by Mark Mehlmauer
[This is the first thing I wrote when I decided to give writing a go in 2015. Two years later the Washington DC branch of the Infotainment Industrial Complex is still thriving.]
Confronting the appalling fact that you’re not immortal has a way of focusing the attention. If someone you know was told that you had suddenly dropped dead from a massive heart attack, stroke, aneurysm or _______ (please feel free to substitute the cause of death of your choice) and would be more saddened (hopefully) than surprised, it’s clearly time to decide what would be the best use of what remains of your threescore (hopefully more) and ten.
I’ve decided to try my hand at wordsmithing. My primary motivation is to pass on the fruits of my dubious wisdom to my grandchildren. This is so they may, if they’re interested, have my thoughts to guide them after I’ve gone. I’m doing this while they’re still too young to do things like vote because they all still like me -- not one of them has turned on me yet. I find writing to be hard, often tedious, work. If I wait until one or more of them starts behaving like the self important smarty pants I was as a young man my slender motivation might evaporate.
I realize you know all about this sort of thing so I hate to bother you, but many of your fellow citizens lack your keen insight into just how bad things actually are in Washington, and why. Full disclosure: while I still follow politics, my interest is not what it once was. Having morphed from an idealist to a realist over the years, primarily due to my life happening while I was making other plans, I've become slightly cynical.
As a young man, I was a semi-radical leftie. I, like many of my fellow baby boomers thought that time + energy = utopia. I’ve evolved into a wild-eyed free marketeer and bleeding heart libertarian, a semi-radical rightie if you will. Life has taught me that utopia is not even remotely possible and that, all things considered, we should be grateful that life on Earth (possibly/potentially/occasionally) is as good as it is.
Have no fear, I mention my personal politics only because I wish to point out that over the years I’ve made an honest effort to figure out what works best. I have no interest in convincing you my political beliefs should be yours (although obviously they should be). I also have no interest in engaging in public political debate or even debating the contents of this essay. Make of it what you will.
I propose that those who don’t feel highly confident that they know what they're doing should skip voting altogether, particularly in federal elections, if and until they do. While voting competency is important in state and local elections it’s more important at the national level because it affects the nation as a whole, and me, in particular.
On Nov. 12, 2013, the Gallup people reported that the approval rating of congress, which at that point in time had averaged a dismal 33% since 1974, had hit a new all-time low. For the first time since they had started asking people their opinion of how well congress was doing its job, some 39 years previously, the approval rating had sunk to single digits, 9%. Since then it’s improved dramatically, averaging about 15% in the intervening months between then and as this is being written.
Now, if the public, your boss or your spouse felt the same way about your job performance would you honestly be surprised by any dramatic, sudden changes in your circumstances? No, obviously not, unless you’re a cable TV company -- or a member of Congress. 15%, hmm, what might that portend?
Our representatives and senators last faced the public in 2014. That year Gallup's average approval rating for Congress was -- 15%. Approximately 95% of the statesmen (states persons?) who sought reelection to the House of Representatives and “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” kept their jobs.
Incidentally, google the phrase, "the world’s greatest deliberative body" in search of who came up with this description of the United States Senate and you will find it is a very commonly used phrase.
James Buchanan is supposed to have called the senate “the greatest deliberative body in the world.” His quote was the closest I was able to come to an iron clad attribution. However, I have it on good authority that somewhere in Washington DC there is a secret Political Hacks Hall of Fame, accessible only to a small select group of insiders that features an exhibit honoring the individual who created the modern version of this phrase.
Anyway, the bottom line is that even when one or both bodies of our bicameral national legislature switches control from Depublican to Republicrat, or vice versa, there ain’t that many folks suddenly in need of a real job. Besides, any of those that are can be easily reabsorbed into The Leviathan as lobbyists, gummit regulators, congressional staffers, consultants, etc.
[Fun Federal Fact #1: According to the Census Bureau, six of the top ten richest counties in the USA are in the Washington, DC region. To appreciate how impressive this is you must keep in mind that there are, according to the United States Geological Service, 3,141 counties and county equivalents in the fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Bonus fact: The six counties in question are also more affluent than Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands where the locals are full-fledged citizens but their representation in Congress, as it is in Washington, DC, is somewhat restricted. Looky there, two fun facts for the price of one! Never let it be said that the Crank doesn’t give you your money's worth.]
