There's an old joke about a fantastic three-legged pig and a farmer. It comes in many versions. In some tellings, the pig saves the farmer's life. In another, it can talk. The punch line always comes after a visitor asks, "So how come he only has three legs?"
"Because," the farmer explains, "you don't want to eat a pig like that all at once."
More and more, it seems the Obama administration has just that attitude toward the economic crisis: doling out pork for as long as possible.
Recall the White House mantra of "never let a crisis go to waste." Though the economic implosion had specific causes stemming from the financial and housing markets and how they were regulated, President Obama insisted that the items on his campaign wish list -- overhauling health care, imposing carbon cap-and-trade and reforming education -- would be the real solutions to the crisis.
"The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight," Obama told Congress in February. And only by "investing" in policies formulated years before "toxic asset" became household words could America get out of the crisis.
As a result, we're now stuck with some of the most absurdly counterproductive legislation imaginable. The national debt is growing faster than the GDP. According to the Congressional Budget Office, within 10 years Uncle Sam's publicly held debt will double to 82 percent of GDP. The CBO predicts that by 2038, our debt will be 200 percent of GDP. Debt siphons off growth for the simple reason that dollars go to paying it off rather than investing in something productive.
Meanwhile, thanks to ongoing trade deficits and relentless borrowing, America's financial status is deteriorating rapidly. The Commerce Department reported Friday that the value of foreign assets owned by Americans is $19.89 trillion, while the value of American assets owned by foreigners is $23.36 trillion. In other words, we are a "net debtor" to the tune of $3.47 trillion. That represents a 62 percent increase over 2007. Foreigners, most significantly China, own nearly 50 percent of our government's public debt.
So while the Obama administration frets over the largely phony idea that we are dangerously dependent on foreign oil (Canada sends us as much oil as the entire Persian Gulf region, and Mexico not much less), we are increasingly threatened by dependence on foreign bondholders who could wreak havoc on the dollar and our interest rates far more easily than OPEC could cut off our oil.
And what are we doing in response? For starters, the House passed carbon cap-and-trade legislation that essentially adds an onerous and inefficient energy tax on everyone, outsources jobs to carbon-profligate India and China, and raises tariffs in an attempt to stem the inevitable bleeding of jobs and manufacturing (the last time we raised tariffs in the midst of a bad recession, we got the Depression). Rather than have America invest in new oil and gas jobs (among the highest-paying of any industry), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists that one-time gigs weatherizing Granny's attic and replacing light bulbs are preferable.
Worse, even if you think climate change is a huge threat, the bill's own supporters admit its impact on global warming will be trivial. But, we're told, we must lead by example. Of course, we've led by example in refusing to exploit our oil reserves for three decades, and so far no one has followed us.
Then there's health care "reform," aspects of which the administration insists will save money. But according to the CBO, the whole thing will cost $1 trillion to $1.6 trillion. The savings will allegedly come from government-imposed efficiency -- which approaches "jumbo shrimp" as an oxymoron. It's funny how nobody has been talking up Medicare as a source of huge savings, and yet that's the model: Medicare for everyone.
In fairness, the Obama administration did tackle the financial crisis more directly. It passed a $787 billion stimulus bill that hasn't prevented unemployment from soaring (in January, when the stimulus was on the table, the administration estimated joblessness would peak at just above 8 percent; it's now 9.4 percent and rising). Maybe that's because the bulk of the stimulus wasn't meant to kick in until 2010 and beyond -- after the administration's predicted robust economic growth began. Or maybe it's because much of it was intended to pay for a pent-up wish list of Democratic projects.
Now Obama is publicly mulling the possibility of a "second stimulus" that would in fact be the third stimulus (let's not forget President Bush's $168 billion "booster shot for our economy"), paid for with money we don't have or with tax hikes we don't need. But, hey, anything's worth it to savor the pig for as long as possible.