Austerity Blues

Copyright © by Len Holman, 5/22/12


  Austerity is that policy which allows the Haves to continue their evil ways, while the Have-nots continue to board up their shops and demand their last few coins from the banks.  Austerity is what a solvent nation tells an insolvent one to do to get a handout and keep the majority of rioters off the streets.  Austerity is what Germany has told Greece to implement, and this matches nicely with what the Ryan Budget in the U.S. wants our nation to do.  It all sounds good, but there is that—as always—hint of moral condescension in the demand.  More than a hint. 

  After all, if a nation has been so sloppy, so profligate, so morally bankrupt and has inefficiently and wantonly planned only for immediate gratification, then that nation DESERVES to suffer the consequences, no matter how painful.  There is a practical problem with this approach: as the austerity measures begin to bite, a nation’s economy shrinks—if the austerity is severe enough, the economy collapses.  As the economy shrinks, revenues shrink, requiring more austerity, which feeds a faster shrinking of the economy—until…well, until there IS no economy. 

  If Greece, say, were to crumble—and their abortive election doesn’t bode well for any kind of stability—then they would leave, or be pushed out, of the Euro Zone, go back to the Drachma, and earn the unreserved and self-righteous enmity of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.  In the U.S., we have our own brand of austerity, which translates into a form of “YOU cut and I’ll go sailing.  And when I come back, you’d better be eating the cheapest dog food you can find!”   It’s the old, the sick, they dying, the infirm, the welfare moms, the foolish homebuyers who made minimum wage but bought a home in the Malibu Colony and then went almost immediately underwater---what the Marines used to call “the sick, lame, and lazy”—who will bear the brunt. 

  If they didn’t deserve it, this misery wouldn’t have happened to them, and only the firm, but fair, hand of Authority and Righteousness can save these people from further degradation.  Then the nation can right itself, create corporate golden parachutes, and get on with being God’s favorite.  When the smoke clears, there will be a new kind of America, one in which the dumpster-diving will be more frenzied, the intolerance for the poor and homeless will be more severe, and the big, glass-windowed houses along the beach will sparkle in the summer sun.  Already, the laws of some cities are biting down on those who can least afford to be bitten, and it is all so reminiscent of those zombie movies—where zombies eat all the living humans until none are left.  And then I ask myself, What happens next?  What do they eat now?  Since zombies don’t eat zombies, they are just eating themselves to death, so to speak.  So, what happens when the humans run out?  What happens when there are no more holes in the belt and the pants are still sagging?  What happens when the lions run out of zebras and gazelles? 

  When I was much younger, I was the manager of a small restaurant—one of a chain of such restaurants , mostly in southern California.  The district manager came in to tell me that my labor costs were too high.  “You don’t do enough volume to have all these workers,” he explained.  “How many will I have to cut?” I asked.  “Three, at least” he replied.  I tried to explain to him that if I cut three people, I couldn’t provide even the minimum of service, and that if the customers didn’t get service, they’d go someplace else, which would lower my sales volume and necessitate his return visit to tell me I had to cut more labor cost and fire more people.  Soon, the place would be dark.  I was reasonable; he was the boss in a shiny suit.  End of discussion. 

  No economy can revive itself with just cutting; there must be some way for money to work itself into, and through, the system.  There must be hope in the minds and hearts of the populace that the hot irons to the soles of the feet will stop burning at some time.  Take out the moral retribution factor and we’d have a chance to do something creative and effective.  For example, instead of being angry and self-righteously indignant about those underwater mortgages, we could have the banks lower mortgage payments, eliminate interest for a while, or just (gulp!) forgive the loan outright—a sort of Jubilee occasion where all debt is forgiven and everyone starts fresh.  Right now, the banks and lending institutions are sitting on hundreds of thousands of empty, vandalized, useless properties which earn them no money and for which there is no property tax coming into states and local authorities.  The banks don’t loan and they don’t forgive.  Congress—especially in an election year—is not going to go for any more stimulus or closing loopholes (which some in that hallowed institution call taxes), so let’s do the next best thing and just start all over.  

  Of course some minimal rules for loans will have to be put in place—but those rules should, by law, have to fit on one side of one sheet of paper.  But moralists will argue:  “Why should I pay my mortgage and follow all the rules, when that idiot down the street was stupid, got over his head, and now gets off scot free?”  Well, I pay school taxes and my kid hasn’t been in school for many years.  My neighbor pays them and he HAS no kids.  With our increasing insistence on self-interest and government interference into things WE want fixed, and the insistence the government leave the rest of us to down, we ignore what seems to be a fundamental premise of this republic: we’re all in this together, and when one goes down, we ALL go down.  If that happens, we’ll have REAL austerity.


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