Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Marketplace aired an interview between host Kai Ryssdal and candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States Dr. Ben Carson. Public radio host and would-be Republican politician - well, you can guess how it turned out. But there was one sentence in it all that stood out for me. Dr. Carson noted:

[...O]ne of the bugaboos that has kept us from reducing government in the past is sacred cows.
But he never actually mentioned what any of those cows were, other than the size of the Federal budget as a whole. (And, if you read the transcript, it wasn't because Kai Ryssdal didn't try to pry it out of him.) In part, I think because it's simply conservative orthodoxy that "government is bloated." That came across when Dr. Carson said, "You cannot convince me that there isn't any department that is completely 100 percent efficient and you can't find fat." To be sure, of course I could find fat in every government department - so long as I'm allowed to define "fat" as "anything that doesn't directly contribute to getting the job at hand done." I think that people would be amazed at what fits that definition.

In politics, one of the first rules of running for Butcher In Chief is that you never telegraph whose sacred cows you're planning to come after. This prevents those people from having a clear reason to mobilize against you. And perhaps the second rule of running for Butcher In Chief is that always work to convince people that someone else has a sacred cow you're bound and determined to serve up for dinner. Suffering is always better when someone else has to do it. And since things like this are always better in threes, maybe the third rule of running for Butcher In Chief is that once you've picked your favored constituency anything that's important to The Other Side is, in fact, a sacred cow that's only still alive due to the perfidy of the Butchers In Chief that came before, and their lack of "political courage." This time, the suffering the other side has coming will actually happen. There is an argument, I think, for political campaigns framing things this way as a matter of course.

But the country isn't in the state that it's in because people are unwilling to swing a cleaver. The country is in the state that it's in because every cow worth slaughtering has a cadre of voters protecting it. The sacred cows of American politics are the important interests of the American voters - or at least those things that they're willing to put people into office (or remove them from it) for. As the saying goes, for any given group of people in the United States, no matter how committed they are to small government - there's government spending, and then there's THEIR government spending. There is a reason why every state in the nation has defense contractors in it. And it's not to spread them out in case of an attack.

It's become a common political trope to pretend that this particular political reality doesn't exist - or that this time, the will to overcome it will suddenly emerge. It's a trope that exists because it serves people's interests. Just like the tropes that emerged in the comments after the interview: Kai Ryssdal as no-holds-barred journalist and Dr. Carson as honest Conservative picked on by an openly Liberal journalist, suit the interests of various constituencies that read and/or listened to the interview. But it's an expensive trope to maintain. Politicians have been talking about slaughtering other people's sacred cows ever since the thinly veiled criticism of Hinduism entered the political lexicon. The reasons they haven't done so - the political reality that says that in a representative government, large and/or well-connected groups are able to protect their interests and entitlements - haven't changed. And that's why the cows still contentedly wander the pasture.

One day, the butcher's cleaver will find some or all of them. The current path that we're on is unsustainable. But it's not going to be an easy task.

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