The biggest variable is the price of oil. It depresses the value of the dollar worldwide, it crushes the budgets of millions of American households, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. With the tables shifting in world economics and China booming with industry, if we had the ability right now to reject Middle Eastern oil outright, the effect on the price per barrel is presumed by most analysts to be negligible.
This, of course, is the pebble at the center of the massive snowball. Those American households I mentioned are dealing with a lot — subprime mortgages, credit crises, foreclosure, unemployment, and the winter cold that doesn’t care about the price of oil or the size of your home or how far you have to drive to an underpaying job.
Bush still has the notion that if you give taxpayers extra money they’ll spend it. In other crisis situations, that might hold true. Consumers, when gifted with a few dollars more, do go out and consume, but with the recent turn of events tied to something so essential to our lives, where we live, we can’t afford to spend tax rebates on anything that will dramatically alter the economy. It’ll go to bills, to debts outstanding, and to pay penalties incurred. If the money went toward paying off credit cards, perhaps future monies could then be spent in the marketplace, but that would depend on breathing room between payoff and reuse. If you pay down your debts but the job market sucks, you’ll only create new debts out of sheer survival.
As always, we can’t really look to other countries to blame. Is China driving the world economy? Certainly, but it’s this country’s fault for outsourcing jobs (slave labor is only slave labor if you see it). American industry’s aversion to paying its work force a fair wage is coming back to bite it in the ass. Sure, Chinese manufacturing helps produce products with cheaper prices, but a $100 television may as well be a $2,000 television for a consumer living off unemployment checks. If you had given that consumer a $1,900 tax rebate a couple years ago, maybe — maybe — he would’ve bought that new TV. But right now, when getting by is becoming harder and harder, that money could be used for food and utilities, portioned out very carefully, ensuring that this massive influx of moving cash never quite happens.
This all has seeds in the housing boom and the predatory loans that helped people buy way above their means, and an infrastructure that never considered the artificial bubble it was inflating. Recent reports show, again and again, that government intervention in these practices could have prevented the nationwide McMansion explosion. The unrealistic exaggeration of the “American dream” of home ownership could have been tempered if subprime lenders had truly educated their clientele on the dangers of the fickle interest rate; the importance of actually paying more than the interest payment every single month could have been contractually stated rather than sneakily implied. The reason the government didn’t intervene, as you can guess, is because they didn’t want to “spoil a good thing,” opting for sunny-side ignorance over sober-minded governance.
So where are people’s tax rebates going? Probably into liens levied onto their accounts to pay back lenders. Is that money helping the economy? Not really. It’s just balancing loss on ledgers. To put it another way, it’s filling holes in preexisting roads rather than building new roads.
That a massive portion of the American budget is still being torched in the flames of a fruitless war cannot be ignored. The only people who’ve benefited from the war as of late are President Bush and John McCain, both proponents of the troop surge in Iraq, because the tailwind doesn’t reek of failure as much as it once did. After the numbers are crunched, one suspects the stink will resurface, but by then both men may have gotten what they want: for Bush, a breather from criticism, and for McCain, an impressive collection of delegates.
All of this is to say that if I’m given a check from the U.S. government I’ll gladly accept it, but that money is already spent. A decade of excess has forced most of us into fiscal prudence, and all the extra bucks will do is take a little weight off my Visa and Discover bills. That’s it. No new car — I’ll still be patching up leaks in the old one and praying the radiator holds. No new TV — I still have a year left before the signal goes digital, and honestly, all I’ll miss is PBS. I’ll make do with my living arrangement because I have no other choice.
Is there a solution, other than lying in the bed we made with our inappropriate and sometimes ludicrous national choices? Would a nationwide minimum-wage increase force the middle class back above working-poverty levels? Perhaps, if it doesn’t drive employers farther out of the country. Would massive penalties against those companies, for abandonment to their own homeland’s needs, help fill coffers and give them pause to think that taking off may not be the moneymaker they envisioned? Possibly. Will the government, which has for the better part of a decade been utterly beholden to El Corporata, make that move? No. Never.
So here we are. The solutions: make companies pay fairly and make them pay dearly for going Absent Without Responsibility, make banks and big construction suffer for offering the drug and then ravaging the addict, bring the troops home and stop paying for blood and armor, and give the American debtor, who has more credit cards than hope, a light at the end of their rolling-balance tunnel. Do some or all of these things and then money can be spent on “stuff.”
If this is too much to ask, then we must accept our fate. Few nations haphazardly fall into a hole. Instead they prefer denying the shovel in their own hands.