This was a game that my family had installed on our very first real computer, ages ago. I must have been about ten or eleven years old, so, fifteen years ago anyway. We had a Macintosh – I don’t know if it was available for PC’s or not. What I do know is that this game helped me to understand politics better than any class I ever took.
The deal with this game was that you were set up as the president of this country called Chicanamerica. They never told you the backstory, but it was meant to be some sort of fusion of Mexico and America, obviously – whether Mexico got conquered by America, or America got conquered by Mexico, or Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and the upper third of Mexico somehow morphed into a no-man’s land that in time became a new country, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was a sovereign country and you were the President.
It was a developing country, I guess; a lot of the territory was rural and undeveloped, and social services, right down to things like education and health care, were very rudimentary. You started out with a modest budget surplus, though (largely because there was no budget, basically; you had a treasury and it had money in it, is what I’m saying) and I suspect that if you’d played your cards right you could have really turned this place around.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to play my cards. I clicked into this game one day out of boredom and got moderately interested initially. Hey look, a whole country, all mine! And when I discovered the treasury I figured, well, this is going to be easy. I grew up in the Reagan era, remember. I didn’t know much about the economy, but I did know that in my memory at least America, the Greatest Country in the World according to all my grade-school teachers, had *never* had a budget surplus. We were trillions and trillions of dollars in debt, and we were doing just fine! And here’s this nice little country with actual *money* in its treasury, money that they didn’t owe to anyone, either. It was there for me to spend! This was amazing!
I went into my Presidency with the attitude that as long as the treasury was in positive numbers, we were doing swimmingly. And from the first day of my term, of course, people were knocking on my door. First the farmers came out; they wanted agricultural subsidies. Sure, I said, why not? I gave them a little more than they asked for, feeling magnanimous, and they went away thrilled. My approval rating went up! This was so great! The teachers came by next. They wanted more education funding, and they wanted to be unionized. Sure, I said. Education, the most important investment in Chicanamerica’s future. How could I turn them down? I sent them away with even more than I’d given the farmers. My approval rating went up *again*. I was riding high.
I sat around, sent off some diplomatic letters to other countries. Some of them wanted to borrow money from us. I figured why not. We had it, didn’t we? And we’d get it back with interest! No problem. I did refuse to lend any money to China – I knew they were communists, and I didn’t like communists. Anyone else, though? Sure, come on down.
The teachers came by again a few months later. They said they still needed more money for education. Well, that’s okay, I figured. I mean, I can’t turn down *teachers*. I gave them the money they asked for, though I didn’t exceed their request this time. Then, when the farmers came back, I figured it was only fair to give them more money too. They needed pesticides. How are you going to farm without pesticides?
Something odd was happening in the treasury, though. It was… well, it was going down. Pretty sharply, I guess, if had to be honest. I mean, we still had *money* in there. And that was great, right? America herself never did so well. It was just that, well, the treasury was represented by a little line telling me how much was in there, and the line was dropping pretty steeply. Huh.
I had also cut taxes when I came into office, first thing, wanting to make the people like me. I was starting to think that wasn’t going to be helping matters much.
My approval rating was dropping. I couldn’t figure out why. When people wanted money I *gave* it to them, didn’t I? What were they complaining about? The farmers and the teachers were supposed to be working together to make Chicanamerica happy and healthy and strong, what were they up to? Then I got a notice. The pesticides were making people sick. Parents with sick children were furious with me. I hadn’t gotten a chemical breakdown of the pesticides before I let the farmers use them, I guess. No one had died, but there were these poor little kids throwing up in hospitals because of me. My heart bled. I gave them money for the recovery effort. I hadn’t given any money to the hospitals yet, after all, hadn’t gotten around to it.
The farmers came back to ask for more money, saying that since the pesticides had been discontinued they were losing all their crops. I turned them down this time. I thought they should have known better, about the pesticides. They didn’t like that one bit, but I thought it was time for me to be firm.
