Monsters for Our Times

We are moving from the age of moody sexy vampires to the age of flesh-eating mindless zombies. The Twilight series is finally and mercifully over and now World War Z – Brad Pitt’s zombie epic – gets a Super Bowl teaser of course. There are fewer vampires and more zombies, and maybe that means something. We’re moving from troubled but somewhat sympathetic monsters who want to suck all the blood out of you to keep themselves alive – not nice, but understandable – to monsters who want to eat your brains, for no particular reason, other than they really want to. It’s a descent into utterly purposeless evil, but those of us from Pittsburgh know where this Zombie business started – with the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead – a low-budget hoot filmed in glorious black-and-white on location, just up the road in Butler County, and yes, the blood was actually Bosco Chocolate Syrup. But it worked. The film is now a classic, of sorts, and thus Pittsburgh introduced America to zombies. You can thank us later.

All the world is Pittsburgh now. Zombies really are the rage, once again, probably because they fit right in with the current zeitgeist. Things are awful – economically, politically, socially – and it’s easy to feel as if the world is filled with the mindless undead, stumbling about, desperately and inexorably trying to eat your brains, for no good reason. And most of them are politicians, Republican politicians, muttering about long-settled and long-forgotten issues – states’ rights and contraception and abortion and how evil gay people really are – now back from the dead. These guys have been scaring the hell out of everyone since Obama won the first time, but that’s what they do. Be afraid, be very afraid – and vote for them. Resistance is futile.

The Republican rank-and-file probably feels the same way about Democratic politicians, but their side has Ann Coulter, who kind of looks like a zombie – for what that’s worth. And really, only one side keeps telling America that all those things America thought were dead aren’t really quite dead yet – no, not at all. You only thought the culture wars of the sixties were over, and you only thought the Civil War was over, but we need to do something about those damned antiwar hippies, and sex and drugs and rock (rap) music too, and the South with rise again. The undead walk among us still.

Maybe they do, but Hollywood didn’t foist zombies on us. Hollywood just responded to the times, as Hollywood only exists to make money. As Jack Warner used to say, as he rejected one more deeply important script, if you want to send a message try Western Union. Give people what they want to see, the heroes and monsters for the times. In Slate, Katy Waldman has a fascinating item on this, on The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950s – a surprisingly scholarly discussion of films like 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood StillThe Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – all films about the mess we’d gotten ourselves into messing around with what we shouldn’t have been messing with at all:

The celluloid fantasies of the Atomic Age teem with scientists who are mad, hubristic, irresponsible, or just plain evil. But these Promethean overreachers (and/or their creations) generally come up against heroic doctors or specialists who are equally knowledgeable. Thus, in Them!, while it is fallout from the Trinity blast in New Mexico that transforms the ants into 18-foot armored monsters, it is also a father-daughter pair of entomologists, Gwenn and Pat Medford, who deduce what’s happening and how to stop it (with flamethrowers, mostly). In terms of sensibility, director Gordon Douglas is clearly a science nerd. He devotes an entire scene to the elder Medford’s charmingly jargon-laden lecture about ant life cycles; chalkboards and slides are dusted off; the audience falls, for a moment, under the spell of discovery. And in another scene, police investigate a general store that has been ravaged by the mutant Formicidae. Yet as the men poke around the ruins, a television cheerily broadcasts a WHO report about how radiation might be used to eradicate disease. Ironic? Sure. But it’s an irony with real optimism at its edges.

Irradiated baddies menace 1950s cinema. Godzilla – roused from the depths of Bikini Atoll by atomic testing – terrorizes Tokyo with nuclear halitosis. Giant, mutated spiders roam the planet in World Without End. I Was a Teenage Werewolf explores the effects of radiation on the human genome, while the “school bus-size locusts” from Beginning of the End owe their powers to USDA tests of radioactive fertilizers. At the same time, though, we humans would be lost without technology – on-screen, anyway. Electricity defeats the alien in The Thing from Another World. Fighter pilots best Tarantula’s arachnids by dousing them in napalm.

Yes, science caused the problem, but science will solve it too – which encapsulates the fifties nicely. Now it’s zombies. No one knows what caused them, or it’s not really necessary to know that, and there’s nothing much to do about them, other than to batter them to pieces, and then batter those pieces to pieces. Science doesn’t solve the problem, drudgery does. Don’t overthink things. In fact, don’t think at all – just batter away, or they’ll eat your brains.

