“I was almost like, ‘I shouldn’t even take your money,'” Brielle was saying, “cause the kids didn’t need me. They had this whole fantasy role-playing thing going on in the back yard, and they were so totally into it, and so serious about it, it was like the most important thing in the world. So I just like sat there and did school stuff.”
“I remember what it was like to be their age,” Mr. Magundi said. “Children’s play, whenever it’s most satisfying to the children, is always solemn and religious. The most devout and fanatical mystic is hoping, in fleeting moments of ecstasy, to recapture that divine thrill we all experienced on the most memorable days of our childhood.”
“So they said no more chocolate milk in the cafeteria,” Mrs. Bowman was saying, “because we have to do something about childhood obesity. But you know I think they’d do more about childhood obesity if they didn’t make kids sit in a chair seven hours a day.”
“Yes, it’s an interesting problem,” Mr. Magundi said. “I don’t have the answers. I’m not even sure I have the questions. But is it mere coincidence that the rise in childhood obesity has paralleled the rise in nutrition education? The more we tell our kids how bad their eating habits are, the worse they eat. Perhaps we should admit that the obsession with nutrition is itself a form of gluttony. Instead of promoting good eating habits, all our education seems to promote furtive and guilty overindulgence. We’re teaching our kids to be unnaturally obsessed with food. And I don’t know what to do about that, except to say that perhaps our best course would be to leave nutrition up to the parents, and not get ourselves in too much of an uproar over what children are eating.”
“So the children were taken away,” Mrs. Bowman concluded. “But the best part was that the woman worked at a day-care center.”
“Yes, I read that story,” Mr. Magundi said. “And it may be that the mother and the father are awful people. But I’m not sure about that. The fact remains that something is broken, and we don’t know how to fix it. Why was this woman going away to work and leaving her children home alone? Obviously because she needed the money, or they would all starve to death. It was the only way she could fulfill her duty as a mother to take care of them. Why she couldn’t take her children with her to a day-care center I don’t know, but no one who has ever had a low-paying dead-end job will be surprised to hear that it’s also inflexible. She could quit and go on welfare, but we’d take welfare away from her if she didn’t find another low-paying dead-end job. So what else could she do? She tried to arrange with the children’s father to take care of them, but the father is unreliable, and she knew it, and provided the children with everything she could to keep them safe, including a 911-only cell phone. The children used it and saved themselves.
“So who’s to blame here? Is it an inflexible legal system that punishes people for not going out to work, and punishes them for leaving their children alone when they do find work? Is it a broken social order that assumes marriages are disposable, and encourages parents—especially fathers—to put their own ‘fulfillment’ above their children’s needs? Is it a selfish father who doesn’t care about his own children? Is it a stupid woman who trusted a worthless layabout and is still paying the price? I don’t know, and I wouldn’t know even if I were intimately acquainted with this whole family. The only thing I know for certain is that the children will not be better off in the care of the state.”
“It’s so long that no one has any idea what’s in it,” Mr. Bates concluded. “How would you fix that, Magundi?”
“I agree with you completely,” Mr. Magundi replied. “When our legislators are voting on legislation that none of them have actually read, and in fact not one of them could possibly have read, the system is plainly broken. But a simple constitutional amendment would take care of it. Congress shall make no law encompassing more than five thousand words in English, including any preambles whatsoever. There. I’ve fixed it. Now all you have to do is get that through Congress and thirty-eight of the states, and we’re done.”
“UPMC and Highmark are at it again,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “Pretty soon most of the hospitals in the city won’t accept my insurance. I thought these were supposed to be nonprofit corporations, but they sure act like all they care about is money.”
“It’s clear,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “that all this unseemly wrangling benefits no one but the top executives, who are as shamelessly greedy as the executives of any other big corporation. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix the problem. Let Congress declare that no corporation will be eligible for nonprofit status if any one of its employees makes more than $150,000 in total compensation—salary, bonuses, housing allowance, whatever, all included. The executives who are motivated mainly by greed would flee the nonprofit sector instantly. The ones who are motivated primarily by an instinct for public service—which is supposed to be the purpose of a nonprofit corporation—would be able to make a comfortable living and raise even large families with no deprivation. And don’t tell me the nonprofit sector couldn’t get talented managers that way. Plenty of charities are managed brilliantly by people who take no compensation whatsoever. No, instead of mediocre managers who care about nothing but money, the nonprofit sector would get dedicated professionals who cared about the mission above everything else.”
“He wants me to get a tattoo like his,” Brielle was saying, “but I’m just not, like, totally sure about it.”
“Then you should stick to your guns,” Mr. Magundi said. “Remember that a tattoo is permanent. It will still be with you in twenty years. Would you really want to be wearing 1991 fashions right now?
“But aside from any aesthetic considerations, I think tattoos have a strong tendency to stunt your intellectual development. What I mean is this: I don’t think much of someone who has the same tastes and opinions at fifty that she had at twenty. If you aren’t constantly refining and improving your own mind, how is your life worth living? But a tattoo is an indelible record of what you thought was beautiful and important at one moment in time. You’re stuck with it unless you take drastic measures. It’s more irrevocable than just about any other decision you can make—far more irrevocable in our society than a marriage, for example. And I know human psychology. You’re very likely to persuade yourself that a decision you can never revoke was a good and right decision. And so your taste and opinions will stagnate, at least as far as they’re represented by the tattoo, because you cannot allow them to change.”
“The difference,” I said, “is that we only go after military targets.”
“Leaving aside the question of what happens when one of our military targets turns out to be too close to a few disposable civilians,” Mr. Magundi replied, “I contend that there’s no such thing as a military target wherever there’s military conscription. Our enemies can force a man to put on a uniform by threatening him with imprisonment or torture, but that doesn’t force the guilt of the war on him and make him worthy of death. On the contrary, it seems to me that it makes him worthy of pity and protection. Morally, I can’t see how killing a random greengrocer who was forced to serve in the army is any different from killing a random greengrocer while he’s still grocing his greens.
“I’m not excusing the evil dictators who force a war down the throats of their citizens for their own selfish ends. I’m only pointing out how easily war itself lowers us to their moral level.”