The man wants to be paid

Milton Bates

October 26, 1990|By Milton Bates

BACK IN the old says, blessedly long gone, I'd hustle a few home improvements to feed my family. At times it wasn't easy, especially when I was pitching aluminum siding. Often, I'd be greeted with derision when I quoted the price.

"Hey, man, you're way out of line. The other guy said he'd do my job for free."

Free! Damn, I'd come behind one of those smooth rogues later immortalized by Barry Levinson in his film classic, "Tin Men." "See, Ma'am, we'll do this beautiful job and you'll get all your money back from the referral checks paid when your neighbors see our work. Yes, you'll have a model home and it won't cost you a penny."

That, friends, was tough competition. Try as I might to explain to Susie Stupak or Joe Sixpack that nothing can really be free, that there must be a catch somewhere, it almost never worked. Why? Because they wanted to believe the story (it appealed to the touch of larceny in most of us), and the fellow who explained it was so sincere.

In 1980, when earnest, honest Jimmy Carter ran for re-election against smiling, sincere Ronald Reagan, there was no contest. The old ex-actor, reading from his handlers' cue cards, upgraded the "free job" racket from the nickel-and-dime world of siding to the ultimate political game, winning the presidency. But the scam remained much the same, the elements a variation of the model home story or the bait-and-switch technique.

Taxes? Slash them -- especially for those with deepest pockets. Weapons? Build them -- particularly those with exotic design and biggest markups. Deficits? Ignore them -- they'll disappear when supply-side economics kicks in. Blame the welfare queens and undeserving poor, claim that the budget would soon be balanced and lunch forever free.

The voters bought the story that year and again, four years later, when hapless Walter Mondale tried to level with an electorate not wanting to hear that all parties ultimately end and overdue bills must, at some point, be paid. Fed by TV, attention spans grew ever shorter and the pain of the '81-'82 Reagan recession was forgotten. Besides, that nice man wouldn't lie to us, would he?

Oh-so-flexible George Bush, once a critic of the economic nonsense his boss peddled to get elected but a tub-thumper once he joined the team, sold his own variant of the free-lunch message against the dour Michael Dukakis in 1988. In a campaign that reeked, he murmured not a word about the deficit, an already huge $900 billion when he and Reagan were first inaugurated in 1981 and which tripled on their watch. Soon, to carry us only to next fall, the debt limit will grow to an astronomical $3.5 trillion! How's that for budget balancing?

Does Congress share part of the blame? Damn right. Are unpunished S&L thieves, defense overchargers, and oil company gougers in the appalling picture? Hell, yes. Do federal spending holes need to be plugged? Of course. But one more piece of this unpretty puzzle must be looked at square in the face if our vulnerable kids are to be spared financial disaster. And that's us -- countless wide-eyed, slightly greedy believers who bought old Ron's freebie story a decade ago and still refuse to come out of the ether.

That's what this fall's tragicomic budget scrap has been about, though you are not likely to hear it from the finger-to-the wind waffler who deservedly inherits the mess. Bush, quoted as finding more "fun" in foreign affairs, seems to lack the will and conviction to supply critical domestic leadership at this scary moment -- and so truth remains a casualty.

The "tax him, not me; service-me, not him" syndrome, largest legacy of the Reagan years, will not quickly disappear. The new budget is only a small step in the right direction. But take it as a given: That siding job and that lunch weren't free.

The man is coming . . . and he wants to get paid.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

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