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By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2001, The Boston Globe

January 17, 2002

Stop me if you've already heard this, but:

Relatives of the Sept. 11 victims must want to see how quickly they can alienate the public that has shown them such immense compassion. Why else would they be calling press conferences to complain that they aren't getting enough money from the federal Victims' Compensation Fund?

Of course no sum of money will ever be able to replace their loved ones. And one can certainly critique the compensation formula adopted by the fund's special master. But an average payment of $1.6 million per family, with a guaranteed minimum of $250,000 -- all of it on top of any private charity received -- is far more than any other bereaved family can expect. Most Americans who lose a spouse or child or parent, even under horrific circumstances, get nothing from the government. The Sept. 11 relatives really ought to trying saying "Thank you" to their generous countrymen. It would sound so much better than "More!"

The Georgia Legislature opened its 2002 session on Monday. It will adjourn for the year in mid-March, having conducted the people's business in just 40 days. In 42 states of the union, that piece of information would barely qualify as news: Their legislators, too, convene for only a few months each year, then return to real life. Georgia's 40-day session is by no means the shortest: The New Mexico Legislature meets for 30 days; Wyoming's will meet this year for 20. And in at least five enlightened states, the legislature will hold no regular session at all in 2002.

But what is normal for most Americans is unknown to residents of Massachusetts and a few other ill-governed states, like Illinois and New Jersey. There, legislative sessions never end and lawmakers have all year to raise taxes, spend money, and treat the public with disdain. That government is best which governs least, and for some of us, it remains a distant dream.

Dairy farmers and other agricultural special pleaders routinely invoke the need to "preserve the family farm." But why should the family farm be treated any more of a national treasure -- or have more of a claim on the national treasury -- than the family shoe store, the family restaurant, or the family insurance agency? They stand or fall on their own. Why can't farmers do likewise?

Nobody quarrels with the call for extra security at airports, but it isn't necessary for passengers to be confronted by soldiers in battle fatigues, or for guards to be roaming the terminals with M-16s. Osama bin Laden's men didn't attack airports, after all, and there is no reason to think that airports are in any special danger now.

Checking photo IDs is not a job for a National Guardsman. M-16s will not keep luggage bomb-free. Maybe airports can't return to the carefree mindset of Sept. 10, but that is no reason for them to take on the trappings of a Third World dictatorship.

A minor peeve of mine is the 9/10ths of a penny tacked on to the price of gasoline at the pump. Do gas station owners really imagine that customers will flee if the sign reads $1.14 instead of $1.139?

On the other hand, gas stations could do their customers a great service if they would stop burying the amount of the gasoline tax in the per-gallon price. No other consumer product is sold that way. Buy a book or a suit or a length of weatherstripping and the tax gets added to the posted price -- and printed on your receipt. But buy gasoline, and you are never told how much of your payment is going right to the government.

The amount isn't trivial. Gas taxes range from 25.9 cents/gallon in Georgia to 47.4 cents/gallon in Rhode Island, and can account for up to half the price of a fill-up. (Taxes are as of 2000 and don't include sales tax.) Gas station owners could strike a triple blow -- for honesty, for consumer awareness, and for more open government -- if instead of simply displaying the logo "all taxes included," they posted signs that let motorists see just how high those taxes really are.

"It's easy for you to talk about color-blindness -- you're white," one reader writes. "But ask yourself: Would you rather have been born black? I dare you to put your answer in the paper."

A good question and a provocative challenge. But it doesn't shake my view that skin color is irrelevant. Would I want to be black? Sure -- as long as I could have the same parents and be brought up with the same values. I am not my color, just as I am not my height or weight. We may not yet be at the point where race makes no difference. But I know that the surest way to get there is to treat every man as if his race makes no difference.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
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