[18 November 2008]
“Legacy.” It must resonate like a four-letter word in the mind of a lame duck president, conjuring images of a future full of brief and unflattering high school text book passages, memorial airports in podunk towns to which no one ever flies and honorariums at state fairs as a warm-up act to Huey Lewis and the News. Whatever golden opportunities may have been unveiled in State of the Unions past, the waning days of an administration are often a scramble to craft a trophy from whatever random tinfoil is available.
Considering George W. Bush’s dubious successes, that concern appears physically evident: Have you noticed how much Bush has aged in 7 years? It happens with every president, as if the Oval Office is the center of some space/time vortex that causes the occupant to age in dog years, but George W. Bush has been particularly impacted, entered as a middle-aged man and is exiting elderly. It hardly seems fair that a man should lose such a significant portion of his appearance in exchange for a Wikipedia bio that will read like a page from James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
It hardly seems fair. Sure, he’s made his mistakes, but if you think of America as a corporation, it’s the voters who occupy the CEO’s office, and when GW’s performance review came up in 2004, the nation had every opportunity to give him a severance package; instead, they gave him a pat on the back with an implicit, “Good job, fella.” There ought to be something he can salvage from his service that lives on as a positive step forward for the nation he dutifully served at his citizen’s request.
Perhaps there is—-a radical plan that will simultaneously allow the president to remove one smear from his resume while bulking up the paltry “recent successes” section.
The idea sprouted from an obscure news item in March 2008, a report that Comcast has been examining the concept of putting a digital camera in their set-top cable boxes to identify who is watching a particular television at any particular moment. Comcast insists that they want visual access to your living room so they may better serve you: By using facial recognition technology, they could automatically activate a V-chip or make helpful suggestions of shows a particular viewer might want to see based on the copiously documented viewing selections they’ve made in the past. (I wonder, if the camera observed someone smoking a bong, would it automatically suggest Half-baked or Pineapple Express?)
Of course, the blogosphere decried Comcast’s thoughtful and selfless offer to help its customers as an Orwellian violation of privacy, certain that the video feed would be co-opted by the government in order to spy on them in the name of Homeland Security, a plausible accusation considering the illegal wire tapping scandal that plagued the Bush administration in 2005/2006.
But by focusing solely on frivolous details like civil liberties and constitutional violations, opponents fail to see the good that comes from knowing what Americans are doing in their living rooms. Let’s face it, we no longer live in Norman Rockwell’s America, and it’s naive to assume that everyone wants the same things for this nation. As the administration emphasized at the time, wiretapping was never intended as an invasion of your privacy, it was for your protection.
The government insists that information obtained on these taps is crucial for national security, yet few citizens are willing to condone covert surveillance. The solution is to eliminate the “covert”, and present a program that collects the same data with complete transparency, one with a marketing-ready government acronym:
H.I.R.E., America’s Home Information Relay Experts
The plan is simple: H.I.R.E. agents will physically occupy citizen’s homes in order to monitor for suspicious activity. No furtive peeking into our lives, no stealth technology to raise the ire of civil libertarians, just good old fashioned observation.
Best of all, these agents will be plucked from the nation’s unemployment rolls. As the economy continues to limp along in near-recession mode, the government will be able to utilize the talents of those impacted by the downturn, a win-win solution in the waning days of this administration. Disappointing news for those who have become accustomed to receiving a salary in exchange for pretending to look for a job, but wrapped tightly enough in the stars and stripes, it will work.
Each agent will be on duty 40 hours per week, their schedule arranged around their host’s work and sleeping schedules. They will do nothing except monitor household conversations, and report in if they hear anything that’s a concern. Simple as that. Their brief training will consist of a photocopied list of tips for getting along with the hosts, crucial info like not eating the last of the chips, not occupying the preferred spots on the sofa, and restraint when commenting on the subject’s fashion choices.
There will be no expense to the government because the cost is already being paid in unemployment benefits. Sure, some watchdog group is bound to complain that the average unemployment benefit calculates to a pay rate below minimum wage, but if a person can get by on that salary while lounging on their own couch, they ought to be able to get by on it while lounging on someone else’s. And remember, this is voluntary participation: Don’t like the pay? Go get a job in the private sector.
I can hear the conspiracy theorists now: “But it’s still spying!” But if the government carefully controls the spin, they can insist it’s not. Spying involves covert acquisition of information, and there will be nothing covert about H.I.R.E. personnel: Agents will be sharing the living space with their host families, helping them make wise decisions about their television and reading habits. Many people reading this proposal may be unaware, but many American’s make terrible choices with their television viewing, opting out of the side-splitting hilarity of watching people try to jump through holes in Styrofoam walls to instead watch alarmist fiction about global warming like they show on PBS.
Other skeptics may assert that having a government reporter in the home is actually more of a violation than a spy camera. Irrelevant to the validity of that point, the government can counter with that tried-and-true tactic known as patriotism: This isn’t spying, this is boosting the American economy by lowering unemployment to zero. If you’re against H.I.R.E., then you must be against lowering unemployment, and what kind of American is against that? Clearly, the kind that the government needs to keep tabs on—ipso facto, anyone who opposes H.I.R.E. should be the first beneficiaries of the program.
I admit, this will be a tough sell for the Bush administration, especially with so little time remaining in his tenure. Yet working in his favor is American’s tendency to support an underdog, and if ever there was a lame duck underdog in need of a bit of bucking up, GW is that man. Honestly, is it really that much to ask to have an unemployed database programmer occupying the center cushion of your couch for the short duration it takes for the national economy to rebound? After all, we gave Bush the job, the least we can do is humor him with some sort of gold watch on his exit.