Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Like a House of Representatives on fire

A government fantasy

Sprint Nextel is running a humorous 30-second commercial titled What if firefighters ran the world? It depicts a group of begrimed firefighters all kitted out in their work gear and assembled in a legislative chamber. With a few raps of the gavel and a couple of voice votes, they quickly solve all the problems of the world. Most of the comments posted on YouTube are quite positive. One rather wistful commenter says, “I think in some respects, it really COULD be that easy.”

Yeah, right.

It's really pretty idiotic. Check it out for yourself or scan the transcript I provide below:

Fire Chief: [gavel] All right, firefighters. Settle down!

[Screen text: What if firefighters ran the world?]

Fire Chief: How about the budget?

Firefighters: Balance it!

Fire Chief: And the taxes?

Firefighters: One page or less!

Fire Chief: Anyone want better roads?

Firefighters: We do!

Fire Chief: All in favor?

Firefighters: Aye!

Fire Chief: Opposed? [silence] [gavel] Done!

Fire Chief: [riffles a bunch of pages] A lot of paper to tell us we need clean water. Need clean water, guys?

Firefighters: Aye!

Fire Chief: All right. This is the easiest job I've ever had. We're out of here! [gavel]
Okay. I get that it's just a commercial, but it irks the heck out of me anyway. Sure, I'm a former legislative aide and know the system from the inside. I could be overreacting. Still, this parody has an underlying snideness that makes me grit my teeth.

You want a one-page tax form? Great! Show me what you have. Think you can get a majority vote on it? (Let alone a unanimous vote like with the firefighters.) Tell me, did you include a write-off for home mortgage interest payments? You'll lose quite a few votes if you didn't. Did you decide on a flat tax? You'll lose quite a few votes if you did. Are some people exempt? How did you choose the cut-off? I'll bet you that won't be unanimous.

Some one-page proposals in various states are based on letting the Feds do all the work: (1) Write down what you paid the IRS. (2) Send us xx% of that. Good luck getting consensus on what xx% should be. Of course, most states refuse to pin their tax receipts to whatever the federal government chooses to do. It's the easiest state income tax scheme of all (a postcard would suffice!), but most states recoil from it because they're jealous of their modicum of sovereignty.

Whatever you do, you're going to get stuck with compromises. The Sprint commercial lives in a fairyland where people vote “yes” for good things and “no” on bad things. So simple! It is exactly what governments do in reality when they merely pass feel-good resolutions: We think you should be nice to your mother on Mother's Day. We think you should practice conservation on Earth Day. We think you should be patriotic on the Fourth of July. We think you should have a Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Cheerful Kwanzaa/Joyous Solstice. That sort of stuff. It's virtually content-free sense-of-the-legislature resolution language.

Actual legislation is tougher. Clean water? Good roads? Work is involved. Hard work. Tedious work. Details. As brave as firefighters may be, they won't get it all done in 30 seconds.

The only real point of an advertisement is to sell products. The advertising firm that created the Sprint Nextel ad is probably thinking it's a feel-good spot that will cause viewers to associate Nextel with efficiency in getting things done. For me, though, the stupidity burns. I see a reinforcement of the idea that sound public policy is as easy as one-two-three. Well, keep counting...


Anonymous said...

I have an idea: let's lower taxes and build better roads! Then we'll lower taxes even more and start paying teachers as much as they deserve. Next we'll balance the budget! And while we're at it, one free pony to anyone who wants one!

Hey, I'm pretty good at this legislatin' stuff!

Anonymous said...

I'd do better than intrinsicallyknotted: two free ponies and a mule! And an ipod, just for fun!

I really don't know much about the inner workings of the legislature. What scares me is that most people seem to know far less than I do.

Nick Barrowman said...

My reaction was a bit different. First, what's that annoying chirping sound? Something to do with the phones?

What are the phones all about? The chief seems loud enough that the other firefighters can hear him. And why are they holding the phones that way?

There's something a bit creepy and robotic about the whole scene. Like maybe they're all cylons ...

Quite apart from these bizarre touches, I agree with you that it totally leaves out the compromises, or tradeoffs as I would put it. Sure, balance the budget, but that might mean abandoning the dream of having better roads.

Situations where there are no tradeoffs are either very rare or very trivial.

Anonymous said...

Ah, is that what that ad was meant to be about? I saw it a couple times in passing, and didn't get it. I figured it was supposed to be a union meeting, although it didn't make sense that they were in full gear.

Anonymous said...

Karen: replace "two free ponies" with "forty acres".

What? Too soon?

Anonymous said...

perhaps things really could be that easy if we got rid of all the earmarks. no more pork! then maybe we could have lower taxes and better roads.

Anonymous said...

I've always had a problem with the secrecy. We have the technology to record every public employee any time they are doing the government's business - what are the arguments against? That they won't get honest opinions... has anyone pursued that logic - why wouldn't they? Do we want honest opinions that can only be shared in secret?

Tom Foss said...

What secrecy? Anything said on the Congressional floor, as far as I'm aware, is recorded and made public. Hell, we have at least two channels (the C-SPANs) dedicated to broadcasting Congressional debates and speeches.

Incidentally, I'm just glad that the commercial said "one page" for taxes, instead of "lower." That would have really grated on me, especially given the usual source of payment for fire departments.

Anonymous said...

The above spoken like a true bureaucrat.