We need not be subjected to party hacks, and certain individuals who may be more interested in selling books or agendas than in actual solutions, shouting carefully constructed talking points at each other on cable news programs. While the Us v. Them approach is much more infotaining than listening to, or God forbid reading, carefully reasoned commentary, and good for ratings or sales, I don’t think it necessarily makes us better voters. Just do it, or rather, just don’t do it, vote I mean.
In other words, the CFR contains the Rules&Regs that unelected bureaucrats have created to carry out the laws passed by Congress. How large is It? It’s huge, but quantifying it is difficult because new Rules&Regs are literally being drafted even as you read this. To give you an idea of just how large it is, try to wrap your head around the following. In 2010 the CFR reached a milestone, the number of specific Rules & Regs topped one million, and there have been five years of rule-making since then. Gently smack yourself on the back of the head, you’re obviously violating at least one of these rules.]
In their defense, getting elected, and staying elected, takes a lot of work. And it’s our fault, we sent them to Washington. Well, not you of course, but there are a bunch of other yous out there that despise Congress but keep voting for the same people. We need a slogan, something that starts with -- I don’t know what I’m doing! or, I just don’t care! or, I have enough trouble dealing with the rest of my life! followed by -- SO I’M NOT VOTING!”
The aforementioned economists, Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, studied the results of both Congressional and state legislative elections going back to 1898 and wrote a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2001 entitled, “The Empirical Frequency of a Pivotal Vote.” In other words, they crunched the numbers from the results of a mess of state and congressional elections to determine how often the results of a given election were determined by one vote. See where I’m going here?
From 1898 to 1992, in 16,577 congressional elections, the results were determined by one vote -- exactly once. So, the odds that your vote will determine the results of a congressional election are... well I don’t know what they are, and I already have a headache from my exhaustive research and have no plans to pursue the matter any further. However, I can state with confidence that the odds are slim to none.
[FFF #3: From the, You Just Can’t Make This um...Stuff Up Department . In November of 2011, the venerable TV show 60 Minutes broadcast a segment about Congress and insider trading on Wall Street. It’s fairly common knowledge that more than a few congresspersons have become rich after being elected to the House or Senate and demonstrating a newly acquired proficiency for stock picking.
At the time of the expose by 60 Minutes, insider trading laws didn’t apply to Congress because, as happens with depressing regularity, they had exempted themselves from the provisions of the relevant laws. The segment caused a bit of a stir and about six months later Congress passed the Congressional Knowledge act, which had been languishing for years. The act forbade insider trading by congresspersons or their minions and required that their stock trades be posted online. They also threw in a provision that applied the new rules to some 28,000 employees of the executive branch (Mr. Obama’s minions, man that’s a lot of minions!).
However, 67 positions are still required to meet the online reporting requirements. By the way, I got these numbers from a Roll Call article because Mr. Reid's office didn’t return my calls. OK, I made up that part about calling Sen. Reid's office, sorry, it was a blatant attempt to sound cool.
Fear not, they still have to disclose their trades. If you’re curious about what they might be up to all you need to do is go to Washington DC and sift through several thousand PDF files. If you’re wondering how the individuals you may have helped send to Congress voted on this amendment perhaps I can save you some trouble. Demonstrating that despite the rampant criticism to the contrary, when the chips are down a bipartisan compromise can be reached and action taken.
Ok, now, let’s get into my other theme… “Whoa your crankiness, if the odds of my vote determining the outcome of a given election is about as likely as the Clintons announcing they are retiring from politics, and since they have achieved one of life's most important goals, kiss my grits level wealth, they will shut up and leave us alone -- why should anyone bother to vote?”
There are well-meaning, intelligent people out there that argue just that. They’re wrong. Yes, your vote is unlikely to be the deciding one, but unless Vladimir Putin (talk about cranky) or someone like him starts running things around here, we, as a group, still decide who is (temporarily) in charge.
Now, this is the part where you bring up your pet conspiracy theory. Not you necessarily, but a not insignificant number of the yous out there. This argument holds that voting doesn’t matter, that __________ is in charge (or will be) and they only continue to let the people vote so they think they are still in charge. Please feel free to insert the name of the villain of your choice into the conveniently provided blank: the rich, multinational corporations, the Illuminati, the pope (not the current one though, he seems nice), Justin Bieber, etc., I’ve been hearing this all my life.
