As an American living abroad, I probably see the political goings on in the States differently than I would if I lived there. Hopefully, that means viewing current events with a lot less of the “noise” that surrounds everything Congress or the President does. Take, for example, the time Congress saw fit to rename the French fries served in its lunchrooms. In the wisdom of Congress, the deep-fried potato slices, introduced to America by Francophile Thomas Jefferson, were rechristened “Freedom Fries” - a provocative demonstration, if there ever was one, of America's anger over the gall of our Gallic friends not to get hopelessly bogged down in a senseless war.
I recall at the time being embarrassed for my countrymen and thinking how idiotic this must have looked to everyone outside the States (and to be fair, also to a great many people living there).
And here we are again. The drama playing out now in Washington over the debt ceiling looks to me, far from the onslaught of 24-hour cable news, maybe even more bizarre than Americans must find it. I would hate to try to explain it to any of my Finnish friends curious enough to ask what it’s all about (thankfully, no one has).
Here we have the Republican-controled house threatening not to honor the debts incurred by the budget that they approved a few months before. That is, not without concessions from Obama on further reductions in … Wait a moment.
Maybe it’s best to think of it all as a scene from TV, like something from a popular Hollywood sitcom set in an idealized American neighborhood of lovely homes and likeable characters who come together weekly to deal with their whacky, but entertaining, problems. Consider, if you will, Tom and Lynette, two all-American suburbanites who have just had their kitchen completely redone:
* * * * *
Tom and Lynette, with mugs of fresh coffee, are sitting across the counter from each other in their newly renovated kitchen, going through a stack of bills.
“Tom, these are coming due soon,” Lynette says, pointing to the invoices. “And we’re about to run out of cash. We need to talk to the bank about getting that loan.”
Looking serious, Tom hesitates a bit before speaking. “Ah, yeah, about that, Lynette. I’ve decided we’re not going to take out the loan after all. Not before we cut back on spending.”
Lynette is dumbfounded. “Why not? You know we have great credit with the bank. They’re happy to loan us the money.”
“No, we owe too much already.”
“Which we don’t have to pay back for years.”
“No, Lynette. We’re spending way too much as it is. And, you know, things have been slow at the pizza restaurant. We don’t have enough money coming in. We can’t keep this up. You’re going to have to cut back on everything.”
“Food? Clothes? Gas?”
“The kids’ college fund.”
“Yep, even that.”
“Tom, be reasonable. What if I took a job? The ad agency has been begging me to come back and freelance for them. And it's good money.”
“No, Lynette. More income is not what we need.”
Lynette gives Tom a puzzled look. “Come again?”
“Don’t you see, Lynette?” Tom lowers his voice, squeezing her hand. “We can do this by living more, you know, more simply. We don’t need two cars. We don’t need to eat steak every week. We don’t need to buy …”
“New golf clubs?”
“Let’s not go overboard here.”
“And, if I don’t cut back?”
Tom slaps his hand on the stack of bills between them. “Then we don’t pay these.”
Lynette’s mouth drops. “Tom, if we don’t pay these bills, our credit is ruined. We’ll never get another loan.”
Tom shrugs his shoulders, “So be it.”
Lynette gives Tom a look. “Wait a minute, am I talking to Tom or Eric?”
Tom smiles slyly. “It might be Eric.”
You see, Tom is not a well man. He suffers from multiple personalities that often battle with each other over big family decisions. “Eric” is his brash, reckless personality.
Lynette breathes a sigh of relief. “Okay, can I talk to Tom now?”
“What about John?” says Tom, referring to the more mature, slightly more reasonable personality that briefly inhabits his mind.
“Okay, sure. John, what do you think about this?”
“Well, maybe you could do some work for the ad agency,” “John” answers in raspy, smoky voice. “I guess we could use the extra money. But we still have to cut back some.”
“I can live with that.”
But, suddenly “Eric” is back. “Hell, no!” he shouts. “I’ll let us default before I let you go back to work.”
“And we’ll be ruined!” Lynette protests.
Suddenly Tom’s voice takes a shrill, high-pitched tone. This is his “Sarah” personality. “No so fast, there,” he says. “Thought you could pull one over on me, didn’t ya? It’s just a lie that we’ll be ruined. You’re just making stuff up to try to scare me.”
Before Lynette can say another word, Tom’s voice changes once again. “I think I have a way out.”
Lynette cocks her head to one side. “Mitch?” she asks, referring to the name of Tom’s drab but scheming personality.
“That’s right. I think we could agree that you go ahead and get the bank loan, if you want. It’s up to you.”
“And I don’t have to cut back on expenses?”
“Not if you don’t want to. That’s up to you.”
“And you’re okay with this?”
Tom smiles. “As long as I don’t get blamed for it later.”
Lynette raises her eyebrows. “Huh.”
* * * * *
I only wish that following the real debt ceiling fight were this easy. To see how this amazing bit of political theater finally does play out, please stay tuned for the gripping final episode, due to air on August 2nd, at the latest. Depending on how it all turns out, a special presentation of “The Great Recession, Part II” may air immediately afterward.