One of the problems with using Kafka to point out how surreal things have become in the United States is the fact that channeling Kafka in this way has become so commonplace as to make the analogy trite. For outsiders, this presents many opportunities for light entertainment and amusement as laughter is repeatedly triggered not just from the "just desserts" discomfiture the United States, champion of free markets, is subjected to during a financial crisis of its own making, but also from the absurdist screenplay that passes for political discourse in such times. Insiders and quasi-insiders have only two choices when living through Kafkaesque times- the inexorable slow downward spiral of post-empire decline finally punctuated by the mob's assault on "the rich,"1 or flight to join the outsider class.
In Act I we sat idly in our cramped and uncomfortable theater chairs as the house lights were dimmed and the protagonist, fresh from victory in the field, political blood still on his hands, proceeded to convert an inherited deficit- the alarming expense of which played no small part in his campaign- into a $2.5 trillion dollar budget peppered with every populist wet dream spending program the left had thought to invent in the last ten years.
We sat quietly.
Our protagonist declared, not just in the same performance, but the same Act, this to be the era of "fiscal responsibility," and called for a "fiscal responsibility summit."
We sat quietly.
The budget quickly ballooned into a $3.7 trillion dollar affair. Not just rosy but brilliantly optimistic assumptions are offered to arrive at deficits that are "merely" $1.8 trillion, $1.3 trillion, and $1.1 trillion in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively. After that, the protagonist's interpretive dance interlude is decoded to at least $600 billion per year for the following eight years. (The CBO, stage right, seems to think its more like a linear climb from $750 - $1.2 trillion over the same period).
We sat quietly.
Our protagonist literally murdered on stage the character of "Bankruptcy." An old, somewhat withered, but wise, venerable and fair man introduced in Act I primarily to be slaughtered.
We sat quietly as the fake blood ran onto the stage.
Dialogue is offered us to the effect that "no one wants to interfere with compensation." This would be "unamerican."
Though what we have already seen gave us some pause, we sat quietly. It's just a play, after all.
By the beginning of Act II it was only the bankers, and only those recalcitrant to have taken public monies, the knaves, who had to subject themselves to The Trial. Be calm. Others are safe.
We listened quietly, but suspiciously. There was some taint of coercion in the money-taking business, but it seemed subtle. Unclear. Later, of course, it becomes clear coercion.
The close of Act II begins, character "Frank" proposes compensation limitation to all public companies:
"Remember, we're not talking about purely private companies — people forget this — we're talking about public corporations," Frank said in an interview with Bloomberg News. "When you become a public corporation, you're availing yourselves of a framework of law that gives you limited liability, protects you in various ways."
Frank expressed a preference that Congress institute a mandate for federal regulators to take a more aggressive tack against companies. He also said he'd like to see the regulations extend beyond companies in the financial sector.2
If the audience is not shocked it is because the protagonist lulled them to sleep in the middle of Act II. (It seems they are not, as no one even stood during intermission). "It will be good for private equity, at least," a member near me is heard mumbling. I ask back: "Aren't private LLC's also 'availing themselves of a framework of law that gives them limited liability, protects them in various ways?'" The ushers, large and apparently armed, and whom we did not notice until Act II, perhaps because they materialized from nowhere after the intermission, step forward and glower at us. We grow silent.
I'm not certain what would be more shocking at this point. The revelation that the present production has no real intention or expectation of a second run, or the revelation that it confidently expects to enjoy one- exorbitantly high ticket prices and all.
Now it seems prudent to wonder if that was really stage blood in Act I (it has begun to smell quite rank). Dare we stand, even try the theater doors before the end of the final act? Or might we find them locked from the outside? Perhaps it is better to wait... better that, surely, than to know for certain just yet.
- 1. This, of course, is the classic harbinger of empire-death historically.
- 2. Michael O'Brien "Frank Wants Broad Limits On Executive Pay For All Firms," The Hill (May 14, 2009).