An experience I had about six months ago left a profound impression on me, so much so that I find myself mentally referencing it whenever discussions arise regarding government spending and debt, or the end of the Keynsian experiment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this experience shocked me in some ways, not because it invalidated opinions I previously held but because it made clear to me how much I had underestimated certain elemental forces at work and the cultural attitudes behind them. This essay is about the implications of that experience. I have no doubt that some will be offended by what I write here, and for that I am genuinely sorry as offending you is certainly not my goal. I can only state that what you are about to read is as completely accurate a description of the events as I can possibly relate- and I promise you that what I say happened actually happened.
In my work, I brushed up against a situation where two completely opposing worldviews were clashing. Their cultural assumptions and opinions could not possibly have been farther apart, and the animosity I witnessed was both deep-seated and raw. These groups were, in essence, two completely different tribes and I had an inside view of this clash because two people directly precipitating it thought – erroneously as it turned out – that I was a member of their tribe and treated me accordingly, giving me an insider’s tour of the conflict and situation with no holds barred.
The situation I was called in to consult on was as follows: There was an interesting property located in a rural township. The owner wanted to sell this property to the township with the idea that they would develop it for community use, and given its location this was an intriguing idea. However, because the site contained certain features that are given protection under law, two Government workers with expertise in these features became interested in the property and began working on obtaining funding so the township could acquire the tract. After discussing the possibility of purchasing and developing the property for community use with a few interested members of the Township Board of Supervisors, the Government employees did what they do in their professional arena. They went out and successfully obtained a sizeable grant from the state. With a chunk of free money in hand, they returned to the township believing that nothing stood in the way of the project moving forward as they envisioned… except for one tiny detail.
The full township board had not been notified that this money was coming in, and had not been consulted- nor had any official vote taken place. This presented a problem because the majority of the board, being elected in a rural area on a platform of fiscal responsibility, had not approved the plan. Indeed, there was no actual plan, no estimate of total costs, nothing. These supervisors pointed out that 1. The “free” money, while a considerable sum, was not enough to pay for the entire project and thus the township would be obligated to come up with the remainder, 2. There had been no accounting of future costs associated with the maintenance, staffing, equipment, etc that would be needed to maintain and operate the facility, so they had no idea what these costs would add to the budget in the future, and 3. The Township budget was balanced at the moment and thus the services they currently provided were sustainable at present levels indefinitely, but this meant that the budget was therefore already maxed-out absent new revenue. These people had been elected on a platform of no new taxes, thus when these elected representatives actually had a chance to vote on the project, they voted no. At this point, I was brought in by the Government men to consult on certain aspects of it, to see if I wanted to get involved in doing a study on the property.
All this is boring stuff, so far… but the tour I was given that day was truly remarkable. The Government men assumed that I was one of them- a “member of their tribe” because of my profession and current position. Because of this assumption, they spent all day telling me what they really thought. It was an education.
The Government men were in equal turns angry and astounded that their generosity in obtaining all of that ‘free’ state money for the township was so unappreciated. I was informed that it was only the pathetic ignorance and small-mindedness of the rural culture that had kept the project from going forward. In terms of the project, I was told again and again how these people lacked vision and were basically too stupid to accept the big pile of free cash that had been laid at their feet, a rank example of witlessness that the Government men found deeply offensive. The money was there, thanks to their efforts, and the stupid locals were too dumb to simply reach down and pick it up.
The government men referred all day long to the Township Supervisors as “hillbillies”, “hicks”, and on one occasion “Tea-party racists”, despite the fact that they were rural farm owners (in an area where the average farm is worth 1-2 million) and local businessmen/women, and despite the absence of any actual racial incidents of any kind. Though these people lived far from the isolated ‘hollers’ of Appalachia, and were successful business and farm owners in their community, I must have heard the term “hillbilly” forty or fifty times, interspersed with jokes about marrying cousins and inbreeding. One local supervisor was in favor of the project, and I was therefore told that “she was OK- must be the only one who has all her teeth, heh heh!”, as if all the rest of these community representatives were stump-toothed inbreds straight from “Deliverance”. Though it is entirely possible I have led a sheltered life, it was nonetheless the most blatantly bigoted conversation I have ever heard in person, leading me to wonder on the drive home if this was what it was like to talk to unapologetic bigots back during the 30’s or 40’s, merely substituting “Hillbilly” and “Inbred” for what would in a previous era have been “Darkie” or “Jew”.
