That Falling Off the Cliff Feeling

We just had another of our more-or-less weekly beer-drinking sessions with an old friend, a thoughtful and hard-working man who shares many of our views, and it made for a rather dispiriting conversation.
Assessing the current political and economic situation, as is our wont whenever sharing the cut-rate Stella Artois at our usual tavern, we found little justification for a positive attitude. In earlier conversations we had fretted that the Republicans were at a disadvantage in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations because the president didn’t care if the country went over that allegorical abyss, but now we agreed that Obama was intent on the outcome and that the Republicans were incapable of preventing it and bound to be widely blamed for the disastrous results. In no case could we envision any politically possible way to avert the far more serious debt crisis that looms just another debt-ceiling raising or two away, no matter how many futile attempts are made to tax our way out of it, and the more we pondered the situation the more it we agreed the country will only accelerate toward that unhappy day.
Our friend is a remarkably resourceful fellow, the sort who can replace the thermo-coupler on our water heater, fix any number of automotive problems, or fashion a swimming pool fountain from a few feet of PVC pipe, but he could think of no practical solutions to the country’s current mess. He had plenty of good ideas, all based on tried-and-true methods, but none that wouldn’t be ridiculed by the late night comics or would stand a chance of winning an election. Every idea he brought up was quickly shot down, each time by the realization that too many people would prefer the offer of free stuff to such harsh necessities. Our friend harbors none of the modern left’s snobbish disdain for the average American, and likes think himself a regular guy, but he has reluctantly concluded an electoral majority of his countrymen is simply too stupid and lazy and apathetic to veer away from the coming catastrophe.
Crappy “classic” rock music was blaring from the tavern’s tinny speakers, four walls of television sets were beaming the latest offering of the National Football League, which has racked up quite a body count this season, and just across the street was a grocery store where able-bodied young men in saggy pants ride down the aisles in motorized shopping carts intended for the handicapped, so we were in no position to argue with our friend’s point. Sometimes during these regular ruminations our friend will look around with us to speculate on how many of the other customers are troubled by any worrisome thoughts, and they almost always seem to be more interested in the football game or the buxom divorcee at the bar. Good burgers, stiff drinks, and an ebullient staff of waitresses bring a diverse group of customers into the joint, including a very white collar crowd from the nearby offices of downtown, but this representative sampling of the populace did little to inspire hope that the country was ready to roll up its collective sleeve and start the tinkering with the metaphorical thermo-coupler of the nation’s economy.
We spotted a professor and a retired adjunct professor from the local university, both smart men in an academic kind of way, but for obvious reasons they are of no use in the present crisis. There was also an old newspaper colleague, now working in one of the federal government’s many local offices, and when we joshed him about being in the nation’s only growth industry he rolled his eyes nervously and replied “Until the fiscal cliff,” making a falling-off-the-cliff gesture with his hand and whistling a cartoonish diminuendo to emphasize the point. Everyone else seemed to be checking their cell phones, and judging from the blank expressions none of the text messages were bearing news of the coming economic and cultural apocalypse.
The success of our friend’s arduously-built business is tied to the fate of the general economy, so he keeps abreast of that news with an especially keen interest. He also has a son, an excellent 10-year-old, and thus tends to take a longer view that also reveals little reason for hopefulness. At one point in the conversation we admit to some envy of the happily distracted customers in the tavern, but we also talk of the steps he’s been taking lately to prepare for the coming hard times. He worries that his boy will have a hard time fitting in with the future, and knowing the boy’s already independent thinking we share his concern.
A delayed broadcast of John Gibson’s talk radio show accompanied us home, and “Gibby” and his callers all seemed in a similar dispiritedly state. It got us to wondering if there were any exultant liberals having a round of some trendier beer at some more fashionable venue while excitedly sharing their great hopes and expectations for the coming years, and we decided it was unlikely. They’re probably deriving some satisfaction from knowing that those rich bastards are going have their taxes raised, but surely they don’t expect it will restore the nation’s economic health and lead to a new golden age. No one seems to believe that’s coming any time soon.
All in all it was a rather dispiriting conversation, as we say, but it’s good to have friends to share it with.

— Bud Norman

Catastrophe on the Installment Plan

Being the nocturnal cheapskates that we are, our infrequent television viewing is usually devoted to the free and over-the-air late-night fare offered by a local low-budget, ultra-high frequency station. Our fellow viewers are apparently a low-budget lot, as well, judging by the plethora of advertising for pawn shops, check-cashing services, contingency fee liability lawyers, and other businesses catering to the low end of the socio-economic scale. Many of the advertisements attempt to sell computers, televisions, and other consumer electronic devices in monthly installments, stressing that no credit check is required, while numerous other companies offer counsel to those already overburdened by debt.

We always envisioned a rather rag-tag crowd in the waiting rooms of those debt counseling companies, the sort of Dickensian rabble one might have found in a Victorian-era debtors’ prison, but our reading of the news suggests they might now be attracting a more respectable clientele.

The entire state of Illinois, for instance, recently had its credit rating lowered by Moody’s Investor Service. Illinois might not be the classiest place on the planet, as one would suspect from following the recent trial of Rod Blagojevich, the state’s third chief executive to go directly from the governor’s mansion to prison in the past 35 years, but still, there should be a few upright residents left there who are more fiscally responsible than their government.

While Moody’s rates Illinois as the worst credit risk among the 50 states, the experts at Standard & Poor’s disagree, rating California as even worse. Jerry Brown, who was known as “Governor Moonbeam” back when California was known as the “Golden State,” has responded to a $9.2 billion budget deficit by proposing a 7 percent increase in spending. He apparently intends to make up the difference by driving more high-earning taxpayers out of the state with an increase in the income tax rate, as well as further hobbling the state’s high-unemployment economy by increasing the sales tax.

At least neither state has yet declared bankruptcy, as the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has recently done. Although Harrisburg enjoys a steady revenue stream as the capital of the Keystone State, it has five times the debt due to a trash-to-energy incinerator that was supposed to turn a profit and save the planet. So far it hasn’t proved as profitable as hoped, but the planet does seem to have been saved.

The credit counseling services all claim to habla Español, but they might want to learn several more languages. Standard & Poor’s has warned 15 European countries, including powerhouses Germany and France, that they’re in danger of seeing their credit ratings downgraded. The nation of Hungary, which bequeathed the world Franz Liszt, Edward Teller, and the Gabor sisters, has already been lowered to junk bond status.

The debt being accrued by millions of ordinary Americans is worrisome, the debt being racked up by entire cities, states, and and the United States of America even more so. Most troubling of all is the realization that the political leadership around the world is apparently no more sophisticated that the late-night viewers of a low-budget television station.

— Bud Norman