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Sunday, April 6, 2014
Society ...

There was an interesting comment on the Bloomberg web site this past week in an article about the US Supreme Court’s decision allowing rich political donors to give campaign contributions to as many incumbent or wannabe Congressional representatives and senators as they want, despite previous restrictions under the Federal Election Campaign Law of 1971. The previous cap on how much can be given to any one candidate remains ($2,600 per candidate); but the campaign contribution law also had a provision limiting the total amount that any person can give to all federal-level candidates in a year to $123,200. The decision in this case (McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, brought against the government by an Alabama businessman and GOP official), “deal[s] a fresh blow to efforts to curb the role of money in American politics” according to Bloomberg. The Court vote was a close one, though, at 5 to 4.

As to the interesting comment in the article: Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributers and a longtime Republican fundraiser, felt that the Court’s decision was good because it strengthens the political parties. Well, that isn’t very surprising given that Mr. Van Dongen is a Republican and stands to benefit from the decision. But Mr. Van Dongen also said that “[c]ampaign-finance reforms and Citizens United have weakened the party committees such that they are often the caboose of contribution-consideration sequencing,”

Again, the meaning of Mr. Van Dongen’s words aren’t all that interesting – i.e. that the national Republican and Democratic parties had previously lost power and influence because of the individual donation limits and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Citizens United case, which together encourage corporations and rich people to spend a lot on single-issues committees (such as pro or anti-Obamacare committees) to endorse a particular candidate (they can do so without spending limits). Well, actually this is interesting if you are concerned about good government and the proper workings of democracy here in the USA. For those of us who are concerned that America is increasingly run by a rich minority with diminishing input from the “99%”, the Supreme Court majority and Mr. Van Dongen are rather ominous. But for now, let’s take a look at the analogy that Mr. Van Dongen used to make his point.

Mr. Van Dongen talks about a “caboose” – literally, something that railroads once used at the end of their freight trains where train crew members could keep an eye on the train and hopefully stop a following train from crashing into theirs if they had to make an unexpected stop. Since the mid-1980s, the railroads convinced the federal and state governments that cabooses and the crew members that rode on them (the “flagmen”) were no longer needed due to automated signalling systems, radio communication devices, GPS tracking, and other rules and procedures meant to avoid rear-end collisions. Although a few caboose cars are still used in limited circumstances, for the most part the caboose has been gone from the railroad scene for at more than 20 years now.

So it’s interesting that a political official would assume in 2014 that the public would understand what he means when he refers to a caboose. Old timers like myself (and Mr. Donegan, who is around 70) certainly know, but most of the upcoming Millennial generation probably never saw a train with a caboose. (Is this perhaps just another example of how the Republican Party is still out of touch with today’s youth, despite its desire to reach out to them?).

Let’s leave politics behind for a second and talk about the caboose. I believe that this is one of those words that the public got to like, partly because of the way that it sounds. And yes, anyone older than 45 or 50 probably has childhood memories of waving to the man in the caboose at the end of a passing train. In fact, there was a popular child’s story book called “The Little Red Caboose”. This book was first published in 1953, the year when I was born – and I still have the copy of LRC that my parents gave me when I was a child. What surprises me is that the book is still in print, and people are still buying it for their children and reviewing it on Amazon!!

For whatever reason, despite its technological obsolescence, the caboose has not yet been forgotten in popular memory. Perhaps this classic children’s book is a big part of the reason for this! Railroads themselves often used other names for cabooses (back when they were in use). Some railroads officially called them “cabin cars”, some termed them “way cars”, and the Canadian railroads said that they were “vans”. Railroad men themselves often used slang terms such as “crummy” or “hack” when referring to where they rode at the end of a freight train.

Interestingly, the word “caboose” originated as something of a slang term itself, stemming from the earliest days of railroading in the middle of the 19th Century. Once the early railroads got long enough and busy enough to worry about trains rear-ending each other (well before automatic signal systems came, perhaps 40 years later), they realized that it was best to station a man at the end of each train, and give him a flag so as to get the attention of another train coming up from behind. They probably at first just called this a crew car or such.

