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Works and Days

The Reckoning

June 5th, 2009 - 7:31 am

Obama Versus the Way of the Universe

I wish the President well, but he is butting up against human nature. And that is a fight one cannot win. If one runs up nearly a $2 trillion annual deficit, and then persists in such red-ink to the point of adding another $9 trillion, all to reach an aggregate $20 trillion national debt, there are not too many options. If there were, everyone-both states and individuals-would simply spend, call it stimuli, and then find academics to offer contorted explanations why it was OK and the money need not really have to be paid back. Does Obama think his debt is like buying  a house in a down market with an up market inevitable?–that is, we borrow to the max and then count on our equity to come to bail us out? But houses do not always go up, and we can’t quite sell off the US to capture our speculative profit.

So we all know the old rules, because the universe works according to time-honored precepts: we either must tax all of us (there are not enough of those evil “they” who make between $200-500K or even enough of the noble generous rich who make over $10 million a year and think Obama should increase inheritance taxes so that their children get only $1 billion instead of $2, while the hardware store owner’s kids sell the business) in insidious ways; OR simply cut government expenditures elsewhere to pay the annual interest payments, OR print money and screw the Chinese, European, etc. , debtors, inflating our way out via the late 1970s.

Sorry, there are no other real alternatives.

The only mystery? How the choice of payment is rhetoricized in the hope and change mode.

Deficit Foreign Policy Too

So it is with foreign policy as well. Obama’s make-over will have positive short-term effects, as he reminds the world ad nauseam that he is black, sorta, kinda from a Muslim family, and the son of an African who is more like the world than he like most Americans-and not George Bush and not a thieving capitalist and not a warmongering imperialist and not (fill in the blanks). (My favorite Cairo line was the apology on Gitmo where inmates have laptops and Mediterranean food, spoken to millions whose societies kill and maim tens of thousands in Gulags on a yearly  basis.)

But in the long run?

He hits against human nature. Most of you readers-in business, law, the professions-don’t continually praise your friends, competitors, and enemies (e.g., “Glad you got that job, Home Depot-we at Lowes didn’t really need it; what a wonderful bid you submitted, Hilton, much better than ours here at the Four Seasons; it was my fault here at Goldman Sachs that I didn’t match your better offer at Credit Suisse; I grew up working for the Royals, and can empathize why you Yankees don’t like us; it’s time we at Citibank  apologized to Chase for our past cutthroat competition; we are just too arrogant over here at Delta and wanted to let you guys at United know that.”)

Sorry

The world sadly does not work that way. If one were to do that, we know the outcome: a group of rival execs would say “Hmmm, time to steal market share from Citibank, or Hilton isn’t really up to the arena anymore, let’s move in on its Western region, etc.”

Only someone who has not been in the real world, but only marketed rhetoric without consequences (e.g., if Obama had a bad day organizing, or legislating, was he fired?) could believe such things.

A Farmer’s Tale

In short, Obama reminds me a little of myself–at 26. I had left the farm for 9 years to get a BA in classics, PhD in classical philology, and live in Athens for two years of archaeological study-all on scholarships, TAships, research-ships and part-time summer and school jobs tucked under the aegis of the academic, no-consequences world. By the end of endless seminars, papers, theses, debates, discussions, academic get-togethers, I had forgotten much of the culture of the farm where I spent years 1-18.

The Return

Then after the requisite degrees I left academia, and returned to farm 180 acres with my brother and cousin-and sadly was quickly disabused of the world of the faculty lounge.

Oh yes, I came back to Selma thinking, “I am not going to be the grouch my grandfather was, yelling at neighbors, worried all the time, nervous, seeing the world as rather hostile, hoarding a tiny stash of savings, worried as if bugs, the government, hired men, weather, and markets were out to destroy him. I’ll farm with my Bay Area manners and sort of think, “I will reset the farm, and things will at last work as they should” (not thinking that my grandfather raised three daughters, sent them to college while mortgaging the farm in the Depression, and spent on himself last, and was a saint compared to my pampered existence in the university).”

One small example of my late coming of age. A rather brutal neighbor (now dead and not to be mentioned by name (de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est)), an immigrant from an impoverished country, a self-made man, veteran of infamous fights and various bullying, shared a communal ditch. We talked and exchanged pleasantries–at first–at the standpipe gate. He lamented how rude my late grandfather had been to him, and even had made unfounded accusations that he was less than honest (he was also sort of playing the race card, remarking about the prejudicial nature of California agrarian culture).

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