Roger’s Rules

Pigs in a Poke, or: Aesop updated

Do you know Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable? It’s an amusing and instructive reference work, illuminating about the origin of various common (and not so common) locutions, adages, epithets, and sobriquets.

Like many people, I have been contemplating with melancholy the deep hole Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, and Harry Reid have prepared for us. “A pig in a poke,” I’ve said to myself, and I thought I’d take a moment to share with readers what Brewer’s has to say about this memorable phrase:

Pig in a poke, A. A blind bargain. The reference is to a former common trick of trying to palm off a cat as a suckling pig on a GREENHORN. Opening the poke or sack LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG, and the trick was exposed.

The phrase seems especially apt in the present circumstance because of the natural association of the word “pig” and the reality of “pork,” the primary constituent of this monstrous invitation to fiscal irresponsibility and political payback.

Fortunately, sedulous efforts to discover the gritty details of what the 111th Congress has in store for us has made gruesomely clear the nature of the trick about to be perpetrated upon us. Over at NRO, for example, Stephen Spruiell & Kevin Williamson have provided a useful if depressing inventory of what–some of what–our leaders plan to do with our money. Their article provides an annotated list of “50 of the most outrageous items in the stimulus package,” congregated under such useful headings as “Various Left-Wingery,” “Poorly Designed Tax Relief,” “Stimulus For The Government,” and “Income Transfers.” They call the piece “50 De-Stimulating Facts“. But if anger and disgust are stimulating emotions, I reckon most readers will find the recitation more than sufficiently stimulating. Democrats from the President of the United States on down are in full-Armageddon mode, warning that unless Congress passes this trillion-dollar giveway, the U.S. economy will fall over a cliff and die.

But before we climb into the barrel and head for Niagara, should we pause for a moment to ask 1) where all that money is going and 2) how in God’s name most of it could possibly stimulate the economy? How for example, does “$650 million for digital-TV coupons; $90 million to educate ‘vulnerable population’” stimulate the economy? How about the $6 billion for university building projects? Or the $1 billion for the Census bureau? Then there is the $89 billion for Medicaid payments. $89 billion. You could buy nearly 20 aircraft carriers for that amount. Expatiating about the category they call “Pure Pork,” Spruiell and Williamson comment,

The problem with trying to spend $1 trillion quickly is that you end up wasting a lot of it. Take, for instance, the proposed $4.5 billion addition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget. Not only does this effectively double the Corps’ budget overnight, but it adds to the Corps’ $3.2 billion unobligated balance—money that has been appropriated, but that the Corps has not yet figured out how to spend. Keep in mind, this is an agency that is often criticized for wasting taxpayers’ money. “They cannot spend that money wisely,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “I don’t even think they can spend that much money unwisely.”

Speaking of spending money unwisely, the stimulus bill adds another $850 million for Amtrak, the railroad that can’t turn a profit. There’s also $1.7 billion for “critical deferred maintenance needs” in the National Park System, and $55 million for the preservation of historic landmarks. Also, the U.S. Coast Guard needs $87 million for a polar icebreaking ship—maybe global warming isn’t working fast enough.

It should come as no surprise that rural communities—those parts of the nation that were hardest hit by rampant real-estate speculation and the collapse of the investment-banking industry—are in dire need of an additional $7.6 billion for “advancement programs.” Congress passed a $300 billion farm bill last year, but apparently that wasn’t enough. This bill provides additional subsidies for farmers, including $150 million for producers of livestock, honeybees, and farm-raised fish.

All this is depressing enough, but it gets worse. The competition for being the worst aspect of this mammoth tribute to government waste is ferocious and no clear winner as yet emerged. But I urge readers to consider the claims of what Spruiell and Williamson congregate under the rubric of “Rewarding State Irresponsibility.” “One of the ugliest aspects of the stimulus package,” they write,

is a bailout for spendthrift state legislatures. Remember the old fable about the ant and the grasshopper? In Aesop’s version, the happy-go-lucky grasshopper realizes the error of his ways when winter comes and he goes hungry while the industrious ant lives on his stores. In Obama’s version, the federal government levies a tax on the ant and redistributes his wealth to the party-hearty grasshopper, who just happens to belong to a government-employees’ union. This happens through something called the “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund,” by which taxpayers in the states that have exercised financial discipline are raided to subsidize Democratic-leaning Electoral College powerhouses—e.g., California—that have spent their way into big trouble.

Ah yes, the ant and the grasshopper. How much of Aesop needs to be written now that the Democrats are in charge: the story of the hare and the tortoise, for example. In the original, the moral was, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Nowadays, the tortoise would be required to pay into a special fund to aid Hares with Attention Deficit Disorder, the moral being perseverance is politically incorrect. Or how about the the the story of Hercules and the Waggoner:

A Waggoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Waggoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress,” quoth he. But Hercules appeared to him, and said:

“Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.”

Moral: The gods help them that help themselves.

Have you ever heard anything so retrograde? No, in the age of Obamanation, Herc the Social Worker comes and says, “Tut, man, don’t strain yourself. Lie down while I get you a free ride paid for (as is my salary) by your greedy neighbors over there.

Moral: The government helps those who collude in their helplessness.