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Washington needs adult supervision

For close to eight years I have watched George Bush piss away a comfortable surplus and plunge us into a huge deficit; fritter away decades of goodwill overseas; use outright lies to launch an endless war; display callous disregard to fellow Americans during natural disasters; play cowboy while our economy sank into the mud; and exude contempt and disinterest for those concerned about this small planet we call home.

All the while he has argued for a smaller role for government — at least, in his own country. He’s more than happy to meddle in other countries, especially where oil is involved. (Darfur? He can’t be bothered with that.) He’s a typical fortunate son — and don’t let that down-home-folksy posturing or fake-Southern-accent fool you; he was born in (then) oh-so-wealthy New Haven (CT, not TX) and as a young man attended Andover (MA, not TX), followed by Yale and Harvard, plus a cushy detour in the Guard.

Oh, and for those of you unfamiliar with the military-industrial complex, what we have overseas is not just a few tent cities with troops heating up cans of beanie-weenie over an open fire. We’ve set up a second country in Iraq — a massive, contractor-run world — and you’re paying for it, endlessly. (I am of the belief that we can’t just depart overnight — what we break can’t be that easily repaired — meaning that we’re going to keep paying for it.)

Now we’re being told to sign off on a huge blank check to Wall Street, hurry-hurry-hurry! (Jon Stewart did a brilliant play-by-play comparing the rush into Iraq with the rush to sign this package.) Oh, and of course, it’s a plan that the GOP insists has a “smaller role for government” than the one originally proposed, which at least injected some adult supervision and sanity into a government bailout.

I understand people who are miffed at the unfairness of the government bailing out homeowners who got in over their head. I don’t feel that level of anger, maybe because more than once I’ve been tempted to spend beyond my means.  The money was easy, and besides, everyone was doing it. What saved me was first, a partner who shares my values and encourages us to make wise choices, and second, a book, Your Money or Your Life, that rescued me from a period of poor financial management in my late 20s and early 30s.

I live a life where Starbucks is a treat when I’m traveling, lunch in a restaurant is the exception, and I am allergic to paying full-price for clothes. I don’t live entirely debt-free, but when I suddenly had to buy a car this summer, I was able to pay for half of it right on the spot (and you all know I wrestled with the devil — I actually filled out the paperwork for a far more expensive car, and then drove to another lot and made a very sensible purchase). I have a small student loan from my MFA I am paying down with double-payments every month.

I could go on — our idea of an adventure is to lunch on the free snacks at CostCo — but you get the drill. The key here is that it’s not like my income prevented me from going wild (even though it should have). When we house-shopped, we — a minister and a librarian — “qualified” for a house far above our means, and it took strong personal discipline to buy a house that made sense for us, rather than what we saw people buying. It wasn’t just mortgage credit; today I could buy a vacation home with the combined limits of my (paid-off-monthly) credit cards.

I had bad house-envy in this area for a while — I kept wondering how so many people could afford those fancy homes. O.k., now I know the answer: they couldn’t. We’ve been living in the real world, and they have not. Our house may be on the small side, but it’s beautiful and comfortable and in a wonderful neighborhood (and we put a significant “down” on it). If it ends up we can’t sell it for a while (though prices in Tallahassee have not plunged the way they have in the rest of Florida), someone at FAM or in the legislature or working at FSU will enjoy it as a rental. If it stayed empty for a while, we could tighten our belts yet more and survive.

I got an uneasy feeling other people don’t live like us some time ago, when someone at another Place Of Work commented that due to an odd pay schedule, some of his co-workers would be tightening their belts while they waited for paychecks. He didn’t mean entry-level support staff; he meant middle-class workers driving late-model cars, living in commodious homes, and lunching out daily. I thought, are these people living paycheck-to-paycheck?

But my point here is that regardless if bailing out homeowners is “unfair,” if it saves the economy from a complete crash, so be it. I would strongly recommend we make it hard for people to buy beyond their means in the future, and there need to be some cold splashes of reality for a few folks. Yet what we cannot afford to do is give unfettered rein to the jokers who got us in this pickle in the first place.  Nor can we make their exit from financial management comfortable and easy while the Americans they exploited are struggling to cope with reentry into the real world.

Since Reagan was president, Americans have absorbed the muddled message that less government means more money in their pockets. That has been true — for the very wealthy, and for the profligate Wall Street pirates making merry with our money (q.v. this YouTube clip of the Keating 5 — remember the S&L scandal? Remember McCain’s complicity?).  For the rest of us, this radical deregulation has led to a severe financial crisis where people believe they have more money in their pockets — only instead of the financiers complict in this folie a deux teetering on office ledges, they’re negotiating posh exit packages.

