Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Spending one billion dollars an hour
This is how much we're increasing our federal debt these past fifty days. Contrast this with how much we're diminishing our personal expenses this past year. Meanwhile, at my house, calls from creditors get more aggressive and less civil.
For instance, four harangues over $36 we've paid to the Los Angeles Times. There's a nastiness in the telephoned air, contrasted with an earnestness in the televised ads. Bargains, cost-cutting, value: post-Christmas commercials deftly replaced "priceless" credit card come-ons with a Poor Richard's Almanac rectitude when slapping down plastic at the big-box. Credit card companies enjoyed a nearly fifty-percent leap in profits 2003-08, so I doubt if they'll let up on teasing us now.
The banks may, however, crack the whip after the strip tease. There's a schoolmarmish disapproval at our deadbeat profligacy. As if we're prodigal sons in Vegas whoring it up, when we should be hassling pigs for husks. Forget about slinking back to Dad to enter in a no-Sunday's off regimen of yard chores without any allowance. Perhaps a franchise opportunity for debtor's prisons-- privatized for lenders under some stimulus plan "earmarked" for a few GOP legislators who bolted and supported the Dems. Doubtless representing foreclosed subdivisions: cracked tile roofs, desolate Mervyn's, three-car garage meth labs, McMansions stripped of copper.
A series of intense, "you are on record as co-guarantor; this will be recorded" portents from our bank over another mortgage bill we already sent in. Or, endless robotic yammer from Time Warner over our past-due (yet presently-paid) televised fare. Yes, we still get cable-- one of the first discretionary items most consumers cut. We live in a topographical quirk, and cannot receive signals otherwise. Additionally, as Layne's in "the industry," for us somehow with her inventiveness watching the tube's a legitimate investment!
Pre-empting any comment by said spouse, I admit being lured in albeit briefly by the amazingly raunchy, even by cable standards, "Eastbound and Down." I peered as if it was an accident unfolding in thirty-minute slow motion. It seemed endless, as I gazed with horror and humor similar to what I'd experience, given my usual schadenfreude, if it was a fender-bender.
My kids, alas, already know and love this series of Danny McBride playing a John Rocker-sort of mullet-headed baseballer down on his luck after an injury. Reduced to, of all horrors, teaching high school. Except for my better if just as cheap haircut, my erudition, and my lack of athletic prowess, I can almost relate.
Anyway, the "Forward," about my only printed contact lately with a realm of discourse nudging if skeptically a higher realm than boorish sitcoms, had on its March 6th front page Nathaniel Popper's piece: "In a Downsizing Economy, Is There a Jewish Way to Lay Off?". Seeing that my wife's had to let go folks with whom she worked many years, all of whom she'd hand-picked and mentored and bonded with, in the past year after first the devastation of the 100-day writer's strike and then the implosion of Hollywood production later last autumn, I witness her own worries and trauma. It's kept me up nights along with her.
The article offers us little insight, I suppose, beyond Maimonides' advice that retraining remains wise, that advance notice be given, and that pay cuts across the board take precedence. I thought of a conversation ten days ago with a professor at UC Riverside. He told me how his offer as acting chair to have his department reduce their salaries so adjuncts could be kept on had been rejected. The university would simply pocket whatever savings accrued, so this somehow did not translate into smaller classes with more instructors-- by some administrative budgeting lack of logic. I admired nevertheless his stance; I thought that he acted in the Jewish tradition as a mensch.
Institutions with their disdain clash against individuals with their compassion. No, as my dear wife berates me, I don't have any better solution than letting Citibank or GM or Freddie Mac go belly-up and the hell with 'em. But I've inherited a cranky populism angered by smug capitalism. Amassing more debt to pay off debt confuses me, but I'm no Ivy League wonk. I feel like Phil Hartman's smarmy "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" in the SNL skit shrugging: "But, what do I know? I'm just a caveman."
Stubbornly disenchanted with Capitol's lobbyists and Beltway finaglers. Hating corporate socialism from pork-barrelled politicians. We're beholden to what 52% of voters chose, not that the lack of any compelling alternative gave the party in power any convincing competition. Any skeptics about the Second Coming were overwhelmed by a desperate swell of hope-full sentiment, $506 million in marketing, and Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous iconography.
Approved by both administrations, billions flow towards Detroit, Wall Street, and the White House. Leaders threaten doom. Billionaires scream for bail. They threaten us even as the funds they've hoarded seem to be squandered or squirreled away out of reach of we taxpayers. Half of all workers now fear losing their jobs. Stuck with declining incomes, rising prices for food and energy (the dip being temporary I am positive in oil), and much higher tax burdens-- re-brand them as "investments" along with our president-- I do again wonder at what I reminded my students last week.
It took fifty years for the economy to recover after 1929. So severe was the shock that only a suspendered posse of Gordon Gekkos could come of age long after who'd never known bread lines and soup kitchens. The top one percent of Americans now control a fifth of our wealth. The bottom 40% possess a share equal to the top one- percenters. This same disparity last aligned right before the Great Depression.
William Hogarth. "The Rake's Progress: The Rake in Prison": Panel 7, Fleet Street incarceration for debt. Tate Gallery, London. 1734.