Dead Week Warnings

It’s that dead week between Christmas and New Years Eve. People go back to work, sort of. Their hearts aren’t in it, and trading on Wall Street is so light that no one is paying much attention as things rise and fall, as it’s just a few folks doing year-end positioning, for real life, which starts again in January. The kids are home – no school – and they’re bored with their new toys and whining about this and that. And at offices across America people chat about this and that, or sit and stare out the window. No much work is getting done. Whatever it is it can wait. January will be here soon enough, and you’ll worry about it then. And at the malls people wander around looking for amazing bargains, as everything is marked down by twenty or thirty percent or more – but it’s mostly stuff you didn’t want in the first place, so there are a lot of empty-eyed folks at the food court, sitting quietly and looking lost – the displaced and dislocated, stunned by consumerism into a bit of a daze. The nation is in a daze, nibbling at leftovers – but not really hungry. It’s the lost week.

Years ago, out here in the aerospace industry, Hughes and TRW and Northrop and the rest had the right idea – they had a year-end shutdown. The offices and labs were closed. You don’t want the bored and uninspired working on the top-secret gizmos. That was cool, a capitulation to cultural reality. And it made sense – after design it took at least eighteen months to build one of those fancy satellites that did things no one was allowed to know about. One week wasn’t going to make a difference, and those things had to work. You couldn’t exactly go up and fix them once they were in orbit. It was best to close the labs and offices for that week. It was quality control of a sort.

And perhaps the same applies in politics – the president heads off for vacation – Bush was off to Texas to cut brush with his chainsaw or whatever it was he did, and now Obama is off to Hawaii where he grew up, to read books and play with the kids and lay low, leaving the press to file stories about no news happening, spinning their wheels with speculation about big changes coming, or not. They probably know that’s stupid, and useless, but it’s not a bad assignment – hanging out in Hawaii is pretty neat. And of course Congress had adjourned – fussing and fighting and name-calling, and John Boehner bursting into tears at random moments, is on hold. What has been passed is past, and passed. The posturing and indignation and sanctimony are on hold. Golfing is the order of the day. A thankful nation is relieved.

But the Christmas warnings hang in the air – from the two most often aired movies of the previous week – It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. And both of them are unsettling.

And you might recall that famous FBI memo:

There is submitted herewith the running memorandum concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry which has been brought up to date as of May 26, 1947….

With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.”

The FBI saw that as a communist film, undermining all that was right about America. And see Paul Krugman:

Hey, has anyone noticed that “A Christmas Carol” is a dangerous leftist tract?

I mean, consider the scene, early in the book, where Ebenezer Scrooge rightly refuses to contribute to a poverty relief fund. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” he declares. Oh, wait. That wasn’t Scrooge. That was Newt Gingrich – last week. What Scrooge actually says is, “Are there no prisons?” But it’s pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, instead of praising Scrooge for his principled stand against the welfare state, Charles Dickens makes him out to be some kind of bad guy. How leftist is that?

It’s a wonder they still show those two films at Christmas, each year. They’re warnings. Align yourself with Republicans and you could lose your soul.

Of course the Scrooge character is odd – Dickens may have modeled the guy on Thomas Malthus and his population studies – he has Scrooge talk about the efficacy of decreasing the surplus population – or on Jeremy Wood, owner of the Gloucester Old Bank and Britain’s first millionaire, and a famous miser. Or maybe Scrooge is just an extension of Fagin from Oliver Twist – Irving Howe wrote that Fagin was an “archetypical Jewish villain” – the Jew consumed by getting and holding money. Except Scrooge isn’t Jewish – he’s just a good businessman with no heart whatsoever. “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he; no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.” These days they call that Tough Love. And they talk of Personal Responsibility.

And you’d think with all the dire warnings of this sort hanging about in the air in the dead week after Christmas, and with those dead-eyed people dazed in the malls, some of this would sink in. These are the standard Christmas warnings. But no, there’s Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma, doing his own warning, a full-on Scrooge anti-spending rant on Fox News that days after Christmas:

“If we didn’t take some pain now, we’re going to experience apocalyptic pain. And it’s going to be out of control. The idea should be we should control it,” Coburn told Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday.” “We’re not taking seriously the very real and urgent threat that will undermine the standard of living in this country.”

Coburn, who said throughout the interview he was not trying to “scare” Americans with his rhetoric on the deficit, was then asked to give his worst-case scenario outlook for the American economy.

“I think you’ll see 15 to 18 percent unemployment rate. I think you’ll see a 8 to 9 percent decline in GDP. I think you’ll see the middle class destroyed,” Coburn said.

“The people it will harm the most will be the poorest of the poor,” adding that he believed hyper-inflation could contribute to the degradation of the American way of life.

This was odd and bears some examination. And Steve Benen here comments that, as Coburn sees it, 1) spending will lead to inflation, which 2) will lead to “apocalyptic pain” – especially for lower-income Americans. The solution, then, is 3) to “take capital out of the economy by slashing public spending.” But of course most of that benefits lower-income Americans, and would be “deliberately slowing already-weak economic growth.”

