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The Empire Goes Hungry

by James Lileks

We could spend our time together here detailing the ideas that separate the Right and the Left, but if Maureen Dowd has taught us anything, it’s that it’s more fun to cast things in the terms of fatuous, ancient pop-culture references. The other day she used Star Wars — something about Obama was once a Jedi, and then the Tea Party took his lightsaber away. Wow! That’ll get the kids reading the paper. Next week: Is Obama more like Fonzie or Scooby-Doo?

So let’s get really hip ’n’ current and go back to The Odd Couple. Not the sitcom, but the movie. Oscar and Felix are having the Pigeon sisters down for supper. Felix — played with twitchy peevish perfection by Jack Lemmon — has been slaving over a meat loaf, timed to come out at eight. Oscar — Walter Matthau at his slovenly best — cruises in late with a wolfish grin, ready for a night of meat, liquor, single entendres, and some slap-and-tickle with the ripe and flighty neighbors. Felix is incensed: You’re late, the meat loaf’s ruined. Oscar tells him to pour gravy on it. Felix snaps: Where the hell am I going to get gravy at eight o’clock at night? Oscar: I don’t know. I thought it just comes when you cook the meat. Felix: You’re an idiot. You have to make gravy. It doesn’t just come.

There’s the Right-vs.-Left view of wealth, right there. One side believes it’s something that naturally arises by some strange arcane process, and the real issue is the size of the ladle you use to scoop it up and pour it over the meat loaf. The Right is more concerned with how the gravy’s made.

May I have a Times column now? No? Well, let’s waterboard the metaphor some more. The Left, informed that gravy does not naturally arise, is remarkably incurious about the means by which gravy is produced, impatient with the details. Oh, they have a vague idea — the meat loaf inherits a lot of gravy unfairly, or it’s made by people in a kitchen who will be hapless slaves unless they join the Bouillon Congealer’s Local #23, or it comes out of the ground, and must be subject to strict regulation lest deep-water gravy wells blow up and foul beaches with rich, delicious sauce. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that gravy gets made somehow, and it’s the job of the government to regulate its existence and oversee its distribution.

Caring little for the mechanics, they now find themselves irritated and confused that the meat loaf is done, there’s no gravy to pour over it, and the neighbor from whom you have borrowed 14 trillion cups of gravy doesn’t answer the door when you knock. What now?

Simple. The world ends. And that’s a good thing. During the debt-ceiling festival of joy, former Speaker Pelosi summed up the progressive intention quite succinctly: “We’re trying to save the world.” Oh, is that all. By “the world” she means everything and everyone in the United States, whose continued happiness is predicated on increasing transfer payments from their modern shameful levels. Never again shall we revisit the dark days of, say, 2007, when skeletal armies thronged the White House gates banging empty bowls on the fence; and the less said about the horrors of 1999, when federal spending was 50 percent less than today, the better. We still remember the heart-rending pictures of congresspeople with their empty eyes and swollen bellies, too weak to bat away the flies, barely able to muster the strength to increase the marginal rates. For heaven’s sake, we hardly spend anything on general welfare now — only 66.13 percent of the budget is spent on payments to individuals — and we’re talking about going down to 66.02 percent? Just so a handful of people can continue to sail on private gravy-lakes towed around by low-flying corporate jets?

Yes. Because that old world is over. The old world where a mysterious, secretive priesthood called “business” conjured wealth out of the ether so the governing class could strain it through a hundred institutions: done. The idea that no child will be educated if the Department of Education shutters its doors: nonsense. Uterus-to-quietus welfare: sorry. Ever-escalating benefits, paid for by magic sacks of money: impossible.

A half-century experiment in draping steamship anchors around the necks of the productive class and expecting them to run a four-minute mile has ended in failure. The confiscation of rights and property, the moral impoverishment of generations caused by the state’s usurpation of parental obligations, the elevation of a credentialed elite that believes academia’s fashions are a worthy substitute for knowledge of history and human nature, and above all the faith in a weightless cipher whose oratorical panache now consists of looking from one teleprompter screen to the other with the enthusiasm of a man watching someone else’s kids play tennis — it’s over, whether you believe in it or not. It cannot be sustained without reducing everyone to penurious equality, crippling the power of the United States, and subsuming the economy to a no-growth future that rations energy.

To which some progressives respond: You say that like it’s a bad thing.

You don’t know how to reply to that. Help me, Obi-Dowd! You’re my only hope! Okay, a pop-culture finish. When the Odd Couple have their big fight, Oscar calls Felix’s dinner “spaghetti.” Felix replies with cold contempt that it’s linguini, but it’s actually a metaphor for the United States’ credit rating. Oscar picks it up and throws it at the wall. “Now,” he says, “it’s gawbage.”

Indeed. The audience laughs when Felix insists he’s not going to clean it up. Of course he will. Oscar has no idea where to start.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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