Friday, July 22, 2011


So what happens in the short run (August 2, to be specific) if the debt limit is not raised? What happens in the long run if the debt limit is? How long can a nation continue spending more than it earns? Here’s my answer:
Imagine we’re discussing this in person, in the same room. I’m huddled in a dim corner (dim despite the full daylight outside, as I have all curtains drawn and blinds closed against the record-breaking heat and humidity smothering my corner of New England today). Imagine my eyes gone wide and vacant with a thousand-yard stare, fixed on some unseen distant thing far beyond the opaque walls of my apartment. Imagine my voice barely audible over the hum of multiple fans and window-unit air conditioners.

I can’t make any predictions about the economy, nor even discuss it. I’ve gone catatonic.

Listen: I’m a Generation Xer who’s now spent more than half my life hearing “your generation is the first in American history to be worse off than your parents.” I’ve heard for years that I might not get back the money Social Security regularly extorts from my meager paychecks, which made glum sense to me but I never actually sat down to work out the specifics: At what point between today and my sixty- or seventy-somethingth birthday do I expect the SS checks to stop?

Trick question, because I never seriously expected Social Security to vanish; I just figured inflation would render its payments worthless. So I’m not particularly worried that the feds will quit paying pension obligations and other bills next month.

But that’s not a position I could defend in an intellectual debate; it’s more a matter of “I can’t bring myself to believe it.” Of course, I have a hard time believing anything that’s happened this past year or two. Seriously: I finally, finally have time and money enough where I could actually visit Europe, but my own government in the guise of “protecting” me says I can’t fly there unless I let some anonymous TSA drone in latex gloves feel the contours of my labia through my underwear? When I worked strip clubs in college, I’d have been arrested for prostitution if I let anyone touch me like that. How did my government come to make mandatory the same behavior that’s otherwise illegal between consenting adults?

Everything feels so surreal already, with the debate over the debt just one more clock melting in an improbably detailed landscape. I can’t see how the level of debt we have is remotely close to sustainable. We can’t spend money we don’t have every year; there seems to be this fiction that US debt is the kind of debt that never, ever needs to be repaid, let alone repaid with interest. We can’t keep doing this and yet we can’t stop.

I recently read some 1980s-era books about the USSR (books with titles like Time/Life Books Library of Nations: The Soviet Union) and of course, when I read them I had an advantage the writers lacked: sure knowledge the country would collapse five years later.

One book dedicated a chapter or two to the then-new premier, Gorbachev, who wanted to promote reforms and make the Soviet Union, in his words, “more moral.” In other words, less cruel, less likely to kill you and your whole family should you complain about getting rancid meat after waiting in line three hours; similar, perhaps, to what the first President George Bush a few years later called “a kinder, gentler nation.”

A few years after Gorbachev said this, the USSR collapsed overnight. Why? Well, the most obvious reason is that they plain ran out of money—literally, no cash reserves of hard currency.

And yet, despite being flat broke, I think the Communists could’ve held power had they really wanted to – say, with someone amoral and ruthless like Stalin at the helm. The USSR did not die merely because it ran out of money; it died because Gorbachev wasn’t willing to kill however many people it took to maintain the fiction that the country worked. One article I read about the fall of the Soviet Union specifically mentioned food; the country’s crops that year weren’t enough to feed its people, and the government did not have enough money to import grain from overseas.

Gorbachev wasn’t willing to see millions die in a famine. Stalin engineered a famine to wipe out people he didn’t like.

What has any of this to do with the United States today? I don’t think Obama – or any of the leading Republicans or Democrats in Congress – takes the Gorbachevian view “Our government should be kinder to its citizens than it used to be.” No, quite the opposite: Obama, far more than Bush/Cheney before him, actively works to make this country harsher, meaner, more punitive towards its own people, and neither Republicans nor Democrats do a damn thing to stop him. Indeed, if you do hear the word “moral” coming from a Republican, it’s only as an excuse to punish someone with a sex life he doesn’t like, and from a Democrat to criticize someone who smokes or eats too much. Our country grows meaner and less moral by the day: yes to torture, to hell with the fourth amendment, sexual assault is a precondition of modern travel, bombing civilians is perfectly fine, et cetera. And I can’t predict how things will turn out, anymore than I can predict how a hallucinating schizophrenic will react to any stimuli.


Anonymous Russ 2000 said...

Great post.

11:58 AM  

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