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It Could Be Worse

It Could Be Worse
October 16, 2010 Jennifer Boylan

It Could Be Worse
© 2010 Jennifer Finney Boylan

The current state of the nation–and the Democratic Party in particular–is reminiscent of the scene in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein in which the scientist and his sidekick, Igor (“that’s EYE-gor”) are digging up a corpse in a haunted graveyard.
“What a filthy job,” observes the doctor.

“Could be worse,” replies Igor.


“Could be raining.”

At this moment, of course, there is a crack of thunder, and the deluge begins.

By almost any measure, the country is in what economists call “a haunted graveyard.” The deficit soars, unemployment hovers just below 10%, our military remains mired in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and terrorist threats keep the world on edge. For months now, pundits and pollsters have been predicting that in the upcoming midterm elections, Democrats are going to suffer the wrath of the American voter– for the state of the economy, for the state of our politics, for the state of the world.

The best argument the Democrats have, unfortunately, is the one Igor was trying to make. “It could be worse.”

It’s the Democrats misfortune, though, that Americans don’t care that it could have been worse. Because it’s just started raining.
In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel this week, Herb Allison, Former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability (and chief overseer of the TARP program), said, “It’s hard to prove a negative. It’s hard to really demonstrate what the economy would have been like if TARP had not been created. It kind of reminds me, though, of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” because, as you recall, in the movie, George Bailey is shown what his hometown would have looked like had he not lived, and things were pretty tough.”
There’s a word for what he’s referring to. Potterville.

Most economists agree that the country probably would be looking something like Potterville about now, had we not saved the banks, and the insurance industry, and the automobile industry. As Allison notes, “It was a true national emergency, and there was really no alternative.”

There was a time when Democrats and Republicans agreed on this. The TARP program, of course, was initiated by then-president Bush, and candidate McCain suspended his campaign for a few days in October 2008 in order to attend an economic summit with the President and then-candidate Obama. Republicans–and Democrats–seemed to understand that preventing the complete collapse of the banking, insurance, and automobile industries was, all things considered, a good move.

But now, with the election season in full swing, it’s hard to find a politician willing to say as much. If there’s anything the two parties agree on right now, it appears to be the pledge to end these feckless “bailouts” and “handouts” Even if they were the very things that saved us all from Potterville.

It’s as if the captain of the Titanic, through some miracle, had been able to see the iceberg coming, and managed to change the ship’s course, avoiding the collision. Upon arrival in New York, however, the captain finds the passengers aren’t grateful at all for the lives that have been saved. Instead, they’re angry–wrathful and ready for the 1912 version of the Tea Party, in fact– because they’ve all arrived late at their destination.

How much worse might things have been, without TARP, without the stimulus, without all of the dreaded “overreaching government?” An economist at Princeton, Alan Binder, and Mark Zandi, of Moody’s Analytics, released a report over the summer which estimated that without the government’s actions, unemployment would have reached 16.5%; the gross domestic product would have dropped– instead of growing at a rate of 3%–and the deficit, currently 1.4 trillion, would have been 2.6 trillion instead.

But “It Could Have Been Worse!” doesn’t make for a very good campaign slogan. Not compared to, say, “Yes, We Can!”

The Republicans can happily run on a platform of “Look How Bad It Is!” All you have to do is take one good look around to see the truth of this–the cutbacks, the foreclosures, the bankruptcies. Asking those same voters to imagine a world even worse than this one–and to blame the Republicans for it– is no small feat. And yet it’s the feat that Democrats have to perform. It’s as if the party has to channel some nether-version of Bobby Kennedy on Lithium: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things of things that never were, and say, whoa, now that would have been really bad.”

Voters can be forgiven right about now if they feel something like Han Solo and Princess Leia stuck in the garbage chute in Star Wars– after all, if the current state of the economy isn’t the equivalent of a garbage chute, then what is? In that scene, Han Solo complains to Leia, “Look I had everything under control until you led us down here! Now it’s not going to take them long to figure out what happened to us.”

Leia replies, “It could be worse.”

At this moment, an unseen creature, hidden somewhere beneath the ruins, softly growls.

Han says, “It’s worse.”

1 Comment

  1. Claudia Putnam 14 years ago

    Not to be too literal, but it seems like I read somewhere recently that the captain of the Titanic *did* see the iceberg, and this had been kept secret till some descendant or another died.

    Anyhow. I’m not voting Republican or anything, but it is raining. It doesn’t matter if things might have been worse, because they’re almost as bad as they could get for me and for many of my friends. One of my friends the other day said, well, why don’t I just die? She’s not suicidal, but she’s exhausted. She’s 47, and she’d just started to work her way out of dire poverty, having been a single mother in the social services profession with a lot of student debt. She calculated everything the other day and said, well, I just don’t have enough and the only left to cut is car, internet, and cell phone, and I need all those things for my job or to get a new one, so what am I supposed to do? Two years ago it was enough, she said, I’m not doing anything different, and now it’s not.

    That’s how I feel. I’ve done nothing but cut back…I’m still making the same money, I have fewer category expenses, but my quality of life is lower, and I’m not seeing any payback for the cuts I’ve made–should be able to take more vacations, not less, save more, not less. I’m about to be making less money, and I have nowhere left to cut. Two years ago, things sucked and I was worried, but I was saving 10% toward retirement plus 600 per month for short vacations/skiing, car repairs, snow tires, home repairs and the like. And I had my kid in private school. Not doing any of that now.

    So whatever. I do blame the Republicans for getting us into this, and I know 2 years was not enough time to get us out, but it’s grown MUCH worse since Obama (who was saying that Americans didn’t save enough–see above…it’s under his administration that I haven’t been able to save, ironically) took office and the Democrats have done nothing to arrest it.

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