I thought I had quit you, American politics. Your talking heads, endlessly droning about irrelevancies. Your complete inability to understand that binary outcomes are meaningless if reality requires quantum computation. Your spectacular ability to make your citizens disengage from any sense of civic duty. You are so shitty that you make people flee to the waiting arms of The Bachelorette. Fuck you.
And yet, here I am, ranting and raving on a Sunday night, on a blog all of five people read (and I’m grateful for every last one of you), writing about a compromise on a procedural vote. Why? Why am I doing this?
It is because this is a vote on the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling in and of itself is an immaterial makeweight, a bright shiny thing that we Americans latch onto because it consists of two words we understand on an individual basis. Ceiling is two syllables, yes, but it is a simple concept–that wall that hangs over our heads and keeps the outside out. Ceiling. Debt, though one of those words that’s spelled stupidly, is something everyone’s familiar with because everyone’s in it. Debt’s something you are in. The word itself implies duck boots, or maybe waders and a very long walking stick if it’s really mucky. Debt. It’s not a stretch, then, to figure out that a ‘debt ceiling’ is something to keep the debt from crashing down on us. That’s a good thing.
There’s a problem, though. There’s a lot of debt to keep out, as the recession (read: depression) and the cost of ‘entitlement spending’ (read: Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security) have wreaked havoc with the economy. In the long run, there’s simply too much to keep out without the roof caving in. We need to fix the ceiling. This is a simple enough concept on its own, but this creates another issue. What do we do to fix it? Should we patch it up? Or should we replace the whole thing?
If we had the money to do so, we’d get a whole new roof, weatherproof the shit out of it ourselves with some titanium shingles and twenty feet of insulation and call it a day. Maybe we’d crack a cold Bud open once it’s finished in celebration. But we can’t hammer a nail straight, much less install a new roof on our house. So we call a contractor, and invite bids. In America, we keep things simple because complex decision making, whether at the McDonald’s drive-thru or when choosing an American Idol winner, is terrifying. We know our limitations, so there are only two contractors.
One contractor, a Bob Vila-looking guy with suspiciously shiny workboots, says that he can patch up the roof work for relatively cheap but that it will only last for a year or so before he has to come back and do it all again. You do not trust a trust a contractor with shiny boots, and you especially do not trust the fact that he is setting you up for repeat business before you have a chance to protest. His honesty, his barely concealed glee when he told you how he’d have to come back in a year, and suspiciously kempt beard is all a bit much to handle. You thank him through gritted teeth and tell him you’ll call him back.
So you bring in the other contractor. This dude looks like a younger, angry version of Regis Philbin. His boots are frayed, his jeans are dirty, he wears a Mark Martin #8 shirt cutoff at the sleeves, and he pulled up to your driveway in the biggest Dodge Ram you’ve ever seen. He passes the eye test, and since you are American, this is usually enough. Then he tells you that not only will a patch job not work, but that he won’t do it. The only way he’d even deign to set foot inside your house again is if you agree to let him tear up the roof and rebuild it. The glint in his eyes tells you that this is not a man to be reasoned with, and that perhaps Bob Vila wasn’t so bad after all.
Then you make the mistake of looking at his boots again. They are worn. Honest. American. You ask if there is any way that you could perhaps find a way to compromise, maybe shave a thousand or so off the price by cutting a few corners. He stiffens, and tells you that he’d rather not do the job at all, that all that debt’s just going to find a way through again if you don’t let him tear it all up. As attractive as his resoluteness would be in any other circumstance, you have very little money at your disposal. You tell him, thanks, but I think I’m just going to go with Bob. Besides, you always did like the theme music from This Old House.
The kitchen table did a full flip before it landed with a loud bang on the linoleum floor. The contractor has picked you up by the collar of your shirt and pinned you to the wall, screaming expletives about how that Bob Vila doesn’t even own a pickup truck and couldn’t possibly fix your debt problem because he doesn’t know shit from shinola. You push him off of you, but then he pulls out a gun from his work bag and everything’s gone blank. He’s now screaming: “Go ahead, call him! Call him! Call that cocksucker! Tell him to get over here, NOW.” You are now terrified, though it does not escape your attention that he, too, prefers a .38. Your hippy-dippy wife won’t let you keep at the house, though. “Gotta have a talk about that,” you think as you make the call.
Bob comes over quickly, and begins to talk with his rival. “Maybe we can work something out,” he says. You notice as he pleads with the screaming lunatic that he has very small hands with shiny fingernails. A manicure. The madman is screaming even louder now, spittle flying out as he rages at the injustice, the gall of just doing a patch job. He has put his gun away, though, and you are grateful. The ease with which Bob Vila disarmed him makes you think that he’s experienced this before. He says to you: “How about this? How about I patch up the ceiling, and Joe the Roofer here does the roof for you? Everyone wins!” Relieved that you are not going to die, you agree, and everyone shakes hands. Beer…I need a fuckin beer, you think as they pull out of your driveway.
It is two days later. Bob Vila’s workers are patching the ceiling, and he’s playing Angry Birds on his iPhone. Outside, you can hear the sound of buzz saws going right through roof beams and hammers putting together the frame of your new roof. The real American contractor, so convincing upon first appearance, is alternating between texting and arguing vociferously with someone about the Cowboys choking yet another game yesterday. His ringtone is Ke$ha’s ‘We R Who We R’. Meanwhile, you can hear the leak from outside steadily dripping into a pan set up at the foot of your bed. It will be a few days before the patch job is finished, and at least a month or more until the new roof is finished. “Trust me, it’ll be worth it,” the psycho contractor said with a smile.
It might very well be worth it, but in the interim there is fetid water pouring into the house and you’re planning to sell half of your personal belongings in a garage sale to raise the funds to pay these guys to fix your fucking debt ceiling because the bank wouldn’t lend you the money to pay off these schmucks and your homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover it because you didn’t really need to replace your roof and the ceiling’s not really damaged so we’re sorry.
That is what’s going on. Redundancy, psychotic mania, waste, pettiness, and outright evil has fueled America’s political stalemate for decades. What makes this different is that there’s now every reason to believe that this latest episode represents an outright rejection by a government of the notion that government exists to serve its citizens. The state has refuted the notion that it should exercise power at all, to say nothing of how it should use power. To say that the system is broken implies that there is something worth fixing. A civic life spent making an unpalatable choice between a 1 and a 0, or a turd sandwich or a giant douche, falls well short of any acceptable standard for an ‘advanced’ democracy. Society is always worth working on, because there is good in people that can yet be harnessed for positive future gain. But there is a suicidal streak that has entered the American body politic that makes me shudder.