There are now more devices containing a SIM card than there are people on the planet Earth. So, why haven’t you posted that selfie of you and Bigfoot hanging out at the mall on your Facebook? More importantly, in the age of informational overload, the ever expanding cloud and charming people like Julian Assange (did the CIA kill him yet?), where’s the proof that __________ runs the USA?
If _________ is secretly in charge he/she/it/they must not be very good at what they do because if they were it would be much more efficient if they just enslaved us and were done with it. That’s what I’d do, and I will if I ever get the chance. Fortunately for you I’d be a benevolent tyrant.
Come on guys, if your boss and/or your boss's boss, the company you work for and the zany gang behind the counter at your local DMV are any indication of how competent our masters are on a day to day level, we have nothing to worry about.
There’s no shortage of thugs in the world gleefully oppressing the masses for fun and profit. There’s also no shortage of micro-thugs in the USA exploiting loopholes, monopolies, the tax code, low skilled employees etc. Thus has it ever been, thus shall it ever be. If or when a world class thug should come to power in the US, you’ll know it. It’s the micro-thugs in your life hiding in plain sight that are the problem (see FFF#3). Micro-thugs, like stink bugs, can only be controlled, not eradicated. This can be accomplished by informed people voting and living intelligently.
Now, if you’ll stop interrupting me, I’d like to offer some advice along those lines. We must be ever vigilant, there’s no shortage of predators waiting to prey on the virtuous and there is no shortage of stink bugs stinking up our lives. I make no claims that what follows is all that you need to know or even that things will get better if you follow my advice. That said, tell your predatory lawyer to go sue someone else.
I recently spoke with Mrs. Obvious about this very subject and she pointed out that congressional term limits would be the easiest way to deal with the problem of a nation that correctly understands Congress is a mess but is too __________ to do anything about it. In an effort to blatantly pander to my readers I’ve helpfully left room for you to pencil in the appropriate word of your choice (lazy/busy/incompetent/high/cynical, etc.). If it’s legally impossible for the politically challenged to return the same people to office for decades on end, we’re protected from each others occasionally dubious choices.
While it would still be possible to vote based on your gratitude for the fact that the politician in question got your _______ -in-law a job (and off of your couch), it will prevent them from remaining in office so long they have to literally be carted to work.
From the New York Times, 6/27/10: “In the final days of the health care debate, Mr. Byrd appeared for several crucial votes -- pushed each time to the Senate floor in his plaid wheelchair and greeted by handshakes and applause from his colleagues.” Senator Robert C. Byrd voted with the Senate to pass Obamacare on 12/24/09, he died six months later at the age of 92, may he rest in peace.
Term limits have worked well at the presidential level. If you get elected president, you’ve got three years to prove you were a good choice and get something done. You may even get a second chance. Yes I know, presidents, in theory, have a tough four-year gig to deal with before spending the rest of their lives collecting a pension and being one of the world's best paid after dinner speakers.
In case you missed it though, the fourth year will be mostly taken up with trying to get reelected, or getting someone from their party elected. If they do well, they might get a second shot. Even if they don’t do very well they may still get a second shot if the electorate thinks the person or persons (hey, it happens) running against them might be even worse than they were. This is the Better the Devil You Know option. Why can’t we do something similar at the congressional level?
At the moment we have any number of highly experienced folks who have worked hard all their lives that have either given up on finding work, or whom are subsisting on crappy jobs and wondering if they will ever get to retire or if they will drop dead building Big Mac’s. Hey, you want fries with that?
I’m certain you already know this, informed voter that you are, and I apologize for inconveniencing you, but I’m trying to reach the uninformed yous and make sure my grand-kids have a chance. In my semi-humble opinion, it should be difficult to pass a constitutional amendment, but in this particular instance it sucks sweaty socks. Call your congressperson or senator and ask them if and when Congress will be voting on a constitutional amendment concerning congressional term limits. Once they, or more likely the minion that answers the phone stops laughing, I’m sure they will be delighted to discuss the issue with you.
[Fun Federal Fact #4: The Texas State Legislature. “Wait a minute oh King of Cranks, I know for a fact Texas is one of the fifty states, what is the Texas legislature doing in an essay about The Gummit?” That’s easy, consider this.
Texas has one the largest economies on the planet. Having done some more exhaustive research, I discovered it’s number 14, or 13, ...or maybe tenth. It depends on what year and what sort of criteria you use smarty-pants. The point is, it’s huge and currently enjoying one of it's regular economic booms.
