THERE AIN'T NO SUCH THING AS FREE WATER
"There is enough water to meet essential needs, but not enough to waste.…Water is not different from any other natural resource except that it is more essential than many others.…Water should therefore be considered an economic resource, and the Commission believes all users receiving an economic return from water should pay the full costs of services."
With these words, the National Water Commission's final report may signal the beginning of the end for one of America's all-time boondoggles—the federal government's conglomerate of free-water programs. Under the aegis of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, and the Agriculture Department's Soil Conservation Service, the federal government has for 70 years been draining, damming, channelizing, irrigating, and canal building, at little or no charge to the beneficiaries: barge lines, farmers, sportsmen, and land developers. These privileged groups may lose their place at the trough, however, if the Commission's strongly-worded recommendations are followed.
The National Water Commission is at least the twentieth investigative body to examine federal water policies in the past 70 years. It was created by President Johnson in 1968 to provide the "last word" on federal water policy. Under the leadership of Charles F. Luce (board chairman of Consolidated Edison), the Commission has produced a comprehensive, hard-nosed analysis of who pays and who benefits under the current subsidy arrangement; it has also spelled out who will lose and who will gain under its proposed user charge philosophy. The 232 specific recommendations are expressly designed to provide "relief for the American taxpayer," while conserving water through market pricing mechanisms.
Among the specific effects of full-cost pricing of water projects would be the following:
• The federal government would no longer be paying farmers to keep 50 million acres of cropland idle each year, while simultaneously paying up to 90% of the cost of "reclaiming" 9 million acres a year.
• With farmers paying market prices for irrigation projects, the consumer would pay a bit more for food, but less taxes for irrigation and farm subsidies.
• Home owners would pay somewhat more for sewerage than at present.
• User charges on industrial water from federal projects and on federally maintained waterways could increase some consumer prices, but would encourage water conservation and more economical transportation choices.
• The feasibility of dams and other large-scale projects would be evaluated using a realistic market-value discount rate, rather than the absurd 3.5% rate currently used.
Opposition to the Commission's philosophy and proposals is already being heard, especially from western agriculturists who have come to depend on nearly-free irrigation projects, and from barge operators who have grown fat by undercutting railroads, thanks to federally built and maintained waterways. This is certainly a time for libertarians—as taxpayers—to make their voices heard in favor of free-market pricing and against the continuation of massive federal water subsidies.
• "Water Panel Feels Users Should Pay," AP (Washington), 30 November 1972.
• "Water Commission: No More Free Rides for Users," SCIENCE, 13 April 1973.
• "Changes in U.S. Water Policies Urged," UPI (Washington), 19 June 1973.
The latest "new-country" project is located, not on some far-off island or tropical jungle, but right here at home, in the 49th state. In the space of a few weeks, 15,000 Alaskans have signed petitions addressed to the President and Congress asking that Alaska be allowed to declare its independence. The campaign's backers, though not explicitly ideological, apparently have struck a responsive chord with many Alaskans, who are fed up with the domination of the state by the federal government.
The originators of the proposal, Fairbanks miner and real-estate developer Joe Vogler, notes that Alaskans are "totally controlled by groups outside Alaska. We should control our destiny and not be a colony. Compared to the things we're subjected to, King George III was a gentleman." Some of the more important of the grievances of the signers include the repeated blocking of the Alaska pipeline, new restrictions on logging, and invasion of the coastal waters by foreign fishing fleets. The CHEECHAKO NEWS has commented editorially that "Every resource in Alaska is now either shot down by a moratorium or so circumscribed by new laws and asinine bureaucratic regulations that the only profitable operations left in the state are gambling, sex, and booze. Two of these are illegal and the third pays an 85 percent federal tax on its product."
Petitioner Vogler notes that if Alaska were independent, it could set the price of gold at $150 per ounce, and establish a gold-backed currency. This would make it possible for gold mining to flourish once again in the new nation. With a gold-backed currency, wide open spaces, and the rugged individualism of many of its people, Alaska could literally provide a golden opportunity for libertarians to put their principles into action.
