Politics & Policy

Mottos for Miscreants

Moral midgetry in an empire of lies

A few years ago, I was called upon to inform the IRS that a former employee of mine would have liked to be paid more than I had paid him. Given that I have never met a freelance writer who thought he was being paid enough, I thought it a strange request, but I eventually understood the IRS’s line of thinking: The gentleman in question, who was in his 80s at the time, had retired from his former occupation and worked as a freelance writer. His beat involved a great deal of travel, and he deducted the expenses for which he was not compensated — which, the state of the newspaper industry being what it is, was all of them, at least as far as my editorial budget was concerned. The IRS suspected that his writing gig was somehow phony, something he had invented simply for tax deductions. In truth, he was just a freelance writer who didn’t make a lot of money — i.e., a freelance writer indistinguishable from about 88.8 percent of all freelance writers.

In The Pale King, one of my two favorite books about bureaucracy (Jim Geraghty’s The Weed Agency is the other), David Foster Wallace gives the IRS an imaginary motto: “Alicui tamen faciendum est,” approximately “But someone’s gotta do it.” The standing joke among tax lawyers is that the agency’s motto is: “We have what it takes to take what you have.” Personally, I’ve always thought that an apt motto for the IRS would be the first line of Catullus’s sixteenth carmina, which decorum forbids my quoting here, even in Latin. In reality, the IRS doesn’t have a motto, only that rotten chestnut from lifelong government dependent Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society” — carved into its façade.

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate” would be an improvement, because what the IRS does is in fact the opposite of what government agencies do in a civilized society: It engages in political repression, selective prosecution, lawlessness, deviancy, dishonesty, and self-serving shenanigans of sundry sorts. It can drop the hammer on a retired writer and demand documentation that he once asked for a raise, but it can’t manage to find internal documents — documents it is legally required to archive — when congressional investigators come looking.

The general malfeasance is maddening enough on its own, but the sanctimoniousness with which the IRS and other government agencies go about committing their various crimes and outrages against the republic — all that risible, cynical talk about “public service” — is what is truly unbearable. It is not enough that the government seizes a share of our harvest that would have made the Sheriff of Nottingham blush and then squanders it on projects that Ludwig II would have thought daft, and that we must endure being lied to; we are expected to participate in the lie, to accept it as the plain and incontrovertible truth when it is the opposite of the truth.

This morning on my subway ride to work, I noted a sign from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (suggested motto, with apologies to Hannibal: “Nec viam inveniam nec faciam”), an agency that wastes vast quantities of public money while wasting vast quantities of commuters’ time when it is not busy slaughtering New Yorkers by being literally — literally, Mr. Vice President — asleep at the switch. It also has a profitable sideline in trafficking heroin, but what it really pours its heart and soul into is preening, stupid, dishonest advertisements for itself, unintentionally comical acts of bureaucratic self-celebration sprinkled between Dr. Zizmor’s creepy dermatology ads and Manhattan Mini Storage’s celebrations of homicidal terrorists. They are a hoot: One advertises the fact that the machines that dispense subway passes now accept — mirabile dictu! – credit cards. “Did you ever think you’d be able to charge a subway ride on a credit card?” the sign asks, breathlessly. That’s a bureaucratic classic: “We’re 30 years behind the times, but we’ve just implemented a new, more convenient way for us to take your money — exciting times!”

The sign that got my attention this morning boasted about the agency’s favored-demographic set-aside programs, which have in the past three years put some $47 million into the pockets of “minority, women-owned, and disadvantaged businesses.” I suppose Swedes are a minority, which would explain why Stockholm-based Skanska, one of the world’s largest construction companies, won millions of dollars in MTA contracts for “disadvantaged businesses,” whatever those are. (Skanska’s market capitalization is $8.4 billion; we should all be so disadvantaged.) The firm’s U.S. subsidiary eventually paid $19.6 million in fines, while executives for the minority beard company were indicted on federal charges. This isn’t an isolated incident — a few years before the Skanska scandal (say that ten times quickly) another firm paid more than $20 million in fines in a similar case. The MTA’s auditor calls the problem “widespread.” But the MTA’s signs read: “That’s just good business.”

Of course, it would not be “just good business” even if the program were not corrupt. Minority set-aside programs are, by definition, something other than “just good business.” If the contracts made sense on purely good-business grounds, you wouldn’t need the set-aside programs to begin with. The program may be good, it may be desirable, it may be politically useful (one out of three, is my estimate) but it is not “just good business.” President Barack Obama is very fond of the phrase “good business,” by which he means companies’ implementing the policies he wishes them to implement. In this speech, for example, he used “good business” three times in three paragraphs. President Obama has never been in business. Other than a few brief stints at law firms while he was a law student, basically glorified internships, he has never held any job of any consequence at a business of any description. The MTA is not a business, either, except to the extent that its employees are in the opiate-retailing business. And so “good business” comes to mean “the opposite of good business.”

The lies are everywhere: California teachers go to the mattresses to protect child-molesters while po-facedly insisting that whatever they do, they “do it for the children,” even as their colleagues do it to the children. LAPD promises “To Protect and Serve” even as the officers in its crime-ridden ranks plant evidence in hundreds of cases, as its gang task-force turns into a gang itself, as the traditional game of cops-and-robbers breaks down completely, with police robbing banks. Politics corrupts even our best institutions. “Semper fidelis”? Not at the top. In the upper echelons, “Saepe fidelis” would be more accurate.

Tonight at 8:00 p.m., President Obama will announce that he is ordering Customs and Immigration Enforcement to abandon its motto: “Protecting National Security and Upholding Public Safety.” (Suggested replacement: “Ex turpi causa actio,” roughly: “You’ve got a legit beef, future Democratic voter, never mind that you’re in this pickle because you broke the law.”) According to the president: “What I’m going to be laying out is things that I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system work better even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem.” By my count, that’s an impressive five lies in one sentence: 1. “lawful authority,” 2. “work better,” 3. “work with Congress,” 4. “bipartisan,” 5. “solve the entire problem.” One has to appreciate the economy of the president’s effort there — imagine what he’ll do with 20 minutes.

We could have solved about nine-tenths of the illegal-immigration problem the day before yesterday by implementing robust, mandatory employment-eligibility checks based on up-to-the-second information, something that the same government that is energetically monitoring the content of private citizens’ prayers protests that it cannot quite manage, by implementing visa entry-and-exit controls that are roughly as effective as the employee-screening protocols in place at any halfway decent temp agency, and by frog-marching a couple of felonious CEOs into criminal courts for violations of employment law.

The problem of illegal immigrants is not insoluble; it is, rather, a problem that people in power do not wish to solve, partly out of anxiety related to Hispanic identity politics, partly because many of them find it convenient to maintain a permanent class of marginalized serf labor. That is the truth obscured by the gigantic heap of lies piled up around the immigration debate — that we are ruled by criminals who will ruthlessly violate the law while claiming that they not only enjoy the authority to do so but occupy the moral high ground as well.

And that is the one thing you can be sure that President Obama will not talk about tonight as he does his best to convince the country that “to faithfully execute” means “to refuse to execute.” In an empire of lies, the one impermissible thing is the truth.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.


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