In Which the Prof Juxtaposes Some Quotes (A Long Post)

Some decades back, Robert Heinlein decided to take a look at where he thought trends were carrying his (and my) beloved nation. He offered two scenarios, closing with an optimistic one. But it’s the first, darker one that has stuck with me since I first read it back in the 80s. I’m taking these quotes out of sequence, but I think the context will be self-evident.

One thing I learned as a ward heeler was that (with scarce exceptions) people in my age group want one of two things: 1) They want to keep on clipping those coupons and collecting those rents and they don’t give a damn what it does to the country, or 2) they want that raise in Social Security (Townsend Plan) (“Ham & Eggs”) (you name one) and they don’t give a damn what it does to the country.

(I don’t claim to be altruistic. Just this pragmatic difference: I am sharply aware that, if the United States goes down the chute, I go down with it.)

I use the term “Federal Public Debt” because what is usually termed the “Public Debt” is by no means our total public debt. There are also state, county, city, and special – district debts. It is difficult to get accurate figures on these public debts but the total appears to be larger than the Federal Public Debt. I can’t make even a wild guess at the Social Security commitment but our total public promises – to – pay have to exceed two trillion dollars. How much is a trillion? Well, it means that a baby born today owes at least $4,347.83 to the Federal Government alone before his eyes open. (No wonder he yells). It means that the Zero Population Growth family (who was going to save us all – remember?) of father, mother, and 2.1 children owes $17,826 in addition to private debts (mortgage, automobile, college for 2.1 children). [Ah, those innocent bygone days! — Prof. M]

Of course papa won’t pay it off; that debt will grow larger. But it will cost him $2000 a year (and rising) just to “service” his pro – rata; any taxes for which he gets anything at all – even more laws – is on top of that.

A trillion seconds is 31,688 years, 9 months, 5 days, 8 hours, 6 minutes, and 42 seconds – long enough for the precession of the equinoxes to make Vega the Pole Star, swing back again to Polaris, and go on past to Alpha Cephei. Or counting the other way it would take us to 29,708 B.C…. or more than 25 thousand years before Creation by Bishop Usher’s chronology for creationism.

I don’t understand a trillion dollars any better than I do a trillion seconds. I simply know that we had better stop spending money we don’t have if we want to avoid that Man on Horseback.

And what shape might this particular horseman take? Well, how about currency debasement/inflation quantitative easing? Take it away, RAH:

What is happening is what always happens in fiatcurrency inflation: After a certain point, unpredictable as to date because of uncountable human variables, it becomes uncontrollable and the currency becomes worthless. Dictatorship usually follows. From there on anything can happen – all bad.

The Greenback Inflation did not result in collapse of the dollar and of constitutional government because gold backing was not disavowed, simply postponed for a relatively short time. The Greenback Party wanted to go on printing paper money, never resume specie payment – but eventually we toughed it out and paid hard money for the Greenbacks that had financed the Union side of the war. From 1862 to 1879 gold and silver were not used internally. Our unfavorable balance of trade for 1861 – 65, which had to be met in gold, was $296,000,000. Hard times and high taxes – but we made it.

The French Revolution inflation was unsecured. Between April 1790 and February 1796, 40 billion livres or francs were issued. New paper money (Mandats) replaced them that year; the following year both sorts were declared no longer legal tender (waste paper!) – and 2 years later Napoleon took over “to save the Republic.”(!)

Let’s interrupt Heinlein for a moment and turn to James Taranto in the WSJ:

But [Obama] was unquestionably right that “some people” want him to “bypass Congress”–to impose his will in a dictatorial fashion. These calls are coming not from the fringes but from the “mainstream” left–from people who would be considered entirely respectable in the newsroom of the New York Times.

A Times news story the other day raised the idea (which we discussed July 8) that the president could instruct the Treasury to borrow money without congressional authorization on the basis of the 14th Amendment’s provision that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.” The news story notes that Obama has rejected the idea (albeit “not in categorical terms”). Well he should, for it is absurd on its face to suggest that a provision guaranteeing the payment of debts “authorized by law” would permit the incurring of more debts without legal authorization.

