I lived in Washington, D.C. during my Junior High School and High School years. During the summers I interned with a variety of government offices. Being the lowest of the low, what I saw contrasted greatly with the lofty workings of the government reported in the morning papers.
I spent most of one entire summer working with the constitutions, bylaws and forms that local unions of US STEEL had to file with the Department of Labor. We worked in old sprawling WWII barracks at the site of what is now RFK Stadium. There were a lot of us there, too many. My boss was afraid they were going to lay people off, so he invented work for us to do. About twenty of us walked around a huge table, each carrying the thick folder of an individual local union. First we unstapled the package and then, as we walked around the table, we would put copies of all the bylaws in one stack, the constitutions in another, form 57-B in another, and so on. It took us over a week to do this. Then we walked around the table the other way and put them back in the folder. When we were finished, we put a big staple in the corner.
Then we took the staple out and started all over again. As soon as an opening was posted in another department, I left.
Another position I had was handing out folders. Three of us interns stood at the windows in a wall that separated the stacks from the office workers out front. The stacks were a maze of towering bookcases stuffed with manila folders. The office workers all worked at identical desks that stretched out in orderly rows seemingly all the way to the horizon. It was a tremendous cavern of a place, everything painted government-issue puke-green. The clocks were all mechanical and gave a loud click when the minute hand changed position.
( -- aside -- These clocks were all over Washington offices, including my dentist's office. They gave a faint click just before the minute, and then a louder one when the hand moved. The interval, as I recall, was about 4.2 seconds. Even as I was living out my life listening to the clocks tick, I wondered how people could live that way, working day after day under those damn clocks. Now that I think about it, that may be why I don't own a watch. But I digress ... )
The first thing my boss did was point out the big bosses to me. Part of my job was to alert the regular employees if they approached. The permanent people all had cots buried back behind the bookcases. They were fond of three hour lunches and long naps. I still don't know how they managed when we summer interns weren't there. I never saw them do any work.
One day my boss discovered I knew how to use an adding machine and I was assigned to total up the number of folders we handled for his weekly report. Each person at the window had to make a tic mark on a sheet every time they handed out a folder. I added them up. Then the boss decided his numbers were too low, so he had us make tic marks when we put the folders back. Immediately, our production doubled. My boss was praised by his boss and he took a two day lunch break to celebrate. After a couple weeks of this, though, he started to feel pressure to get the numbers up. He decided that if we had to move folders out of the way to get other folders, they should all count. After all, they were handled, weren't they? So the numbers went up again, and all was fine for another couple weeks. Then the pressure hit again. My boss discovered I could do percentages. He decided that people were forgetting to mark each folder they brushed against, so he would adjust by a certain percentage. Each week we had a meeting to decide the percentage to use. I tried desperately to keep him to single digits.
As soon as an opening was posted in another department, I left.
Today I would probably be a whistle-blower, but I was teenager then, it was the late 50's, early 60's. The climate was different, and I needed the work.
But I saw the good as well as the bad. For years I dated the daughter of a much-respected congressman. My dad was Assistant Surgeon General of the Public Health Service and worked with good people on such projects as the Salk polio vaccine project. I met a lot of dedicated public servants as well as plenty who found government work a comfortable safe haven. Like everything else in life, it was a mixed bag.
I'm a cynic, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has read my political science fiction. But cynics are just failed romantics, for if they didn't care it simply wouldn't matter.
But it does matter to me. I feel our system has great potential, and when it gets bogged down or goes off on some wild-assed tangent, I get frustrated, sad and angry. Although I am not as politically active as I was in the 60's, I still vote against the self-serving bastards, speak out at local commission meetings, write the occasional letter, sign petitions.
When I really get mad, I write a story.
"We, the People," written in a flush of bitter anger, but with an undertone of hope -- has over the years gathered me more response than anything else I've ever written. It has appeared in a variety of newsletters from such diverse organizations as Libertarians and CPAs. I was told that someone once sent copies to all the members of the Senate when they were considering tax reform. It has been used in classrooms to teach the critical difference between a Democracy and a Republic. I wrote it years ago, but I feel it is as pertinent today as it was when it appeared in Analog magazine.
Full text of "We, the People."
Currently I work with large computer databases, and potential for misuse of this technological tool is tremendous. I have explored different ramifications in various stories, but I feel one of the sharpest treatments I've done on the subject is "Enemy of the State," which also appeared in Analog. It is in the nature of the story that as soon as I finished "Enemy of the State," I became one.
Full text of "Enemy of the State."
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