Not since "Moby Dick" has there been a book as impenetrable, as imponderable and as unrewarding to the casual pleasure reader as "Budget of the United States Government -- Fiscal Year 1992."
It should have a warning right on the cover: Not a Beach Book. It's so dense it feels sort of geological, like an igneous extrusion. There's one section of the book -- a mere section -- that's 1,239 pages long. What might have been an epic is victimized by its own ravenous ambitions.
No overstatement is risked by noting that the writing itself is rather tedious. Some passages seem to lack an internal logic -- a chapter, for example, titled "Off-Budget Federal Entities" seems to advance the notion that a billion dollars not counted is a billion dollars earned. Additionally distracting is the fact that the print is rather small, and the paper stock flimsy.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Government Bookstore at 1510 H St. NW reports brisk sales, more than 550 copies snatched up (or dollied away) since they went on sale Monday. Price: $41.
For a mere paperback, we note without rancor.
The volume starts less than rapturously with a message from the president, including a passing reference in budgetspeak to the Persian Gulf War: "... the budget reflects only a placeholder for Operation Desert Shield. A supplemental request for the incremental costs of Desert Shield, which includes Desert Storm, will be forwarded to the Congress in the coming weeks."
Translation: "We forgot to include the war."
The second thing in the book is the message from Richard Darman, the budget director, who talks about "reform" a lot, specifically the decision to give just a few billion dollars less to rich people. Apparently the administration is trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Republicans, who spent much of the past decade bashing the poor. Now the Republicans are doing an imitation of what they think Democrats would sound like if they actually knew any personally. Their language has a Great Society undercurrent, and they've even stolen a Democratic trick by getting us involved in a major scary war overseas.
What keeps the Republican makeover from being complete, however, is the insistence on cutting the capital gains tax. Polls show that most Americans, and indeed all Americans who drink domestic beer in cans, think the capital gains tax is the tax on yachts. The remainder have a more sophisticated view of the situation, but are compromised by their membership in actual yacht clubs.
As in all books in the budget genre, there is bad news and worse news. The bad news is that the government is planning to take $1,165,000,000,000 from the American people in 1992. (The budget plays this down by deleting the nine zeros whenever this number is printed. When reading the book you always have to watch for the vanishing digits.) The worse news is that the government is spending $1,445,900,000,000.
Only a fool would suggest that the government could get by on something less than $1,445,900,000,000 a year. We all remember what happened last fall when the government was forced to shut down for a couple of days: Suddenly, shockingly, nightmarishly, the National Zoo closed. The thunderous clanging of museum doors echoed nationwide. Overnight, Americans realized that the government is essentially a large tourist attraction.
The best way to read the book is by diving in at random. Like here, on Page 1,031 of Part 4, there's the Allowance and Office Staff for Former Presidents. They don't get a pension, they get an allowance. This one is a budget-buster, topping $2 million this year, the result of a rash of ex-presidents running around, so many they form an actual constituency.
It is reassuring to see something like the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. Of course "trust fund" is a code word in the government for "a make-believe savings account." By law, the government can't save money like a normal person. All funds must be put in the Treasury, where, naturally, they are immediately spent, since there's an operating deficit. The trust funds, whether they be for Social Security or airport improvements or railroad engineer pensions, are mere entries in a ledger, a notation saying that the government owes itself money. (But don't expect to find such explanatory comments in the budget -- if this secret ever got out, the public would go nuts.)
What's this? There's something called Architect of the Capitol. You probably thought the Capitol already was built, that the blueprints were finished about two centuries ago. But no, the architect is still there, probably the same person as always, no doubt considering changing one of those Corinthian columns to Ionic, for which the budget outlay is $7,516,000.
So much of the book is elliptical, enigmatic. There is something called the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise Fund. Vainly we search the text for an explanation.
There is another thing called the Copyright Royalty Tribunal. One is surprised to hear that tribunals still exist. There is something called the Presidential Contingency Fund. No doubt "slush" is considered far too vernacular. Far more direct is the chart titled "Cost of the National Wool Act." It's about time they owned up.
There is some sloppiness; surely the reference to the William Langer Jewel Bearing Plant Revolving Fund contains one or two inadvertent nouns.
As we close the final page of the narrative we are left with a feeling of confusion: Was this tragedy? Or comedy?