By law, the state constitution, the Texas Legislature convenes in odd-numbered years, for 140 calendar days. Olivia Obvious, Mr. and Ms. Obviouse's daughter, points out that that’s less than five months, every other year.
To quote the immortal Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”]
I’ve no idea if the sites owner hopes to sell the domain name someday or he just never got around to doing much with the site. But Andrew Gold uses a phrase within his introduction to the site, “...at the end of the day it’s not facts that matter to the public; it’s their perceptions.”
Yup. That’s why politicians are sold to us the same way potato chips are, and by the same people. Marketing works. Well, not on you of course, you see right through all the smoke and mirrors. I mention potato chips, and not one of the other gazillions of products we don’t need but want, because George Will, _________, (please fill in the blank with the label of your choice: conservative writer, right wing nut, most astute political commentator on the planet Earth, etc.) pointed out in an often referenced column back in ‘08 that America spends more on potato chips than it does on political campaigns. I know I do.
Could you please send a modest donation to Senator/Congressperson __________ to help with our reelection campaign so we can continue to fight the good fight and solve the perpetually pernicious problem of the corrupting influence of money on politics? They forget to mention the money and name recognition advantage they have just because they’re incumbents and that their opponents need plenty of dough to level the playing field.
The only good purpose these laws serve is the economic activity generated by people in the political industry (lawyers, consultants, party hacks, fixers, reporters, etc.) spending money to create, report on, and/or exploit loopholes.
There are always loopholes, there are always weasels exploiting them. It’s rather like the attempted prohibition of substances that give humans much pleasure but if used unwisely have significant downsides, such as potato chips -- human ingenuity, and the profit motive, will find a way.
Published donor lists don’t work either. In the age of the permanent campaign, which we we will get into in just a sec’, donor lists are meat for politically correct attack dogs. They don’t want to just defeat you, your candidate or issue, they’re prepared to slit your throat on the altar of their noble cause. Nothing personal, it’s what’s best for the country.
The WHCA website, in its section detailing the history of the organization and which doesn’t mention the rumor story, states that the press and Mr. Wilson didn’t get along for various reasons, one of them being that he accused them of printing material that was supposed to be off the record. He threatened to stop giving regularly scheduled news conferences, and eventually followed through. The original mission of the WHCA was to keep this from happening. Sounds about right huh? The press versus the government, impartially ferreting out the truth.
In other words it’s the media covering the media, primarily for, the media. By the way folks it’s not just a diner for ink stained wretches and the current president to make nice and raise some scholarship money (it’s original purpose) that’s devolved into the roll out the red carpet look at all the pretty people extravaganza that’s given saturation coverage by the media that covers the media. It’s a whole damn weekend of such folly (check out the site). We can all sleep well knowing the press is on the job.]
He wrote a memo back when he was working for president Jimmy Cah-tuh (of lust in my heart, malaise, problematic presidency but endlessly tries to make up for it fame) after he had been elected but before he had assumed office. In a great Wikipedia article that serves as a concise primer on a complicated subject, the following is attributed to Joe Klein writing in Time magazine, “Essentially,” Caddell wrote, “it is my thesis governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” At another point in the same Time article Mr. Klein wrote, “Strategies of this nature have been in active development and use since Lyndon Johnson, where priority is given to short-term tactical gain over long-term vision (my use of the bold button…).” So don’t try and blame it all on Mr. Caddell.
But people already know this, all of them, at least to some extent, the entire Obvious clan quickly points out.
Not just the political junkies, the politically indifferent as well. Anyone that’s unaware of the onslaught of political commercials that flood the airwaves (cable signals?), the signs that sprout like poisonous mushrooms and the flood of chatter (that’s already a rising river) from the pundits just before federal elections should seek professional help.
Sure, I reply in a condescending tone, but are they aware of the fact that it’s considered normal, no, even worse, it’s considered standard operating procedure for the campaigning to never end? That the 24/7 news media is delighted to provide a platform to help make it possible all the while bemoaning gridlock, spin, partisanship and the like?
There are more than a few of us that have the same perspective and they provide a different take on the world than the one promoted by most of mainstream media, Hollywood and academia. I’m certain this is deliberate. I’m certain this is the reason for their success. I’m certain that making money is more important to them than ideology. They’ve identified an under served market and like any good entrepreneur they succeed by filling a need or want.
