Rout of the Rebel Angels, by William Blake

A Dog Starv'd

A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
      -- William Blake,
     "Auguries of Innocence"

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Deep Thought

Jack Handey was an occasional commentator on "Saturday Night Live" throughout the '90s -- if "commentator" isn't too solemn a word for what he did there. His routine has been enshrined any number of places (books, greeting cards, various famous-quotations Web sites) as "Deep Thoughts." A quote-a-day feed that I subscribe to just served up this gem, from the broadcast of December 6, 1997:
When he was a little boy, he had always wanted to be an acrobat. It looked like so much fun, spinning through the air, flipping, landing on other people's shoulders. Little did he know that when he finally did become an acrobat, it would seem so boring. Years later, after he finally quit, he found out he hadn't been working as an acrobat after all. He had just been a street weirdo.
I don't know why I find that so funny. Maybe because there's a lesson there for wannabes of all kinds -- including wannabe writers. (Ouch.)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

...and the Bridges Came Tumblin' Down

Long Road Home 5, image c. 2006 by Benjamin Earwicker (bjearwicke,
One of the absolute dumbest phrases in the US political lexicon is "taxpayers' money." (Of course not excepting all its synonyms -- hot-button catchphrases like "my hard-earned tax dollars" and such.)

Why dumb?

Let me begin by agreeing that yes, it is literally true that money paid to and ultimately spent by the government (local, state, federal) in the form of taxes indeed does come from the pockets of taxpayers (and other sources). So in that very narrow sense, yes, it is "taxpayers' money." It's also true that a violation of public trust is qualitatively different from one of private trust.

The dumbness lies not in the phrase itself, nor in the special nature of the social contract between taxpayers and public servants, but in the implication that "taxpayers' money" is somehow different from consumers' money.

All other things being equal, do you howl savagely when (say) the manufacturer of your computer, television set, combination lock, automobile, sneakers, whatever -- when that manufacturer spends $1 more for some product component this year than they did last year... and then passes the cost on to you? Do you write letters to the editor about the scandal, establish lobbying groups of like-minded consumers united in outrage, pontificate on radio call-in shows about how the bums are ill-using you? Do you go over corporate budgets with a fine-tooth comb, circling in gleeful red every expense that might have been shaved, or cut out altogether? Perhaps you do, in which case I owe you an apology. But odds are you do not. Yet for some reason it seems not only proper but nearly obligatory to holler about how much is spent every year on government -- on public works, however you want to define that term.

So let's hear it for the American Society of Civil Engineers. Granted, they have a vested interest in public spending. But it's still an unpopular stance to embrace openly. That's why their recent study is notable, pointing out as it does that thanks to cavalier American attitudes about the roads, bridges, wastewater facilities, and other components of the public infrastructure, it will take an estimated $1.6 trillion, spread out over five years, to bring that infrastructure up to snuff.

A good portion of this money is already allocated to existing budgets, true. On the other hand, "existing budgets" are one area most likely to be raided as political expediency demands that Peter needs money this year and the hell with Paul, or vice-versa. Furthermore, the $1.6 trillion figure assumes that the US population will remain unchanged over that period. (Yeah, right.)

(All of this is in the news now, unsurprisingly, following the rush-hour collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago.)

As a New York Times article recently noted:
Finding money to maintain infrastructure has become increasingly difficult as public officials keep pledges not to raise taxes, said Robert Dunphy, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "We have an impending crisis with infrastructure, but it is easy to ignore until you have a catastrophe."
Highways buckling and potholing; railways springing out of alignment like paper clips under stress; busted street lights, bullet-holed stop signs, and yes, the collapse of bridges: catastrophes all, at one level or another. The scary thing to me is that these are just the most visible catastrophes -- that our social infrastructure is being held together by tape and staples and rubber bands. The money for replacing all of it comes from taxes, duh.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Welcome to A Dog Starv'd

As you can see from its description, I've cribbed this blog's name from William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence." This is the long (by contemporary standards) poem which begins, famously:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Not quite the smiley-faced hymn to all things beautiful and miraculous that these opening lines prepare us for, the poem as a whole is a savage indictment of a society which places way too much stock in the wrong things. The complete text can be found numerous places around the Web, including this page from the Academy of American Poets, and -- as you can see there -- is often presented as a single massive block of 132 lines. More readable versions (like this one) break it up into couplets and/or quatrains, which makes it easier to absorb the force of Blake's vision -- and its relevance to early 21st-century America. E.g.:
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.
And so on.

These lamentations and warnings alternate, roughly, with assertions more in keeping with the tenor of the opening four lines -- assertions such as these:
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.
Despite my choice of epigraph, I'm not going to use ADS as a soapbox strictly (or even mostly) for political pronouncements. I've tried that before (as you can see, in all its broken-imaged glory) and found it impossible to sustain this kind of single-purposed howl across more than a few months at a time. But Blake's poem does provide a good sense of proportion for me and, I hope, for ADS: outrage, balanced with wonder; finger-shaking, countered with embraces; things that I hate, as well as things that I love.

We'll see how it goes.

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