(As usual, the agreement with the syndicators means this column appears here a week after its newspaper release)
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THE DEBT CRISIS: DROPPING THE BALL
BY BOB FRANKEN
With the NFL wrapping up agreement while the players here in Washington drop their political footballs, it is tempting to make the comparison between a league with some fumblers and the bumblers running our country as we lurch toward economic disaster. Their turf is the quicksand of intransigence, and so far, the opponents have been unwilling to pull themselves out of their grudge match even as the bottom starts to fall out of the economy. There are cheers as the professional jocks get back to business, but polls show almost nothing but jeers for those scorned as amateurish jerks and their political monkey business.
The news and sports worlds are jam-packed with cliches. Any commentator will sooner or later quote Otto von Bismarck. What a shame he was rattling around Germany in the 1800s because he'd be quite a tweeter today (ein hochtoner auf Twitter?). The guy was a Prussian machine. Bismarck is the one who said “Laws are like sausage. You should never see them made.” I should point out that there are some who think he stole the line, but who cares; they should get a life. The point is that the present-day sausage is so riddled with ideological and rhetorical pathogens that it threatens to poison the economy.
The stock markets are jittery. Why wouldn't they be? Why wouldn't the various rating agencies threaten to downgrade the credit of the United States government, tarnishing the country's pride? Even if some patchwork debt-ceiling agreement is sewn together, the facade of stability will have huge cracks in it. Our government leaders are demonstrating a temper-tantrum immaturity that understandably makes investors nervous.
There clearly are mixed feelings in the hierarchy of the major holder of U.S. debt -- the People's Republic of China. On the one hand, their stake is threatened like everyone else's. On the other, the ideological adversary gets to rub it in. So far, they've played it cool, limiting public comment, but there was this from the State Administration of Foreign Exchange: “We hope the U.S. government concretely takes responsible policy measures to increase the confidence of international markets and respects and safeguards investors' interests.” Is that a zinger or what?
China's major advantage, of course, is that is has all the built-in efficiency of a top-down dictatorship. The U.S. is supposed to rely on the “consent of the governed,” which only really works when the governed are not bamboozled into selecting leaders who are incapable of seeing beyond their narrow interests and/or narrow minds.
Another word spurt from our boy Bismarck defined politics as “the art of the possible.” Even with the probability of a debacle if the United States defaults and effectively becomes a repayment deadbeat, the modern politicians on all sides are proving themselves to be artless, and those consumed by their ambitions largely heartless.
It's a waste of time to assess blame right now. There will be plenty of time for that before the next election, which is what these gyrations are all about. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is out there again on the Sunday talk shows, declaring “It's unthinkable that this country will not meet its obligations on time.” For most Americans, it's entirely thinkable that good sense will be drowned by toxic partisanship. It doesn't matter whether we fault the two houses of Congress or the White House. For disgusted citizens, to one degree or another, it's “a pox on all their houses.”
So let's hear it for the NFL, which brings to mind still another cliche -- this of uncertain origin: “Politics is a contact sport.” The difference is that in football, there are winners as well as losers.
© 2011 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.