“But it does benefit senior citizens,” I said a bit timidly, knowing exactly what I was getting into.
“State lotteries prey disproportionately on the poor and credulous,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Our lottery takes bread out of the mouths of the very people it supposedly benefits, and gives some of them a few state-funded programs in return. They lose far more than they gain.
“But worse than that, the lottery involves us all in a dreadful moral contradiction. We send thousands of people to jail every year for breaking laws against gambling, but we put up billboards in the poorest neighborhoods saying ‘Don’t forget to play every day.’ If gambling is not a vice, then why are people in jail for it? If gambling is a vice, why is our government begging us to indulge in it?
“Now, think how much better off we all would be if that money stayed in the neighborhoods, instead of going to Harrisburg to feed a vast bureaucracy. Neighborhood stores might flourish, so the old and helpless would have some place to buy their bread; more pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood business district would make crime go down, and would encourage more businesses to fill empty storefronts. Money spent locally makes everyone a little richer. And that’s why I say we need to take the numbers racket away from the state and put it back in the barber shops where it belongs.”
“I had to get off at Steel Plaza yesterday to go to the post office,” Brielle remarked, “and I passed by the ‘Occupy Pittsburgh’ tent city. They had some signs I liked. Like there was this one that said, ‘Conscientiously objecting to capitalism.’ I kind of like it that there are some people who are objecting to capitalism.”
“What I noticed the last time I walked by,” Mr. Magundi said quickly, before Mr. Bates could explode with rage, “was that not one of those tents was homemade.”
“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.”
“But we have to make cuts,” I said. “The federal government is out of money, and there’s nothing else to do.”
“Rubbish,” Mr. Magundi replied. “We have an enormous untapped resource. We can raise taxes, which are at the lowest rate now in more than half a century. Americans pay less in taxes than people in almost any other civilized nation. We could easily afford to pay a lot more.
“But our politicians have ruined us economically. For their own selfish purposes, they convinced the average American that taxes were out of control, spiraling ever higher, and the only way to stop the ascent was to elect them. The fiction has become so much an unquestioned fact that, to an ordinary American, to say that we need to raise taxes is literally nonsense. You might as well say ‘What this country needs is more burglaries and murders,’ or ‘What this country needs is bulbous flatweave periodontal combustion.'”
“Well, I got my taxes sent out,” Mrs. Bowman remarked, “and with just a few days to spare. I spent three nights working on them, too.”
“Yes, it’s obvious that, for many people, filing the forms is far more of a burden than paying the taxes,” said Mr. Magundi. “Yet the forms are as simple as they can possibly be made as long as Congress demands an infinite number of special credits and exemptions for various causes and interests. Fortunately, I have solved the problem, and I have done so in a way that will be profitable to our government as well as being less burdensome to the ordinary citizen. Let every kind of income, from whatever source, be subject to withholding at a predictable rate. Congress may continue to make as many special laws as it likes, but the withholding remains unaffected. Then, at the end of the year, if you want to claim all your special exemptions and credits, you file a return, and the government writes you a check. If you do not file a return, no questions are asked: the government simply keeps the money. If there were no legal requirement to file a return, tens of millions of taxpayers would never claim their refunds, and the government would have that much more money to play with. I think you should write our congressman and urge him to adopt the Magundi Plan. I’d do it myself, but lately his office seems to be blocking all correspondence from my email address.”
“They brought one of those business-school types in to run the department instead of promoting someone,” Mrs. Bowman said, “so now we have a boss who doesn’t have any idea what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“The idea that business-school graduates know best how to manage everything has taken hold so deeply that I see no way of extirpating it in our lifetime,” said Mr. Magundi. “It shows all the markings of a religious belief: it is dogmatic; it is non-negotiable, so that those who question it are dismissed or (more frequently) demonized; and it is immune to contrary evidence. Certainly it would not be hard to argue, looking at the evidence alone, that the conventional wisdom of the business schools has frequently led us into disaster. Yet a government department, or a school, or a church, that was doing perfectly well on its own will be turned over to a business-school graduate to be ‘run like a business,’ although for some reason we never consider that perhaps ‘running it like a business’ means sending it into bankruptcy and then begging the government for a bailout. You must accept the pronouncements of your new manager, not because he has any evidence to back them up, but because he is invested with infallible authority in matters of management; and because, by his definition, everything in life counts as a matter of management. Businessmen are our new bishops; given the choice, I prefer the old bishops, but it doesn’t look as though I’ll be given the choice much longer.
“Still, the pendulum always swings eventually; and I can imagine a time—perhaps when our children’s children are old—when an assistant dean will be brought in to run a marketing department, and all the employees will be told, ‘From now on, this place is going to be run more like a university.'”
“So do you, like, really believe that stuff you said about freedom is a commodity?” Brielle asked Mr. Magundi.
“Not really,” he replied. “The strange thing about that kind of freedom in our economic system is that nobody has it. This is why I can never quite come to terms with economic philosophers who talk about the ‘ruling class.’ If you work for a living, you think there’s a ruling class that tells you what to do. But your boss lives in terror of his supervisor, who lives in terror of the associate team leader, and so on up the line, until you get to the president of the company. And the president of the company makes all the money in the world, as far as you can see, but he lives in terror of the board of directors, who could ruin his life with a snap of their fingers. And the board is made up of a bunch of rich people who, in their ordinary lives, are in the same position as your company president. Somehow we’ve managed to create a system where no one is secure in his position, and even the richest live in constant fear of losing everything. From the least to the greatest, we are a society of middle managers.”