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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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