As a general response to life, that fits our times. Nothing can really be solved, per se – it can only be smashed into wholly inert pieces. That’s obvious. Ever since the 2008 primaries, Obama has been mocked for thinking that sanctions and diplomacy can be used to convince those folks in Iran that they really don’t want or need nuclear weapons – which Obama likes to call a thoughtful approach. Many say that’s not how you deal with purposeless evil – we should do what Netanyahu and AIPAC have told us, in no uncertain terms and at risk of their severe displeasure, to do. We must bomb Iran back to the Stone Age, or Israel will abandon us and Jesus will weep. Yes, that last part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but don’t overthink things. In fact, don’t think at all – just do it. That’s how you deal with zombies after all.

The problem is that there are no zombies. There never were. It was all metaphor, and in fact, the actual monsters we think are there may not really be there at all. For example, there’s that Debt Monster, as everyone agrees that we are in a Debt Crisis. We sold so many treasury bonds to the Chinese, and to ourselves to finance Social Security and all the rest, that we are so far in hock we’ll go under soon. Sure we can print more money – float more bonds to cover payments now due on the bonds already sold – and everyone still wants to buy those bonds and will buy them at a loss just to have that ultimate safe place to park their money – but we shouldn’t do that. The debt is too big. It’s a monster that will eat our children and their children and then their children, who will have to make massive payments forever to cover all the absurd spending we put on the bar tab.

That’s the dire situation, but it may be nonsense. There may be no monster. Our children and their children and then their children can float their own bonds to pass on the costs, forever, ad infinitum, as long as people think this is a pretty good country and want to buy those bonds. That’s the whole idea of national debt, why it was invented. In fact, see Matthew Yglesias – Don’t Repay the National Debt – where he suggests it’s time to revive a British financial innovation from the eighteenth century, perpetual bonds:

In 1752, Prime Minister Henry Pelham converted the entire outstanding stock of British debt into consolidated annuities that would become known as consols. The consols paid interest on an annual basis just like regular bonds, but with no requirement that the government ever redeem them by repaying the face value. Pelham created the bonds in order to reduce the government’s annual debt service costs. That isn’t our problem today. Instead, a modern-day consol would target another problem: political reluctance to take advantage of record-low interest rates. …

Right now, the Treasury Department floats loans of a variety of durations, ranging from 28 days to 30 years. Lenders generally demand higher interest rates for longer-duration loans. But right now the rates on even the 30-year loans are extremely low. We could – and should – imitate Pelham and see what the market would demand for a loan that never has to be repaid. How high an interest rate would people demand for a loan like that? Well there’s no way to know without offering one on the marketplace. But right now 30-year bond rates are at never-before-seen lows, so paying a higher rate wouldn’t involve any unprecedented borrowing costs. …

The government could borrow money without adding to the national debt. Instead of obsessing over the debt-to-GDP ratio, we could tackle the present-day problem of unemployment and the medium-term barriers to growth. The current structure of American debt served us well for a long time, but times change. Successful countries manage their debt not just by borrowing prudent amounts, but by being smart about how they borrow. Today we face unusual fiscal circumstances – large projected future borrowing needs plus very low interest rates – and that calls for a little innovative thinking. … It’s time to take advantage of that to lock in today’s low borrowing costs. Forever.

That’s three paragraphs from a much longer argument, but a clear argument that there’s no Debt Monster that wants to eat your children. There’s no monster to batter to pieces, no zombie in the shadows. Don’t confuse fiscal policy with Hollywood movies.

No, really – in fact, the Los Angeles Times just published a feature article saying the national debt is really not out of hand at all – “With nearly $2.4 trillion already trimmed from projected U.S. deficits over the next decade, the nation is on its way to sustainable levels of debt, needing only some well-timed tweaks.”

Who would say such a thing? Those who know about such matters:

Listening to the political shouting match and seeing Washington lurch from one fiscal crisis to another, one might think the federal budget deficit is the economic equivalent of a giant meteor hurtling toward America, about to hit any day.

