Monday, September 22, 2008

The Falling Sky's the Limit

It's remarkable how shameless our political leaders are regarding their state of hysteria (of course it wouldn't be hysteria if it wasn't without shame and decorum) and not a little disconcerting, suggesting (but by no means proving) that their collective panic is warranted. Last Thursday's convocation of politicians eager to impress upon the public how terrified they were (and by inference how oblivious they, tasked with overseeing the financial system, had been previously) was downright surreal. The sight of political leaders so disoriented they could barely prevaricate and dissemble inspires a mixture of revulsion and pathos, like seeing a turtle out of its shell. Less remarkable and more familiar is their lack of contrition regarding their decades of collusion that precipitated the crisis. First the combination of comedy and corruption that are the presidential tickets, the spectacle of the two mystified candidates scrambling to present competing facsimiles of leaderly competence, mimicking outrage while drawing on advisers complicit up to their elbows in the debacle, and now this, confirms it: the American political system has entered its late decadent phase.

The habitually ironic language Senator Schumer used to describe the reaction to Ben Bernanke's fire and brimstone sermon can speak for the bewilderment of the nation as a whole: “History was sort of hanging over it, like this was a moment.” Sort of like a moment. Perhaps when it all hits the fan in earnest we can at least reclaim spoken language from its flaccid state. I do hope when I'm tied to a stake by some feral, post-apocalyptic tribe I don't turn to see a fellow victim lamenting that it's all kind of like something, really.

Some of the language used brings to mind another incidence of grandstanding hysterics, that precipitating the Iraq war. This crisis is real, of course, and the content of this tragedy less fictional, but the form is the same: a sudden threat is identified, extraordinary actions and powers are deemed necessary post haste. Drastic measures will be accomplished through the mixture of cowardice and corruption that is sometimes called bipartisanship; they will likely be difficult to unwind, if not permanent. Questioning the consensus is all but forbidden. Now, as then, the details are too grim for the tender public: Senators Dodd, Schumer, et al, would not disclose them Friday. Back then it was classified information that couldn't be freely circulated; I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you. Now it's I could tell you but it'd probably kill you.

You'll recall the "crisis" precipitating the war also featured administration appointees briefing Congressional leaders and leaving no dry seat in the room. It makes me wonder what sort of prop Paulson might have used, a la Powell brandishing his vial of mock anthrax at the UN. Perhaps a toilet brush, to terrify them with the prospect of poverty and its indignities. As with the war, consequences for the powerful and responsible few will be deferred indefinitely, but will be immediate for the nation's integrity, prestige and pocketbook. The war may have not been necessary (though this question, and its moral implications, have been flushed down a memory hole capped with the illusion of "success"--as if we've gone through it all to deliver Iraq and its oil wealth to an Iranian-allied Shi'ite government) but even so it can be seen as a consequence of an extravagant society overly dependent on oil--just as the collapse of our financial system is a consequence of our dependence on borrowed money.

But however dislocated our leaders are from their constituents, it's still on us, the citizenry. The consequences of being a debtor nation have been well known, and one doesn't have to understand the complexities of credit default swaps or tranches to understand he can't borrow his way to wealth unless he plans on dying deep in debt. Our short-sightedness as a nation is the aggregate of our desperate decadence as individuals; no one seems to care anymore what will become of the world they leave behind (even as they flail away against mortality in the gym and in the plastic surgeon's office, as if they're going to live forever, and forever young). I'm sure someone has already used the metaphor, but as a nation we are a gambler on a losing streak, doubling down.

And out here in the provinces it all still seems so remote; nothing appears to have changed. Football was played on Sunday. The electronic menagerie of celebrity eavesdropping, reality television, the glib and soulless sitcoms; it all looks exactly the same. People are going about their business, carefree. Funny, I don't feel insolvent. But I am getting a sinking feeling: who, after all, is going to pay for this all? I'm not talking about taxpayers, either, but our foreign would-be benefactors. Foreign money is already looking for other places to go and the economy, coming down from the false stimulation of the last tax rebate scheme, can be expected to produce lower tax receipts; two sides of a vice. Meanwhile, the bill grows; foreign investment firms with offices and the attendant exposure in the US are clamoring for inclusion in the bottomless bailout plan. Another busy-work stimulus scheme with which incumbents hope to arm themselves for the coming electoral carnage is in the works.

There is one possible consolation: an attack upon Iran is probably off the table in the oval office. Of course, with certain messianic factions that don't concern themselves primarily with the health and viability of the US economy and the order that depends on it, and the fact that Israel and Iran themselves might not care that our schedule doesn't permit another war at the moment, having their own ideas and requirements, makes me feel a little like one of those trembling pols I started out here making fun of.

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