When the new administration first came into office, it put bids out on a safety net that would take care of the really underprivileged and disadvantaged when David Stockman and his budget-cutters pushed most of the government social programs out the window.
Originally, the specifications called for the safety net to be large enough to save all the needy in the United States.
It has not been constructed yet, and I went over to the contractor to find out why.
The vice president of the project said it wasn't his fault. "We had the thing built," he said. "But every time we were ready to deliver it, we got a call from the Stockman people saying we had to make it smaller. Originally, the safety net was designed to save need people on welfare, those suffering from hunger, lack of shelter, as well as the unemployed, Vietnam veterans, minority youths and senior citizens. It was a pretty good net, if I must say so myself.
"But then someone from OMB came over to look at it and said, 'We're going to have to make some changes. We've decided the safety net will catch too many people. Could you make it lighter and narrower?'
"I told him we could, but I wasn't too sure how safe it would be.
"'If we cut out school lunches, education benefits and public housing, you won't need such heavy rope, will you?' he asked me. I said, 'No, we won't. But what happens if the people who benefited from those programs fall?'
"He said, 'They'll just have to pick themselves up from the sidewalk and walk away.'
"So we went back to the drawing boards and came up with a net that would only be able to catch the absolutely down-and-out, who had no other place to go but in the net.
"We were testing it when we got a call from the budget-cutters, who said they had miscalculated on their figures and wanted us to reduce the size of the safety net by another 20 percent. 'We can no longer catch the people on food stamps, and we've eliminated the legal-aid programs for the poor, and we're cutting out mass transportation grants, day-care centers and job employment training projects, as well as veterans benefits', they told us. 'By doing this we can cut down on the number of people holding the net. It has to be done if we want to get government spending in line.'"
The project vice president said, "I told them I'd make any net they wanted, but I wouldn't take the responsibility for what happened when the people walking a tightrope in America realized there was nothing underneath them. They said it wasn't my responsibility.
"I thought I had it just the right size, when I got another call from the OMB asking me if I could make the net slightly bigger. I asked them, 'How big?' and they said, 'Big enough to catch all the tobacco farmers.' It seemed that Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who has a lot to say about what the administration does, wanted to make sure the tobacco interests had a place to jump if they had to.
"So we made the net large enough to catch the tobacco farmers but small enough so no other farmers would be able to use it. I've made a lot of safety nets in my time, but this one really was a lulu.
"Well, we had it all ready to ship over to Stockman when the phone rang again, and the voice on the other end said, 'By the way, is your safety net strong enough to catch the military-industrial complex?' I said, 'Are you crazy? It can hardly hold six ghetto people in Chicago.'
"'Well, we have to have a net that will catch the contractors who are making all the new weapons for the Pentagon.'
"'What for?' I wanted to know. And he replied, 'We think we've given them enough rope, but they insist on a net to protect them against inflation, cost over-runs and stuff that doesn't work. They say they won't build military hardware unless they have a safety net under them, so they won't get hurt!'
"I told them, 'Do you realize how big a net you're going to need for that?' And all the guy said was, 'Don't worry about it. Money is no object.'"