By Erik Jay
The 1990's was the decade of privatization in the Western democracies. There was a bit of excitement in the air as the decade dawned, with the British government selling off auto makers, New Zealanders divesting the state of utility companies, and the monolithic U.S. Postal Service evolving from fractionally private to fully autonomous. The driving force was irrefutable evidence that privatization spurs creativity, increases accountability, and enhances profitability.
In America, the 1990's also meant welfare reform that has made some headway against dependency and waste. Now it's time to finish the job by bringing the balance of the welfare state into the private sector. An enlightened administration should certainly welcome the opportunity to divest itself of welfare costs, while simultaneously engaging the creative energies (and deep pockets) of the private sector in helping to support our nation's remaining, incorrigible welfare dependents.
So, then, what kind of existing enterprise makes a business of giving stuff away? When we eliminate state lotteries, bingo and horse racing -- which constitute the core of legalized gambling and aren't really charitable in any sense of the word -- we're left with the obvious: TV game shows.
We have people in need, and we have companies in the business of distributing cash, appliances, Nikes, and camcorders. And so, some say, let's use the power of the government to put these people and these products together.
Right now, the recipients of TV game show largesses are usually people for whom the prizes constitute a tax liability or a duplication of goods. How many middle-class contestants need another microwave or color TV? How many more technical illustrators from Van Nuys are going to Fiji for two-week vacations until some enlightened legislators shout, "Enough!" and finally nationalize the daytime TV game shows
Well, I don't know, exactly. But I do know this: "telewelfare" could be a smash hit. Model legislation would certainly include a means test for contestants, along with other qualifications, but that should all be quite easy. So many different government agencies have developed so many demeaning, dispiriting programs over the years that devising a generally insulting, dependency-inducing, and unethical selection process should be a breeze.
Former welfare recipients would be conscripted into the Federal Gameshow Contestant Pool (FGCP). In the sensitive, sensible manner of all do-good legislation, game shows currently selecting their own contestants by their own standards will remain free to do so. However, game shows that adopt the FGCP standards would receive substantial tax benefits, while non-FGCP shows would pay a 96 per cent surcharge on contestant winnings. With this delicate carrot-and-stick approach, the bill's sponsors hope to persuade all game shows producers to join in the FGCP program, for the common good. Got that?
It is quite possible that questions on the more intellectual shows -- "Jeopardy", "Password", the elitist "College Bowl" -- will have to be rewritten to reflect the new demographics of the certified gaming population. Items on "The Price Is Right" would be drawn less often from boutiques, Saks 5th Avenue, and Cadillac dealers, and more often from K-Mart, 7-11, and vending machines at WWF wrestling matches.
Then, too, programs that have an upper-class bias in favor of reading, writing, and correct spelling would have to be democratized. The revised "Wheel of Fortune", for example, could break radical new ground for equal access advocates by substituting pictograms for letters in their larger-than-life puzzles. And "Family Feud" could be [further] simplified by halving the number and length of questions, reducing discussion time, and including mud wrestling bouts in place of the "smart alecky" survey stuff.
New programs, too, would be developed by game show producers looking to cement their new quasi-governmental status. A remarkable program concept has been proposed by the estimable F. R. Duplantier, writer extraordinaire; "Remedial Pursuit" would be the first truly original, politically correct, cerebrally egalitarian game show of this new genre. With fair questions -- such as "In what German city is the Berlin Wall located?" and "What is the main ingredient in a cheese sandwich?" -- "Remedial Pursuit" will likely not even have to give contestants the answers in advance, a feature of the new legislation demanded by the teachers' unions.
Further examples are certainly not necessary to convince the forward-looking, compassionate person that a privatized welfare system with a TV game show benefits delivery system is a public policy concept whose time has come. It would cost nothing; raise no taxes; use a broadcasting infrastructure already in place; provide material benefits as well as no-cost entertainment for the underprivileged; and spur the economy by augmenting the gray and black markets in appliances, flight coupons, matched luggage, and flatware.
In an era dedicate to celebrity worship and no-fault citizenship, telewelfare -- the marriage of entertainment and entitlement -- is a perfect platform for a visionary populist. Rather than through the Senate or a governor's mansion, the path to the White House may well go through the lowest common denominators of syndicated broadcasting. Imagine: Merv Griffin and Chuck Barris, kingmakers.
At the same time that telewelfare would bring the efficiency and profitability of private TV giveaway shows to the institutionalized wastefulness of government entitlements, it would give the politicians a double lock on the electorate: Not only would the pols be doling out dough as they already do (by itself a fairly effective means of underwriting voter loyalty), they would also be giving many of their constituents a full 22 minutes of fame (half-hour show less commercials). In this way the beneficent state can dispense a dose of fleeting game to go along with the fraudulent fortune.
It is clear to me (hardly a cogent endorsement of any statement) that Bill Bradley or Donald Trump or Pat Buchanan could pull away from the second-tier presidential pack with the telewelfare platform. This is public policy for post-modern virtual politics. After all, a whole societal segment of indolent daydreaming Americans aspire as much to the casting couch as they do the the cash handout, and telewelfare gives them both.
Erik Jay is editor of What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage which you can subscribe to by sending mail to email@example.com with "subscribe" in the subject line.
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