Magazine | April 18, 2011, Issue

Esprit de l’Escalier

Wandering round this great republic predicting the apocalypse, I’m often asked by audience members why it is I’m being quite so overwrought if not an hysterical old queen about the whole business. After all, President Obama’s now-forgotten “Deficit Commission” produced a report melodramatically emblazoned “The Moment of Truth” and proposing such convulsive course corrections as raising the age of Social Security eligibility to 69.

By the year 2075.

With wake-up calls like that, we can all roll over and sleep in for another half century, right?

But some of us have been here before. We know the smell of decay, and we recognize it in America today. Last year, Niall Ferguson, professor at Oxford, at Harvard, and on highbrow telly documentaries, joined Barbra Streisand, James Brolin, and other eminent thinkers at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “Having grown up in a declining empire, I do not recommend it,” he told them. “It’s just not a lot of fun actually, decline.”

Amen, brother. It’s the small things you remember. The public clocks that stop and are never restarted. “Stands the church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?” wrote Rupert Brooke, aching from abroad for an eternal England. If the town-hall clock stopped at ten to three, it stands there still, and the one above the splendid Victorian railway station stands at twelve past four, and the one on the Gothic Revival opera house at 7:23: You are literally in a land that time forgot. Likewise, the escalators. In “developing nations,” they’re a symbol of progress. In decaying nations, they’re an emblem of decline. In pre-Thatcher Britain, the escalators seized up, and stayed unrepaired for months on end. Eventually, someone would start them up again, only for them to break down 48 hours later and be out of service for another 18 months. It was always the up escalators. You were in a country that could only go downhill: All chutes, no ladders.

If you live in certain of our more obviously insolvent states, you may already recognize the phenomenon. A waggish reader wrote to me from the nation’s capital a few weeks ago hailing what he called Union Station’s cutting-edge bidirectional escalator technology. The conventional escalator on the left had been out of order for a month and “requires two full-time maintenance workers to stare at it for hours at a time while discussing football and women.” But during the same period the equally non-moving escalator on the right had been used every rush hour to accommodate thousands of both upward and downward commuters simultaneously. All the advanced technology of a staircase — now in an escalator! The bright new future of mass transit: no-speed escalators to high-speed trains.

Incremental decline is easy to get used to. I’m sure a few of my correspondent’s fellow commuters are equally droll about it and a few more get angry, but untold thousands more just shuffle uncomplainingly up and down, scuffing shoes and bumping backpacks. That’s the trick with decline: persuading people to accept it. The Transportation Security Administration, which in a decade of existence has never caught a single terrorist, has managed to persuade freeborn citizens to accept that minor state bureaucrats have the right to fondle your scrotum without probable cause. The TSA is now unionizing, which means that this hideous embodiment of bureaucratized sclerosis will now have its fingers in your gusset until the end of time.

#page#What was it they used to say? If we give up our freedoms, the terrorists will have won! Whether or not the terrorists have won, the bureaucrats have. And they’re a more profound existential threat to America than the terrorists will ever be. My accountant was trying to explain to me the new 1099 requirements of Obamacare, but who cares? In the Republic of Paperwork, there’ll be a new set of new requirements along any minute. I’m ashamed of myself for even knowing what a 1099 is. But that’s the issue: Once you accept the principle that one citizen cannot contract with another without filing paperwork with the state, imposing ever more onerous conditions is merely a difference of degree.

In such a world it becomes more difficult to innovate, and frankly not a priority. When I deposit a New Zealand check at my bank in Montreal, the funds are available to me within two seconds. The last time I deposited a New Zealand check at my bank in the U.S., they sent it for “collection” (an entirely artificial concept in the computer age) to Australia, and by the time it came back it had expired. They couldn’t understand why I was annoyed — c’mon, man, we were in the ballpark! To resolve the issue, I had to go to the bank president, who, on being informed of my Canadian comparison, said, “Well, you must understand smaller countries by their nature have to get used to dealing with the rest of the world. It’s different for America.”

This might have been reasonable enough in 1950, when America was last man standing on a Western world otherwise reduced to rubble. But it seems an odd attitude for a country whose households are entirely filled by products made elsewhere and whose future is mortgaged to foreigners. And it made me wonder if perhaps Ferguson and I are being insufficiently apocalyptic. A gargantuan bureaucratized parochialism leavened by litigiousness and political correctness is a scale of decline no developed nation has yet attempted.

It doesn’t have to go like that. Abolish the 1099. Get the feds out of your underwear. Restart the escalator. But the clock is running down, fast.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).

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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