The teachers came back asking for more money too. I eyed the dropping line in the treasury, and turned them down too. For heaven’s sake, I’d already given them money *twice*. This was getting out of hand.
Well, now the farmers and the teachers were pissed at me. And the parents with pesticide-poisoned kids. And China. Yikes.
I wanted to give them another tax cut, I thought maybe that would help, but… yikes! When I gave the farmers and teachers money, I should mention, it wasn’t a lump sum deal; they were getting paid out monthly. And, oh my goodness, what was going on in the darn treasury? It shouldn’t be dropping that fast. Were people stealing from us? No, looking into it, it turned out it really was doing down that fast. I’d spent millions, maybe billions of dollars in the last six months or so. And now nobody liked me, and I couldn’t even cut taxes to make them like me. There were rumblings about the treasury too. People didn’t like that they were falling into debt while they watched.
I tried to get the countries I’d loaned money to to pay me back, pay me back with all that sweet interest, but they wouldn’t, not yet. Something about the terms of the loans, not due yet, I didn’t know, but I got the sense they weren’t too fond of me for asking. The treasury was dangerously close to dipping into the red. I had to do *something*. I raised taxes a minuscule amount. People *really* didn’t like that. I brought them back down to where they had been and cut some of the agricultural funding. Damn farmers with their damn pesticides. This was all their fault anyway.
I got a telegram a few minutes after I did that. The farmers had teamed up with some guerrillas on the southern border. They were threatening to riot if we didn’t bring the agricultural funding back up.
I didn’t really know what they would do if they rioted, but I did know that you have to play hardball with these people. You can’t cave in to violence! I stood my ground. They rioted. Three people got killed. My approval ratings dropped through the floor. I tried to figure out if I had an army or what, but, although I self-identified as a conservative at the time, I had managed to give out all kinds of money to education, agriculture, and health care without actually bothering to start a military. I guess I didn’t think I’d need one. The game asked if I wanted to start a National Guard-style operation, I think, but I didn’t really know what they did, so I figured I could pass. And now I didn’t have any money to do *anything*. Past caring, I jacked taxes up again. I had failed to anticipate the surge that this would give the guerrillas. Their numbers grew. I panicked.
They were marching across the country, coming straight at me. I had no idea what to do.
So I thought… you know what? I think I’d like a bowl of ice cream.
I put the game on pause. I figured I’d come back to it when I was done with my ice cream, when I’d had time to mull some of this over. Like how I was going to deal with a large band of rioting guerrillas when I didn’t actually have a military. And what the hell good funding for education was going to do me if I was going to get mobbed and murdered by rebels before the future that I was investing in actually came along.
But then, after my ice cream, I sort of felt like practicing the piano. Well, okay. I mean, I had to do that too.
I went on with my day, and with my life. I never dared pick up the game again. I was kind of terrified of how out of control it had all gotten.
But for months, and I mean that literally, I had a constant low-level anxiety about that game. I’d get hit with pangs of guilt, lying in my bed at night. In my brain somehow I had forgotten that when you pause a game, it freezes in time and nothing happens until you get back; in my mind, the months were unrolling in Chicanamerica just as they were in my life, and in Chicanamerica, the president had abdicated her post. I would fret about it. How many more people had the guerrillas killed by now? What was going to happen to those poor pesticide-poisoned kids? What was going to happen if I went back? They would be so mad at me for leaving for months and months on end when the country was in such crisis. They’d all hate me. I was the worst president ever.
It took a remarkably long time for the guilt to fade. I never did manage to get back to it, but I never forgot about Chicanamerica and the horrible things I had let happen to it in my short time as president.
And now, fifteen years later, I’d like to find that game again. I Googled on it and came up with absolutely nothing. I’m sure it disappeared from the horizon without a blip, swallowed up in the higher-tech graphics of Sim City and the like.
But I want to go back to Chicanamerica. I want to set things right for my people.