The reality is quite different. In fact, the debt is probably not even the country’s biggest economic challenge, most experts say, and certainly not the most urgent.

The evidence shows that the country is on a course of spending and debt accumulation that could lead to serious trouble not today or tomorrow but probably 10 to 20 years down the road.

What the evidence does not show is that such a crisis is close at hand or that the U.S. is in any imminent danger of turning into an economic basket case like present-day Greece.

This is followed by one expert after another saying exploding healthcare costs are the real problem, but if we make a series of relatively moderate policy changes, even if unwelcome but would not require drastic adjustments in anyone’s lives, things will be fine:

Over the last two years, policymakers have enacted measures cutting almost $2.4 trillion from projected deficits over the next decade. Most of that deficit reduction came from reductions in federal programs approved as part of the debt-ceiling deal in 2011. About $650 billion of the total comes from new revenue generated by tax increases on the wealthy that were part of this month’s fiscal-cliff deal.

Taken together, economists and budget experts reckon, an additional $1 trillion to $1.4 trillion in savings would be enough to stabilize the national debt as a share of the overall economy. That would be achieved by bringing the deficit down to 2.5% of the country’s annual gross domestic product, about one-third the share last year.

“That’s manageable; we’ve done a big chunk already,” said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “You can do that by raising taxes a little bit more or by cutting spending…. That’s something that’s doable.”

Williams is not alone. Many others are cited. There’s nary a zombie in sight. There is no debt monster, although if you read the many comments attached to this item you’ll see that readers out here just know there is one hell of a big scary Debt Monster out there, ready to eat our children – but then half the people out here in Los Angeles work in Hollywood, or pretend they do. There have to be monsters.

Michael Kinsley has a slightly different take on this. Whether there really is a monster or not, both sides here are arguing when they really agree:

Businessman and billionaire Peter G. Peterson is Mr. Deficit Panic. He’s spending a billion of his own dollars warning people about the danger of the growing national debt. And yet, speaking about the deficit to Time magazine in December, he said, “I wouldn’t enact any measures to reduce it until the economy recovers properly.” In fact, he told Time that he actually favors more stimulus-spending, “as long as it’s well designed and paid for.”

Peterson is a bit confused here. If an economic stimulus is paid for, it ceases to be a stimulus. The borrowing isn’t incidental: Spending more than you’ve got is the whole point. But Peterson’s basic scenario is this: Let the deficit grow and don’t worry about it until economic recovery, then get serious about reforming entitlements and go ahead and raise taxes if you insist. The national debt is what I care about.

Then there’s the other guy:

New York Times columnist and Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman is Mr. Don’t-Worry-About-the-Debt. He believes that unemployment is a much more pressing problem, and that the stimulus at the beginning of President Obama’s first term was inadequate. Even now he wants more stimulus, which means more government borrowing and a higher national debt.

Is there any limit on how long we can keep borrowing like this? Yes, Krugman says. When “the economy is robust again,” it will be time to start paying down the debt. More specifically, he wrote last year that when the unemployment rate falls to 7%, it will be time to reverse course. Currently the unemployment rate is 7.8%, so we’re close.

The irony is that they agree:

Krugman probably did not mean actually paying down the debt, since that would involve running an annual surplus, which even Krugman does not see on the horizon. But Krugman and Peterson are in agreement on the right formula: First, you run up the deficit in order to stimulate the economy, and then you reduce the deficit in order to bring the national debt into a safer range.

They just approach this solution from opposite directions. Peterson wants a balanced budget and only grudgingly acknowledges the need for stimulus. Krugman wants the stimulus and only grudgingly acknowledges that there are limits: You can’t borrow forever. Nevertheless, the two men – representing opposite ends of the spectrum in this debate – agree on how we should proceed.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Maybe, but you can’t get there from here:

Step No. 1 of the Peterson-Krugman plan is working well enough. We’ve all done a great job of barely cutting spending, barely raising taxes, not reforming entitlements and, all told, spending about a trillion dollars a year more than we bring in. Plenty of stimulus (though stimulus hawks like Krugman wanted more).

But is there a shred of evidence that the citizenry and our political leaders are ready for Step No. 2? That’s where everyone agrees to enough spending cuts and tax increases to close the budget gap. I’ll believe that when I see it.

