Monday, July 25, 2011

Shared Sacrifice (except Congress)

”We should be doing, not what’s right for the party or for the next election, but what’s right for the American people.” So says President Obama. So say Congressmen of both parties today, stalwarts by the names of Schumer and Boehner and McConnell and Reid.

What a flock of phonies! They are all posturing for the cameras, hoping that a few voters will believe they are sincerely fretting about our national debt. The debt, as if you didn’t know, stands at more than 14 trillion dollars. How big is 14 trillion? If you counted one dollar every second, you would still be counting when the only living things on earth were fish. But 14 trillion isn’t enough money, so they are looking for ways of authorizing a higher limit.

Pundits laugh at the bailout of Greece, because everyone knows that Greece doesn’t have a chance of repaying the new loans. Does anyone think the U.S. will ever be able to pay back 14 or 15 trillion dollars? Only when a Big Mac costs $1000.

Speaking of Congress, do you think we really need 435 representatives and 100 senators? That’s 535 highly paid public servants, each with a staff (which does all the heavy lifting), travel allowance, expense account, medical insurance, pension, and God knows what else. One wouldn’t mind if these were the cream of the crop, men and women of obvious intelligence and talent, the kind of people who could run companies in the private sector. But for most of them, politics is their only hope of making a living. If the size of the House of Representatives were cut from 435 members to, say, 200, would we notice? I don’t think so.

It is fashionable for politicians to talk of “shared sacrifice” these days. The poster boys for sacrifice-sharing are hedge-fund managers and people who fly on private jets. But have you heard one syllable about Congressional sacrifice? It would only be a token, of course, but what a token! A member of Congress is entitled to a full pension at age 62 if he or she has five years (!) of service. Who’ll be the first to file a bill dealing with Congressional Pork? Barney Frank? Chuck Schumer?

(Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has always refused to participate in the Congressional pension system, calling it “immoral.”)

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Separate States of Europe

What have we learned from the recent collapse of Greece’s economy? That the economic integration of Europe was doomed from the beginning. To think otherwise is to ignore centuries of history, centuries of turmoil, almost always because of economic frictions among countries of widely divergent national tendencies. It doesn’t help that the 700-plus people who live in Europe speak about two dozen different languages.

Greece, in area and population, is roughly the size of Illinois. Let’s suppose that Illinois people spoke their own language, a language that the folks in Indiana and Wisconsin and Michigan couldn’t understand. Would you say that the Illinois economy might have a problem?

Let us thank God for the British, who erased the Dutch language from New Amsterdam and the French from Louisiana and the Spanish from California. (I know, I know, they’re coming back.) Today, Illinois and the other 49 states share a common language. We take that for granted, but it’s a huge advantage.

Then there’s the matter of culture. Yes, there are cultural differences between Maine and Texas and California, but they are nothing compared with the cultural divides across Europe. Once Jill and I were on a tour bus in Portugal, and we were discussing an incident that morning, when someone robbed some fellow tour passengers on a trolley in Lisbon.

“It happens often in Southern Europe,” our tour guide said, “but hardly ever in Northern Europe.”

He was right. We had never encountered such incidents in Oslo, or Helsinki, or Stockholm or Copenhagen. I thought of that the other day when I watched the mobs of protesters laying waste to downtown Athens, while the police ducked under the flying bottles and backed away from the advancing hooligans. Could that scene have been replicated in Oslo?

Greece is bankrupt because, unlike Illinois, it doesn’t have an industrial base. It exports olives and olive oil. It has a shipping base. It attracts tourists, or used to until the tourists saw law and order, Athens-style, on CNN.

The Euro-zone countries, seeing no alternative, have loaned Greece enough money to cover their current expenses – money that Greece will never be able to repay. And so it goes. The dominoes are lined up, and investors are looking anxiously at Spain.

Europe is a continent, nothing more. Poles consider themselves Poles, and Italians consider themselves Italians. Europe has no national anthem, no ruling parliament or monarch. It has a wobbly currency, but the British must be breathing a sigh of relief that they voted to keep the pound and not embrace the euro.

With all our economic woes, the U.S. looks very healthy compared with Europe.