The Bottom Line: Bogus

Public libraries have become the new poster children for governmental impecunity. Pick a town, any town, and the library, that great nexus of egalitarian self-improvement, is currently in trouble. Oakland, Calif. Swanson, Neb. York, Maine. Richland, Pa. Closings. Layoffs. Shortened hours. Canceled programs. Matters had gotten so bad in the outposts of borrowed books that the reference librarian in Franklin, Mass., which a sign identifies as home of the first public library, asked a reporter, perhaps only half kidding, how much the sign might fetch on eBay.

Yet at a meeting of the American Library Association, members were shown a letter from Laura Bush, a former librarian herself, assuring them that her husband's budget would include a substantial increase for library funds. What the First Lady didn't say was that the increase was yet another aspect of a kind of Washington legerdemain that can be summed up in a single word: bogus.

Bogus is the name of the game, and not just in libraries. The much-vaunted Bush tax cut is totally bogus, a shell game in which money is moved from one place to another with political sleight of hand. The bottom line is that for most ordinary people the benefits amount to less than zero. What the Feds give, the state and local governments will be taking away, and then some. Part of that is because of the states' own foolish budgetary decisions in recent boom times. (Remember the boom times?) But a large part is because the federal government has required the states to provide expensive programs, from Medicaid to Homeland Security, but not provided anywhere near enough cash to help pay the bills.

The linchpin of the president's education agenda, for instance, which he developed before terrorists made it possible for his administration to dispense with domestic policy--and civil liberties--was something with the catchy slogan "Leave No Child Behind." It is a program heavy on performance standards that may as well be called "Leave No Child Untested." But the states have been picking up most of the added costs for the new mandates. Thus your state and local taxes are soaring, and your alleged tax cut merely moved from beneath one government walnut to another. You'll get a peek, and then it will disappear.

Step right up to the greatest show on earth. See a lady sawed in half--whoops, it's the librarian! The administration says it's providing more help for libraries, but towns have to cut library hours to afford police officers, some required by Homeland Security provisions for which the Feds promised reimbursement, now long overdue. So the First Lady does television spots with Elmo the Muppet about the importance of reading, but kids whose parents can't afford to buy the newest "Harry Potter" will just have to lump it because the library can't afford to buy new books.

Even the president's most conspicuous success, his war in Iraq, now appears to have been bogus from the beginning. No one is supposed to say that the administration lied about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in order to foment public support. The polite word is "misled." Either the Bushies were misled by faulty intelligence, or the Bushies misled the nation. Either way, the war and its aftermath will help to further inflate the gargantuan federal deficit, wrestled to a draw in the previous administration but now threatening to explode into the multitrillion-dollar range. It's the gift that keeps on giving to our kids. Surely they will come to wonder how the adults were so out to lunch that they decided to go into record debt in order to liberate Baghdad from electricity and running water.

But we were not insensible. We had just become so accustomed to all of this that it seemed vainglorious to protest, a kind of lowered expectation of the body politic. There is no rejoicing at the tax cut; most taxpayers understand that with the states and cities going begging, it is illusory. There is no uproar at the lack of weapons of mass destruction; most citizens are accustomed to governmental means/end lies. No one is particularly surprised when the administration hammers a report from the Environmental Protection Agency so hard that a description of the threat of global warming is reduced to a few anodyne paragraphs. The former oilmen will protect industry at all costs, even if it means pretending that air pollution is a liberal fiction.

No outrage, just anomie. Of course, the real point of the tax bill was to cement the support of the wealthy, who have been the lucky ducks of every Republican administration in recent history (and who donate big to campaigns). Of course, the point of the invasion of Iraq was to make the administration look as though it were doing something in the war on terrorism after it was unable to close the deal on Osama bin Laden. Just as the point of increasing money to libraries is to appear interested in reading, knowing that any increase will merely partially fill the sinkhole made by demands on the locals for services mandated by or cut by the Feds. Bogus, every bit of it. And, sadly, the audience no longer cares.