"Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks," he would say, leaning forward, leaning at them, looking at them. . . . "That's what you are. And me -- I'm one, too . . . Oh, I'm a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile . . . But I'm standing here on my own hind legs, for even a dog can learn to do that, give him time. I learned. It took me a time but I learned, and here I am on my own hind legs." And he would lean at them. And demand, "Are you, are you on your hind legs? Have you learned that much yet? You think you can learn that much?"
-- From "All The King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren
JAWS CLENCHED, blood pressures spiked, and radio talk-show hosts spontaneously combusted when the Boston Globe reported last week that the $15 billion Big Dig -- formerly known as the $12.2 billion Big Dig, and more formerly as the $7.7 billion Big Dig, and even, once upon a time, as the $2.5 billion Big Dig -- will in fact cost a staggering $22 billion and not be paid off until 2038.
The four-lane Ted Williams Tunnel, which runs under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport, was the first major element of the Big Dig to be completed. Originally budgeted at $2.5 billion, the Big Dig is now expected to cost at least $22 billion.
The Page 1 story was filled with infuriating details, such as the revelation that 80 percent of Massachusetts Highway Department employees are being paid with borrowed money. Bay State politicians originally sold voters on the Big Dig in part by assuring them that Washington would pick up 90 percent of the cost. In reality, nearly three-fourths of the tab is coming from the pockets of Massachusetts drivers and taxpayers. What we were told in the 1980s would set us back about $350 million will actually cost us more than 50 times as much.
Well, as Willie Stark would say, are you on your hind legs yet? Are you good and angry?
Last week also brought the story of Albert Arroyo, a Boston firefighter who applied for disability retirement in March on the grounds that he was left "totally and permanently disabled" after tripping on a staircase in March. He went on injured leave and continued to collect his full salary, tax free. But Arroyo's "total and permanent disability," it appears, wasn't very disabling. In May he entered a men's bodybuilding competition, and finished eighth. When the fire commissioner learned of Arroyo's bodybuilding prowess, he shifted him from injured leave to regular sick leave. He continued to receive a paycheck without working, but it was now taxable. (Not until Friday was Arroyo finally ordered to return to work.)
Does it infuriate you to learn that this was not the first time Arroyo went on leave for an "injury," but the sixth? Or to learn that more than 100 Boston firefighters have recently won lucrative disability pensions under circumstances so suspicious that the FBI has opened an investigation?
Then there are all the other public employees milking the Massachusetts pension system. Dozens collect payouts of more than $100,000 a year -- former state Senate president William Bulger, for example, rakes in more than $197,000, a fitting cap to a long career spent gorging at the public trough. Scores of "double-dippers" retire early on full pensions, then get themselves hired back on the public payroll at full salaries. When ex-Big Dig director Michael Lewis retired last year, his pension was tripled and became immediately payable under a nutty state law that rewards government employees whose positions are eliminated. For the rest of his life, Lewis will receive more than $72,500 annually, despite the fact that he is only 46, and is making $130,000 a year as Rhode Island's secretary of transportation.
Column after column could be filled with the ways the Massachusetts political class and its hangers-on play taxpayers for suckers -- the gold-plated tax breaks for moviemakers, the insanely lucrative sick-time buybacks, the indefensible police details, the public-sector-only paid holidays, the "temporary" tax hikes that last forever, the state budgets that keep growing even as family budgets shrink.
It will never end -- not until the suckers get riled up enough to fight back. Not until they start throwing incumbents out of office, instead of blindly re-electing them. Not until they stop letting themselves be treated as ATMs for politicians and doormats for public-employee unions. Not until they force their public "servants" to defer to them, instead of the other way around.
"Are you on your hind legs?" Willie Stark would say. "Have you learned that much yet?" Well, have you?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)