to husband the land, because if you didn’t, it would decrease in utility and value.

As another example, in England many trout streams have been privatized, which means that, among other things, the owners can sue anyone who pollutes them upstream. As a result, the property is carefully husbanded, because a clean, beautiful and natural stream full of trout is more valuable for bringing in visitors and people who fish than one that is less so. Other examples are abundant, particularly in Africa with their wild animals.

That is not at all to say that the government should not have laws regarding things like pollution. The biggest example of that would be drilling for oil. It should mostly be allowed, but anyone drilling anywhere should first be required to post a significant bond with a financially strong and stable company that will be forced to pay for the cleanup and other ramifications of every drop of oil that is spilled. That way the bonding company will rigorously supervise all of the drilling, because its own money would be at stake.

So there is a better way. Are we watching? Do we care? If so, please join me in writing a letter to your member of Congress demanding that he or she take steps that will actually fix these problems. As we have said before, it is our government, and if it isn’t working, it is nobody’s fault but our own.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)