Editor’s Note: In light of Independence Day, Bill pulled one of his classic essays from the archives. It was originally published in 2003.
It is the Fourth of July. Should we hang out the red, white, and blue bunting from our office balcony…or the black crepe?
Should we whine about the America we have lost, or give a whoop for what we have left of it?
Should we join the flag wavers…or pull the blinds?
That Star-Spangled Banner still waves, but does it still fly over the land of the free, we ask? Or over a country with a spy camera on every street corner…an NSA agent reading our mail…and a Deep State functionary spending our money?
Does Old Glory fly over the ‘home of the brave’…or over a nation of flag-waving cowards, too fearful to even ask questions and too deep in debt to care?
If we start asking questions ourselves, we risk spoiling the holiday…like a thundershower at a picnic, all our pretentions and conceits — after all, we are the ‘indispensable nation’ — washes off, along with the insect repellent.
Then, bitten by pesky reality…the holiday turns lugubrious.
About a decade ago, or maybe a little longer, we took up the tango. Twice a week, we would leave our office in Paris and walk over to the ‘Cultural Centre’ in the Marais. And there, a young woman attempted to teach us to dance.
In the interest of a full and honest report, we add that she eventually gave up. ‘Sometimes, you Northern Europeans are not cut out for the tango,’ she said, ending our fantasies forever.
But it didn’t matter. We had taken up the tango for psychological reasons, not for practical ones. As far as we know, no serious tango dancer has ever committed suicide. A tango dancer is not troubled by ideology, philosophy, or economics. He glides across the floor, enjoying himself, while the mathematicians and patriots blow their brains out.
An ideologue or a mathematician cannot tolerate ambiguity. His little world has to fit together neatly, like a crossword puzzle. It is ‘cat’ in one direction and ‘day’ in the other. Each intersection has to work out perfectly.
But that is not the way real life or real people work. A healthy woman loves her husband, but often hates him too. She has two eyes, and sees a slightly different view of him with each of them. What is wrong with that? Likewise, even a man with only a single eye cannot help but notice that the world is menaced by inflation and deflation at the same time…and that America is both free and un-free at exactly the same moment.
The specific trigger that launched us into the arms of our tango teacher was an email that came to us from George W Bush on July 3rd, 2003: ‘…liberty is God’s gift to humanity, the birthright of every individual. The American creed remains powerful today because it represents the universal hope of all mankind.’
There were probably more than a few bipeds hobbling around the planet back then for whom the ‘American creed’ was not so much a hope as a dread. Since then, the Bush/Obama Deep Staters caused the deaths of approximately half a million people in Iraq alone (according to a BBC report)…at an expense of around $4 trillion.
But the president continued:
‘We are winning the war against enemies of freedom, yet more work remains. We will prevail in this noble mission. Liberty has the power to turn hatred into hope.
‘America is a force for good in the world, and the compassionate spirit of America remains a living faith. Drawing on the courage of our Founding Fathers and the resolve of our citizens, we willingly embrace the challenges before us.’
The courage of the Founding Fathers seemed to be precisely what was missing. Here’s what happened to the signers of the Declaration of Independence (we picked this up from a popular website):
‘Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.
‘Two of their sons were killed serving in the Revolutionary Army. Another had two sons captured.
‘Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships during the Revolutionary War.
‘Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died broke.
‘Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family constantly. He served in Congress without pay and died poor.
‘Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Diller, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.
‘At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. learned that the British General, Cornwallis, had taken over his (Nelson’s) home for his headquarters. Nelson urged Washington to open fire on his home, destroying his home and property. Nelson died bankrupt. Francis Lewis had his home and property destroyed. The British jailed his wife, and she died a few months later.
‘John Hart was driven from his home, and he and his 13 children fled for their lives. For over a year, Hart lived in the forest or in caves. Later Hart returned to what was left of his home: He died from exhaustion and a broken heart.
‘Norris and Livingston suffered from similar fates.’
As far as we know, none of the people responsible for the War on Terror has suffered from it. They had ‘skin in the game’. But it was all upside. Tails, they won. Heads, they won too. Their incomes rose from the war spending. Their reputations, tunics, and resumes were padded with medals. No member of Congress was chased from his home. No defence contractor lost money. None were charged with war crimes; none were hung or thrown into prison.
But a one-way bet in warfare is like a one-way wager in the investment world: It leads to disaster.
So who cares?
In the summer of 2003, Richard Benson wrote in Barron’s:
‘July 4 should be about celebrating freedom and independence, yet the bankers are the only people jumping for joy. Never have Americans owed so much in terms of their total debt, the ratio of total debt to income, and the amount of cash flow the debt needs to serve it. Americans used to believe that if they were debt free, they were free. Today, Americans just want the freedom to borrow more, even if it means they are on the way to becoming enslaved by their debt.’
The average citizen is only a few pay checks from getting put out of his house. He no longer has the freedom to step back…to reflect…to think…to wonder about things…or enjoy the contradictions. Instead, he must listen to the words of economists as if they meant something…bow before the Deep State politicians and financiers who control his livelihood…and place himself at the beck and call of every jackass with a federal ID card.
The typical American, circa 2016, can’t afford freedom or courage. He hasn’t time or money for them. The credit-based money system has turned him into what economist Wilhelm Roepke called a ‘stable fed’ animal, dependent on his masters. He uses credit (made available to him by the feds in cooperation with the financial industry) to pay for his education, his car, and his house. He can’t say ‘no’.
The message from George W Bush concluded with an endearing personal note, in which ‘Laura joins me in sending our best wishes for a safe and joyous Independence Day…’
How we got to be on a first-name basis with the woman, we don’t know. We have never even met her. Why she should wish us a happy day, we don’t understand. But these are the peculiar, baroque eccentricities of America that make it such an endearing place to its citizens; and such a rich treasure for contemporary ethnologists and stand-up comics.
They, too, will wonder about the ambiguities. Why do Americans celebrate ‘freedom’ ever more loudly, while becoming ever less free…? How can they crow about the ‘home of the brave’ when they attack pitiful, third-world nations that can’t do them any harm? How can they ballyhoo their own independence when their armies occupy foreign nations…and invoke the Founding Fathers when they expressly warned them against it?
Most people will ignore the contradictions altogether. Many will see them as hypocrisy. Some will be outraged. And a few will hear the off-tempo tango beat, and enjoy the holiday anyway.
For Markets and Money, Australia
From the Archives…