I always enjoy the bit in Planet of the Apes where a loinclothed Charlton Heston falls to his knees as he comes face to face with a shattered Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand and realizes that the eponymous simian planet is, in fact, his own — or was. Also the bit in Independence Day where Lady Liberty gets zapped by space aliens. And in Cloverfield when she’s decapitated by a giant monster. And in The Day After Tomorrow when she’s flash-frozen after polar-ice-cap melting brought on by a speech from Dick Cheney. I’ve been enjoying such moments since, oh, the short story “The Next Morning” in the 1887 edition of Life, illustrated with a pen-and-ink drawing of a headless statue with the smoldering rubble of the city behind her. The poor old girl was barely off the boat from France, and she’d already been pegged as the perfect visual shorthand for societal collapse.
But the United States Postal Service has now gone the Hollywood apocalyptics one better and produced a somewhat subtler image of civilizational ruin. The other day the post office apologized for its new stamp honoring Lady Liberty. Due to an unfortunate error, the stamp shows not the 19th-century Statue of Liberty that stands in New York Harbor but the 1990s replica that stands at the New York–New York Casino in Las Vegas.
An ersatz statue of pseudo-liberty standing guard over the world’s biggest gambling operation: What better way to round out a week in which the Republicans pretended to pass the most historically historic budget cut in history while the president pretended to come up with a plan to address the debt? All while pretending to wage a war in Libya whose most likely outcome seems to be that the only Arab dictator to sleep soundly in his bed at night during these turbulent times will be doing so under cover of a NATO no-fly zone for the rest of his 75-year term of office. In such a world, the USPS, bless ’em, has come up with a far more plausible emblem of societal devastation than Hollywood’s space monsters and climate-change fairies.
After the revelations that the $38.5 billion 2011 budget cut will in reality either cut a mere $352 million from the 2011 budget or, in fact, increase it by $3 billion, it might be easier just to build a replica White House, Capitol, and Congressional Budget Office at the new Beltway Casino next to Caesar’s Palace. Vegas is no longer the world’s biggest gambling resort; America is. Barack Obama says we need to “win the future,” and one more roll of the dice should do it: a trillion dollars of chips on the stimulus came up empty but let’s pile another couple trillion on Obamacare, and “high-speed rail,” and “green jobs,” and “broadband access” . . . And all the while Wayne Newton is singing “Danke Schoen” in Chinese. But don’t worry, we’re not just throwing our money away. We’re playing to a system! The president calls it “investing in the future.”
How do you “invest in the future”? By borrowing $188 million every hour. That’s what the government of the United States is doing. It’s spending one-fifth of a billion dollars it doesn’t have every hour of every day of every week — all for your future!
Most of the “futures” we’ve “invested” in are already at record levels of spending. Obama and his speechwriters are among the laziest men in the republic, so they cite the same dreary examples every time. In all three of his State of the Union addresses, he’s brought up the highway system, and he did so again in Chicago at the end of the week. If the Republicans get their way, he said, “We can’t invest in roads and bridges and broadband and high-speed rail. I mean, we would be a nation of potholes.”
That’s the choice, is it? Multi-trillion-dollar government “investment” or a nation of potholes? America “invests” a lot in roads. It has more highway signs than almost any other country: not just mile markers but fifth-of-a-mile markers; not just “Stop” signs, but four-way “Stop” signs, and “Stop Sign Ahead” signs, and one day soon “Stop Sign Ahead Sign Ahead” signs. America also has the worst automobile fatality rate in the developed world, in part because there’s so much fascinating reading material on the shoulder. Our automobile fatality rate is three times that of the Netherlands, about the same as Albania’s, down at 62 in the global rankings, just ahead of Tajikistan and Papua New Guinea. But don’t worry, if we ever do become “a nation of potholes,” you can bet there’ll be federally mandated “Pothole Ahead” signs in front of each one.
Anything else? “Our airports,” continued the president, “would be worse than places that we used to call the Third World, but who are now investing in infrastructure.” Maybe he should get out of the motorcade once in a while and swing by LAX or LaGuardia: They’re already decrepit cheerless dumps, mainly because they’ve been lavishly governmentalized into bureaucratic holding pens through which the citizenry dutifully shuffle while armies of crack TSA operatives poke around in the panties of six-year-old girls.
Oh, and let’s not forget “education.” “We should invest in education,” says the president. But we have done, spectacularly. We spend more per pupil on “education” than any other developed nation except Switzerland, and our math scores barely make the global Top 40, scraping in at big hit sound No. 35 between Azerbaijan and Croatia, the former of which was a Commie dictatorship until 20 years ago while the latter was reduced to rubble in the Yugoslav civil war. Maybe, when it comes to “investing in the future,” civil war gives you more bang for the buck.
Government is not alone in “investing” in “the future.” The New York Times reported last week that in 2010, for the first time, student-loan debt topped credit-card debt. This year, college debt is projected to be over a trillion dollars — a spectacular increase in just the last decade. America is now dumping two-thirds of Canada’s or India’s GDP not into overall debt but into one small niche market of debt. Yet, in a nation with a trillion dollars of student debt, 40 percent of Americans work in minimal-skill service jobs about to be rendered obsolete by technology, while our elites dream of following Michelle Obama into leisurely gigs as $350,000-a-year diversity-outreach consultants.
Question: How much do you have to invest in the future before you’ve spent it and no longer have one?
That the president’s rote recitation of tired catchphrases can still be taken seriously is a bleak glimpse into the scale of this nation’s structural problems. But hey, relax! Maybe we can win the future by investing in highway signs for the crowd-facing side of his prompter: “Warning: Lame Cobwebbed Brain-Dead Sloganizing Ahead.”