Woman and girl I have been observing these State of the Union festivities up close now for almost two decades. But I am a slow learner. It wasn't until the other evening, when Jimmy Carter was performing the ritual that I understood the true meaning of the occasional interruptions of applause.These are not - as I had long believed - some-roughly reliable measure of how a President's program will fare in the months ahead on Capitol Hill. No, the applause is mainly reserved for those propositions that the august audience knows to range from the highly improbable to the absolutely doomed.
All right - it isn't true of every item. But surely it has become a staple of these occasions. Let us paraphrase the presidents of our recent past and present:
To those who say who cannot afford guns and butter, I say this nation cannot afford not to honor its commitments at home and abroad. Clap, clap, clap.
We will balance the federal budget, provide jobs for those willing to take them and halt the corrosive inflation that works such hardship on those who live on fixed incomes. Clap, clap, clap.
We will not rest until we have vanquished poverty . . . eliminated nuclear weapons. Clap, clap, clap.
And so forth. Give Carter this: At least he stresses that government cannot accomplish this wish list of impossible goals without a "partnership" with the public. But that doesn't make the prospect much less bleak. January remains the month in which the federal government, with elaborate ceremony and pounds of statistics, names the things it will spend the rest of the year not doing.
Why is this? Well, obviously some of the goals are utopian. But the more interesting point is the ambiguity or hypocrisy or both we bring to this annual enunciation of our aims. There are a lot of people who, when you get right down to it, don't want to achieve these unexceptionable goals; there are circumstances fixed like epoxy glue that won't yield to anyone's ministrations; and there is often good reason not to do something that is on the face of it, good. These things have practically nothing to do with the liberal-versus-conservative explanation that is dredged up at the end of every congressional year to explain the stalemate - what "went wrong."
I begin with the fact that we don't solve problems so much as we colonize them. First comes the problem, then come the "pilot projects" and the speeches and the legislation (modest at first) and then the consultants and bureaucrafts and the contractors and subcontractors . . . and the next thing you know there is a settlement the size of Virginia living on it. These are people with mortgages and Civil Service status and two kids in college and eight or eighteen years' experience in this particular "problem." It has become, in other words, institutionalized, not a short-term difficulty to be overcome, but a way of life.
The shorthand is a little too harsh when you say that, for instance, there are military folks with an interest in the prolongation of hostilities with other countries in the world, and social welfare bureaucrats with an interest in the prolonged dependency of their clientele. But it is also true that if, by some sudden divine intervention, the Russians went straight and the urban poor emerged from their slums wearing three-piece suits and middle-class values and headed for 9-to-5 jobs, well, there would be a lot of disappointment in the communities devoted to their care. And also, no matter how demonstrable the change, there would be a refusal to believe it had occurred. For that tiniest momemt when it looked as if Sadat and Begin might have cut through the layers of animus and brought the Middle East "problem" to some condition approximating "success," the only people not cheering were those whose careers rested on a continuance of the trouble - perhaps in perpetuity.
So there is a powerful impulse in many quarters of the society to resist achieving the ends to which we all pay lip service and for which we all go Clap, clap, clap. There are also circumstances that prevent a government and a public from doing much that they have announced urgent and indispensable. This is especially true now because Jimmy Carter's program, unlike those of his Democratic predecessors, rests so little on adding new projects to the business of government and so heavily on intervening in things as they are. His is a reformist, rearranging emphasis, built on an instinct to move in on the relationships already existing between, let us say, doctor and hospital and patient and insurer, or government and employer and union and employee, or any of a number of equally complex and fixed structures - and change them.
Well, as the fellow said: lots of luck. You need only consider Carter's hopes of reorganizing government and trimming it of waste to see how tough the challenge is. It is much easier to add on a new program in Washington than to eliminate an old one, and in any event you can hardly reorganize or move people around at all because ours has become in most respects a "tenured" society. It's not just the professors, but also and more importantly, the Civil Service and union-covered workers at every level of government who have a kind of tenure and who cannot easily be moved around, much less moved out of government, at an administration's urging.
Finally, there is the simple resistance of practically everyone to solutions of national problems that hit a person's own well-being. We employed people would do anything, would we not, to put others back to work - except, give them our jobs or let them into the market at wage levels that would depress our own or put them to work in numbers that would nudge up the inflation and make our own bill even more insupportable at the supermarket checkout counter and so on . . .
All this leads me to conclude that if there is even a chance of overcoming our troubles and making good on our pieties, it rests not with the thou-shalt-not kind of legislation that is favored by many people on the Hill, but rather with the slower and more intricate system of price and tax incentives and enticements that Carter's government has favored. True, it ends up in high incomprehensible legislation and programs sometimes, and it is not - witness the energy program, the proposed welfare and jobs reform - the sort of stuff you can inscribe on a banner to lead you into a political Agincourt. But my sense of it is that the country's dilemmas are well beyond the reach of those dreamy State of the Union pledges and edicts we have grown so accustomed to - and that we can only be nudged, cajoled and, alas, taxed into making things better, if we can be persuaded to at all.
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