In which we see that progress can be a circuitous business
So here’s the deal kids. There’s a new representative in Congress. Her name is Amelia Lorate, widely known as “Mel.” She’s just introduced a bill, and it goes like this:
That all high school graduates in the United States must give a year of service to their country by either joining the armed forces or doing some form of community work from a prescribed list of activities (e.g. tutoring poor children, working in a national park, or aiding senior citizens. Student will be paid the minimum wage; those without it will be eligible for welfare and Medicaid. The program will be paid for with taxes on cigarettes, chocolate, and gasoline.
We are all members of the committee that will be debating this bill and deciding whether or not to refer it to the House floor. Lorate herself is absent today, because she’s just gone into labor with twins. I’m the chair of the committee, and have not yet taken a position, though I will I’m told that earlier in this Congressional session Lorate privately referred to me as a “limp moderate.”
—Well, I guess we know how you’re voting on this one.
Not necessarily, Kylie. I’m playing my cards close to my vest one.
—Why is that?
Well, let’s just say I have a few irons in the fire of my own.
—Irons in the fire?
It’s an expression. It means having a few possibilities I’m pursuing.
—Ooh. Mr. K. Savvy political insider.
That’s me, Em. Anyway, let’s start with a non-binding vote so we have a sense of where the committee stands at the outset. We’ll refer Lorate’s bill out if we have a majority. Any of you can propose an amendment to the bill, but that will require a two-thirds vote to be attached to it. So let me get a show of hands? Who’s in favor?
Hmm. Looks like we’re six votes short of a majority. I actually think that’s pretty close. But let’s hear from some skeptics.
—This bill sounds reasonable to me. But I think I need to hear more about it.
—I don’t need to hear another word. I hate it.
Fair enough Jonah. What’s your problem with it, Adam?
—I don’t think it’s a good idea to force people to do this kind of work. Volunteering is one thing. A good thing. But requiring people to do this kind of work is a mistake.
—I think it’s a great idea. There are a lot of things we need in this society. And if we all had to do it, it would be more fair.
—Like going in the army. Maybe we should all be drafted instead.
—That’s a terrible idea. Some people don’t believe in fighting.
—Wouldn’t have to. There’s all kinds of things you can do in the army. Build bridges. Peacekeeping missions. Stuff like that. I lot of stuff in this Lorate things seems like fluff.
—Helping senior citizens is fluff?
—Yeah. Probably a lot of busy work. And everybody would want to do it instead of the hard stuff like you do in the army.
—I’d want to be a pilot.
Well, you can forget that. A year isn’t enough time. Actually, with a yearlong commitment, you probably wouldn’t be able to do much more than peel potatoes. But maybe that would make a real armed services hitch, where you’d learn some real skills, more attractive.
—Why the tax on chocolate, though? I love chocolate!
—That’s the point!
Right. Revenue from stuff like chocolate is known as “sin taxes.” You don’t really need them.
—Lots of people need gas.
True. But a tax would foster conservation.
—I still think we shouldn’t tax chocolate.
Fine. Why don’t you offer an amendment, then, Jonquil?
—Yes. I offer an amendment to take chocolate out of the bill.
—C’mon, Jonquil, this isn’t going to work unless we’re willing to do things we don’t like.
—I still have a problem with the gas thing.
Well, OK, Emily, but right now we’re debating the Jonquil amendment. All in favor raise your hands.
Sorry, Jonquil. Your amendment is dead. You want to take up yours, now Em?
—Same logic applies. We start making exceptions the bill will never become law.
—I think chocolate and gas are very different things. You don’t need chocolate to get to your job.
—You don’t necessarily need to drive to get to your job.
—Public transportation isn’t always practical.
—Might be if the bill passed.
—I’m wondering if there’s another problem here. Gas is almost surely the source of the most money in the bill. If we take it out, will we lose most of the money for the other stuff?
—Then I’m opposed.
—I’m for it, then.
—Wait: didn’t you just ask if taking gas out would ruin the bill?
—Yup. I want it to fail.
—Oooh. Sooo political.
Let’s take a vote on the gas amendment. Show your hands.
That one dies, too.
—I have one more.
Let’s hear it, Kylie.
—I don’t think you should have to do this after high school. Maybe you should have the option of waiting until after you finish going to college.
—Not everybody goes to college.
—Fine. The point is to be flexible. Let people decide when they should do this.
—Not a good idea.
—Why not? If I did it later, I might do a better job.
—It’s not about you. It’s about the country. What the country needs.
—Yeah, well, that’s my amendment. Let’s vote.
Very well. Let’s vote on what we’ll call the “Deference Amendment.”
That fails, too. Zero for three. Let’s turn back to consideration of the bill as a whole. Jonah, I’ll go back to you. Earlier in this conversation you said you needed to hear a little more. Do you feel you’ve heard enough?
—I dunno. I’ll be honest: I don’t like the idea of minimum wage. Wouldn’t have much of a life on that.
Well, you’d probably live at home. But I’ll give you a little inside info here. Mel Lorate knows that people like your parents will worry about this. She’s thinking if the bill passes it will help her in another agenda of hers: to drive up the minimum wage.
—Well, I guess that makes sense.
—Not to me. Driving up the minimum wage will be hard on business. Might create more unemployment.
Fair enough. Let’s take another vote on the Lorate bill as a whole.
Wow. One vote short. Chris, you’ve been silent for this whole debate. I noticed you didn’t raise your hand in support. Care to say why?
—I just can’t go along with this. It’s just too … What’s the word?
—Exactly. Too coercive.
You regard serving your country as coercive?
—Yeah. I do.
You don’t think you have an obligation to the country that’s provided you with security and opportunity?
—Well, I pay taxes, don’t I?
Eventually you will, I assume. And that’s sufficient?
—Yes. It is.
And if I were to call you a spoiled brat who believes it’s possible to buy one’s way out of an obligation, what would you say?
—I’d say you can think what you want. And I can do what I want. That’s what freedom means.
So be it. Class, the Lorate bill dies in committee.
—Chris you’re a jerk.
OK, kids, let’s step back a minute. The simulation we just ran has a contemporary setting. But we’ve been talking about the Progressive Movement of a century ago. Can you see the connections?
—The emphasis on reform. Trying to change people’s behavior.
Yup. Anything else?
—The way it’s a little aggressive.
Yes. But to clarify: Are you saying a little aggressive? Or a little aggressive?
Well, glad to know you’re decisive, anyway.
—Hey, Mr. K. how do you feel about the failure of the bill?
I’m just happy to see the democratic process at work.
—Oh, that’s such BS.
Why thank you, Em. We’re just about out of time.
—One last question.
—What’s the deal with Mel Lorate? Why that name?
Well her actual name is Amelia Lorate. The gender bending in calling her Mel is part of her progressive politics. Progressives of a century ago were also strong women’s rights advocates.
—Yeah, but what does that mean?
Are you familiar with the verb “ameliorate?”
—Sounds familiar, but no.
It means to make better, to improve.
I thought so.
—Glad to know you’re decisive, anyway.