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Belmont Club

The Essay Read Round the World

July 29th, 2010 - 4:31 pm

If the love of money is the root of all evil, the lack of it is the cause of the fall of empires.  Ferguson gave some examples:

Think of Spain in the 17th century: already by 1543 nearly two-thirds of ordinary revenue was going on interest on the juros, the loans by which the Habsburg monarchy financed itself.

Or think of France in the 18th century: between 1751 and 1788, the eve of Revolution, interest and amortisation payments rose from just over a quarter of tax revenue to 62 per cent.

Finally, consider Britain in the 20th century. Its real problems came after 1945, when a substantial proportion of its now immense debt burden was in foreign hands. Of the pound stg. 21 billion national debt at the end of the war, about pound stg. 3.4bn was owed to foreign creditors, equivalent to about a third of gross domestic product.

Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed in Washington, as the US contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $US1.47 trillion ($1.64 trillion), about 10 per cent of GDP, for the second year running.

But alarm bells aren’t ringing in Washington. The entire alarm system has been disabled, disconnected, perhaps scrapped. Anyone who wants to turn it back on will have to root through the dumpster to see if any usable parts can still be retrieved. No better symptom of the absence of alarms is the genuine astonishment of Charles Rangel that it is illegal to break the law. Almost as a matter of course he concealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for private causes, took four rent controlled apartments for himself. Innocently. He probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Things had been so sweet, so long that even after he was offered the chance to negotiate his way out of 13 separate violations of House rules and federal statutes he simply refused to believe it was happening.

Like Brecht’s fictional Atlantean who “the night the seas rushed in … still bellowed for their slaves,” the members of what Codevilla called the “ruling class” can’t believe it is happening. They still want their last dollar, their last perk. Literally, no matter what. “Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank caused a scene when he demanded a $1 senior discount on his ferry fare to Fire Island’s popular gay haunt, The Pines, last Friday. Frank was turned down by ticket clerks at the dock in Sayville because he didn’t have the required Suffolk County Senior Citizens ID. A witness reports, ‘Frank made such a drama over the senior rate that I contemplated offering him the dollar to cool down the situation.’”

The worst thing about the ferry incident is the possibility that if the witness had really offered Frank the dollar he might actually have taken it.  Automatically; out of conditioning, like a Pavlovian dog. The culture in which the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee rose to power is one in which it is OK to blithely borrow more money than the entire defense budget can service and yet refuse to spend one whole dollar of his own money. The ethos of that world can be captured in one phrase: “don’t you know who I am?” Earth to Barney Frank. Earth to Barney Frank. People know who you are. They also know what you are. You’re a member of a world where never mind what as long we’re the who. Asked to describe the 1,990 page, $894 billion health care bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “it’s going to be very, very exciting,” [Congress has] “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it, away from the fog of controversy.”

The Codevilla essay is arresting not because of its originality but because it simply captures the common mood in a concise way. Its greatest virtue is unoriginality. It says everything we already know. The bell sounded was already cast in the foundry of public opinion. All Professor Codevilla did was take out a hammer and tap it. Five years ago the ideas in it would probably not have occurred to him. Had he written the essay as little as two years ago he would have been laughed to scorn.

Charles Rangel’s problem is that the old world has picked this moment to suddenly die underneath him. He won his last race with 89% of the vote, as big a margin as you can get outside of North Korea or Syria. Now he  faces 13 counts at the hands of colleagues who are his “friends,” but maybe not “friends” enough to lose their next election on his behalf. It’s unfair in a way. Nick Nyhart of the Huffington Post says that because the “whole system” is guilty, Charlie Rangel shouldn’t be singled out for punishment. He wants the Republicans on trial too and hopes Rangel doesn’t have to face ethics charges. “Rep. Rangel may be the one in the spotlight today, but it’s the whole system that’s guilty.” He might be right at that. But he should be careful what he wishes for. The road is like a river. Once you step on to it, there’s no telling where it takes you.


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