Sunday, February 21, 2010

Debt Demons

There is a theory that the financial debacle underway in Europe is a distraction from the chaos that is to come in the United States. Governors of various and assorted states have announced they are collectively shy some 136 billion dollars in their various obligations. It seems likely that they will be relieved in some measure of their embarrassment by the federal Government. Not least because States do not have a constitutional right to declare bankruptcy (unlike the theories of some Republican candidates for office- like Carly Fiorina) and without help they will simply stop paying their bills. Indeed Illinois has already begun to do just that.



Member states of the European Union find themselves in similarly constrained circumstances because they have included no mechanism to balance competing financial demands among the various member states. Now Germany finds itself leaned upon to help out the southern states, notably Greece Italy Spain and Portugal who find themselves unable to devalue their currency, the shared Euro and who are admitting to have cooked their books over recent years with the help of the ubiquitous gnomes of the evil Goldman Sachs organization which is more and more coming to represent a criminal enterprise.



While the imminent proposed bankruptcy of European states may titillate we should note that without Federal money banks states and businesses would be going bankrupt (or the political equivalent) in far greater numbers than so far seems apparent. Yet there is no general outcry and even the proximate cause of our collective unravelling seems shrouded in mystery. It's actually not mysterious at all, it's just uncomfortable because the economic destruction underway in the United States was caused by the decline of Federal regulation and oversight and no one wants to talk about that because acknowledging that state of affairs would force people to reconsider the value of forcing the federal Government to shrink. It would be harder than ever to screech about shrinking government once you acknowledge the need for stricter oversight.



So now we find the US is not simply swimming in debt, but that there are no plans to cope because no one wants to acknowledge the existence of a problem. The southern European states are considered to be in crisis because their debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is well above 12%. The United States is in that ball park too, and here's a curious thing, Canada that hotbed of firm government regulation and socialized medicine has a debt to GDP ratio of less than 5% which is less than half ours. Australia's is around 4% and they haven't even gone into recession, their economy continues to grow modestly every single quarter. Their homes, like Canada's are retaining their value and they too provide their citizens with nationalized health care.

We, meanwhile, live in a country saddled with war and debt and unemployment, a growing level of inequality, failing services and growing despair mirroring unemployment levels. And now economists suggest we should expect high levels of unemployment to persist probably for years. As banksters hand themselves large bonuses for doing God's work. If I lived in Canada I would be looking south at our porous border and wondering how one would stem the flood of economic refugees to come.

