A Lone Humorist Tries to Explain the Entire U.S. Government
The following is a sort of “message in a bottle” from the time when George H. W. Bush was president and all was (comparatively) well with the world. It is the first chapter of my 1991 book, Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.
Twenty-six years ago, I was exasperated, perplexed, and infuriated by the federal government and trying to laugh instead of cry.
I didn’t know how good I had it. Almost everything has gotten worse since.
Aside from a slight condensation and a few updates in brackets, I’ve left what I wrote intact. Let it stand as a memorial to how intractable the problems of government are.
What is this oozing behemoth, this fibrous tumor, this monster of power and expense hatched from the simple human desire for civic order? How did an allegedly free people spawn a vast, rampant cuttlefish of dominion with its tentacles in every orifice of the body politic?
The federal government of the United States of America takes away between a fifth and a quarter of all our money every year. That is eight times the Islamic zakat, the almsgiving required of believers by the Quran. It is double the tithe of the medieval church and twice the royal tribute that the prophet Samuel warned the Israelites against when they wanted him to anoint a king.
He will take the tenth of your seed,
and of your vineyards… He will
take the tenth of your sheep… And
ye shall cry out in that day because
of your king.
[In 2017, combined federal, state, and local government spending exceeds 36% of GDP.]
Our government gets more than thugs in a protection racket demand, more even than discarded first wives of famous rich men receive in divorce court. Then this government, swollen and arrogant with pelf, goes butting into our business.
It checks the amount of tropical oils in our snack foods, tells us what kind of gasoline we can buy for our cars and how fast we can drive them, bosses us around about retirement, education, and what’s on TV; counts our noses and asks fresh questions about who’s still living at home and how many bathrooms we have; decides whether the door to our office or shop should have steps or a wheelchair ramp; decrees the gender and complexion of the people to be hired there; lectures us on safe sex, and dictates what we can sniff, smoke, and swallow.
The government is huge, stupid, greedy, and makes nosy, officious, and dangerous intrusions into the smallest corners of life – this much we can stand. But the real problem is that government is boring.
We could cure or mitigate the other ills Washington visits upon us if we could only bring ourselves to pay attention to Washington itself. But we cannot.
Government is boring because political careers are based on the most tepid kind of lie: “I’ll balance the budget, sort of,” or, “I won’t raise taxes, if I can help it.”
Of course, politicians don’t tell the truth: “I am running for the U.S. Senate in order to even the score with those grade-school classmates of mine who, 35 years ago, gave me the nickname Fish Face,” or, “Please elect me to Congress so that I can get out of the Midwest and meet bigwigs and cute babes.”
But neither do politicians tell huge, entertaining whoppers: “Why, send yours truly to Capitol Hill and I’ll ship home the swag in boxcar lots. You’ll be paving the roads with bacon around here when I get done shoveling out the pork barrel. There’ll be government jobs for your dog. Leave your garden hose running for 15 minutes and I’ll have the Department of Transportation build an eight-lane suspension bridge across the puddle. Show me a wet basement and I’ll get you a naval base and make your Roto-Rooter man an admiral of the fleet. There’ll be farm subsidies for every geranium you’ve got in a pot, defense contracts for Junior’s spitballs, and free daycare for Sister’s dolls. You’ll get unemployment for the 16 hours a day when you’re not at your job, full disability benefits if you have to get up in the night to take a leak, and Social Security checks will come in the mail not just when you retire at 65 but when you retire each night to bed. Taxes? Hell, I’ll have the government go around every week putting money back in your paycheck, and I’ll make the IRS hire chimpanzees from the zoo to audit your tax returns. Vote for me, folks, and you’ll be farting through silk.”
Government is also boring because in a democracy government is a matter of majority rule. Now, majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But – like other precious, sacred things, such as the home and family – it’s not only worth dying for, it can make you wish you were dead.
Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only things on the shelves at the library. And – since women are a majority of the population – we’d all be married to Mel Gibson.
[Not anymore! What a bum he turned out to be! Currently, we’d all be remarried to Channing Tatum.]
Furthermore, government is boring because what’s in it for us? Sure, if we own an aerospace contracting company or a 5,000-acre sugar-beet farm we can soak Uncle Sucker for millions. But most of us failed to plan ahead and buy McDonnell Douglas. And now the only thing we can get out of government is government benefits – measly VA checks and Medicare. We won’t get far on the French Riviera on this kind of chump change. Besides the French look at us funny when we try to buy pate de foie gras and Chateau Margaux ‘61 with American food stamps.
Government is so tedious that sometimes you wonder if the government is being boring on purpose. Maybe it’s trying to put us to sleep so we won’t notice what it’s doing.
[One thing that can be said for President Trump, he doesn’t put us to sleep. He keeps us up at night…]
Every aspect of our existence is affected by government, so naturally we want to keep an eye on the thing. Yet whenever we regular citizens try to read a book on government or watch one of those TV public-affairs programs about government, we feel like high school students who’ve fallen a semester behind in our algebra class. Then we grow drowsy and torpid. This could be intentional. Our government could be attempting to establish a Dictatorship of Boredom. The last person left awake gets to spend all the tax money.
Boredom isn’t the only problem. American lack of interest in government is well developed, but American ignorance of government is perfect.
Almost everything we know about the workings of Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, and so forth comes from one high school civics course and one spring vacation when Dad took the family to Washington, D.C.
On the trip to Washington, we learned that the three branches of government are the White House, the top of the Washington Monument, and the tour of the FBI building.