It was crystal clear that these men were very comfortable speaking this way and that, indeed, this was likely how they and their co-workers in government usually talked, so easily did these slurs and aspersions flow during otherwise normal, professional conversation. In their tribe, it was apparently perfectly acceptable to characterize the other tribe in these terms. I was truly amazed at the depth of sheer disgust expressed.
At one point during the proceedings I was talking shop with one of them and he informed me that the new Governor’s budget cuts had necessitated a drastic change in how he oversaw certain state contracts which he supervises. According to state law, a specific type of survey was required prior to certain public projects, and after this survey was completed a report had to be submitted to the state. Previously, he sent these out on a contract basis to big companies to the tune of 50k per project, but with the new budget cuts, he informed me sadly that he was now farming the work out to a local state college, which could handle them at a cost of around 5 thousand per job. “How is the quality” I asked? He assured me that it was great, just as good as the big boys. Now I happen to know that around 20 of these surveys are done annually in my part of the state alone, and that this represents less than 1/4th of the total done statewide per year. I sat there (pretending to pay attention while doing the math) and trying to wrap my head around the fact that this guy basically just told me that he used to pay 4 million per year in state money to do these things, but when push came to shove he could do the exact same thing for just 500k. Given that this guy has worked in his current job for over a decade, I would guess conservatively that his casual little lunch admission means that on this type of project alone he personally has spent at least 40 million taxpayer dollars for projects he could have completed for 5 million over the last decade. He then went back to telling me how ignorant the local tea party was, and never missed a beat. It was a clarifying experience.
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When I read of IRS employees targeting groups advocating for small government, using the extraordinary power of the government’s ability to tax in order to purposefully harass and target these groups in a direct effort to hamper their political activity and speech, I am not surprised in the least. They do not view these groups as ‘fellow citizens deserving of constitutionally protected rights", they view them as members of a different and profoundly inferior tribe, a tribe so debased and low that it is only right to treat them with disdain and to use whatever force is available to thwart their goals. When I read of the wailing and the dire predictions of disaster that would be caused by the small, virtually inconsequential sequester cuts made in the face of exponentially mounting Federal deficits, I am not surprised in the least. Those dollars are largely fictional to the tribe that spends them ‘on behalf of others’; the money is merely an abstraction representing to them departmental power or career advancement more than any actual value that must be earned through productive endeavor.
And you want to know the greatest irony, or perhaps tragedy, of the entire story? The government men who so unapologetically mocked the culture, the reasoning, and even the genetics of the small-government advocates from the township? When we left our meeting that day, those men returned to their offices in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania- the first state capital city to have been so profligate in its spending that it could not pay even the interest on its enormous debts and had declared bankruptcy just months earlier. These men were utterly oblivious to the fact that this rural community they so freely mocked was being run in a way that ensured fiscal survival and continuance, while they returned to taxpayer-funded offices at taxpayer-funded jobs in the first failed capital city in America, a basket-case polity so ill-managed that it can no longer pay for even the basic services required to remain a functioning city. This fact did not stop them from believing themselves to be utterly and completely superior to their small town/small government counterparts in public service. It did not for one second give them pause, or spur them to reason through the consequences of their assumptions of public works and spending in relation to the assumptions of governance they found so provincial and uninformed in the people of the township. The people of the township were, government men believed, members of an ignorant and benighted tribe and thus were entirely deserving of their contempt.
Two tribes. And I have no doubt that one of those tribes will feed without question or remorse upon the carcass of what was once a thriving economy, right up until the last scrap of flesh is devoured and there is nothing left to consume. To even question doing so would be to affirm a critique originating from the other tribe… and that would be unthinkable.