Recently, I’ve been thinking about a 1953 song written by satirist Tom Lehrer called “The Old Dope Peddler.” In the second verse, he writes, “He gives the kids free samples/because he knows full well/that today’s young innocent faces/will be tomorrow’s clientele.” Substitute the federal government for the “old dope peddler” and you have an analogy fit for today.
True, patronage is an ages-old institution. For centuries, there was a quid pro quo in everything from the arts to politics. In 2009, in my adopted home state of South Carolina, you may recall that then-Gov. Mark Sanford tried to keep the state from taking stimulus funds because he knew there would be hooks and strings attached. More recently, Florida Gov. Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion for a high-speed rail system for much the same reason.
It has taken a while, but a new strain of passive enrollment patronage has emerged. In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter thinks his state should take millions in federal dollars to set up health insurance exchanges. He’s worried that if the state declines the money, the federal government will “impose a plan on Idaho.”
According to the Associated Press (8/23), many of the state’s Republicans think they should “take the money, as long as it doesn’t lock Idaho into accepting portions of the federal reforms they don’t agree with.” It’s the old, “I can quit anytime I want” mentality.
Regardless of the justification, all that money is seductive. As Lehrer concluded, “Here’s a cure for all your troubles/here’s an end to all distress/it’s the old dope peddler/with his powdered happiness.” Taking money from the federal government — regardless of the justification — is like four sheep and one wolf deciding what to have for lunch.