The shocking thing in this Times story, though, is this quote from Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, on what would happen if Obama did assert this authority: “At the point at which the economy is melting down, who cares what the Supreme Court is going to say?” Balkin told the Times. “It’s the president’s duty to save the republic.” [Emphasis mine — P.M.]

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson expressly endorses the idea: “It seems to me that definitive action–unilateral, if necessary–to prevent the nation from suffering obvious, imminent, grievous harm is one of the duties any president must perform”:

Who knows how the courts–ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court–would react? With outrage? With deference toward presidential power? With traditional reluctance to intervene in political disputes between the two elected branches of government? It would matter, eventually. But while legal briefs were being prepared and arguments honed, Obama would have raised the debt ceiling on his own authority–and the crisis would have been averted.

And how do we get to such an impasse? Back to you, Mr. Heinlein:

Try dividing the Federal Budget by the number of wage earners not on the public payroll, then take a stab at where you fit in. Don’t forget the same process for state, county, and city. There are Makers, Takers, and Fakers, no fourth category, and today the Takers and the Fakers outnumber (and outvote) the Makers.

[…]One chink in the armor of any democracy is that, when the Plebs discover that they can vote themselves Bread & Circuses, they usually do … right up to the day there is neither bread nor circuses. At that point they often start lynching the senators, congressmen, bankers, tax collectors, Jews, grocers, foreigners, any minority – take your choice. For they know that they didn’t do it. The citizen is sovereign until it comes to accepting blame for his sovereign acts – then he demands a scapegoat.

[…] I don’t think we will stop “deficit financing,” the euphemism that sounds so much better than “kiting checks.”

[Here, Heinlein cites some numbers of government employees that would now be dwarfed into insignificance. — Prof. M]

That figure does not include the Armed Forces. It does not include some special categories. It is easier to learn the number of slaves imported in 1769 (6,736) than it is to find out exactly how many people are on public payrolls in this country. And it is not simply difficult but impossible to determine how many people receive Federal checks for which they perform no services. (Or food stamps. Are food stamps money?) But one thing is certain: the number of people eligible to vote who do receive money from some unit of government (aid to dependent children, Supreme Court justices, not growing wheat, removing garbage, governors of states, whoever) exceeds the number eligible to vote but receiving no pay or subsidy of any sort from any unit of government.

Have you read the Federal Register lately? Have you ever read the Federal Register? Under powers delegated by Congress certain appointed officials can publish a new regulation in the Federal Register and, if Congress does not stop it, after a prescribed waiting time, that regulation has the force of law – it is law, to you and to me, although a lawyer sees nuances. I have vastly oversimplified this description, but my only purpose is to point out that “administrative law” reaches into every corner of our lives, and is the major factor in the enormous and strangling invasion of the Federal Government into our private affairs.


And just to put the cherry on the sundae, let’s hear from Robinson Jeffers:

Shine, Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,

And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.

There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught — they say — God, when he walked on earth.


Hope your day is more optimistic than mine.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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3 Responses to In Which the Prof Juxtaposes Some Quotes (A Long Post)

  1. dave schutz says:

    Heinlein, what a prolix guy! Dickens, now:

    My other piece of advice, Copperfield, said Mr. Micawber, you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and, in short, you are for ever floored. As I am!

  2. David WL says:

    Robinson Jeffers!

    I discovered him in my senior year (of high school, not college). Always the poet I go to when my rage at the machine becomes unbearable.

  3. nightfly says:

    In my anniversary copy of Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury puts quite a similar-sounding smackdown on the interviewer trying to cadge him into mouthing platitudes. I can’t lay my hands on it right now for who knows why, but it’s good stuff.

    This is quite sobering, but not in a dark way, if that makes sense. It’s simply a bracing and clear look at things, lacking the cynical haze that tends to coat PJ O’Rourke’s writing on similar topics.

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