It’s not really a news channel though, we don’t actually have one of those to watch. It’s yet another infotainment channel and straight news is only a component of infotainment. They give the “folks” what they want. Well, not you of course, you’re above that sort of thing.
To their credit, “Special Report,” which isn’t a special report but that’s what they call their version of the nightly news, is the only nationally broadcast straight news show available around the time the big three (ABC, CBS and NBC) crank out their daily dose of what they claim is straight news. The big three nowadays all have an obvious (ask Olivia) leftward spin. If this isn’t obvious to you you now have another legitimate reason to stop voting in federal elections.
Frank Luntz has a website to promote what he does for a living. The home page has quotes from people talking about how good he and his firm is is at doing what they do. What do they do?, they provide the words needed to sell the chips, or anything else. According to the site, “...you get language that is tailored specifically tested, researched and perfected, using innovative polling, comprehensive market research, and instant response dial sessions –- we make sure you know exactly what your audience wants, and needs, to hear to shift support to your business, your issues, or your goals...word by word, phrase by phrase.”
He and the host then ask questions designed to get an argument going, red meat for these kinds of shows. Chips or politicians, makes no difference to him as long as the check clears. I’ve got no problem with Mr. Luntz and I hope he’s making a fortune. My problem is with the fact that the marketing of politicians and issues is so mainstream that they don’t discuss whether or not this is an indication of a nation in decline, they discuss whether or not the commercial is effective or not. Politicians or Pringles, what’s the difference?
Anyway, I’ll have Mr. Luntz put together a focus group of founding fathers(and mothers of course) and ask questions about what they think of the concept of the permanent campaign. The results should be, enlightening. Then he can use a neuralizer borrowed from the Men in Black to erase their memories of the experience. Full disclosure: I’m not above making a deal with a pen manufacturer as well, have your people call my people.
While the nation as a whole has never really recovered from the Great Recession and the real unemployment rate is north of 10%, the Washington DC region is doing great. If you don’t understand the difference between the generally reported unemployment rate and the real one, U-3 v. U-6, may I respectfully suggest you don’t vote until you do.
Also, don’t rent a truck and head to the Washington, DC region in search of the good life. Most of their prosperity is generated by people in the rest of the country doing real jobs so the locals would prefer you stay home, keep working hard, keep voting for the same people and above all, pay your taxes.
Be a hero. Vote as if your version of congressional term limits is the law of the land in spite of the fact you’re not entirely comfortable voting out that old fart that has represented your district since Moby was a guppie because of all the power he or she has due to the obscenity of congressional seniority.
Go totally crazy and find out what something called Public Choice Economics is, there are smart people waiting to explain it to you on YouTube. Hint: “politics without romance.” Calming reassurance: there’s no math to deal with (which is why even I understand it), it’s mostly common sense. Motivation: you’re gonna’ say, “Why haven’t I heard about this before, it makes so much sense!”
You can probably call up a mind movie (probably in black and white) of a stage full of musicians in matching suits playing Benny Goodman/Glenn Miller/Duke Ellington style music in a smoky nightclub. A lot of people are dancing, a lot of them are wearing uniforms, a lot of couples are having dramatic conversations during the slow numbers.
The women are vowing to be true, the men promising to return as soon as they’re done saving the world from Hitler and Tojo.This sort of music started in the 1920’s but didn’t become a national craze until about 1935, by 1945 it was dying on the vine.
Americans stayed home rather than pay the tax. It was supposed to be repealed in 1946, it was just to help pay for the Second World War. It was gradually reduced but not completely eliminated until 1965, it helped to destroy most of the big bands within a few years of the end of the war. And that’s one of the reasons why the work of Duke Ellington, genius and the greatest composer America has produced so far, is appreciated by so few people today. Well, not you and me of course...]
Have an OK day.
P.S. Since writing the essay above, which actually dates to 2014, I've continually updated it though I didn't know what to do with it 'till I started this site in 2015. I've since stumbled on an idea that should have been included all along, sunset provisions.
It's so obvious it reminds me of when you see a commercial for a product that in hindsight, seems so obvious, you wonder why you never thought of it. All laws passed by the Congress of the United States of America should have an expiration date.
Instead of a given law being allowed to become encrusted with the rust, dirt, and moss of an ever expanding budget and an ever growing cadre of bureauons, a future congress will have to renew it, update it or toss it in the trash.
Have an OK day.
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