As the $700 billion bailout moves towards approval by Congress, there are enough rumblings of citizen anger that I started wondering why a 7-million-person march on Washington D.C. wasn't developing. Last night, as I watched President Bush tell us in his usual robot style that we taxpayers are going to shoulder the load on the bad-mortgage bailout, I wondered what it would take to get a record turnout of protesting Americans at the White House gates with a sea of placards and TV cameras.
The $700 Billion: Hand Over Your Chickens
We Americans are quirky that way, about what gets us going. Tell us that a child has been raped and murdered, and we will swamp the country with emails and phone calls demanding action. When I was working at the Reader's Digest in the 1970s, the magazine published an article about saving wild horses from slaughter and suggested that readers write their Congressmembers. Well, more letters got sent to Congress about that wild-horse bill than about the entire Vietnam War. Strange but true. Even today, these outpourings of mail can win their victories -- like the other day, when a mass of write-ins persuaded the Georgia Board of Clemency to stay the execution of Troy Davis.
But tell Americans that they're going to buy the now-famous trainload of bad mortgages whether they like it or not, and the country is strangely quiet. Despite Democratic politicians and commentators who clamor that the bail-out plan won't work, the citizens are not saying much this morning -- saving a few local rallies and lots of grumbling on blogs.
So what's going on? Are people being slow on the uptake? Have we grown so cynical about government that we felt this development was inevitable? Is it because most of us aren't experts on Wall Street so we're not sure what the real problem is, or whether this proposed legislation will fix it? Or is it because many of us are simply getting more and more stupefied at the growing inability to pay our bills?
Bear in mind that the $700 billion is only PART of the load being put on our backs. In each state facing a budget crisis, taxpayers are being asked to shoulder additional burdens. In California where I live, governor Schwarzenegger signed off on $15.2 billion in 2008 budget cuts, which includes cutting salaries of 200,000 state employees to minimum wage. Fierce battles are developing around state payouts in Medicaid. For vulnerable low-income citizens, this means that they must either pay for lost medical services themselves...or do without. In California, for instance, the legislature went to slash Medi-Cal by 10 percent, but a court decision blocked it temporarily, because of the deaths that it might cause. So the legislators simply took it out of people's hides somewhere else.
Similar extra burdens are piled on us by borderline-bankrupt cities. In New York City, mayor Bloomberg is looking for $1.5 billion in budget cuts, and a 7-percent hike in property taxes.
Personally, I think that most of us -- far from being ready to stand on the Capitol Mall in D.C. to shout slogans (peaceably, of course) and risk being tasered by police -- are feeling monumentally stupefied at all these developments. It's coming at us from all sides.
The present moment reminds me of similar historical moments in the Middle Ages, when the rulers have nearly bankrupted the kingdom in order to finance their endless dynastic wars and lavish lifestyle. So they go back to their groaning subjects to levy one more round of blood-sucking taxes. And the royal tax collector shows up at your little farm to take your chickens.
Last night Bush told us he wanted our chickens. And so far, it looks like we're going to hand them over without a fight.