Jon Carroll (17 July):
Ever since I have been paying taxes, some of my money has gone to programs of which I have disapproved. I figure that's part of democracy; you have to pay the bills of whoever gets elected. I don't get to earmark my tax dollars; my money and everybody else's money just gets hurled into one great big pot, and then the government takes out a lot more money than was put into the pot, proving the old American adage, "There is such a thing as a free lunch if we say there is."
So if the administration is spending insane amounts of money on weapons systems, or on unwisely invading other countries, I should work to elect an administration that will reorder the spending priorities. Right? That's the deal we signed up for.
What really causes the steam to come out of my ears is the money that gets wasted on corrupt practices. I understand that government is by nature corrupt; I had always thought it was splendid that, in a transparent democracy, corruption came with some risk. Harry Truman became famous by heading the Truman Commission, which vigorously investigated instances of fraud, waste and war profiteering during World War II. It wasn't just a public relations gesture; it made a difference.
OK, can you envision this Congress setting up a new version of the Truman Commission? Can you imagine this administration cooperating with such a commission? Ha! I laugh bitterly. You laugh bitterly too.
I do get the uneasy sense that, within five hours of the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, more than a few people said, "I know it may be too soon to be talking about this, but I can see a real opportunity here." So while some people were digging out, other people were creating scenarios, generating cash-flow charts and identifying opportunities for cost overruns. Organizations like Halliburton obviously had the inside track, but if you acted swiftly and spread money around, you too could be part of America's latest profit center, unwinnable wars in not one but two desert nations.
Young men are dying while old men are getting rich. 'Twas always thus, but was it always this much thus?
It wasn't just the White House; Congress saw Sept. 11 as an opportunity too. The Department of Homeland Security was a blinking neon sign -- Use Me! Use Me! -- money for your home district, all in the name of keeping our country strong and free. Everyone was thinking all terrorists all the time, which apparently meant a lot of large machines in airport waiting rooms, but then along came nature's own terrorist, Hurricane Katrina, and it turned out that the Department of Homeland Security was a shell corporation designed essentially to launder money.
Ah, but surely the failures during Katrina brought shame to relevant organizations and caused them to mend their ways. Well, no. Last week, the inspector general released a report saying that according to the National Asset Database -- which was a list you definitely wanted to be on -- there were more potential terrorist targets in Indiana than in California.
And oh, those targets, and not only in Indiana, either. The Apple and Pork Festival in Clinton, Ill. -- that made the list. The Sweetwater Flea Market in Knoxville, Tenn. -- also a location of concern. There was a petting zoo, an ice cream parlor, a tackle shop, a check-cashing store and the exquisitely mysterious "Beach at End of a Street."
Understand: This is an official government list, used to determine where resources should be allotted, and no one noticed that "beach at end of a street" was perhaps a little vague for a national emergency. "Sergeant, I want you to get your men down to the beach at the end of a street." "Is that A Street, sir?" "No, Sergeant, not A Street -- a street."
Why write comedy anymore? The amateurs have taken over.
All of these "assets" remind me of the earmarks that congresshumans stick into spending bills at the last minute. It's an ancient tradition, but it does seem that it might be suspended in time of war. (Either that, or we could suspend the war -- I'd go for that.) If we need more soldiers in Iraq to protect the ones we've got there already and the civilians who actually believed what our government told them, then I could sure do without my on-ramp or bridge repair or Twine Museum. I think most citizens could, if they were asked.
But they're not asked, except for money, and the machine rolls on, and even the leaders are now having trouble remembering what its ostensible purpose is.