But after a while, as railroads became the hot growth industry of the 1800s, some former sailors got jobs working the trains. And the rear crew cars (looking at first like a box with windows and seats placed on a flatbed car) reminded them of the food-cooking cabins on the old sailing ships (and not inappropriately; railroad guys learned to use these rear-end cars to cook their own food during the long, slow trips that most early trains made through remote regions). Back before ships were routinely made of steel, when cooking stoves had to use wood or coal (which made a lot of smoke), food preparations had to be done up on the top deck of a ship, as to avoid fires and asphyxiation. Interestingly, in France and Belgium, the sailors had a nick-name for these top-deck cooking cabins: the French called them a “camboose” and the Dutch a “kabhuis”, both possibly a corruption from a German term meaning “cabin house”.

The former sailors now working on the trains had been familiar with European colleagues (being a sailor was always a good way to see the world and meet people from distant lands), and soon adapted and Americanized the informal term that they heard used in foreign ports to refer to ship galleys. And somehow the term stuck on the railroads; again, partly because of the interesting sounds behind this word (in my opinion). It was a word that was easy to remember and easy to say.

And it turns out, the caboose is now hard to forget, despite the fact that the railroads don’t have them anymore. But then again, according to Mr. Van Dongen’s logic, the Supreme Court itself has retired the metaphorical “caboose” that housed the national political parties in the era of issue committees. In the future, the GOP will not be at the tail end of the money-and-power train in our political system. So, good words like “caboose” can keep on rolling for a while despite what goes on in the world, but eventually they will reach the end of the line. Still, it is interesting to note that social memories and attitudes don’t turn on a dime (both for better and for worse), even in the age of instant communications, 24/7 news cycles, information on almost anything at the touch of a keyboard, and 2-minute attention spans.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:46 pm      

  1. Jim, It is easy to see your intense interest in Railroads. You give a thorough and precise explanation of a caboose and how it was used on the railroad. I used to be intrigued by those cabooses that had curtains on the windows, thinking that the one or two men who rode and lived in those cars at least had some small comforts of home on their trips; I’d wonder how lonely they were so far from the people at the beginning of the train and maybe so far from home. I remember when the railroads decided there was no more need for a caboose on the end of a train, it bothered me that there might be severe accidents due to the fact that there were no human beings watching out at the end of a very long train.

    However, something about this whole statement made by Mr. Van Dongen, “‘the caboose of contribution-consideration sequencing’” bothers me very much. I understand “caboose”. But somebody please tell me in simple words (I always like to be able to take some long, multi-syllabic words and put them into plain English) what “contribution-consideration sequencing” actually, in plain English actually, really means; further, I’d like to know what the effects of this “contribution-consideration sequencing” will be.

    “Contribution” – OK, somebody is giving some money to somebody else. Then “consideration”. . . Now what does this word mean in this context? Does it mean: If I give a politician some money, what will I get in return for the money I give? That’s what it sounds like to me. But I may not get the idea here.

    Then “sequencing”: Now here I truly am stumped, at least I think I am. The only thing I can come up with is: In what order will I get a return on the money I give the politician? That is: Who will “get what he/she wants” before I do? I’m asking, not saying this is what it means. But it sounds like it to me.

    Now I may be wrong here; perhaps some other meaning is meant. But it seems to me that this phrase actually means: If I give a whole lot of money to a politician, how am I assured that the politician will do what I want him/her to do; also it seems to mean if the politician actually *does* what I want him/her to do, in what *order* will I get it. Who will “get theirs” before I “get mine”? Am I missing something here? If so, I wish somebody would tell me as this phrase seems to me to have an ominous meaning.

    It seems to mean that the politicians, while voted for by the ordinary public citizen is not actually *working* for the ordinary public citizen but has the interests of those who contribute the most to his/her campaign first and foremost in mind. Then who is the one the politician is *really* working for?

    Perhaps I simply do not understand something here. But it seems to me that Mr. Van Dongen is worried that if he gives money to a politician to do his bidding, he may end up at the end of the line of those to whom the politician may be handing out favors. Where the actual voter is considered does not seem to even enter the picture. Disabuse me, please, if I misunderstand.

    I’d appreciate being informed of how I may be misinterpreting this phrase because at this point it seems our democracy has gone out the window in favor of those who contribute the most to any politician’s campaign.

    I find myself saying, what is wrong with this picture. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 7, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

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