It’s time common sense prevailed in Washington.  We need calm, poised leadership, not hucksterish posturing. (Don’t even get me started on McCain canceling the debate — have you seen him side-by-side with Obama? Of course he’s avoiding the debate!) We need to take action, and it should be sooner than later, but what we don’t need is for Bush’s going-away gift to be a blank check for his moneyed cronies. We need to help America, not put a stake in its heart.

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11 Comments

  1. Phoebe Acheson wrote:

    Just a couple of factual corrections: George W. Bush was born in New Haven CT but moved to Texas at the age of 2 and was raised in Midland, attending elementary school and junior high school there before shipping back East to Andover in high school. And New Haven CT may or may not have been a wealthy city in the 1940s, but it is definitely not one now. The median household income is well below the national average and 20% of households live below the poverty level. Maybe you were thinking of Greenwich CT?

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  2. It was wealthy enough then (just as Paterson NJ was once a prosperous silk town).

    Also, he wasn’t a cowpoke sitting in a one-room schoolhouse, he went to Andover, where I doubt they went in for that good ol’ boy posturing.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  3. In any case, he was born into a wealthy FAMILY, went to a college most of us couldn’t get into even if we could afford it…and not because he was an academic genius.

    DNW

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  4. DNW, you put the right focus on this thread. Those points are key.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  5. I’m always amazed at the Republican’s talk about fiscial responsbility in government. Bush, as you pointed out, came in with a surplus and is leaving with a huge debt. He did the same as gov. in Texas. Palin as mayor did the same in her town. Came in with a surplus and left it in debt. Yet people continue to believe they are fiscal conservatives. Democrats might be tax and spend but the Republicans are spend and spend.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  6. Teresa Raines wrote:

    As I sit here watching the Presidential Debate I can only come to one conclusion: John McCain is truly a butthead. I agree with you, and I fear that our Country is in grave danger from pirates and profiteers benefiting from my tax dollars.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Joe Schallan wrote:

    Excellent commentary on the crisis can also be found at http://roguecolumnist.typepad.com/

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Interestingly, most of your post didn’t really have much to do with government – I think the problem here isn’t government, but individuals making good financial choices.

    Not sure the government should block people from being stupid financially… but at the same time, I get a kick out of people that look at my family, a single income family, and say “oh, we could never do that – everything costs too much.” And then I see their house, the groceries they buy, the cars they loan, the fun they have instead of saving, and their daycare fees, etc. It’s not that they can’t – it’s that they are choosing to use their money unwisely, and are “paying” the consequences for it.

    But no – please, no government should be telling me I can’t spend my money however I want to!

    Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  9. Nann wrote:

    Add to YMOYL the influence of The Tightwad Gazette!

    When I read business reports I wonder what “they” really want “us” to do: on the one hand, “consumer spending is down, oh, woe” and on the other, “Americans do not save enough, oh woe.” I will stick to the savings side, thankyouverymuch, wiht a healthy dose of giving (time, talents, treasure) to institutions and agencies. (Sayeth the other librarian married to a minister. )

    Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  10. David, “no government should be telling me I can’t spend my money however I want to” unfortunately translates to banks luring people with ARMs and easy credit, and as Nann says, a business and media environment that measures economic health by how much more expansive and spendy we have become as a society.

    Government limits how we make and spend money all the time. You can’t buy heroin from the grocery store, or sell it in a school playground. Food and drug guidelines (somewhat) control what we put in our bodies. You cannot offer a credit card with massive interest rates.

    An extremely laissez-faire market has put us into this pickle. For that matter, stepping back from the fiscal mess and looking at the environment, Detroit “followed the money” with massive SUVs and trucks, and where did that get us? It accelerated damage to our planet and in the end, after a few boom years, left Americans out of work and American industry wounded and reeling.

    Government has a responsibility to help people do the right thing — by themselves, by one another, and by the world. It is possible to have a healthy but responsible market. We’ve done it before. Yes, personal responsibility is huge. Government should enable it, not undermine it.

    But of course, we’re talking here about the fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats.

    Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  11. Maia wrote:

    of course, the bailout isn’t really for the individual homeowner. it’s us taxpayers buying the bad investments (secondary market loans) and hoping they’ll be good investments later. if we were able to separate the wheat from the chaff – and of course we would need seasoned senior bank executives to help us do that (ruh roh) – we might be able to restructure some loans on the edge and help people keep their homes. but “trickle down” doesn’t work on the upside and it won’t work on the downside either. does anyone really believe it’s the individual homeowner they’re wanting to protect in the bailout? no, it’s the larger financial instituions and their ability to interact on the global market that’s important to wall street. kg was right to commit to a fiscally smart lifestyle, and i only wish our government had the same frugal sensibility. if corp america were self policing we wouldn’t need regulation but we always have and we always will.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 12:08 am | Permalink

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