‘This is the United States of America,” declared President Obama to the burghers of Liberty, Mo., on Friday. “We’re not some banana republic.”
He was talking about the Annual Raising of the Debt Ceiling, which glorious American tradition seems to come round earlier every year. “This is not a deadbeat nation,” President Obama continued. “We don’t run out on our tab.” True. But we don’t pay it off either. We just keep running it up, ever higher. And every time the bartender says, “Mebbe you’ve had enough, pal,” we protest, “Jush another couple trillion for the road. Set ’em up, Joe.” And he gives you that look that kinda says he wishes you’d run out on your tab back when it was $23.68.
Still, Obama is right. We’re not a banana republic, if only because the debt of banana republics is denominated in a currency other than their own — i.e., the U.S. dollar. When you’re the guys who print the global currency, you can run up debts undreamt of by your average generalissimo. As Obama explained in another of his recent speeches, “Raising the debt ceiling, which has been done over a hundred times, does not increase our debt.” I won’t even pretend to know what he and his speechwriters meant by that one, but the fact that raising the debt ceiling “has been done over a hundred times” does suggest that spending more than it takes in is now a permanent feature of American government. And no one has plans to do anything about it. Which is certainly banana republic-esque.
Is all this spending necessary? Every day, the foot-of-page-37 news stories reveal government programs it would never occur to your dimestore caudillo to blow money on. On Thursday, it was the Food and Drug Administration blowing just shy of $200 grand to find out whether its Twitter and Facebook presence is “well-received.” A fifth of a million dollars isn’t even a rounding error in most departmental budgets, so nobody cares. But the FDA is one of those sclerotic American institutions that has near to entirely seized up. In October 1920, it occurred to an Ontario doctor called Frederick Banting that insulin might be isolated and purified and used to treat diabetes; by January 1923, Eli Lilly & Co were selling insulin to American pharmacies: A little over two years from concept to market. Now the FDA adds at least half-a-decade to the process, and your chances of making it through are far slimmer: As recently as the late Nineties, they were approving 157 new drugs per half-decade. Today it’s less than half that.
But they’ve got $182,000 to splash around on finding out whether people really like them on Facebook, or they’re just saying that. So they’ve given the dough to a company run by Dan Beckmann, a former “new media aide” to President Obama. That has the whiff of the banana republic about it, too.
The National Parks Service, which I had carelessly assumed was the service responsible for running national parks, has been making videos on Muslim women’s rights: “Islam gave women a whole bunch of rights that Western women acquired later in the 19th and 20th centuries, and we’ve had these rights since the seventh century,” explains a lady from AnNur Islamic School in Schenectady at the National Park Service website, nps.gov. Fascinating stuff, no doubt. But what’s it to do with national parks? Maybe the rangers could pay Dan Beckmann a quarter-million bucks to look into whether the National Parks’ Islamic outreach is using social media as effectively as it might.
Where do you go to get a piece of this action? As the old saying goes, bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is. But the smart guys rob taxpayers because that’s where the big money is. According to the Census Bureau’s latest “American Community Survey,” between 2000 and 2012 the nation’s median household income dropped 6.6 percent. Yet in the District of Columbia median household income rose 23.3 percent. According to a 2010 survey, seven of the nation’s ten wealthiest counties are in the Washington commuter belt. Many capital cities have prosperous suburbs — London, Paris, Rome — because those cities are also the capitals of enterprise, finance, and showbiz. But Washington does nothing but government, and it gets richer even as Americans get poorer. That’s very banana republic, too: Proximity to state power is now the best way to make money. Once upon a time Americans found fast-running brooks and there built mills to access the water that kept the wheels turning. But today the ambitious man finds a big money-no-object bureaucracy that likes to splash the cash around and there builds his lobbying group or consultancy or social media optimization strategy group.
The CEO of Panera Bread, as some kind of do-gooder awareness-raising shtick, is currently attempting to live on food stamps, and not finding it easy. But being dependent on government handouts isn’t supposed to be easy. Instead of trying life at the bottom, why doesn’t he try life in the middle? In 2012, the top 10 percent were taking home 50.4 percent of the nation’s income. That’s an all-time record, beating out the 49 percent they were taking just before the 1929 market crash. With government redistributing more money than ever before, we’ve mysteriously wound up with greater income inequality than ever before. Across the country, “middle-class” Americans have accumulated a trillion dollars in college debt in order to live a less comfortable life than their high-school-educated parents and grandparents did in the Fifties and Sixties. That’s banana republic, too: no middle class, but only a government elite and its cronies, and a big dysfunctional mass underneath, with very little social mobility between the two.
Like to change that? Maybe advocate for less government spending? Hey, Lois Lerner’s IRS has got an audit with your name on it. The tax collectors of the United States treat you differently according to your political beliefs. That’s pure banana republic, but no one seems to mind very much. This week it emerged that senior Treasury officials, up to and including Turbotax Timmy Geithner, knew what was going on at least as early as spring 2012. But no one seems to mind very much. In the words of an insouciant headline writer at Government Executive, “the magazine for senior federal bureaucrats” (seriously), back in May:
“The Vast Majority of IRS Employees Aren’t Corrupt”
So, if the vast majority aren’t, what proportion is corrupt? Thirty-eight percent? Thirty-three? Twenty-seven? And that’s the good news? The IRS is not only institutionally corrupt, it’s corrupt in the service of one political party. That’s Banana Republic 101.
What comes next? Government officials present in Benghazi during last year’s slaughter have been warned not to make themselves available to congressional inquiry. CNN obtained one e-mail spelling out the stakes to CIA employees: “You don’t jeopardize yourself, you jeopardize your family as well.”
“That’s all very ominous,” wrote my colleague Jonah Goldberg the other day, perhaps a little too airily for my taste. I’d rank it somewhere north of “ominous.”
“Banana republic” is an American coinage — by O. Henry, a century ago, for a series of stories set in the fictional tropical polity of Anchuria. But a banana republic doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a sensibility, and it’s difficult to mark the precise point at which a free society decays into something less respectable. Pace Obama, ever swelling debt, contracts for cronies, a self-enriching bureaucracy, a shrinking middle class preyed on by corrupt tax collectors, and thuggish threats against anyone who disagrees with you put you pretty far down the banana-strewn path.