Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 June 2009

An American Soap Opera


Sometimes politics in America becomes a theater of the absurd. Take our current economic “dialogue,” for example. You might see it as an argument between two gay spouses, in the depths of winter, that goes something like this:
Spouse 1 (Barry O.): Honey, something terrible happened last night. Our roof blew off in the storm. I looked in the kids’ room. The floor’s covered with snow, and they’re shivering under their blankets.

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): Lemme see! [Leaves the room and comes back seconds later.] Dad gum! That storm blew the roof clean off! And those liberals said it was getting warmer. Damn fools!

Spouse 1 (Barry O.): But what’re we going to do about it? We have to fix the roof, don’t we?

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): Well, what can we do? We’re in a recession, I lost my job, and we’re in debt. Maybe the kids can sleep downstairs with us.

Spouse 1 (Barry O.): Won’t we waste a lot of energy heating a house without a roof? Won’t the whole house get wet inside and blow down if we don’t fix the roof? We haven’t done any work on this house in forty years. Your credit’s still good. Can’t we borrow money to fix the roof and save our kids and our house?

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): Well, we’re deep in debt. We can’t go deeper. That would be like stealing from the kids.

Spouse 1 (Barry O.): Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you bought the Hummer on credit. Anyway, isn’t it worse if the kids die of pneumonia or don’t have a house to live in?

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): We don’t have the money, I tell you! We’re in debt!
At this point, the story can go one of two ways. Spouse 1 takes the kids and moves in with his parents. Or Spouse 1 realizes that he has equal control over the joint credit account, takes out a loan and fixes the roof. Spouse 2 goes into a major pout, but he thaws when spring comes, he gets a new job, and he begins to pay off the loan. The couple lives happily ever after.

Just before these alternative plot resolutions is where the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says we are. A majority of the public (although a slightly smaller one than before), still thinks the President is doing a good job. Nearly two thirds think he’s not trying to do too much. But a majority doesn’t want to borrow to pay for what he’s doing.

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance there. My father once said that a sane person thinks two and two are four. A psychotic thinks two and two are five. A neurotic knows two and two are four, but just can’t stand it.

That’s what we are: a nation of neurotics. We know we’ve neglected things like energy, education and health care for a long, long time. We know that our long neglect is bringing us down. We know we’re in debt. But we don’t want to borrow more money to pay for the things we know we have to do to keep our country moving forward.

Maybe it would help to review some history. Today our national deficit-to-GDP ratio is about 12%. During World War II, it was over 30% in 1943 and over 20% for the next two years. [See official statistics, Table 1.2, page 23.] You know what the maximum dollar value of the deficit was at that time? Less than 56 billion dollars. [Same post, Table 1.1, page 21.]

Today, sixty-plus years later, that is pocket change. If kept healthy, economies tend to grow out of debt incurred during crises. But if they don’t solve their fundamental problems, they fundamentally decline.

Unlike my fictional Spouse 1, those of us who have enough faith in ourselves and our future to borrow to fix what needs fixing can’t all take our kids and move abroad. So the only positive outcome is borrowing the money and living happily ever after.

Men like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell—who are so dumb they make wooden dolls look bright—are going to have a major pout. They’re going to do the best they can to confuse the rest of us and either leave the roof blown off for the foreseeable future or nag us interminably for borrowing to fix it.

If they’re successful in making us doubt ourselves and can bring the party that neglected the house for forty years back into power, God help us. Bye bye, house!

Stay tuned for next week’s episode of the American Soap Opera. It’s going to be exciting!

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