Taxes

Who let these dogs out?

The awful truth about government Web sites for children.

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"Imagine what your school would be like if no one was in charge. Each class would make its own rules. Who gets to use the gym if two classes want to use it all the time? Who would clean the classrooms? Who decides if you learn about Mars or play kickball? Sounds confusing, right? This is why schools have people who are in charge, such as the principal, administrators, teachers, and staff. Our nation has people who are in charge and they make up the government."

So intones Benjamin Franklin—yes, that Benjamin Franklin—on a Web site with links to just about every site the government has created specially for the young ones. (One glaring omission: the section of California Democrat Rep. Gary Condit's official site that's dedicated to children.)

Beyond issuing none-too-subtle and patently self-interested warnings about the horrors of anarchy, the government sites collectively define precepts for the ideal young person—a Stepford child who doesn't use illegal drugs, cares passionately about the environment, eats only healthy food, gets good grades, goes to college, and tops it all off with a career as a bureaucrat.

Tour these sites and you'll notice they all have one thing in common: They use tax dollars to insult the intelligence of even the dumbest kids–or, as the government prefers to spell it, kidz–in America.

Here's a quick summary of the four basic strategies the feds use in selling themselves to the youngest generation.

1. Government Has Gone to the Dogs

While agencies such as the FBI, CIA and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms aren't exactly the cuddliest of federal outfits, they have high hopes that furry friends will win them fans. Dogs are a special favorite. The USDA touts a "beagle brigade" that sniffs out illegally imported produce, bravely protecting us from "the constant threat of attack from foreign animal and plant pests and diseases." The FBI and CIA have biographical information for their dogs, those fine, patriotic pooches that root out narcotics and chemical explosives.

Going a step further, the U.S. Customs Service puts their beloved K-9 hounds on sports cards. Instead of batting averages, their stats include the largest shipment of drugs they've sniffed out. Yet to come: U.S. Dept. of Corrections bloodhound stats of prisoners captured and slippers chewed.

2. Pay Up, Kids!

Getting kids interested in money is no problem. Getting kids to celebrate the joys of paying taxes is trickier. Dubbing itself "an online 'zine for understanding taxes," the IRS siteIRS Tax Interactive for teens immediately overestimates how hip it can be. Meanwhile, for the younger set, there's the Simplified Tax and Wage Reporting System, where virtual kids get wrapped in red tape if they hire an employee for their lemonade stand. The Social Security page turns to fables in the interest of obscuring real rates of return. Riffing off the Tortoise and the Hare, the site declares, "Slow but sure wins the race! With Social Security, everybody wins."

Well, in fact, it's more like everyone loses, especially today's kidz who will be paying the benefits of tomorrow's retirees. But at least there's no Pandora opening the Social Security lockbox.

3. Stay Away from Drugs—So You Can Be a Bureaucrat

Government Web sites just can't say No to attacking drugs. Such sites predictably hype one-sided statistics, create unlikely either/or choices ("Don't smoke cigarettes—play soccer!"), or try to make abstaining from drugs seem cool with celebrity interviews (Robert Downey Jr. need not apply). Another tactic—one that sends a decidedly mixed message—is to tell kids that if they do drugs, they may not be able to work for the government. Check out the artistic representation of the terrifying drug-ridden world kids face on the National Crime Prevention Council's site.

Better yet, there's The National Institute on Drug Abuse site, which gives kids a "science-based drug abuse education." Among other useful tidbits, we find here that marijuana is addictive and that scientists still have plenty of research to do before we know whether marijuana can be medically useful.

The Indian Health Services takes a more interactive approach. Its "What If Game" has kids navigate drug-riddled scenarios, turning complex, real-life situations into a convenient multiple-choice quiz.

Even agencies that have nothing to do with drugs feel obligated to moralize online. Hence, NASA declares: "You can't do really neat things like being an astronaut or a NASA scientist if you're on drugs." The site also has a quote from second-man-on-the-moon Edwin Aldrin, who seems to have left his memory along with a couple of gin bottles somewhere in the moon's Sea of Tranquility: "My generation knew nothing about illegal drugs. Our highs came from exercise, hard work and serving our country." That's unconvincing coming from a guy nicknamed "Buzz" who copped to a drinking problem in his post-Apollo years.

4. The Government: Nature's Best friend—And Yours!

Schools may do a good job of scaring kids about pollution and global warming, but federal Web sites have honed it to an art form. Visit, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency's site. In "When Greenville Turned Brown," written in the style of Dr. Seuss, one nefarious factory demolishes an entire city before the EPA comes to the rescue.

And the Federal Emergency Management Agency subjects kids to the most flaccid, dated gimmick around—a rap song: "…People helping people is what we do. And FEMA is there to help see you through…" Talk about a federal disaster: Will FEMA be applying for funds to clean up its own awful site?