"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Travels Through New England
Whenever I tell someone I'm from Connecticut , I make sure to say I'm from eastern Connecticut . That is, I make sure they don't picture me carrying tennis rackets around and tying sweaters around my neck. They do that out in western Connecticut ; you know, where all the insurance company presidents and soccer moms live. There are certain stereotypes we New Englanders have to deal with. Of course, these stereotypes fit most New Englanders pretty well: people out here are part of the oppressive Eastern Establishment, they do poke their noses in everyone else's business, and most are liberals. But even so, it can be fun to take a few travels through the New England states and discover the various idiosyncrasies of the Yankee way of life, particularly the politics.
Let us start in Connecticut . First we shall dispel the myth that New Englanders are all high-class people who drive Lexus sport-utility vehicles. In fact, there are plenty of people around who, if they lived in Alabama , would be called rednecks. A few of us call them swamp Yankees. My father, who grew up in the Midwest , explained to me once what exactly a swamp Yankee is. 'When the country was expanding and everyone was moving out West, swamp Yankees were the people who were left behind.' At one point in time, New England actually had non-military related industry, even private mills and factories. These businesses invariably moved out or became unprofitable, and along most rivers in New England the results today are similar: abandoned buildings for children to set on fire and a large welfare log.
Connecticut , and most of New England , also brings to mind images of quaint little towns with historic districts and town greens. A fun game to play, for anyone who finds himself driving through one such town, is to list all of the local zoning and land-use regulations there. No business signs over six square feet, houses to be painted white or off-white, lawns to be kept no greater than three inches, no garbage to be left near the road, and so on. As much as it must give people a warm, fuzzy feeling to make McDonald's look like a four-star restaurant, one would think the town planners would drop all pretenses and simply post a billboard on the town limits that states, 'No blacks allowed.'
Rhode Island is unique among the states in that there is no dishonesty in government; everyone knows the politicians are all crooks and mobsters. The funny part is that this is the way most Rhode Islanders like it. I worked outside of Providence a few summers at a print shop and was able to witness firsthand the Rhode Island mentality. Once you get past the annoying and discordant Rhode Island accent, which mixes the worst parts of the Boston and New York accents, you will find most Rhode Islanders to be, well, annoying and discordant. The typical Rhode Islander has ambitions for closing up the chop shop and landing a fat government job. Once you're in, you've got it made for life. No one embodies Rhode Island politics better than former mayor of Providence , Buddy Cianci.
Cianci was mayor from 1974 to 1984, during which 22 city workers were convicted for fraud and extortion, and he had to put his political career on hold to serve a five-year suspended sentence for beating his wife's lover with a fireplace log. In 1991, Cianci was back and more popular than ever. He was reelected as mayor and continued his unique blend of public/private partnership in government. His reign ended in 2001 after being indicted, after a federal investigation, on 30 counts of racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion. Cianci, who found time outside of soliciting bribes and setting uncooperative businesses on fire to sell his own brand of marinara sauce, would almost surely regain office if allowed to run again.
One could point out, in Cianci's defense, that at least businesses could operate free of much regulation, provided they made a large enough 'campaign donation.' This cannot be said of Massachusetts . Unlike Rhode Islanders, people from Massachusetts believe government is more than an opportunity to plunder your neighbors. It is an opportunity to improve your neighbors. With this attitude comes a high degree of snobbery as well. Most Massachusetts folks live around Boston and consider any place west of Framingham to be hickville. Morning show deejays press a button that plays the banjo from Deliverence if the caller says he's from, say, Worcester or Fitchburg .
The intellectual center of Massachusetts is Cambridge , where Harvard University and MIT are located. If you stay too long in this People's Republik, you'll soon find yourself thinking it's cool to be a Communist. You'll start parades with chants like 'United, the people, can never be defeated.' You'll start dressing in all black, stop bathing yourself, and beg for money on the sidewalk from college students. Or you'll be one of those college students, writing Marxist essays for your Womyn's Studies class by day and avoiding the stench of the homeless by night on the way to your favorite caf'.
Massachusetts is also home of the largest public works project since the building of the Great Pyramids. In the same spirit that the government makes us better people by prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday and making sure we don't spank or teach our children, the government also serves to employ us. Thus, the Big Dig. When it will be complete, instead of being stuck in traffic jams on I-93 through downtown, you can be stuck in traffic jams underneath downtown. Just what we all need. Send your thank-you letters (and payment; the project's budget has gone supernova past any accountant's dreams) to Ted Kennedy.
One can regain some sanity by driving into New Hampshire . Unlike Massachusetts , the Wal-Marts up here sell firearms. And someone must have been on the ball; without any general sales tax on retail, people flock from other states to shop. In fact, New Hampshire is so libertarian that there are 28 elected Libertarian Party dog catchers. And after making sure your car meets the government's safety regulations, paying to register your car, and paying for the government's permission to drive your car, you even get a 'Live Free or Die' slogan on your license plate. Just make sure you don't drive anywhere without it.
The relative sanity ends as one drives across the Connecticut River to Vermont . About the only businesses that survive in Vermont are antique shops and cutesy gift shops in tourist towns. Everyone else works in New Hampshire . The other day I was driving in Lebanon , New Hampshire on a Friday afternoon. Lebanon has a population about the size of your last family reunion, yet somehow I was stuck in a half-hour traffic jam. Was there a tree fallen on the road, or a madman shooting up cars? No. Half the population of Vermont was returning home from work. The same people who forbid the construction of any new buildings or birthing of new babies don't seem to mind driving 60 miles to have a job and buy things.
Upstate, on Lake Champlain , lies Vermont 's little Cambridge : Burlington . Burlington is the Mecca for old hippies, young wanna-be hippies, and crappy music bands like Phish. And of course, there are lesbians. Lots of them. Now, don't get me wrong: I am totally in favor of voluntary association for any adults. But let's just say that the large gay- lesbian- bi- transgender- transsexual- transwhatever crowd isn't the most friendly to individual rights. These are the people who have elected the only Congressman to actually say he is a socialist, Bernie Sanders. In Vermont , there is also a small group of people who don't appreciate Heather's two mommies having sex on their front lawns. Their slogan is 'Take Vermont Back.' They have about as much chance as Carla Howell does to become the next governor of Massachusetts .
Lastly, there is Maine . I've actually only been to Maine once, so I cannot comment much on it. I'm sure it's a nice place.
New England is famous for its Indian casinos, Kennedys, cold beaches, and old-fashioned town meetings. Nowhere else in the country do you have more direct access to the tyranny that is local government. Have a plan to raise your neighbor's property taxes? Want to force out a few unsightly businesses on the other side of town? Want to zone all existing forestland so that no one can develop it? Easy. Just 'move' it at your next friendly town meeting. There is sure to be at least one other busy-body to second the motion, and then it will be put up to a vote with the other 12 people there. Voila! Democracy in action. Ain't this country great?