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Government: It’s the Magnitude, Stupid!

BROOKLYN — It seems as though everyone in America, right-wing and left-wing, Democrats and Republicans, the Tea Party and the DLC, have all come kumbaya-together on one overarching vision of the coming American utopia: small government. By all accounts, America is proudly morphing into the penny-pinching Darwinist model for pusillanimous pussyfooters the world over.

OK, fine. I just have one question.

How small?

The only answer I’ve ever heard was from the god of small government, Grover Norquist, who famously said, “Small enough to drown in the bathtub.”

OK, fine. But that’s a metaphor, Grover. As Country Joe and the Fish said, “You can’t live on metaphors.”

Still, Grover’s vivid image of a fat white man kneeling by the toilet and euthanizing a puppy set me to thinking — as it should anyone — and prompted another question:

What’s wrong with this picture?

I mean, “small?” “SMALL?” Grover, look around!

Grover, as you might surmise, is a hero of the Tea Party, whose loins ache for small government. They’ve rallied repeatedly in Washington to make clear their passion. Many of them, I assume, flew east for these rallies.

Flew. On airplanes. Did they look out the window of their federally subsidized Boeing 737? Did they notice how big this country is? Did they notice from Tucson to Washington, flying at 500 miles an hour, it takes four hours? That’s very large.

America is one of the biggest countries on earth. Economically, we’re bigger than anyone. We have the largest military force in history, six times bigger than the next biggest in existence. We have 311 million people — which is not as many as, say, India or China — but we consume 25 percent of the world’s energy. That’s huge. We spew more solid waste than any country ever thought of hauling to the dump. We are the biggest consumer, spender, lender and borrower, the biggest eater and drinker, the biggest waster and the biggest goddamn mouth that ever existed anywhere.

We do stuff big.

And if we look back, and think about it, it’s the big stuff America does best.

How, for example, did we get started? We picked a war, without first actually putting together either a government or an army, against the largest, richest empire in human history. Other countries — who had kings, queens, armies, navies, treasuries — had tried beating the British Empire. Spain and France tried. They got their asses kicked.

But we beat the redcoats. We booted George III. Was that big? It was huge, man!

We’ve been doing big stuff, really well, ever since — even our Civil War, when we killed 700,000 of our own. That’s incredible. It’s colossal. We wiped out a generation.

In fact, as wars, go Americans don’t really hit our stride unless the war is enormous. After all, the last time we really, truly won was World War II. Every semi-war we’ve tried since then, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., has been either a defeat, a stalemate, a case of bellicosus interruptus, or Vince Lombardi standing on the sidelines yelling “What the hell is going on out there?”

Speaking of Vince — who won the first two of them — we don’t call it the Modesty Bowl. We call it the damn Super Bowl. When Vince was asked to coach in something called the “Runner-Up Bowl,” he told the NFL to shove it. He was an American; he wasn’t about to play a “rinky-dink game in a rinky-dink town.” The NFL heeded Vince and killed the Runner-Up Bowl, forever. So much for small ball.

It’s hard to believe that any reminder is necessary, but the list of big — really big — things we’ve done as a nation is, well, huge. Have you been, for example, to Hoover Dam? Looked at a map of the Tennessee Valley Authority? Driven across America on I-40, or I-80, or I-90 — all the way across, on roads and bridges and overpasses ordered up by General Eisenhower a decade after he launched the D-Day landings, which was the biggest amphibious assault that was ever attempted, or ever will be attempted?

I mean, for Pete’s sake, Grover, we do stuff humongous. Have you tried to fit (just as a small sample) the Griffith Observatory, Lake Mead, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Apollo moon missions and 76 land-grant universities into a bathtub? Do you have a Power Point presentation on how to drown rural electrification and throw America’s heartland back into the dark, spoiling roughly 300 million gallons of milk a day.

OK, that would be big! That would be waste on the American scale. Go, Grover!

If you apply the Bigness Standard to the Obama administration, you’ll see where Barack went wrong. Was his economic recovery program big? Yes. Big enough? No! As a result, the small-government nags are all over him. He’s had the same problem with financial reform and health care. They were both medium.

But what if he had started out BIG — determined to extend Medicare to everybody — not just old people, veterans and Congressmen, but everybody? If he had, and if he’d won, right now, the small-ballers’ budget would be threatening the end of Medicare not just for people under 55, but for every last human being in America. And the backlash?


The one really big thing Obama did full-bore and no-holds-barred was bailing out Detroit and saving the U.S. auto industry. It was the biggest industrial bailout anybody ever saw. And it worked because it did not stop at medium.

Today, America faces the biggest deficit in the history of the whole world. The only solution being offered by the small-government crowd is to nickel and dime this problem into possibly — if we’re lucky — the biggest recession since, well, George W. Bush.

This crisis, if we get it, might finally force President Obama to do something big. Really big. I’ve got no idea what that would be. But it’s gotta be big — FDR big!

I mean, huge!

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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David Benjamin

David Benjamin is a novelist and journalist who splits his time between Paris and Madison, Wis. His novel, a "noir comedy" entitled Three's a Crowd, has just been released by Event Horizon Press. His previous books include, The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked and SUMO: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Japan's National Sport. He blogs at


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