Anyone wishing to confront a clear and startling example of how weak and flabby and sad the spirit of this nation has become need look no further than to the degraded creature now and formerly known as Mr. Potato Head. I do not any longer by this sobriquet, although possibly I and maybe others once did, mean our former and already forgotten president, George W. Bush.
No, it is he or it with whom I shared so many hours as a boy, and whose transformation (even as I have kept myself in good form spiritually and emotionally, if a bit degraded, yes, bodily with the accumulating years) now disgusts me. The Mr. Potato Head we meet these days would not recognize his former vibrant self, could not in his modern rigid petrochemical iteration understand what a grand, organic presence he was when I knew him, how limitless and creative were our possibilities then.
We were born, the both of us, in 1949. As I and my friends knew him throughout our elementary school years (and I dare say parts of him lay still around the house for years beyond that and may reside still between attic joists under a rock wool blanket), he was all limbs and features and accessories, becoming fully realized only when one of us poked his parts into, yes, a potato. Or at times other vegetables. Occasionally fruits. Born bodiless, he was nevertheless vast; he contained multitudes. Imagination only set his limits. Is there a metaphor here for America, for our post-war optimism and enthusiasm, for the powerful seed of creativity our teachers said we all had within us? Possibly, but I shall not pursue it. I only want to tell you that Mr. Potato Head is now unrecognizable to me.
The Hasbro Corporation now ships bigger, uglier eyes, lips, ears, legs, and hats. Fine. Babies will have a harder time swallowing them, one supposes. But also, they supply the "potato", a hollow beige plastic ovoid thing with a trapdoor in its ass (for storing parts) and holes for inserting features. Well isn't that exciting! And what if you want to stick his arm between his legs (this is a very funny thing to do when you're young and, to a degree, holds its appeal even as some of us mature)? Can't do it. No hole.
Can you use his parts on a real potato? Not very well—no anti-withdrawal barbs. It was the barbs, I guess, that caused his ruin. Not that they were sharp. I never heard of a kid hurt by them, and trust me, we used to try to hurt each other then at least as much as the toddlers do today. But some insurance man somewhere said his company would not carry the hint of the risk that somebody somewhere some day by some exercise of mal-intention or innate stupidity might be hurt. And that worried the lawyers and the accountants, of course. So now, no barbs, no potatoes, no fun.
And there you have it: a perfectly good and satisfying toy made nearly worthless (and its carbon footprint enlarged) by the actions of committees and cowards.
So let us go then, you and I, to Washington, D.C., where our new Congress and our new President Obama are building us a marvelous new Economic Stimulus bill which they tell us will save jobs, create jobs, jumpstart the economy, and reassure the consumer, the CEO, the investor and the banker alike. Forgotten for now are two losing wars of long duration, the crimes of the previous administration, diminishing oil, deepening ecological catastrophe, and even the once-consuming issue of steroid injections by ballplayers—George Mitchell having solved that problem, he is now dispatched to see what they're shooting up in the Middle East. It is now again, "The Economy, Stupid!"
President Obama said we needed to spend nine hundred billion dollars. The House says we only need 820 billion, while the Senate considers 827 billion about right. Tonight. This will change. There will be compromises. Both of Maine's Republican Senators are interested in "crossing the aisle" if only enough money for condoms and school construction and aid to states can be wrung from the total. Most Republicans are unmoved because there are insufficient tax cuts in the proposal, although tax cuts apparently account for about forty per cent of the total.
Now, you might think there would be a limit to the need for or the desirability of tax reductions, but to a good modern Republican, this is never so. Taxes are bad and must be cut, cut out, reduced and revised so that those persons who earn much (or more likely acquire through inheritance or investment or fraud) may pay less or ideally none. On the other hand, the GOP finds spending on useful and necessary and socially constructive projects alarming: budget busters; deficit increasers.
And they are, in this, precisely right. Every cent of the eight or nine hundred billion dollars will be charged against tomorrow. But so was the automaker bailout and the bank bailout. And let's not, just for this minute and for purpose of this discussion, forget those continuing wars, formerly George Bush's wars, but since the twentieth of January and for every expensive and bloody day he chooses not to end them, President Barack Obama's wars—those economic stimuli, too, are running on borrowed money. But deficits trouble Republicans most when the money goes to the needy; if it benefits the already comfortable, it is consonant with their vision of what the United States was designed by God to be.