• News item, ALASKA, June 1973, p. 64.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNDER FIRE
Popular support for the public school system appears to be reaching an all-time low. As primary and secondary schools increasingly turn out students who cannot read and write, and have no marketable job skills, taxpayer willingness to support the system continues to decline. One of the most telling recent developments occurred last fall in San Francisco, when an 18-year-old graduate of public high school sued the school system for $1 million, contending that the system had defrauded him and his parents, by giving him a degree without teaching him to read and write.
Named as defendants in the suit (Peter Doe v. San Francisco Unified School District, filed 20 November 1972) were the city school district and board of education, the state Department of Education and its Superintendent, and 100 employees of the public school system. The student's attorney, Suzanne Martinez, pointed out that "Doe" had a normal attendance record and was not a disciplinary problem; furthermore, since leaving high school, he has demonstrated that he can be educated, and private tutoring has begun to overcome his deficiencies. The suit contends that the man was graduated "unqualified for employment other than the most demeaning, unskilled, low-paid manual labor," when the law required the educational system to ensure that he met certain standards before receiving a diploma. The suit asks $500,000 general damages, $500,000 punitive damages, and the costs of a private tutor.
The concept of holding public schools accountable for performance (something which would be automatic under a free-market system of education), is just beginning to dawn on most people. As a result of the Doe suit, a four-day conference on the subject of public school accountability was held in Washington, D.C. in March. Copies of the conference transcript, "Fraud in the Schools: Court Challenge to Accountability," are available from the Educational Policy Research Corp., 1206 Harris Street, Syracuse, NY 13210.
• "Poor Reader Blames Schools, Sues for $1 Million," AP (San Francisco), 23 November 1972.
• "Peter Doe v. S.F. Unified School District," NEW SCHOOLS EXCHANGE NEWSLETTER, Issue #99, 31 May 1973.
COMING OUT OF THE DRAFT
On 1 July 1973 the United States military draft came to an end, amidst complaints and controversy. On the one hand, libertarians pointed out that the Selective Service machinery remains in operation, requiring men to register and be classified, and needing only Congressional authorization to begin inducting once more. Senator Mark Hatfield is among those leading a Senate campaign to dismantle the S.S. system entirely. On the other hand, such disparate critics as Teddy Kennedy and various southern Democratic hawks are criticizing the current volunteer military as unworkable.
In the midst of this controversy the Brookings Institution has completed a comprehensive analysis of the problems and prospects for a successful volunteer armed forces. Its basic conclusion: despite problems of obtaining enough of the needed skills, "The U.S. can accomplish what no other nation has attempted—to maintain an active armed force of over 2 million men and women on a voluntary basis." To do this will cost an additional $3 billion annually, compared with draft-era budgets, and will require modifications to current recruiting policies and standards. In particular, the Brookings report urged increased recruiting of women and older men, relaxing physical standards for noncombatants, offering scholarships for college students and doctors, and using more civilians. Based on data accumulated since January (when induction of draftees ceased), Brookings concluded that voluntary methods can be counted on to produce a military force of acceptable quantity and quality.
In the meantime, it appears that the Selective Service system is slowly coming apart, despite the failure (thus far) of Hatfield's legislative efforts. All across the country large numbers of 18-year-olds are declining to register with their draft boards. S.S. director Byron V. Pepitone has refused to make any public estimate of the size of the problem, beyond admitting that the percentage of nonregistrants is "higher than last year." (In 1972 the national average was between 9 and 12%.) Recently the Associated Press made a spot check of local draft boards, and found percentages of nonregistration ranging from zero in Minnesota up to 30% in Illinois and North Carolina. Overall, the most widespread failure to register exists on the west coast and in New England (though the AP did not release figures for these states), with the best compliance in the midwest. Thus, by the time Congress gets around to repealing the S.S. Act (if ever), there may not be much left to dismantle.
• "Army to Need 1 of Every 3 Qualified Men," LOS ANGELES TIMES/WASHINGTON POST wire, 13 June 1973.
• More Youths Failing to Register for Draft," AP (Washington), 14 June 1973.