The Editor's Page

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow . . .
—T. S. Eliot,
“The Hollow Men

Between the much-bruited idea of what last November’s election results are supposed to mean and the reality hangs a cloud of political and media pollution. The idea that the country had spoken was, of course, hardly true. Barely more than a third of the eligible voters bothered to go to the polls. We can take comfort, I suppose, in the fact that appallingly low voter turnouts have become commonplace in America. And after all, we are not worst among democracies in the percentage of no-shows at the polls, only next to worst, above the Republic of Botswana (I am indebted to Curtis B. Gans’s article in the September-October 1978 issue of Public Opinion magazine for this dismal fact).

As for the meaning of the election, the idea that the country has spoken for lower taxes (that is, a serious reduction of the revenues made available to government) and for less government (that is, a serious cutback in the services of government) is patently questionable. The reality is that the one third of the eligibles who bothered to vote were calling for more equitable taxes and more efficient government. More equitable taxation means, of course, the raising of government revenues in ways that reduce the drain on one’s own pocketbook, but not necessarily on those of others. More efficient government, means, in like fashion, the diminution of those government activities that interfere with oneself and the continuation of those that improve or protect one’s lot. The questions that Election 1978 seemingly posed to the politicians and the bureaucracy can be compressed into one: Whose Ox Shall We Gore?

This has all the makings of a board game which, the Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley games manufacturers willing, might one day outsell Monopoly. GORE, as it shall henceforth be called, is a game in which you endeavor to extract as many pints of blood as possible from your opponents’ oxen while saving your own ox from being bled to death. It is a game of barter and compromise, and not a few ironies.

GORE accommodates any number of players and numberless combinations. For example: Are you an environmentalist, and does your automobile bear a bumper sticker saying “Boycott Japanese Goods—Save the Whales”? If the sticker, like the one I saw the Other day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is attached to the bumper of a new Toyota, then you must give up the car, or ten whales, and retreat three spaces.

Do you want to reduce the $10 billion or more the federal government doles out each year in housing subsidies? Then you may vote for a Congress that will reduce or eliminate federal income-tax deductions for mortgage interest payments and property taxes on homes (for a saving of perhaps $6.5 billion annually) and advance four spaces. Item: A study by Taylor Branch for The Washington Monthly in 1972 estimated that the federal government in effect paid $9800 of the annual mortgage interest charges on the $200,000 home of a couple earning $200,000 a year; $1000 of the interest on the $50,000 home of a couple making $25,000 a year; $350 for the $25,000 home of a couple making $10,000. The figures have surely escalated since then.

Do you fly your own airplane as a personal or company enterprise? Then you must persuade the rest of us to continue contributing some $700 million in public money each year for getting you safely into and out of, and accommodating you at, airports. Or pay your full share yourself and advance five spaces.

The variations on this game are myriad. For subsidies alonemerchant marine, education, agriculture, transport, postal service (alas, that one’s dwindling), medical and scientific research, you name it and it’s probably there—the federal government doles out about $70 billion annually, probably more. There is hardly a person in America, including the very well-to-do, who does not benefit directly or indirectly from one or several of them. Almost every one is a Sacred Ox encircled by untouchable Vested Virgins who bear a remarkable similarity to Barbara Frietchie—“ ‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head/Dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.” When it comes to tailoring the overall federal budget, the game becomes downright uproarious.

Can’t you already hear the cries of outrage, even from persons who voted for Proposition 13 and its counterparts, when President Carter or assorted governors and mayors unsheathe the bayonets, move menacingly in the direction of one’s own sacred beast? Even if near-miraculous ways are found to eliminate corruption, waste, and inefficiency in government and to streamline the civil service, GORE is the game of the future, if the electorate is to get what the pundits say it is seeking. The game will keep players awake into the dawn, and it should cause more arguments and split up more families than Monopoly ever did.