The monster is us, actually, and Kinsley adds this:

Krugman and other deficit doves seem to think that the only reason anyone would be a deficit hawk at a time like this is that he or she wants to dismantle the government. They say America needs growth, and the only path to growth is through deficit spending.

Is it not at least possible, though, that some folks really mean it when we say, no, we really are concerned about the effect of the national debt on America’s long-run prosperity?

Those would be the folks who believe in monsters, on shows like Morning Joe on MSNBC, and Neil Irwin explains the dispute this way:

On one side is the standard Washington wise man/centrist pundit view of the world, embodied by Joe Scarborough and some of the people he cites, like former Joint Chiefs chair Mike Mullen and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. On the other are a wide variety of economists – avowed liberals like Krugman, but also the not-particularly-ideological analysts at places like the Federal Reserve, major bank economics shops, and business forecasting firms, who generally see wisdom in reducing the deficit over time but also see big risks to the economy if the effort moves to fast, and not much reason to fear an imminent debt crisis.

These worlds seem to be talking past each other and for one reason in particular. There is, in the Washington conversation, a generalized aversion to deficits. It’s an aversion with an almost moral dimension. In fact, sometimes the moral dimension is explicit: Mitt Romney often called deficits a “moral crisis.”

But to economists, deficits are simply the difference between revenues and outlays. A large deficit could be a good thing if it’s going toward a productive investment. A small deficit can be a bad thing if the economy needs more support.

In short, the economics crowd isn’t as nervous about deficits and debt as the Washington pundits, and thus talk of the Debt Crisis or the Moral Crisis is like talking about zombies, or Godzilla, or those giant ants. This also splits in another way, and as Kevin Drum sees it, thinking about why the political class is really more nervous about debt than the economists:

For conservatives: They aren’t. They just don’t like spending lots of money on poor people. Their real desire is to cut welfare spending, and deficit hawkery is just a handy excuse for this.

For centrists/lefties: They accept the economic argument in theory, but are more attuned to practical politics than economists are. The idea that we can safely ease the pressure for action on the debt today – but still count on politicians to virtuously cut borrowing in the future – strikes them as laughable. We’re humans, not Vulcans.

Drum isn’t sure that the long-term deficit is a monster or it isn’t, but he does think it would be nice if someone listened to the smart guys in the room:

I doubt very much that it will ever get reined in without applying enormous, sustained pressure to the political class. My biggest problem, then, isn’t so much that this pressure is being applied, but that it’s being applied to the wrong place. There’s nothing much we can (or should) do about the aging of America: we just need to pay for it, whether we like it or not. And discretionary spending isn’t on an upward trajectory, so it shouldn’t be sucking up so much of our attention.

It’s all healthcare, baby. If all of the pressure on the deficit were being applied to serious proposals for reining in healthcare spending, in an effort to get U.S. spending levels down to those prevailing in socialist Europe, I’d probably applaud. Unfortunately, virtually none of it is. We got a few new cost-containment initiatives in Obamacare, which might or might not work, complemented by some absurd hack-and-slash proposals from the Paul Ryan crowd, and that’s about it. This is pretty much the exact opposite of serious.

The exact opposite of serious is thinking zombies are real. They’re not, and there is no Debt Monster either – it’s not real at all. Neither was Godzilla – roused from the depths of Bikini Atoll by atomic testing – terrorizing Tokyo with nuclear halitosis, or that fifty-foot woman or those giant ants. We just make up monsters appropriate to the times. What comes after zombies?

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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2 Responses to Monsters for Our Times

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Allan, one of the very finest roundups you’ve ever done. It just COVERS the ground! Thanks for the extra effort.


  2. Madman says:

    Thanks for setting the context for all of those 1950s monster flicks. There was another, somewhat-related group of films set in the imaginary Day(s) After the unavoidable nuclear holocaust. I suppose we should give credit to Stephen Vincent Benet for originating the genre with his “By The Waters Of Babylon.” Best known is “On The Beach,” but there were a number of other lower-budget films about this or that handful of survivors and/or tribes dealing with post-apocalyptic survival. One film dealt with warring tribes in the New York area, who appeared to have no idea that there was a previous civilization. I mention this genre because that is probably what is next for the Republicans: attempts at dealing with the post-Obama apocalypse.

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