January 30, 2008

Arriving in Rome, I didn’t suffer from culture but sticker shock. Streets jammed with pedestrians menaced by whizzing cars and importuned by panhandlers, where dogs are more common than kids, and most people aren’t speaking English… to a native of New York, this is all familiar stuff.  Much less alien than the atmosphere at a Dallas shopping mall. While the walkable streets, gracefully aging buildings, and high density of churches made me feel like I was back in the old briar patch, I was staggered by the cost of everything. Even for people who get paid in pricey Euros, taxis, meals, rent, single glasses of very ordinary wine cost some 50% more than they do in midtown Manhattan. (No wonder Romans can hardly afford to reproduce themselves”€”not that they could carry more than one or two kids in those charming little go-carts which here are styled “€œcars.”€ Still, Italy doesn’t need to occupy foreign countries for its oil, so perhaps the Italians are onto something.)

Multiply the fiscal effect by the murderous exchange rate (as of today, 1.48 dollars to the Euro) and the average American is ready to turn back to the airport. (The cab ride costs $60.) The key, of course, is learning to navigate the excellent public transit system (one important tip: keep your passport and cash in a silk sheath around your neck, lest the thieves who infest the trains cut them out of your pocket with razors), and locate the cheaper pizza shops and tavole calde. All this takes time, and a good native guide. In the meantime, you will hemorrhage money. (On Sunday, getting to Mass and back and eating a simple lunch of pasta and veal cost me a grand total of $120.)

You’ll also wonder how much use it is to belong to the world’s great imperial power, when its currency is increasingly like the good old lira“€”whose smaller denominations, I learned in high school Italian class, were of such trivial value that storeowners used to give out change in pieces of candy. (Don’t laugh—where are all your pennies?)  It is in the shops of a European city that one experiences first hand the effects of the deranged spending spree through which President Bush transformed (I hate to call it this) the Clinton surplus into a $248 billion dollar deficit (2006). Unwilling to limit social programs, eager to cut taxes on the wealthiest (but not the regressive, anti-family Social Security tax), and hungry for military victories, this allegedly “€œconservative”€ president pursued fiscal policies worthy of a South American jefe.  As America manufactures less and less”€”even works its farms with imported low-wage peasants, outsourcing its low-skill service jobs to India”€”our fiat currency, gathering dust in Chinese banks, is recognized by the market as worth a little less every day. That’s what happens when the emperor buys off the corn factors to feed the mob by debasing the coinage. Meanwhile, our taxes sluice into a vast, Iraq-shaped hole, our military-industrial complex continues to arm us against the ongoing Soviet menace, and I wonder what exactly the U.S. produces apart from warfare and porn. Given our shift from basic industries to base ones, perhaps we should scorn Ron Paul’s suggestion of returning to a gold-based currency, and instead anchor the dollar in something the post-Republican America can deliver—the naked and the dead.

Democrats pretend to oppose the war, while Republicans pretend to oppose the porn, and their constituencies pretend to believe them. It reminds me of the politics in 6h century Byzantium, where the populace took sides, started riots, and actually slaughtered each other over chariot racing teams. Perhaps we’d be better off with outright candor; let’s rename the Democrats the Blues, the Republicans the Reds, and force the candidates to compete in (remember Festivus!) feats of strength. The whole thing could be hosted by the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. And televised on Fox.


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