Miami Box Stores

It was going to be a long day and it started early. Cheyenne took to her crate and ignored the bustle going on around her as the wife and I prepared for a dawn raid on the Big City. We left a little before 7 am (rather after dawn as it turned out) and drove and drove and drove with barely a pause. We did stop at Starbucks on Key Largo and picked up a couple of regular coffees (cheaper than fancy drinks) and a couple of "lite" sandwiches, called it breakfast and got back in the car. We drove some more, and the funny thing is I like driving to Miami, especially when the traffic isn't too heavy and I can use my local knowledge to get past slow pokes dawdling. Three hours after leaving home we arrived at the doctor's office on south 62nd Avenue. Where we sat and we sat and we sat. I read the Citizen that I had brought from driveway, I read the National Geographic's discussion of redwood cutting in Northern California and oases in the western Algerian Sahara desert and while my wife was in the inner sanctum waiting for a consulting room to free up, I was banished to the outer waiting room because there were just too many people cluttering the place up. I fiddled with my camera, taking a reflective self portrait of me in woollen watch cap:I went down to the car, woke Cheyenne up and retrieved my book, a novel in letter form about the German Occupation of Guernsey in World War Two. A light and most enjoyable read, better even than Architectural Digest or the doctor's supply of golfing magazines.I was reading about the Ravensbruck camp when I was called in to wait in the inner sanctum with my wife. I am no great fan of doctors but Dr Ritter makes the grade in my book. He is massively overworked as his office is one of (the?) leading rheumatology specialists in Miami but he has a sense of humor and he enjoys a good debate. We talk about health insurance reform and remarkably enough we agree on what we'd like to see changed. He has educated me on a lot of the issues that doctors face, not least the increasing patient load and decreased services we aging boomers can expect. He supports single payer in principle and has no problem treating people who pay through Medicare. I think he's an all round good guy and he works like a dog.Oh, and here's a laugh, he has arthritis himself so he knows the pain all too well. The dog needed some money spending on her so we went by the dog's supermarket which apparently attracts a few smells in the flowerbeds:There are miles of pet supplies inside and Cheyenne was sticking her nose everywhere in ecstasy. I saw this sign which I find hard to argue with; Cheyenne would probably feel the same way if she could articulate it:My wife had a list of box stores she wanted to visit because our trips to Miami are rarely sight seeing tours. When you live in the Keys the mainland means one thing only: shopping! And if you are the designated driver it also means: traffic! Scenes like these remind me why I like living in the Keys, among other reasons.The funny thing was that the next day, Saturday (yesterday) I drove my dog for a walk on Sugarloaf Key and got stuck in a monstrous traffic jam that clogged Highway One for several hours. I paid an impromptu visit to a friend while Cheyenne and I waited for the highway to clear. No such problems in Miami as we traveled from store to store.Cheyenne wasn't allowed into Target so she got to stay behind in the covered parking lot.It gets pretty overwhelming sometimes finding yourself, a country bumpkin, in the midst of a lava flow of people all madly shopping. However Friday afternoon in Miami was not as busy as I have seen it. In fact most of the stores seemed pretty quiet and when my wife demurred on the purchase of a charger for her iPhone they cut $5 off the price at the phone store to encourage her to go for it. Which she did.I find this sort of thing rather depressing as it spells no good for the economy at large and when we came out of Macy's with 5 expensive pieces of women's clothing for a hundred bucks I wondered how long these stores can keep going. The parking lots weren't full, except for wandering dogs.Time for lunch-hooray! We are creatures of habit and we like this place conveniently located next to Macy's:Cheyenne had her rawhide in the car, we had spicy Hunan pork and spicy mandarin chicken at P.F. Chang's, spices which my wife washed down with a mojito while I sucked up a tall cold draft Stella Artois. I know the end of civilization as we know it is around the corner but I want to have some pleasant memories to dredge up as we sit around our charcoal fires tearing at nearly raw iguana meat with our teeth.Then we did what we cannot do ever in the Keys. We cruised a shopping maul, in this case an outdoor one. That would be because it's not terribly cold even as far north as Miami in February.The nearest we got to frost were the iced lattes the kids were sipping as they sat on the wall in their fur lined boots. The pigeons agreed with me though, taking the attitude that 58 degrees (14 C) is rather too chilly for comfortable flight.
Frolicking Florida families round a frosty fountain.Macy's reminds me of the department stores in London where my mother used to drag me as a child, all those shiny floors and well dressed assistants looking severe and competent. I feel like taking my wife's hand and dragging a teddy bear every time we go into these places.My wife spent some considerable time multi tasking, looking at clothing, discussing it with her friends on the phone and asking my opinion (erk!). I wondered if I could add these to my collection but apparently pink sandals are for women only. Or men with very small feet.Price cuts and more price cuts. Now would be the time to say I told you so and note that instead of spending 12 trillion dollars bailing out banks too big to fail we'd have done better using the money to pay off every first mortgage on every primary residence in the country. That would have kick started the economy. Instead we have this:I tried to engage these babes in conversation but they ignored me. I guess triplets get used to nasty old men and their nasty fantasies. They brushed me off with nary a glance.My wife banished me to the waiting area for dispossessed spouses but I had forgotten my book in the car where I had last seen Cheyenne curled up with it. So I played with my camera instead. This kid was tossing a baseball around. Luckily it was attached to a bungee and kept coming back to him.Back at the Maxima the trunk was getting fuller by this stage.And we still had a stop planned for the Costco in Kendall. On the way I spotted an open space perfectly suited to dog walking. And it turned out, pigeon roosting: Cheyenne took off across the "field" sniffing and rooting around, happy as a clam as always, and making the most of every opportunity to have some fun. I meandered after her while my wife stayed in the car and listened to All Things Considered reporting on a firefight in Afghanistan a world a million miles away from my Labrador's. Then it was time for dinner.
As Cheyenne ate I looked across the open space to the houses lined up alongside and I saw this familiar structure, familiar that is to mainland Florida. They call it a lanai and they park a swimming pool underneath it. I prefer being in the Keys where there isn't much land for decent sized pools and even less water.With Cheyenne's needs taken care of I put my chauffeur's cap back on and we took off for the last big box store.Costco usually sucks up five hundred dollars a visit as bulk buying supposedly "saves" money. We got out with a two hundred dollar bill which was enough to fill the trunk to the brim.We left Costco at 7:45 pm (19:45 hrs in police time) and my wife figured I could get us home before 10:00 pm. I was dubious as this was Friday night in winter with scads of visitors doubtless clogging the highway on their way to the Southernmost City. Not exactly, this was somewhere near Mile Marker 60:And this was the Seven Mile Bridge:It was a fun drive home with not many slow pokes that I couldn't easily pass. We cracked a bottle of wine and reheated some wings we bought at Costco. It was good to be home, with the dog passed out on her bed, and soon enough my wife passed out on the couch. I had the remainder of the Lohrs to myself and it tasted good as I looked out at the night sky of the fabulous and quiet Florida Keys.