Monday, June 07, 2004

THE NICE OLD MAN WHO LOOTED OUR TREASURY. In the late 1970s I lived in the East Village and worked as a busboy. I made less than ten thousand dollars a year, but that wasn't so bad because I was getting food stamps, and my rent was only $125 a month. When I had health problems, I went to the public clinics -- $5 got me in the door.

Envious? You should be. Not of my life, of course -- I wouldn't wish that nightmare on anyone. No, you should envy America as it was for a little while, after the Great War and before Reagan.

Because back then, we all got a little more slack. One did not have to work day and night to break even. There were lots of people who kept small families in modest homes on a single income, believe it or not. The idea that the Mom and Pop of a family would both be working and still have money trouble -- sometimes bad money trouble -- was absurd.

If you stumbled, the government would help you up -- after all, that's what we pay taxes for (as people used to say quite a lot, back when they were in fact getting something from their taxes besides foreign wars). Easy access to benefits meant not only that you didn't have to starve, but also that you didn't have to worry too much. Life was good.

That was the post-war West. Then Reagan came in, and the slack got considerably taken up.

Many of us got some tax relief -- though ordinary earners got less of this (and had some of it taken back by other means) than the more wealthy, who cleaned up. Entitlements petered out, and public service agencies were replaced by your dwindling savings account and the credit card companies -- just like welfare, except you have to pay it back at 26% interest! Our current leaders may not like the resulting, massive personal bankruptcy rate, but at least (I imagine them laughing to themselves), they don't have to pay for it.

In the Reagan era you were hooted off the carpet if you sought money for milk and bread -- but you had much better luck if you had a business plan. Entrepreneurs were lionized for their grit and determination, even if they bent the rules a little (this thinking seems since then to have developed into a full-fledged alterative culture, of which the Enron generation represents the highest stage of development). Entrepreneurs became the new avatars of American individualism, and people talked seriously of electing boardroom clowns like Lew Lehrman and Donald Trump to high office.

All this was sluiced and greased by an enormous hemorrhage of public funds. This now-chronic superdebt, which only abated under Clinton and is of course being run up again, necessitates drastic actions just to keep us out of the global poor house. So we sell an increasingly large chunk of our debt to foreign speculators. And we stress productivity -- the mantra of the age, the leading indicator of leading indicators for Reaganite economists. We work harder and harder every year to maintain this "economy" -- which word was once a plain descriptive term for a large abstraction, but is now apparently the name of some cruel bitch-goddess that must be served and offered sacrifice.

Reagan did that. With a smile and a shoeshine he turned off the spigots of slack. Today very few of us head home when we hear the five o'clock whistle; either overtime is semi-mandatory for us, or we don't have a job. DVD players are cheap, but milk costs $4 a gallon. We worship money and success, yet prate about values. All this is his legacy. You can thank him for it if you like.

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