It’s Tough Love of the Humbug sort, and Benen adds this:

I just don’t know what planet Coburn is living on. The right-wing Oklahoman, best known for his recent fight against health benefits for 9/11 first responders, may not realize it, but the inflationary threat – the one that he thinks would lead to 18% unemployment at a 9% drop in GDP – doesn’t exist. When the most recent economic figures were released, showing GDP growth at a severely underwhelming 2.6%, there was scarcely any inflation at all. Indeed, as of a month ago, core inflation was at its lowest levels since officials starting keeping track over a half-century ago.

That does seem to be the case – you could look it up – but Coburn added this – “What most of America doesn’t understand is that if we don’t get our house in order, we’re going to look like Greece or Ireland or even Spain and Italy, which are coming.”

And Benen adds this:

What Tom Coburn doesn’t understand is that he’s utterly clueless, rationalizing his preferred agenda – gutting government, eliminating programs that benefit working families, cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting economic growth at the knees – with economic gibberish.

Yeah, well, he couldn’t exactly sputter out a loud Bah Humbug! Too many people saw the movie.

But there’s more detail:

Coburn said he didn’t believe the lame-duck Congress got the message from voters on reining in spending, and that this next Congress should chart a much different course.

“There’s well over $300 billion a year that I can lay out for you in detail that most Americans believe we should eliminate,” he said, though it “remains to be seen” how much the 112th Congress will slash.

“There will not be one American that will not be called to sacrifice,” Coburn said. “Those who are well-to-do will be called to sacrifice to a greater extent.”

Oh really? See Digby:

I’m starting to get really nervous here. These people have finally made it happen: they have convinced themselves and God only knows how many others that the economic downturn is the result of government spending and the deficit. (We knew they were trying, but this is the best example I’ve seen of someone who just states it right out with no caveats or disclaimers.)

There was a good reason to play the blame game and look in the rear view mirror over the last two years, aside from the simple political calculus, which was to offer the country the real story of the meltdown and counter this ridiculous right wing theme. This may be the most pernicious effect of the huge money in politics at the moment – the ability to seduce or blackmail political leaders into weaving a disaster capitalist storyline in the wake of financial catastrophe. This is how it unfolds.

As for the notion that the well-off will be asked to sacrifice, we know that Coburn isn’t talking about taxing them. (That would be off limits because tax cuts don’t count.) So, I’m assuming we will be told that because they will receive the same cuts in services and social security and Medicare that the rest of us will get, we all have the same “skin in the game.” And I expect that a whole lot of silly conservatives will buy that this is what makes us such a great country – our equality.

Yes, the man did say tax cuts don’t count – they pay for themselves, somehow, by magic, and least when you cut taxes on millionaires and billionaires. But Tiny Tim may have to die. There will not be one American that will not be called to sacrifice – and the Cratchit family will get over it. It’s for the greater good.

Here’s another way to look at it, from Jean-Paul Fitoussi:

Indeed, today the global economy’s arsonists have become prosecutors, and accuse the fire fighters of having provoked flooding.

Paul Krugman comments:

I think that’s basically a reference to the rating agencies – it’s not the most clearly written piece, though it makes up for that with passion. Anyway, he’s right: the rating agencies, and in general the Pooh-Bahs of finance, brought this crisis on the world – and are now solemnly lecturing nations about the evils of the deficits incurred mainly to fight the crisis.

What’s particularly striking is the way the story of our crisis has been Hellenized. Listen to Very Serious Europeans, in particular, and you hear entire discussions framed by the assumption that irresponsible budgets paved the way to crisis. Yet that was true only for Greece; it wasn’t at all true of Spain or Ireland, which was, remember, hailed by George Osborne as a “shining example” of long-run fiscal responsibility.

A lot of this is self-serving, of course. But there’s also a strong element of trying to shoehorn whatever happens into an ideological frame; it must have been about fiscal irresponsibility, because isn’t everything?

Well, it is all about fiscal irresponsibility – about Humbug – to Scrooge, until the ghosts arrive. But that’s just fiction. And they only put that movie in rotation on television one week each year.

But Krugman invokes the Orwell essay, In Front of Your Nose:

The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

Yeah, that happens, and as for when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right, we do tend to say things like this – “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

No, that was Marley’s ghost. He’s still around in the dead week after Christmas, haunting the malls, in the idle offices full of listless disinterested workers. Dickens did real damage, as did Frank Capra with his movie that upset the FBI so much. Those are the real ghosts of Christmas to Tom Coburn’s all-too-real Scrooge. It seems the story never ends.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Dead Week Warnings

  1. Florence Hedeen says:

    Our local League of Women Voters just completed our first legislator interview for the 2011 session. Newly elected and never having served in elected office before, this legislator interviewed as if he had just finished hearing Coburn’s perspective on limited government, everyone sharing the pain, and above all no more taxes on anybody. It will be interesting to watch him and his colleagues “grow” in their new positions as he advocates using a scalpel to carefully cut government spending after acknowledging that education and human services represent about 70% of the budget. Children, the poor and persons with disablities are going to especially feel the pain. Of course, he’ll start by advocating cutting legislators salaries by 10%.

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