Government has come a long way. I lay no particular claim to this insight. It came upon me last summer when I read about the government's efforts to do something about The Heat Wave of 1980. I suppose the saying, "Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it," has thus taken on a quaint obsolescence, much as the Bill of Rights.
During that torrid period of weather, nary a day went by without some agency or bureau representative asking for funds to provide fans and air conditioners for the Elderly and Poor. You will notice that Elderly and Poor are capitalized here; it distinguishes them from those not so categorized by the government, who might merely be poor or elderly.
Myself, I own neither fans nor air conditioners by choice. The government, too, had decided that I may sweat it out, as it were, without its interference.
It dawned upon me, however: Since when did the government care about individual volition in determining which individual members of the populace might be victims of its latest whims? The only answer that I could come up with, though I haven't the sociopolitical erudition or savvy of a Joseph Califano, is that it must be accepted around Washington meteorological circles that not only do heat waves discriminate but, in defiance of Title IX, they do so with particular regard to the Poor and Elderly. Thus, being that heat waves are less cruel and deadly to those of us earning closer to the national mean income, certain parts of our incomes need to be confiscated to buy fans and air conditioners for these unfortunate victims of summer time.
I never want it to be said that I haven't as much empathy as the next fellow for America's underfunded and geriatric populations. Still, being somewhat of a naif when it comes to the theoretical underpinnings of Modern Government, I do not see where it necessarily follows that I have to go about ventilating and air conditioning their abodes. I sat, somewhat bemused, listening to some officials saying that they needed the fans and air conditioners because old codgers were refusing to leave their homes to spend the nights in air-conditioned shelters. The logic went, I suppose, that the Elderly are too proud to leave their homes to go to temporary shelters but not too proud to accept free fans and air conditioners. Funny, I never heard one of the Elderly (or Poor) get on the radio and say, "Send us your fans and air conditioners."
I was not alone in these observations. A friend of mine turned my attention to how cunning bureaucrats, mindful that taxpayers might be less than thrilled about this expenditure, began to refer to the appliances in that strange language peculiar to government. Officials began speaking of the need for special disbursements to provide cooling devices and, later, paraphernalia to diminish the effects of the heat wave on the Poor and Elderly.
Calling tax-monies special disbursements was smart—why remind us that what the bureaucrats want to spend is our money. Also, referring to cooling devices is much less emotionally loaded than coming right out and saying "fans and air conditioners."
It took real genius, though, to come up with paraphernalia to diminish the effects of the heat wave on the Poor and Elderly. Notice how it makes fans and air conditioners sound like some sort of exotic medical devices, like iron lungs or kidney machines? Would you take an iron lung away from your grandma? Of course not.
Of course, bureaucrats had every reason to be vague. The rest of the country was perspiring just as badly as the Poor and Elderly.
The heat wave of 1980 is history. I imagine that government-supplied fans and air conditioners found their ways into the homes of the Poor and Elderly in time for fall. Meanwhile, we can all wait with bated breath to see what our leaders will do about the next heat wave, which is probably coming, quite predictably, some time this summer.
Stephen Barone is an educational psychologist working in Wisconsin.