A Fresh Start
by Mark Koerner
The Fresh Start Was Over
Did you fail at anything?
You know we did. Our key failure — in the public mind, at least — was what came to be called “The Printing Press Blunder.”
You’re about the 150th person I’ve told this to, so it’ll be an effort to stay awake while I’m talking. Our studies showed that about 50% of American high school graduates were reading below the eighth-grade level. It was crazy; you spend fifty thousand dollars a year, per kid, and what do you get? Fifty million semi-literates.
Ever read any science fiction?
When I was younger.
A lot of stories assume that the quest for universal literacy will be abandoned and we’ll evolve into a society with a literate elite and an illiterate mass, but technological progress goes on anyway.
You might want to look at Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, and H. Beam Piper’s “Null ABC.” Sort of the Middle Ages all over again, except that the educated elite wouldn’t necessarily be guys in turned-around collars.
Officials of the Catholic Church. At any rate, we wanted to avoid that; we wanted to make everybody literate.
Uh, dozens of studies showed that if you taught second-, third-, and fourth-graders to set type by hand, you could improve their reading. So we came up with a way to teach every kid the rudiments of typesetting.
They’d set type from printer’s drawers and then print their compositions with old-fashioned screw-type printing presses, not unlike the ones owned by Benjamin Franklin. You know what I mean; a kid has to stand on a chair to turn the handle to press the clean paper onto the type and voilà, a printed document!
I’m having a hard time visualizing...
Kids taught to do this at an early age not only become excellent readers but excellent punctuators, too; and, as an added benefit, they can read backwards, because you set the type backwards. That may sound silly, but think about it. “Knowing it backwards and forwards.” That does mean knowing something really well, doesn’t it? We even envisioned Backwards Spelling Bees replacing the more conventional type.
Well, everyone knows what happened. We got Congress to create the Ben Franklin Press Fund. Our slogan: “A PRINTING PRESS IN EVERY CLASSROOM!” The Fund would make zero-interest loans to any elementary school, public or private, until some Monday morning in the distant future when every school had at least one printing press.
At that point, the Fund would be sunsetted. We thought of everything, or thought we did; we revived the lost art of typesetting and trained “Ten Thousand Typesetters” — and there were literally 10,000 of them — who went to and fro from school to school, training teachers, administrators, and custodians to set type and operate the presses.
To this day, I remain convinced it would have worked, if the political cartoonists hadn’t had a field day. One cartoon showed a Bizarro-world character dressed in colonial garb screwing a little kid’s head in a printing press, torturing him. The adult was labelled “Amaranga Administration,” and the kid was “American Schools.”
In the end, no one wanted to borrow our money, and the Fund just sat there, unused. The Republicans abolished it when they rather briefly recaptured Congress in 2062. The sight of those Republican Congressmen taking a sledgehammer to a printing press in front of the Capitol... it still sickens me.
But that wasn’t your only failure.
No. There were about a half-dozen more. For example, we were quite obsessed with government efficiency. We wanted to kill off the notion that Democratic politicians don’t care if tax money heads down a rathole. So we set up the National Suggestion Box.
Anyone who wasn’t a federal employee could make a money-saving suggestion, and, if it we adopted it, the Treasury Department sent you a check for half the money saved.
And it failed from the get-go. It created some very disgruntled people who thought they deserved considerably more than, say, sixty-eight dollars and eleven cents for their wonderful ideas.
But the worst mistake was opening up the program to everybody — even to people who had never set foot in the United States of America. If seemed only fair; after all, if you’re a bright young Algerian who has an idea that saves the federal government three thousand dollars a year, then why shouldn’t you get some of those dollars?
The American people hated that logic — really hated it. One day when I was driving along I-5, I couldn’t get my eyes off the sea of bumperstickers that said “AMERICAN MONEY FOR AMERICAN IDEAS!”
Thank Allah the people in those cars didn’t know that I was a Special Assistant to the President, let me tell you.
And today the conventional wisdom is that the Printing Press and the Suggestion Box did you in. They caused Malinowski to beat Sucre in 2060. Do you agree with that?
No, I don’t. The truth — and I want you to listen carefully to this — is that for the most part, the American people liked our reforms, but they hated our attitude, which involved a kind of free-wheeling experimentation.
We had what might be called an “annual model” vision of government. It changed every year, coming out in a new-and-improved version.
Well, the American people don’t want a government like that, even if the newer models are in some sense “better.” They want something closer to Mount Rushmore; you take your kids to see it, and it looks pretty much the same as it did when you were a kid.
But isn’t the United States a dynamic society, and wouldn’t it stand to reason that a dynamic society would have a dynamic government?
You are naïve. Even in a dynamic society, people might want some things to stay the same. For stability’s stake, they might demand it.
We learned the hard way. Oh, sure, the voters went along for a while, mainly because when we came to power, so many things weren’t working. But when just one of our ideas failed dramatically, the tide turned against us. When two or three of our ideas failed, our fate was sealed. The Fresh Start was over.
* * *
“The New Projects Waiting to be Born”
After all this time, you clearly still believe in the Fresh Start, and you clearly still think that the Fresh Start was a new departure. And as much as anything else, it sounds like it was a fresh start for the federal government. But everything you say sounds very much like the tax-and-spend liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Well, it isn’t hard to see a resemblance to earlier reform programs. But President Amaranga said we would not deposit new government agencies on top of the old ones like some new layer of sedimentary rock. Her promise — which she kept — was to leave the federal government about the same size as she found it.
So we had to abolish lots of agencies. That was the only way to avoid higher taxes. We created over 50 agencies, but we phased out over 100. The U.S. Postal Service is gone. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is gone. We sunsetted the hell out of ’em.
My old friend Jill Mohammed spelled it all out in Democracy on the Loading Dock. She argued that we must “use conservative means to achieve liberal ends.” President Amaranga put it differently: “Old projects need to die to make room for the new projects waiting to be born.”
And why would democracy be on a “loading dock”? I don’t get it.
Don’t you? The American political process was a guy working on a loading dock, trying to load boxes into a truck. But the truck was full of old boxes. The old ones had to be removed, or the new ones would sit on the loading dock forever.
It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds. We transferred thousands of displaced federal employees to the new agencies, keeping work groups intact as much as we could. When we got rid of the National Endowment for the Arts, we moved most of its staff—
To the Gun Rights program?
Exactly. That’s the kind of innovative governing we were into.
I have to go. Do you want to say anything else?
Just one thing. Whenever we abolished anything, we got slammed by people in our own party. But we were truer to the spirit of the New Deal and the Great Society than they ever knew.
[Pause] If the New Deal had been about preserving President Wilson’s long-forgotten “New Freedom,” we wouldn’t still be talking about it. What made the New Deal great was that it was about something new: economic security. And what made Great Society great was that it was also about something new: racial equality.
It was the same with the Fresh Start. We weren’t trying to preserve anything. Our goal was to create something new, something that would give as many people as possible—
A Fresh Start. I can see that. I’ll let myself out.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Koerner