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Works and Days

The Inexplicables

August 4th, 2011 - 9:59 am

There are a number of things I don’t fathom about contemporary American popular culture and politics. Here is a small sample.

1) Is there a theoretical limit to our national borrowing?

The so-called tough debt ceiling deal still ups the borrowing to $16 trillion, or over 100% of annual GDP. So why are we rejoicing about curbing, rather than stopping, the borrowing? We are not discussing paying back the massive sums that we owe. And we talk not of cutting the baseline expenditures, but only about the rate of increase in entitlements — reminding us that revolutions start not with the impoverished, but with threatened cuts of subsidies to the middle class. Its appetites increase faster than the state can satisfy them, as most judge their well-being not in having at last more than the poor but in always having less than the affluent.

Our staggering debt also raises an existential question — at what point would Obama stop borrowing on his own? Should aggregate local, state, income, and payroll taxes climb from 50-55% on one’s income to 60%, 70% or perhaps 80%? Should the top 5% pay not 60% of aggregate income taxes, but, say, 70% or even 80%? Should the 50% who pay no income taxes be expanded to 60% or 70% of the electorate? Should food stamp usage climb from one-sixth of the population (e.g., 50 million) to a third or about 100 million? At what point would the advocates of borrowing be content?

Would the Obamites lead us to borrow and spend until we hit a Greek-like implosion, until the laws of physics stopped them? And then what? Given that government is presently so large, the debt so staggering, combined taxes so great, it is difficult to envision how one could expand on all that. How does one pay back $16 trillion — the Roman way of coating silver coins with bronze veneers, the Confederate way of printing paper money, the Castroite way of simply confiscating private property? The stimulus model during World War II is evoked, but neither the home front frugality of the war nor the aftermath of 1945 is cited — when America provided the goods, capital, and services to rebuild an industrial world in shambles and pay down its debt, given the destruction of Germany, Japan, Russia, and much of Western Europe, the premodern status of India and China, and the self-destructive path to socialism in Great Britain. I don’t see such a scenario of recovery this time around. The current borrowing bingers have no conception of ever paying back the debt (Bush surely offered little plan of payback, and Obama none).

The nation is similar to those with four or five maxed out credit cards, and no net worth, who plan on dying and leaving their debt to the banks and less than nothing to their children.

2) What are we to make of the self-referential wealthy who demand higher taxes?

About every month or so either a politician — a Barack Obama or John Kerry — or a billionaire — a Bill Gates Jr. & Sr. or Warren Buffett — or a celebrity — a Matt Damon — pontificates about the need for some sort of higher taxes, as if we are supposed to be in awe over such professed magnanimity. Usually the narrative goes one of two ways: “I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes” or “My secretary pays more taxes than do I.”

These apologies insult our intelligence, since the boaster either makes so much money that he would not notice whether he paid 35% or 39% on his income; or he is in government where the state picks up much of the tab for his health care and transportation, and subsidizes his housing and meals. The subtext is Gore-like aristocratic disdain, as in “Why don’t those accountants and dentists pass on their jet skis and Yukons and fork over more to the more noble needy?”

Of course, the very wealthy who rant about higher taxes simply could pay higher taxes. Such an iconic gesture would do far more than a YouTube rant: the media would love Matt Damon if he were paying 70% in taxes on his income. Indeed, he could start a movement to shame other Hollywood celebrities, who then could shame CEOs, who then in turn could shame the rich in general. Or alternatively, the very wealthy who feel under-taxed simply could donate directly to their own favorite government program — a Head Start, solar power subsidy, or food stamp program. Or, again, a Matt Damon could limit his take per picture to $1 million (e.g., curbing those millions he “didn’t need”), and start yet another campaign in Hollywood to reduce movie and DVD prices for the needy.

3) Is contemporary American aristocracy compatible with, antithetical to, or the logical complement to modern liberalism?

So another mystery is the leftism of those who live in a world of hierarchical privilege. If we examine the elite media (the MSNBC or New York Times megaphones), or Hollywood  (the lifestyle of a Sean Penn), or leftist politicians (a Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, or Al Gore), there is almost no tangible difference in the way they live their lives from those of the corporate or private sector elite they deprecate. Ensuring that a child goes to a segregated elite prep school, making a well-placed call to an elite university admission officer, guaranteeing a prestigious internship for a daughter, marrying another anchor person or DC insider politician, living in the right zip code, vacationing in Tuscany — all that is privilege to the core, and in theory at odds with radical egalitarianism.

That begs the question — is the elite left’s infatuation with the good life not so much a paradox, not a hypocrisy at all, but rather a sort of medieval exemption, or perhaps penance? The price for living well is to advocate government subsidies for the less well off that are rarely seen, and disdain for those who grub for money and as tea partiers lack the refinement that is the dividend of the very rich or the so well connected. Does buying a $40,000 ticket to the president’s 50th birthday party mean that one is exempt from the presidential invective against “millionaires and billionaires” and “corporate jet owners”? As a general rule, the more I hear of such carping, the more I assume the whiner covets what he so childishly is obsessed with ending.

4) Fairly or not, the entire illegal immigration debate is couched in terms of anger at the U.S.

That makes no sense. The recent Rose Bowl crowd’s booing at the U.S. soccer team, the ubiquitous Mexican flags at immigration rallies, the Aztlan-La Raza anguish, the massive May 5th parades, the romantic refashioning of Mexico, the stern lectures from Mexican consuls and government officials — all this emotion is misdirected: millions have left their mother country, convinced its government has mismanaged the economy and impoverished them, while life in the north offers an opportunity of a good life not found in Mexico. Would not then the illegal immigration movement be located in hyper-pro-Americanism?

I can understand the frustration of being an alien in an alien land, of the poverty and challenge that confronts one without English, legality, and a high school diploma, of the indifference often shown the other who, in a great part, does manual labor that heretofore American youth pass on. (Picking peaches or driving a tractor for 10-hour days has a sobering effect). But that said, if life were still felt to be preferable to what is found in Mexico, then would not the entire immigration movement be awash in pro-American chauvinism, of affection for the antithesis of a Mexico that drove them out: American flags waving at parades, a grass-roots movement to speak and master English, something like the National Council of Mexican-Americans rather than La Raza?

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