The Parable of the Pasture

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This parable is probably a hundred years old, but its meaning is as fresh and significant today as it ever was:

“The voters are like cattle in a pasture. Every four years, someone brings a bull around and lets it loose in the field. It doesn’t matter which bull they send in because the same thing happens to the cows.”

You may supply the moral of the story in language that suits your sense of propriety today.

Back in the 1960s and early 70s, George Wallace repeatedly said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. Actually back then there probably was a quarter’s difference.

I think it was Richard Neustadt who made the point a few years earlier that, if you take away just a few issues from the Democratic and then Republican members of Congress, you truly would have a very homogenous body of politicians.

In recent years, we have watched as Barack Obama campaigned on change, change, change, and then the Tea Party contingent campaigned on throwing all the rascals out and making real change.

I will argue that, as time goes on, whoever is claiming to advocate change will end up supporting the status quo. The Tea Party members have joined movements that want their elected officials to serve a term – okay, maybe two – and then go home.

Some individuals may (reluctantly?) do their terms and then resign, but it is more common for a transformation to occur as the outsider morphs into an insider. Politician A sees all the good that he or she is doing and decides that it would be best for him or her to run again, by golly, in order to do more good.

We humans always wrap our motives and intentions in the flag or the Bible: “America needs folks like me in Washington. God wants me there to make sure that this stays a Christian country.” We claim we don’t want bribes or the more usual equivalent, campaign donations. We can’t be bought, but, by gum, we do look after folks who think like us. This billion-dollar airplane isn’t needed, the Pentagon doesn’t even want it, but we’ve got to defend America and keep the plants making parts for the good of the country, the state, our district, and (of course, this is not important) our buddies.

We like to look back to the marble days of our country when the Founding Fathers, with halos around their head, complained about King George III, and the tariffs, and the taxes. There’s one problem: We don’t like to think that our forefathers often were driven by profit as much as principle.

As the party system evolved, our forefathers passed sedition laws to shut up the unpatriotic loud-mouths in the other party. First Amendment rights? Not for traitors. They deserve a hanging or at least a good hoss-whipping. We’ll compromise with a good tarring-and-feathering.

When the federal government needed money, the early fathers listened to Alexander Hamilton and established the Second National Bank, run by Nicholas Biddle. All of the government revenue in this young country was concentrated in his bank, and it didn’t take long for this hard-working financier to begin thinking of the revenue as his money.

Unfortunately, he ran afoul of Andy Jackson, who, in retrospect, could have run on the slogan “It’s time for a real psycho for President.” Jackson’s stubbornness helped to derail Biddle’s attempts to blackmail the U.S. and eventually to destroy his house of cards.

Across the pond over a century earlier, England saw a big abuse with its “South Sea Bubble,” a scheme for a company to take on the nation’s debt and then pay it off with special deals. It didn’t work thanks to Graft and its kissing cousins Inefficiency and Ineptitude.

During the Good War of the 20th Century, Americans remembered Pearl Harbor and rallied together. Some sang “Glory Glory Hallelujah” as they envisioned the millions of dollars that Washington was spending throughout the country. Did local contractors do right by their country and give the best deals on building new military bases? Of course, not. They worked on a “cost-plus” system.

The Truman Committee revealed that they were jacking up the prices. Suddenly it was costing twice what they normally charged to build a barracks or a PX. Senator Harry and Bess hopped into their old Dodge and drove to these military sites to see if building materials were actually there, if workers were sawing two-by-fours and installing plumbing or foundations. Truman also looked into the dollar-a-year moguls who were supposedly helping in the war effort. Often they weren’t; instead, they were trashing competitors and trying to use the feds to weaken or destroy employees’ union.

In fact, any time the government has accumulated millions or billions in a special fund, corruption has ensued. Let’s take the case of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (as summarized by the online

“An 1887 law made the federal government responsible for collecting fees from anyone who uses tribal land, with the money to be held in a trust fund. Billions were paid by mining companies, ranchers, and others over the decades; currently over $300 million is collected annually by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), part of the Interior Dept. The money was supposed to be given to the descendants of the original Indian land owners, but every audit since 1928 has found billions missing from the trust fund. It is certainly the greatest financial scandal in the history of the United States.

“In 1996, a class-action suit against the BIA was filed. The feds delayed, often claiming that vital records couldn't be found. It was later discovered that boxes of documents were being destroyed even as lawyers from the government said they were searching for them. In 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, BIA head Kevin Gover, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin were cited for contempt of court, and Rubin and Babbitt were fined $625,000 each. In April 2000, the Interior Department moved record keeping operations from New Mexico to Virginia, where officials said all information would be entered into a master computer program [price tag of $40 million]. Critics accused Washington of more stalling, charging that there was no proof that the computer worked as promised.” [1]

It didn’t.

It may be pointless to argue how much of the BIA revenue was simply stolen. At a minimum, it’s fair to say that it provides an excellent example of robbing Peter to pay Paul; revenue seldom went to the Native Americans but was diverted into the general fund.

That ploy has been used with the Social Security monies, as patriots say it’s a shame to just have that money sit there; let’s use it for things we need now; we’ll even stick in IOU’s each time we take out some cash.

Now fine patriots want to turn over future Social Security monies to the private sector, to the guys and gals who brought us the musical extravaganza “The Big Meltdown of 2008.” Remember the hit songs? “A Shaft for You and a Golden Parachute for Me,” “We’re Too Big to Fail, But You’ll Pay and Say What the Hell,” “A Bonus and a Bail-Out, and Another Bonus for Me.” And the grand finale, “Two, Four, Six, Eight – Let’s All De-regulate.”

All of that, of course, brings up the matter of China. When they were pitching social protestors in jail, it was uncomfortable. Only Hitler, Stalin, and their own Mao would approve of such brutality. By and by, however, we read about their lining up a corrupt businessman or politico against a wall and shooting him. Rough, but perhaps justified.

In our own country, some high-fliers in business have crossed the line from merely being crooks to being traitors to their country and fellow citizens. The late Ken Lay of Enron infamy and Bernie Madoff of Ponzi infamy are two candidates who would not have thrived indefinitely in China.

We have to go back 2,000 years to Ovid to see why the American establishment will tolerate crooks in high places:

“Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

And the taxpayers remained in their pastures, patiently chewing their cud and wondering what’s going to happen next.