Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

Governor Gravid

The Times of London put it this way: “Arnie Schwarzenegger Joins the Ranks of Girlie Men.”    

Quite. As is well known, the Terminator has been unable to terminate anything — not even the impact study group studying the impact of expanding the Department of Impact Studies. The man who walloped his predecessor for fiscal profligacy has managed to preside over a California budget that’s expanded 40 percent (so far) since the good old Gray days. Sacramento is piling on an extra million-and-three-quarter dollars of debt every hour, 24/7. The Golden State is a foldin’ state, going out of business — a far cry from when Ahnuld arrived as a penniless immigrant in a land of plenty. Now he’s an immigrant of plenty in a penniless land. Another Californian actor-governor famously observed that “we are a nation that has a government, not the other way around.” In Collyvornya, it’s the other way round. Doing your ’08 tax return? If you’re expecting a refund, Sacramento’s stopped the check: Instead you receive an IOU saying they’ll get around to it when they can. On the other hand, if you owe them money, don’t expect reciprocal treatment. As the governor’s celebrated catchphrase has it: “Ah’ll be back — for more of your money.”

Ah, well. I supported him at the time. Don’t know why. In a field of Arnie, Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington, Larry Flynt, etc., etc., I should probably have plumped for Angelyne, the non-singing non-dancing non-acting “celebrity” famous for doing nothing except displaying her embonpoint on Los Angeles billboards. True, her cleavage isn’t as impressive as Ahnuld’s, but whose is? If I sound bitter, I shouldn’t be. Governor Schwarzenegger is merely the latest “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” mirage to dissolve from shimmering oasis to bottomless toxic swamp. Usually this beast roams the East Coast — see Christie Whitman, George Pataki, William Weld, and others you forgot to remember. I see the nice Maine ladies, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, were hailed for reaching across the aisle on the “stimulus” bill by William Cohen, who helpfully explained to the Washington Post that Pine Tree Staters are “liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters.” And nothing says “fiscally conservative” like voting for a trillion dollars of pork after you’ve stayed up three nights in a row carefully weeding out the $473.84 that shouldn’t have been in there.

#page# A “social liberal/fiscal conservative” is not necessarily a girly-man, more of a pre-op transsexual. It would be nice to be able to have it both ways, like that so-called “pregnant man” out on the West Coast — and, incidentally, didn’t Ahnuld play a pregnant man in some movie a decade or so back? Why, so he did: Junior. I remember the poster, the leading man with a swollen belly — like a girly-man governor about to give birth to a big bloated budget. The problem with being “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is that most of the social liberalism comes with quite a price tag — just have a ten-minute riffle through the non-stimulus bill. We all want to move beyond “the standard left/right paradigm,” as Arianna liked to say in that gubernatorial race. If I had a pair o’ dime for every time a politician has said we need to move beyond the old paradigm, I could afford to live in Arnold’s California. But the reality is that almost every “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” politician turns out to be fiscally liberal — in the same way that, if you mix half a pint of vanilla ice cream with half a pint of horse manure, it’s not hard to figure which taste will predominate.

To be fair to Ahnuld, a lot of voters want it both ways, too. Which is why “fiscal” is not a useful word in this context. Big Government is not primarily a “fiscal” issue: These programs are not wrong because they’re unaffordable; they’re unaffordable because they’re wrong — they’re not the proper role of government, and if you pretend they are, then, as in California, you unbalance the relationship between the citizen and the state. But it’s not a green-eyeshade thing: They would be just as wrong, as I said a month or two back, if Bill Gates wrote a check to cover them every month. So when a politician tells you he’s “fiscally” conservative, it’s like Conan the Barbarian announcing he’ll bring his abacus to a sword fight.

That’s the missing element in the bailoutapalooza. For six months now, Paulson, Geithner, and the gang have talked about it as a kind of technical correction, a recalibration that will re-inflate the credit bubble and get us back to “normal.” But it’s not about the arithmetic, it’s about restoring the concept of “moral hazard” that is vital to any functioning market but which the “socially liberal/fiscally conservative” circle-squarers have all but rendered extinct. No government can guarantee universal homeownership, or absurd returns on mediocre assets as a permanent feature of life. And to attempt to do so is to strip language of meaning. You’re debauching the currency — not in the “fiscal” exchange-rate nickel-’n’-dime sense, but something more profound: the very currency of liberty — property, contract, citizenship, responsibility.

There was another muscle man who ran into trouble long ago: Antaeus. Big tough guy. No girly-man. Slew all comers — as long as his feet were planted firmly on the ground. But, as Hercules figured out, get him up in the air, unmoored, unrooted, and he turned into a big sack of nothing. There’s a lesson there, and not just for Conan in La-La Land.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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