I am not much one for rubbernecking at car crashes. (I’m not setting you up for a Congress joke, here. That comes later.) Most of the time they are scary but ultimately insignificant episodes involving a little property damage and a great deal of inconvenience. Sometimes they are much worse, and I couldn’t help looking at the car blazing in the middle of the freeway in the middle of the day, looking more like it had been bombed or hit with a rocket than like it had been involved in an accident. Thick black smoke covered both sides of the highway, and as the flames poured out of the doors and windows, I thought to myself that it’s a lucky thing that in real life burning cars don’t explode like they do in the movies.
Then the car exploded.
The black smoke turned white, as I am sure was the case with any number of nearby drivers and emergency workers. It looked like the worst day of somebody’s life. Either that or somebody’s every earthly problem had just been solved in a flash.
Funny thing: I’d driven the same route the day before on my way home from an insurance inspection after a minor car accident of my own. Somebody had backed into my Jeep while I was in Whole Foods buying a couple of steaks. If you have to get your car hit, get it hit in the parking lot of a Whole Foods. Those people have insurance. And smartphones, too: A nice woman saw the accident and, thinking that the other party might run off, took video of the car, its license plates, and its driver. She left me a note with her phone number and sent me the video. (An age of wonders, this is.) Nice thing to have in case the other party’s memory of the episode evolves, as sometimes happens when there’s money involved. The steaks were good.
As I write this, I can still see the smoke from the car fire, maybe a mile from here. It looks like something out of Iraq or Cleveland.
The memento mori — the daily reminder that you will die — has made a little bit of a comeback, especially in Catholic circles. Sister Theresa Aletheia, a “media nun” and prodigious communicator, has spent the past couple of hundred days with a skull on her desk. “Today, try to live in a way that you will not regret on your deathbed,” she writes. WeCroak is an app that reminds you several times a day via text: “Remember, you are going to die.” Another app calculates how long you are likely to live and begins the countdown. To become better begins with trying to become better, which begins with deciding to try, which comes only after the understanding that improvement is possible and needful. The only people without regrets are those who never lived and those whose moral sense is so dull that they don’t know enough to regret anything.
But how to go about living in a way that you will not regret on your deathbed? For many people, that means little acts of kindness and helpfulness — let’s make sure whoever owns that Jeep knows how to find the driver who hit his car — and the performance of various acts of service.
People in politics talk about “dedicating their lives to public service,” a claim at which the cynic sniffs a little. After the election of 1994, that great conservative earthquake, the majority of incoming representatives and senators earned more in Congress than they had in the private sector, the first time that was known to have been the case. Congressional salaries aren’t huge, but Paul Ryan’s $223,500 per annum is nothing to turn one’s nose up at, and the perks of high office are nice. Barack Obama does miss his airplane. And after a career in Washington, you can always go make real money — that private-plane money — later in life.
So must it be with the lot of them, all the courtiers and jesters and sycophants. They will pass. But the debt is a memento without mori — it is immortal.
Senator Rand Paul, the fantastically bitchy Kentucky Republican, kept Washington up late Thursday night, briefly forcing a technical shutdown of the federal government while he delayed a spending bill that will add another half-trillion or so to the national debt. He wanted 15 minutes for a vote on whether to repeal spending caps agreed to a few years ago, one of the important reforms of the much maligned John Boehner, who, while the talk-radio guys were calling him a weakling and a sellout, managed to knock about $5 trillion off future projected deficits. The same talk-radio guys were celebrating Senator Paul’s theatrical maneuvers on Friday, having rediscovered the national debt only a few weeks after breathlessly celebrating a tax bill that will add $1.5 trillion to it.
Senator Paul is a politician, and to be a politician is to maneuver. He may be endlessly irritated by politics, but he is not above it. But he is also a true believer. There isn’t any question about why he is in politics. He is attempting to conduct a political career that he will not regret on his deathbed.
But one must wonder about some of the others. If politics is just a game, then it’s the most boring and pointless game ever there was. If it’s a career, it’s not that great of one: There are easier ways for a bunch of guys with law degrees and MBAs and great moral flexibility to earn $173,000 a year. There are high-school principals who make more than that. Having one’s ass kissed by Washington flunkies could not possibly be that pleasurable. Why do they do it? To fill the time? Why bother with going to Washington if not to try to do the needful things?
“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interrèd with their bones.” So must it be with Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, and the lot of them, all the courtiers and jesters and sycophants. They will pass. But the debt is a memento without mori — it is immortal. Like so much else in Washington, it is speeding out of control with no working brakes and no one apparently at the wheel. As Herb Stein famously put it, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
The crash is coming.