Magazine | May 2, 2011, Issue

Line Items

‘It’s Back!”      

 So goes Walmart’s new slogan. What they mean is the old Walmart is back — “Everyday low prices!” — and their disastrous attempt to evolve into Goremart — “Every quarter higher losses!” — is over. Five years ago, Walmart hired an Al Gore adviser as PR chief, stripped the stores of déclassé products such as fishing tackle, and filled it up with a lot of stuff that was “green-friendly.” The Sierra Club and The New Yorker said nice things about them, and Mr. and Mrs. America stayed away. As former exec Jimmy Wright told the Wall Street Journal, “The basic Walmart customer didn’t leave Walmart. What happened is that Walmart left the customer.”

Walmart went green into the red, and then realized that they couldn’t afford the Al Gore retail model. There’s a lot of that around. Before the big Gulf spill, BP had spent a decade kissing up to Democrats and eco-progressives. Once upon a time, their initials stood for “British Petroleum,” but some Madison Avenue type thought it would look better to adopt the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” and replace their old logo with a flower. Pansy? Not yet. Just a sunflower. My colleague Jonah Goldberg suggested that, after the Demo-mediacracy effortlessly turned Tony Hayward into an oleaginous Snidely Whiplash, BP ought to own their rep and call themselves “Badass Petroleum.” Exactly: “We love to drill — and it shows!”

Corporations pretending to be social workers is bad enough. But, even in the decadent phase of capitalism, the market still functions well enough to bring Walmart to its senses in a mere half decade. Alas, for Big Government, there are no such corrective mechanisms. The government of the United States is currently borrowing about $4 billion a day. The Republicans recently secured an alleged landmark victory over Democrats that cut 38-point-something billion dollars from the budget. How many weeks of clenched-teeth high-stakes brinkmanship did it take to negotiate ten days’ worth of cuts?

Did I say ten days’ worth? Oh, wait. That was on Friday night. By the following Tuesday afternoon, over half of the $38.5 billion had been exposed as various meaningless sleights of hand of which government, unlike Walmart, can avail itself very easily — for example, counting money in the Justice Department’s crime victims’ reserve fund that was never scheduled to be spent this year as a “savings” of $4.9 billion. Real savings — that’s to say, the kind that would pass muster according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — were around $14 billion — or, in other words, less than the U.S. government borrowed in the four days between the announcing of the “historic cuts” and their exposure as utterly fraudulent.

If it takes four days to agree on two and a half days’ worth of “cuts,” how much time and energy and political capital would the Republicans have to expend to negotiate a budget reduction of, say, $300 billion? Whoa, steady on, man. That’s big bucks, a third of a trillion: We’d be tagged as “extremists.” Whereas borrowing $300 billion isn’t in the least bit “extreme”: It takes two and a half months, and it’s business as usual.

#page#But somehow cutting it is beyond the bounds of political reality. And so as the ship fills up with water we congratulate ourselves on agreeing to pass out the thimbles.

The sheer variety of ingenious accounting wheezes used to dream up that $38.5 billion illustrates what we’re up against. I quote from National Journal:

White House officials said throughout the process that the composition of the cuts was more important than the top-line number, and that including mandatory cuts allowed that top line to grow while limiting the immediate impact of the cuts.

(My italics. Also my rolled eyeballs. And my mirthless guffaw.)

Do you know what that means? Hey, don’t bother: The “top line” is growing, while the baseline is also up. As they say in the small ads in the alternative weekly, are you a top or a base? Neither of the above? Don’t worry, I’m sure somewhere in between there’s a mid-line (the waterline?) where various “extremist” “cuts” are being enacted.

The first developed nation to get clobbered by the downturn was Iceland. It has 300,000 people. America has 300 million. If you have big government in a nation of 300,000 or even 10 million (Portugal), it’s relatively easy to figure out how much money you’re spending and on what. But, as that mythical $38.5 billion “cut” illustrates, in an ever more centralized, de-federalized nation of 300 million, meaningful oversight is all but impossible.

Meanwhile, USA Today reports that even a third of Republican voters say “the government should not try to control the costs of Medicare.”

Oh. Okay.

Where do this third of Republican voters live? Iowa? New Hampshire? And if you were a second-tier candidate trying to break out from the rest of the also-rans, mightn’t you be tempted to position yourself as their champion?

What happens if the government follows the advice of that third of Republicans and declines to “control the costs of Medicare”? The dollar dies as global currency, followed by inflation, the wiping out of your savings, widespread social unrest, huge increases in crime and violence, Mad Max on I-95 . . .

The question is whether enough Americans are willing to grow up — and fast: That’s to say, will they mature before the debt does? Forget the top line and the baseline: The bottom line is that it’s the end of the line.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

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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