A digest of recent top stories from CNN and MSNBC: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot might be disappearing, having shrunken by 15 percent in the past ten years; Michelle Obama touched the queen, causing royalists everywhere to swoon fitfully; A man dropped the engagement ring during a marriage proposal on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was later recovered.
On Tuesday, the most fascinating article on the MSNBC Web site was: “Should all males be circumcised: Some U.S. doctors are reconsidering their position.” “Some scientists,” the article read, “speculate that [the foreskin] protected the prehistoric penis as it swung, naked, through thick forests and over tall grasses.” Similarly scintillating was one of CNN’s top video offerings, which purported to show Ashton Kutcher getting his chest waxed. As I sat at my computer, slack-jawed, watching Kutcher writhe in agony, it occurred to me that this has to be one of the dullest first hundred days that any president has had in recent history.
Certainly things seem to be happening in Washington; Obama asked the chairman of General Motors to step down, so he did. Some of Obama’s cabinet nominees hadn’t paid all their taxes, so other nominees were found. As I wrote this column, the House passed a $3.55 trillion budget, a victory for Obama, as expected. But these news items fail to resonate because it’s not clear that they’re going to lead to the resolution of the economic crisis.
President Obama’s popularity remains high. According to a poll aggregate by RealClearPolitics, the ranks of Obama’s supporters have thinned only slightly since his inaugural address, during which thousands of Americans had to be hospitalized with solemn-head-nodding-induced neck injuries. In his first speech, Obama stressed the importance of American resolve and hard work in the face of difficult times. Yet current national attitude seems more indicative of patient befuddlement than of this steely determination or the pre-election frenzy of “hope.”
For an example of this kind of befuddlement, consider the CNN online commentary article, “Is Obama Skidding or Crashing?” by illusionist and self-styled economic expert Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. Or if you haven’t got time for the whole thing, just consider the “story highlights,” a helpful bullet-pointed list in the top right-hand corner of the page, which summates the article like so: “If you’re on ice, turning into a skid can help avoid a crash … such counterintuitive actions sometimes work … other times, we’re better off following our intuition … [Penn] asks whether we can get out of a debt-driven crisis by taking on lots more debt.”
See, according to Jillette, the economy is like a car, and when the government accumulates a lot of debt, it might be like the car of the economy is going into a skid. And maybe taking on even more debt is like “turning into the skid,” somehow allowing us to get the economy under control. To further illustrate his metaphor, he recounts that fire-eaters are taught that closing their mouths on a flame can help them avoid burns by cutting off the oxygen supply to the fire and thereby putting it out.
This analysis resembles the commenter on the Yale Daily News forum who, in response to a column about gender-neutral housing, pointed out that since he’s a downhill skiier, he’s capable of stopping on slick downhill surfaces, so he despises “slippery slope arguments.” Thanks for that one, “Branford 10.” It’s good to hear from someone who has experience with these things.
At any rate, Jillette isn’t at all sure that we should be eating our flaming debt or turning into any metaphorical skids. In fact, he adds that Obama’s strategy might be more like hitting the gas on our car (the economy) when we’re already heading towards a “reinforced concrete wall.” But Jillette isn’t coming down on one side or another; just throwing some ideas out there.
Somewhat more adamant about the “concrete wall” hypothesis is the Republican Party, which, despite its recent internal divisions and general inefficacy, has impressively managed to turn out a 52-page budget proposal of its own. Using the Congressional Budget Office’s nonpartisan long-term budget projections from a year and a half before Obama took office, the Republicans predict that Obama’s budget will lead us to hell and damnation by the year 2050. Using their own projections, they claim that their budget proposal will somehow drastically curb debt while decreasing taxes and increasing military spending. This magical budget failed in the House, 293-137, with dozens of Republicans against it, possibly because it radically cut Medicare.
And so we’re left with the Democratic budget, stimulus package and all, and who can honestly say they know what will result from it? Maybe it will help solve the economic crisis. Maybe it will make it worse. In any event, Jillete has a benediction for us. “I way hope we’re turning into a skid and not accelerating into a concrete wall.” This may not be the kind of hope that Obama was talking about, but it’s the kind that we’ve got.
Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College.