Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mr. Micawber, meet the enemy...

This will be a grumpy, cheerless, puritanical, and visually bleak post. I made the mistake of looking at the morning paper in close proximity with my morning shave.

There is an odd phenomenon that most people my age have experienced. There is undoubtedly a female version, but for men at any rate, it seems to be associated with shaving. I had come upon it two or three times in literature without paying it much mind. Then one day about twenty-five years ago I encountered it in my own mirror. Shaving is an exacting exercise, and the shaver tends to concentrate on small details rather than the large gestalt. But all of a sudden I did see the larger picture in its wholeness, and the larger picture was my father staring back at me. This was not vague resemblance, but a sudden shock of identity. For the briefest of moments I actually thought I was having a supernatural experience.

My father was a great man, and a hero to me to this day. He was also, I thought, quite good looking; to become his tonsorial doppelganger, once I had a moment to think about it, seemed not such a bad thing and maybe even a good one. So I jogged along in that mode for another couple of decades until once again my morning shave was rudely invaded. The intruder this time was less welcome—my grandfather. My grandfather lacked my fathers (his son’s) principal virtues, and certainly his joie de vivre. He was in my experience crabby, bigoted, and embittered. I realize in retrospection that he must actually have been haunted by a sense of failure. The high point of his life had been service as a recruiting sergeant in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He spent long hours sitting around his front yard in a straw hat with a .22 rifle, shooting at squirrels marauding in a distant walnut tree. One memorable day he amazed us all, no doubt especially the squirrels, by actually hitting one. But mainly—and this was the thing—he was a really old guy. His abundant hair was wild and white in that distinctively Irish mode. He had shiny, crackled, old man’s skin that bruised and cut easily. This is the man who now stares back at me from the shaving mirror.

This week’s news from Greece and lower Manhattan has put all this into perspective for me—the perspective famously articulated by Pogo. When I look into the mirror, I see the Enemy, and the Enemy is us, specifically us geezers. Practically the entire Western world is on its way to hell in a hand basket on account of geezers chowing down their free lunch. Only it isn’t lunch—in lots of places it’s a five-course banquet washed down with a vintage of pleasant local varietals. Furthermore—and here’s the really important part—it isn’t free. It only seems that way on account of the magical illusion of plastic cards.

The “economic crisis” clearly involves arcane and esoteric dimensions well beyond my capacities. But there is something wrong with our whole national approach when a Ph.D. in English can make neither head nor tail of a 1040 income tax form. It was an evil day when John Maynard Keynes replaced Wilkins Micawber as the official Guru to the Geezers. Remember the Micawber Principle? Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. Maybe the return of the debtors’ prison wouldn’t be such a bad idea, or at least debtors’ house arrest, such as that imposed by the EU on Greece. But, physician, heal thyself! In many of those EU countries official Geezerdom begins at age 55.

One of the last things my mirror-dad said to me before morphing into my mirror-grandad was roughly this. “Son, our country is in a real mess. It’s mainly self-indulgence, which since the war has been transformed from a shaming vice into a civil right. If we are going to get out of this mess we are going to have to do three things. People are going to have to work harder and be more productive, and they are going to have to make conscious sacrifices. Washington has to make fewer and smarter expenditures, or to raise more money through significantly raised taxes—probably both. For a start the government is going to have to quit spending money that it doesn’t have. But in order to have even the money it ought to have to do the things it ought to be doing, it’s got to have more income. If people are willing to pay a lot of money to live in a nice house, they ought to be willing to pay what’s needed to live in a nice country.”

Why is there not a single politician of repute, in either party or in no party, who is willing to articulate these elementary principles? One answer is that no such person could possibly be put into office by an electorate so addicted to the free lunch. But the waiter is even now at long last calculating the bill, and no matter how many tantrums we throw in the street, with or without a few homicidal fire bombs, somebody will have to pay it. My dad was not an economist. He didn’t even have a college degree. But he did work for a living. I know I have an erudite readership. Surely out there in the electronic academy, there must be somebody who can explain why my dad and Mr. Micawber are wrong.


  1. Fleming the Elder and Micawber were both right.

    Last week you mentioned the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt who famously said "It's hard to bungle a good idea."

    He was wrong.

    A system that cares for the poor, the elderly, retirees, and orphans (in my opinion, a good idea) can, and has been, bungled by whacky excesses run amok.

  2. The best way to raise more government revenue would be cutting the tax rate. That actually raises more in taxes than does raising taxes. Works every time. Worked for George Bush, worked for Jack Kennedy. It will work again. Raising the tax rate starves small business which is the engine of economic growth and employment.

    Combining lower taxes with serious cuts in government spending would be even better. That would free up money for economically productive sectors, increasing employment and tax revenues even more.

    We have to get away from the idea that the State should substitute for family, church, private enterprise, voluntary associations, and God. Those systems that seek to have the State encompass and substitute for all of the myriad institutions of a free society inevitably lead to destitution, tyranny, war, famine and other undersirable consequences -- which are then used by the perpetrators to justify even worse excesses.

  3. Yes, I agree with Punditarian. In order to increase government revenue, the key is to rev up the economy, not to increase taxes.

    A classic example was the so-called luxury tax. As always with analysis of new tax laws, the geniuses who devised it did not take into account the fact that people change their behavior when tax laws change. It was believed that the luxury tax would bring in hundreds of millions based on the spending patterns in place before the tax. When the tax was put into place, luxury spending (particularly in the yachting business which I am very familiar with) plummeted. The resulting tax revenue ended up not even being enough to cover the decrease in corporate taxes and the huge increase in unemployment benefits created by the collapse of the industry.

    As counter-intuitive as it seems, cutting taxes results in increased revenue because it's good for the little (and big) entities that generate the revenue to be taxed.

  4. Thanks for your kind words, Sparrow, but it isn't counter-intuitive at all. It's just common sense. Put down Das Kapital for a few days, and take up Friedrich Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom." This is a book that can open eyes, if minds are not already entirely closed.

  5. Uh, actually, I'll go with "my grandfather was right."

  6. Trouble is, whenever we pass a bill with tax hikes and spending cuts, the tax hikes come and the spending cuts never do -- the additional revenue always gets spent, and then some.

    Don't trust Congress. Ever.