A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Timon of Athens and the Budget

Like the US government, Timon of Athens is generous with the rich flow of funds at his disposal. He likes nothing more than to help his friends, including Ventidius, imprisoned for debt:

"…I do know him
A gentleman that well deserves a help,
Which he shall have. I'll pay the debt…."

And the daughter of an old Athenian who lacks a dowry:

"This gentleman of mine has served me long;
To build his fortune I will strain a little,
For 'tis a bond in men. Give him thy daughter.
What you bestow, in him I'll counterpoise,
And make him weigh with her."

This summer Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, wiping out (the verb is not an exaggeration) much of New Orleans. The expected price for recovery, assuming a lasting recovery can be accomplished with levees that now appear to have been defective in design, begins at $200 billion.

Beyond the gulf coast is the second gulf war and the ongoing burden of assuming the defense of the free world in the absence of continental European allies willing to contribute as much, and behind that the trillion or so in losses endured by the 9/11 attacks. In the midst of this, congress elected to pass a highway bill containing nearly 6500 payouts individually requested by legislators for their districts, and totaling $24 billion, 10% of the total bill. Timon gives these lawmakers voice:

"Thou'rt an Athenian, therefore welcome…
Prithee, let my meat make thee silent."

Last year President Bush proposed adding drug coverage to Medicare, reasoning reasonably that the original program predated the pharmaceutical revolution. His intention was to extend the coverage in exchange for changes in Medicare's financial structure to make it more responsive to market forces. The added coverage was passed into law. The financial restructuring was not.

Timon, too, lets his friends off the hook, even when they offer to repay him. Here is our grateful former debtor Venidius greeting Timon (Faults that are rich are fair means faults committed by the rich may be excused by their wealth):

"Most honored Timon,
It hath pleased the gods to remember my father's age
And call him to long peace.
He is happy gone and has left me rich.
Then, as in grateful virtue I am bound
To your free heart, I do return those talents,
Doubled with thanks and service, from whose help
I derived liberty."

Timon: "O by now means,
Honest Ventidius. You mistake my love.
I gave it freely ever, and there's none
Can truly say he gives if he receives.
If our betters play at that game, we must not dare
To imitate them. Faults that are rich are fair."

After Katrina hit, President Bush suspended a law that would have expensively provided a wage premium above market wages for workers involved in the hurricane recovery. But just today he changed his mind and reapplied the law.

Faults that are rich are fair.

He also appointed Ben Bernanke to replace Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve. Bernanke is known in financial circles for a speech he gave assuring us that deflation, lower prices, could not return because the Fed had at its disposal a money-printing machine, and could if necessary for the economy dispense money "from helicopters." That sort of printing was done in Germany in the early 1920's and led to Brazilian-style hyper inflation, the kind that wipes out the real value of your life savings in a few weeks.

Pri'thee, let my meat make you silent.

In the end (actually as soon as Act II), Timon loses all his money, as Germany did, and none of his friends help him. Flavius, an honest servant, delivers the bad news to President Bush and the American people:

"O good my lord,
At many times I brought in my accounts,
Laid them before you. You would throw them off.

Though you hear now too late, yet now's a time;
The greatest of your having lacks a half
To pay your present debts."

America has more going for it than Timon's household did, and our Act II may differ from his in offering no more than a tough recession. You never know, though, and it's worth noting that Timon's Acts III through V involved madness, moral collapse and war. Well, I should have known a post using Timon of Athens would lead to a dark closing.

I think I'll go fishing in the comedies for tomorrow.

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