Of course, any bill this large and this hastily conceived must be full of bad ideas and dead ends and fragments of ideas capable of ballooning into their own problems and subsets and corollaries of problems yet unimagined. Just ask Congressman Barney Frank about the Banker Bailout Bill he nurtured to passage—you know, the seven hundred billion dollars that seemed such an astonishing and dangerous amount only four or five months ago. Congressman Frank is surprised that the bankers took the money, then kept most of it rather than lending it (except for that considerable portion they spent on dividends to their friends in the investor classes, gave to themselves as bonuses, and invested in office decorations and junkets.) He is unhappy with the way the bankers treated him in their absorption of the first half of that sum, but he is eager to toss the second installment into the hopper, if a few "safeguards" can be supplied, such as perhaps limiting CEO salaries to "only" four hundred thousand dollars a year (plus, one guesses, benefits.)
Does Mr. Frank, does any Congressman, does the President suppose the bankers and lawyers and insurance men and financiers and various concrete and construction company executives will not bleed off their habitual share, reducing the stimulative value of this bright new bill, but not its tremendous effect upon the generations we expect to inherit its repayment? Is this a time to think about such things? No, this is a time to Git 'Er Done!
And I have no doubt jobs will come of it. Some jobs, somewhere. But what new employment will arise from giving fifteen thousand dollars to everyone who purchases a home in the next two years? Houses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—a used trailer on a lot on a back road in Wiscasset, too close to the road and overhung with scrappy trees and in the shade of the hill to which it clings requires a hundred and ten. But if you already have a stable income and have secured or don't need financing, those of us stuck in our present homes, driving our current vehicles, paying off our own debts and hoping we have a job next week will collectively contribute fifteen thousand dollars to your purchase.
Maybe this is a good idea, although I might need to be led through the reasoning a few times before it settles. Maybe half of the bill's elements are good; or at least not obviously bad. But why the unseemly haste? Whenever we do something big in a big hurry we soon or late wish we had moved more carefully and slowly. The Wall Street bailout was done in a few frenzied days, and Congress really got rolled on that one. Economic improvement? Little to none.
Do you remember how loudly members of both political parties (and the majority of citizens) demanded war on Iraq? And how quickly President Bush got his war? And how mired therein we now are and at what expense and debt and death? Likewise into the valleys and hills of Afghanistan (and an escalation there planned as soon as the stimulus is set to tickling us domestically).
The forced conversion to digital television will get us erratic, difficult-to-hold signals if Congress fixes the fiasco of the forty dollar coupons that aren't there. But none of it would be necessary if Bill Clinton and Congress hadn't sold the public's frequencies to private industry.
Obama's "Buy American" provision (not a bad idea, you might think) in the stimulus bill wouldn't have had to be eliminated if those same eager handmaidens to corporations hadn't gotten so worked up over the supposed benefits of globalization and NAFTA.
And you know, much or most or all of our present financial disorder might well have been averted had not America lost its senses under Ronald Reagan and through three terms of Bush and two of Clinton and deregulated every industry and corporation and executive in sight, reduced or eliminated any tax that troubled the very rich, and congratulated themselves that they were setting free the magic marketplace to "lift all boats." And now we're sinking in a stinking tide of corruption and malfeasance and bad economics and worse wars, all and every bit of which is traceable directly to bills hurried into law by the Congress of the United States of America.
Ideas are necessary and wonderful and invigorating. And a few of them are not obviously bad and some prove to be good and productive. I have many ideas, myself, each day. But you know, it takes me two whole weeks of living and thinking and imagining and testing, and then after all that yet a long night of composing and editing to write one of my small and unimportant essays. I might take longer than that if I were put in charge of a near-trillion dollars of other people's money, given power over other people's lives.
Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman could hurt our children a whole lot worse than old Mr. Potato Head ever hurt my sister or me.
This piece originally appeared in The Wiscasset Newspaper, Wiscasset, Maine.