As someone who has, to put it mildly, not been a fan of Donald Trump (see here and here, for example), I've been pleasantly surprised by many of his picks for cabinet positions. Looking at them I conclude, at least for the present, that they are on average better than Ronald Reagan's picks.
Here are what I regard, given my current information, as the best picks, alongside the ones Reagan chose for that position. They are not necessarily in order of strength because I don't know enough to do that.
I can think of worse things than being able to choose a school for your kids.Secretary of Education: Betsy DeVos. She, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article meant to be a hit piece, is "an ardent school choice advocate." The Inquirer adds, sarcastically, "Sorry, kids." Right, because not being able to choose a school is what's really good for kids.
Compare that to Terrel Bell, Reagan's choice. Reagan had said during the 1980 campaign that he wanted to get rid of the newly formed Department of Education. But he didn't try hard and his choice of Bell sent a signal that that wasn't about to happen.
Secretary of Health and Human Services: Tom Price. Price has pledged to dismantle Obamacare. He even has a plan to do so. It's not particularly to my liking, but just to have a plan going in puts him one up on Richard Schweiker, a "liberal" Republican Senator from Pennsylvania who was Reagan's pick. Schweiker did not attempt any serious deregulation of healthcare. (Although, to his credit, he was a strong opponent of the draft.)
Secretary of Labor: Andy Puzder. Puzder has been an outspoken critic of minimum wage increases. If he persuades Trump to hold the line on the current federal $7.25 minimum wage rather than raising it to $10.10 an hour or even higher, he will have helped preserve jobs for at least a few hundred thousand people, mainly young people.
Compare that to Reagan's pick of Ray Donovan. I worked for Ray in the Labor Department and found him to be a nice man and an opponent of raising the minimum wage. But he was fairly ineffective. Yes, there was a policy success: Reagan held the minimum wage constant in nominal terms. But that was more Reagan than Donovan. Puzder will have his hands full persuading Trump to keep his hands off.
Head of EPA: Scott Pruitt. The EPA is out of control. In a forthcoming review in Regulation, I lay out the problem with its push for higher fuel economy in cars. But it's out of control in other ways too. Pruitt will likely rein in, and even reverse, some of its most extreme excesses. One good sign: he is a global warming skeptic. Maybe he'll also avoid EPA-created environmental disasters like the 2015 Gold King Mine wastewater spill. Reagan's pick was Anne Gorsuch, who did manage to deregulate but, as far as I could tell, didn't do it well.
Those are the good picks.
There are some that could well be as bad as, or worse than, Reagan's. I have two in mind:
Someone who says, "Good people don't smoke marijuana" is not an ideal pick.Attorney General: Jeff Sessions. One of the areas where Obama made some progress was in laying off drug enforcement in states that allow medical marijuana. But Sessions would almost certainly try to reverse that progress. Someone who says, "Good people don't smoke marijuana" is not an ideal pick. (Of course, even if it were true that no good people smoke marijuana – and it's not – that belief would not be a problem if Sessions were willing to tolerate people being bad. But he's an enforcer of (his) morals.)
Reagan's pick was William French Smith. Smith federalized a lot of crime and amped up the drug war substantially. He also proposed a national ID card, a proposal that my late Hoover colleague Marty Anderson, then an adviser to Reagan, shot down by speaking out of turn at a Cabinet Council meeting. (See his Revolution: The Reagan Legacy, pp. 275-276.) Sessions could be worse than, better than, or equal to Smith.
CIA Director: Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has advocated the death penalty for Edward Snowden. That's bad. On the other hand, Pompeo at least wants to give Snowden due process. That's better than Hillary Clinton's proposal for Julian Assange, which was to murder him with a drone, assuming this report is accurate. Reagan's pick was Bill Casey, who got the United States heavily involved in intervening in Nicaragua. Both Pompeo and Casey were bad picks. It's hard to know who's worse.
I haven't covered the whole waterfront. I also haven't backed up the various judgments I've made here about the minimum wage, global warming, CAFE laws on fuel economy, etc. If you want to see my backing for these, do a search on my EconLog posts.
This first appeared at the Library of Economics and Liberty.