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PARTING SHOT

From the podium: the worship of money, the meaning of work, and the creeping menace of "The Lib."
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Where your treasure is, there too will be your heart, says the Book, and who can doubt it? Of late, several thinkers and talkers (not always synonymous) on the Dallas luncheon-and-seminar circuit have had money on their minds. They’ve waxed profound and shallow on a formidable subject: our economic malaise, and the government’s role in causing and curing the problems.

Speaking to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (which yearly addresses the question, “What Makes a City?”), Wendell Berry-poet, essayist, farmer, and modern Jeremiah-gave somber warnings about the economic course of the country. We have abandoned human-centered values for “industrial values,” he said. The decline of the family farm haunts Berry, for reasons he made clear to his audience of city dwellers. If we do not preserve “the life of the source,” i.e., the farms from which the raw materials of life come, we are doomed: “Like a corpse, we last only as long as decomposition lasts.” For Berry, the survival of the farm is not a question for sentimentalists and historians, but for everyone: “When many people do not own the usable property, they must submit to the few who do.” And that, Berry said, leaves the mass of people entirely dependent on money.

Well, what is so bad about that? Plenty, according to Berry, for that enshrinement of cash as the only good has led us to divorce work from any value except money. From the executive suite to the loading dock, we work for a paycheck and for break, quitting time, vacation, retirement, not for any intrinsic good in the work itself. And if the only purpose of work is money, then it makes sense to give as little work for as much money as possible. The farm provides a model of healthy work, with workers responsible from start to finish for the quality of the job; the result is “the giving of love to the work of hands.” By contrast, too many occupations today require no choice or judgment, no investment of feeling or mind by the worker. In many jobs, the worker may not even know how his contribution shapes the final product.

Adding to the confusion is what Berry calls “the false, fantastical economy”-the congeries of shifting forces we refer to when we worry about inflation, joblessness, etc. It’s not enough to ask how many people have jobs in this or that sector of the economy. What are the people producing, and how, and for what reason? Unfortunately, Berry said, the industrial economy with its down- turns and upticks and soft spots has become the only standard of value we recognize, and therefore it cannot be judged by any standard of value outside itself. The industrial economy is amoral, and leads us to think of people as things-and in a disposable socie- ty, things are soon treated as garbage.

With these matters vexing the mind, it was refreshing, some days later, to munch fried chicken at a Goals for Dallas luncheon and watch the formidable J. Peter Grace reduce economic mysteries to the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. Grace is chairman of a huge New York-based conglomerate bearing his name, but he is best known as head of the President’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, aka the Grace Commission, which came up with 2,478 “specific recommendations” to save the government $424 billion. The luncheon program came with a petition demanding “corrective measures” against politicians and bureaucrats who “irresponsibly authorize and misspend our tax dollars.”

I’m no economist, but let me tell you that before I finished my ice cream, I understood why our economy was foundering: Libs. According to Mr. Grace, Washington is peopled by parasitic moochers called “Libs” whose main goal in life is to waste a few million of our hard-earned, poorly sheltered tax dollars before lunch. (“Hey, I wantcha t’ know I cooked up five new Divisional Offices of Regional Oversight this morning. Got rid of 10.3 mill. Top that, boys!”) Typical Libs are Senator Howard Metzenbaum (repeatedly pronounced “messy-bum” by the clever Mr. Grace) and of course Tip O’Neill, target of the usual fat jokes. One of the most despised and wasteful of the Libs, we learned, has his lair right here in North Texas. So hated is this worm that Mr. Grace declined to utter his name, but he gave us enough to go on: “You wanna knock out waste? You got a guy down the road there in Fort Worth, one o’ these Libs. Get ’im the hell out!”

I sat spellbound by this analytical laser beam, the first waves of conversion lapping at my feet. My nagging questions fell away, What did it matter that Republicans have controlled the Senate since 1980? The GOP senators must be Libs. What if some of the worst examples of waste uncovered by the Grace Commission were in the Pentagon, with its 3-cent screws for $91 and 9-cent batteries for $114? The Pentagon must be full of Libs. And why have Americans, supposedly so zealous to cut spending, given control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats for the past thirty years? They must be Libs-or the dupes of Libs!

There I sat, a battleground of ideas, when suddenly came the coup de Grace. The house lights dimmed, and we were shown the bold television commercial of the Grace Commission, the one the major networks deemed too politically controversial for non-partisan viewing. “The Deficit Trials of 2017 A.D.” is an eerie, sci-fi look at an America ruined by rampant spending and billion-dollar deficits. A child prosecutor questions an old man (no doubt a former Lib, Amtrak rider, or post office worker). The old man cannot tell the children why we were such wastrels. He can only ask, “Are you ever going to forgive us?”

Well, I should say not. As the lights cameup, I made a solemn vow that from now on,reducing the deficit will be my goal in life.I will not smirk at any budget-cutting plan,however extreme. We cannot allow thesemurderous deficits to saddle our childrenwith a crushing load of debt. And so helpme, the next time Walter Mondale tries tomake deficits a major theme of his campaign, I’ll be listening. I promise.

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