Notes from a Precipice

Arguing ChildrenThe holiday season, as the cliché goes, is a time of family, and this often entails seeing relatives that one doesn’t encounter regularly. Several days ago, my father invited his brothers and sisters to the family home for a meal; it was an altogether Italian affair, with rice balls, eggplant rollatini and strong red wine on the table.

Some of the arguments which inevitably boiled up were political, with my father and his younger brother representing the viewpoint of the world weary businessman; my aunt, a medical doctor, is much more progressive. The waves of discourse crashed up against each other, boiling and foaming, then the surface calmed, largely due to the presence of my six month old niece. Her obvious wonder at it all made accomplished, distinguished adults blow raspberries in order to coax a smile out of her. She’s a happy child; she often complied.

Apart from making attempts to entertain my niece, I was mostly silent; in contrast, on the other side of the table, two of my younger cousins, brother and sister, argued, or rather, bickered. The lad would do something: I presume he was kicking his sister under the table, she prodded him back and told him loudly to stop it. At one point she yelled “Stop pissing me off!” at him; I recall when using this phrase was a serious breach of dinner table etiquette. On it went for much of the meal: my little niece’s attempts to make noises of her own only temporarily stilled this duel. Indeed, it did not come to a complete end until after we had all left the table.

Less than 24 hours later, I arrived in Florida and witnessed a similar altercation. The children in this instance were younger: the bickering took place in the back seat of a minivan. I didn’t get the full context, partially because I was allowing my thoughts to drift elsewhere, but the main issue was that one child was poking the other with a finger made wet with saliva.

I am getting older and thus my memory of childhood is fading, but I don’t recall ever having such fights with my sister; perhaps it’s because there is a substantial age gap between us. She arrived when I was nine years old; by then, I was well past thinking of my spit covered finger as a potential weapon. Given my lack of knowledge about sibling rivalries, I wouldn’t like to pronounce on the state of American childhood; there is, however, a debate which is raging just as fiercely and with a similar level of maturity as any going on in the back of the nation’s minivans, namely in regards to the so-called “fiscal cliff”. President Obama appeared on television several days ago, looking as harassed and tired as a parent of rambunctious toddlers and stated the obvious: most people work to rigid deadlines and they deliver. If those outside government can do this so regularly to the point of it being mundane, then why can’t Congress do so as well? In his best “Don’t make me pull over” voice, the President then told them to get to work.

The issues are grave: the American economy is still unsteady. In Florida, matters are particularly precarious: on the drive away from the airport, I spotted housing developments which had begun but were unlikely to be completed. In the slight rain that was falling, stagnant pools were accumulating on these muddy construction sites. Yes, there are bright silver Mercedes still being driven along the highways, their drivers speaking into their cellphones presumably to make more business deals. Yet, there are also SUVs with dents and rust, old vehicles from defunct brands like Oldsmobile, Mercury and Saturn whose paint has faded in the Florida sun. Along the same road, I spotted a possible symptom of how deeply some got into hock: an SUV pulled along a speedboat whose name, spelled out in bold green letters, was “A Loan Again”.

Unemployed in FloridaGo into a suburban neighbourhood: yes, some houses are pristine and elegant, others seem less well kept, more patched together, the lawns less tidy. Night in Florida as a result is more visually attractive than the day: darkness softens the rough edges, moonlight reflects off the ponds, lakes and the ocean, giving the tableaus a gentle glow. As one drives around, the artificial lights make the discount stores in scattered shopping plazas look more grand than they are. Young people congregate outside a Chinese “all you can eat” restaurant; the dim light helps to hide the fact that their attire is direct from Wal Mart. Drive along further, and in a ditch near a hotel, two young men wearing backwards facing baseball caps walk gingerly, heading towards the highway. Night, and the egregious use of electricity make this scene seem more tranquil than it probably is: after hitting a peak of 11.3% in March 2010, Florida’s unemployment rate is now hovering at 8.1%. This rate still puts it above the national average; worse, thanks to the policies of its Republican governor, Rick Scott, Florida has the nation’s lowest “recipiency rate” at 16%. At most, according to the Miami Herald, only one in three of those entitled to unemployment assistance have actually received any money. Peel back the discrete charms of a Floridian night and look in the windows of those discount stores, or stare in wonder at $3 case of light beer being sold in a pharmacy: the wares on offer speak of genuine poverty.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the politicians are still poking each other with wet fingers and kicking each other under tables. Yes, they know that something must be done: but the pleasures of partisanship appeal far more to their political libidos. It seems as if it almost doesn’t matter if America does fall off this particular precipice, so long as their side can evade the blame. Congressmen will be able to make campaign ads out of the failure of the President or the Republicans to compromise. They can appear on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and look grave and make stern pronouncements on their opposites’ stupidity and avarice. Nothing need actually get done; indeed doing things is less attractive because that invites blame when and if matters go awry. No doubt some genuine idealists remain, I suggest the President is among them, however this propensity for inaction and blame evasion appears to be a bias built into the current system. It is a wonder that total paralysis has not ensued.

This situation is not only morally repugnant, it also shows that the political class is completely disconnected from the man in the rusty Saturn struggling to hold onto his temporary job. Belatedly, the politicians have discovered that they can’t really escape opprobrium for this calamity, or rather, doing nothing apart from making statements to get a particular base riled up is not a no risk proposition. There is the prospect that if recession returns that a “throw the bums out” mood will spread throughout the land and many former Congressmen will be stuck driving old Saturns, or at least, last year’s silver Mercedes. Still, it’s telling that it appears the Senate will likely be where any deal is struck: Senators are elected for 6 year terms, and as such, they can hope that any mistakes made will be forgotten or forgiven by the time they next face the electorate. Furthermore, Washington has a tendency to do that which is easy, namely cut taxes and increase spending, but eschew that which is is difficult, such as increase taxes and cut spending. So, if an agreement is reached, it is likely to contain more fudge than what lay in Willy Wonka’s mythical factory.

As for the American electorate, they along with the President are rather like the parent in this particular national minivan, having to keep their eyes on the road, yet trying to settle the dispute going on beyond their reach; except, in this instance, it’s the children who are doing the driving as they kick and fight and spit on their fingers. America may avoid taking a dive over the fiscal cliff; even so, it’s hardly out of danger.

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