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This May Be a Horror Movie, But the Monster Is the Debt


In a surreal New York Times opinion piece, Maureen Dowd compares the Tea Party to the “monsters” in horror movies:

They were like cannibals, eating their own party and leaders alive. They were like vampires, draining the country’s reputation, credit rating and compassion. They were like zombies, relentlessly and mindlessly coming back again and again to assault their unnerved victims, Boehner and President Obama. They were like the metallic beasts in “Alien” flashing mouths of teeth inside other mouths of teeth, bursting out of Boehner’s stomach every time he came to a bouquet of microphones. 

Unlike Dowd, I do not thrill to the prospect of using “cannibals,” “vampires,” and “zombies” to describe elected representatives of the American republic. But if we are going to play that game, then we should do a better job of identifying the bad guys. 

The “reputation” of the United States, along with its “credit rating and compassion,” has not been damaged by a balanced budget, or by spending within our means, but by a public debt so large that it is incomprehensible to the people in whose name it has been amassed. (Many of whom are incapable of such comprehension precisely because they have not yet been born.) Eyes from around the world were trained on America this week because the consequences of such wildly irresponsible spending and borrowing could have been globally catastrophic. Had a budget surplus been announced, rather than a plan to borrow yet more money, there would have been little interest. America Takes In As Much As It Spends would not make a good summer blockbuster.

That “whiff of sulfur . . . rising from the Capitol” did not appear spontaneously — nor was it imposed from the outside — but it was voted through Congress, signed by the president, and then paid for by the federal government with money borrowed from China. If there are theatrics afoot in the District of Columbia, they are straight out of Oz; and now that the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow are telling the rest of the world what they have seen, the Wizard doesn’t like it one bit. If one were to read Dowd’s column without knowing much about Washington, one would presume that a spendthrift and frugal government were being preyed upon by the powerful with little regard to the consequences. In truth, it is the other way about.

This touches neatly on a conversation I had recently with Jay Nordlinger — he mentioned it here – the crux of which is worth repeating. At the root of the attitude that has got us into this mess is a perverted conception of morality, in which spending without limit, advocating short-term gain at the expense of long-term solvency, and imposing mountainous debt on our children and grandchildren is Good, but living within our means and, you know, not precipitating the decline of our civilization is Bad. It is a morality in which intentions are the only thing that matter, and reality must bend to meet our indulgences. Never mind that we can’t afford it, do you want it? You don’t? You’re a monster.

Well, it is not monsters that are “relentlessly . . . coming back again and again to assault their unnerved victims,” but economic gravity.

If “the federal government” is “being chased through dim corridors by a maniacal gang with big knives held high,” it is because the gang has finally realized that it has been sold mercilessly down the river. We have simply run out of money. It may be that the Tea Party is comprised of harsh-tongued messengers who do not make good dinner party guests (and they are certainly “the Outsider” in this scenario) but they are not the cause of the problem. And saying uncomfortable things that the likes of Maureen Dowd do not want to hear is not the same thing as creating one’s “own reality in midnight meetings.” The reality is scary enough without the need for such invention.

Dowd claims that the “audience” — that is, the American public, the people who are on the hook — continues “to be paranoid, gripped by fear of the unknown, shocked by our own helplessness.” But this is not true. We know all right. We know all too well the problem at hand. It is not a complicated or new concept. Charles Dickens expressed it brilliantly in 1850 in David Copperfield:

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

In this case of course, it would be more like, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure forty pounds, and an ever-increasing expense account at Harrods, result blame those who want to stop the binge,” but let’s not quibble over minor details like the future of the republic.

There are monsters in Washington. They are the zombies who continue to walk inexorably forward toward the terrified populace, continuing regardless of how powerful are the shots of reality fired at them. They are the vampires who drain their victims of their blood and then lay claim to the blood of their victim’s children. They are the cannibals who have finished eating all those around them and now, in a vain attempt to sate an insatiable hunger, start on their own flesh. With this behavior as the norm, it is true indeed that the Tea Party and the fiscal conservatives must appear as they do to Dowd, as being “not of this world.” They do not wish to be. It is the “world” of Washington that has created this mess.