Earlier this month, Moody’s downgraded Irish government debt to junk. Which left the Irish somewhat peeved. The Department of Finance pointed out that it had met all the “quantitative fiscal targets” imposed by the European Union, and the National Treasury Management Agency said that Ireland was sufficiently flush “to cover all its financing requirements until the end of 2013.”
Which is more than the government of the United States can say.
That’s not the only difference between the auld sod and America. In Europe, austerity is in the air, and in the headlines: “Italy Fast-Tracks Austerity Vote.” “Greek Minister Urges Austerity Consensus.” “Portugal to Speed Austerity Measures.” “Even Queen Faces Funding Squeeze in Austerity Britain.” The word has become so instantly ubiquitous that leftie deadbeats are already opposed to it: “Austerity Protest Takes Place in Dublin.” For the rentamob types, “austerity” is to this decade what “Bush” and “Iraq War” were to the last. It can’t be long before grizzled old rockers are organizing some all-star Rock against Austerity gala.
By contrast, nobody seems minded to “speed austerity measures” over here. The word isn’t part of the conversation — even though we’re broke on a scale way beyond what Ireland or Portugal could ever dream of. The entire Western world is operating on an unsustainable business model: If it were Borders or Blockbuster, it would be hoping to close the Greek and Portuguese branches but maybe hold on to the Norwegian one. In hard reality, like Borders only the other day, it would probably wind up shuttering them all. The problem is structural: Not enough people do not enough work for not enough of their lives. Developed nations have 30-year-old students and 50-year-old retirees, and then wonder why the shrunken rump of a “working” population in between can’t make the math add up.
By the way, demographically speaking, these categories — “adolescents” and “retirees” — are an invention of our own time: They didn’t exist a century ago. You were a kid till 13 or so. Then you worked. Then you died. As Obama made plain in his threat to Gran’ma last week that the August checks might not go out, funding non-productivity is now the principal purpose of the modern state. Good luck with that at a time when every appliance in your home is manufactured in Asia.
As I said, these are structural problems. In theory, they can be fixed. But, when you look at the nature of them, you’ve got to wonder whether they ever will be this side of societal collapse. Blockbuster went bankrupt because it was wedded to a 1980s technology and distribution system. In government, being merely a quarter-century obsolete would be a major achievement. The ruling party in Washington is wedded to the principle that an 80-year-old social program is inviolable: That’s like Blockbuster insisting in 2011 that there’s no problem with its business model for rentals of silent movies with live orchestral accompaniment. To be sure, there are some problems parking the musicians’ bus in residential streets, but nothing that can’t be worked out.
But “political reality” operates to different rules from humdrum real reality. Thus, the “debt ceiling” debate is regarded by most Democrats and a fair few Republicans as some sort of ghastly social faux pas by boorish conservatives: Why, everyone knows ye olde debt-limit vote is merely a bit of traditional ceremonial, like the Lord Chancellor walking backwards with the Cap of Maintenance and Black Rod shouting “Hats off, strangers!” at Britain’s Opening of Parliament. You hit the debt ceiling, you jack it up a couple trillion, and life goes on — or so it did until these GOP yahoos came along and decided to treat the vote as if it actually meant something.
Obama has done his best to pretend to take them seriously. He claimed to have a $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan. The court eunuchs of the press corps were impressed, and went off to file pieces hailing the president as “the grown-up in the room.” There is, in fact, no plan. No plan at all. No plan whatsoever, either for a deficit reduction of $4 trillion or $4.73. As is the way in Washington, merely announcing that he had a plan absolved him of the need to have one. So the president’s staff got out the extra-wide teleprompter and wrote a really large number on it, and simply by reading out the really large number the president was deemed to have produced a serious blueprint for trillions of dollars in savings. For his next trick, he’ll walk out on to the stage of Carnegie Hall, announce that he’s going to play Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2, and, even though there’s no cello in sight and Obama immediately climbs back in his golf cart to head for the links, music critics will hail it as one of the most moving performances they’ve ever heard.