In high school civics class, we learned just how long an afternoon can be made to seem with the help of modern educational methods.
Things have not changed much. I got a copy of a current high school civics book, American Civics. I’m told it’s one of the nation’s most widely used texts.
American Civics has trimmed its sails to the prevailing ideological winds. It has a section with the infelicitous title “Upsetting America’s Ecology” and another section that says, “The Reverend Jesse Jackson ran a strong campaign for the 1984 and 1988 Democratic Presidential nominations.” There’s a photo of a man in a wheelchair above the caption, “Disabled doesn’t mean unable.”
Beneath the moral frills, however, American Civics is the same font of monotony, the same bible of ennui that civics books have always been. I defy anyone to read two paragraphs of it and tell me what he just read.
[Last month, my high school junior daughter was assigned a textbook that makes American Civics seem like Atlas Shrugged… This is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Zinn (now dead and gone to hell) detested America and, in A People’s History, describes the entire American enterprise as based upon racism, bigotry, slaughter, and exploitation of the poor by some supposed “elite.” Zinn makes me yearn for the mere liberal PC claptrap of 1991.]
Our Founding Fathers lacked the special literary skills with which modern writers on the subject of government are so richly endowed. When they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, they were so clumsy of thought and pen that even today, seven generations later, we can understand what they were talking about.
They were talking about having a good time:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness…
“This is living! I gotta be me! Ain’t we got fun!” It’s all there in the Declaration of Independence.
We are the only nation in the world based on happiness. Search as you will the sacred creed of other nations and peoples. Read the Magna Carta, The Communist Manifesto, the Ten Commandments, the Analects of Confucius, Plato’s Republic, or the U.N. Charter and find me any happiness at all.
And this is one good reason why we who live here can’t bring ourselves to read American Civics or even the daily paper.
As it is with us, so it was with the Original Dads. Their beef with King George? He was no fun.
As the Declaration of Independence goes on to say, George III is attempting to:
…complete the works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.
There are 27 specific complaints against the British Crown in the Declaration of Independence. To modern ears they still sound reasonable. They still sound reasonable because so many of the complaints can be leveled against the present U.S. federal government.
Maybe not the “Death, Desolation, and Tyranny” [unless you’re a DACA “Dreamer”], but how about:
…has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.
George III was a piker compared to FDR
…has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
Our Congress wouldn’t pass a balanced budget or any legislation banning people over 30 from wearing spandex bicycle shorts.
…has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies…
…has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution and unacknowledged by our Laws…
Federal regulator agencies, for instance.
…Depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury.
If we cross one of those regulatory agencies.
…Cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World.
As U.S. trade quotas and tariffs do.
…Imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.
Nobody asked me if I wanted a 1040 Form.
…has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us…
For sure.The Constitution is an equally forthright piece of work and quite succinct – (21 pages in the American Civics E-Z-reader large-type version) giving the complete operating instructions for a nation of 250 million people. The manual for a Toyota Camry, which only seats five, is four times as long.
An hour’s perusal of our national charter makes it hard to understand what all the argle-bargle is about.
The First Amendment forbids any law “abridging the freedom of speech.” It doesn’t say, “except for commercials on children’s television” or “unless somebody says ‘f***’ in a rap song or ‘chick’ on a college campus.”
The Second Amendment states that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” period. There is no mention of magazine size, rate of fire, or to what extent these arms may resemble assault rifles.
All rifles were assault rifles in those days. Furthermore, if the gun laws that Massachusetts has now had been in force in 1776, we’d all be Canadians. And you know what kind of weather Canada has.
There is no reference to abortion whatsoever in the Constitution, not even so much as an “I’ll pull out in time, Honey, honest.”
The Tenth Amendment tells us “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This means the power to stop the endless, vitriolic “Pro-Life” versus “Pro-Choice” argument is – just as the Amendment says – “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The Constitution is not hard to understand. Although the quality of reasoning degenerates in the later amendments. The Sixteenth Amendment is particularly awful:
The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived…
And Section 4 of the Fourteenth is very silly:
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned.
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment, giving the vote to 18-year-olds, must have been drafted by people who’d never met any 18-year-olds or, worse, by people who were 18.
But, on the whole, the text of the Constitution is easily glossed. The single exception being the Twelfth Amendment:
…The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such a majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, one of them…
The idea seems to be to make the election of a president so complicated and annoying that no one with an important job or a serious avocation or who is presently making any substantial contribution to society would be tempted to run for the office. So far, it’s worked.
Otherwise, only one important question is raised by the Constitution, a question implicit in its preamble:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…
The question being, “Are we done yet?”
The first objective was achieved by the Civil War. Brother fought brother, neighbor fought neighbor, even perfect strangers fought each other. I assume a more perfect Union was formed, since the “Union” side won.
We’ve established about as much justice as the country can stand (Perfect justice being a thing none of us would care to confront).
Domestic Tranquility we don’t have, but how we’d get it without violating the whole Constitution and Bill of Rights is beyond me.
The common defense is so well provided for that even such uncommon things as Saudi Arabians are defended by it.
In the matter of promoting the general welfare we have – to judge by the welfare rolls – done it too well.
The blessings of liberty are so manifestly secured to ourselves that we seem weighed down by the things, and lately are attending AA meetings and formulating personal diet and exercise regimens to ease the burden.
And as for posterity, that’s why birth control was invented.
So when can we quit passing laws and raising taxes? When can we say of our political system, “Stick a fork in it, it’s done”?
The Mystery of Government is not how Washington works but how to make it stop.