The Eye of the Storm

Paul Greenberg

4/5/2010 7:51:10 PM - Paul Greenberg

There were some big doings in the nation's capital the other celebratory day. A new health-care bill had been passed at last. Whatever its official title, its unofficial one in the headlines was Landmark Health Care Bill. A festive signing was held in the White House with souvenir pens all around. The president couldn't get through his remarks without being interrupted by standing ovations. Happy Days Are Here Again!

All rites were observed in fulsome full, including the mandatory obscenity whispered into the president's ear by his vice. ("This is a big f------ deal.") Not since Andrew Johnson has the country had a vice president so sure to provide embarrassment on every public occasion. There's no ceremonial event Joe Biden can't make uncomfortable. The happy time when vice presidents were seen and not heard passed long ago. Regrettably.

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It was all so Washington, 2010. Or maybe Rome, First Century A.D. What a pity Tacitus is no longer with us. It would all be familiar to that Roman historian and gossip -- the republic become empire, the fawning tributes from subjects to Caesar, the sports spectaculars and culture of celebrity, the Jewish wars, and most of all the pretentiousness. As for the mere populace, it watches and waits, warily.

A second, revised health-care bill and doorstopper correcting the first, and about as encyclopedic, was soon on its way to the president's desk. Call it an encore. Who could ask for anything more?

So is everybody feeling healthier now?

Didn't think so.

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It's all over now, including the shouting. Only the clean-up awaits. And the litigation, of course. And the explanations of how all the provisions and counter-provisions fit together, if they do. And the presidential sales job continues. It never ceases. Instead of relief after all the debates and votes, a curious lull has set in. One thinks of New Orleans after Katrina had passed with what, at first, looked like only a glancing blow at the city. Decompression was setting in. People were coming back onto the streets....

Then the levees gave way.

So is this the calm after the storm or before one? Why not both? All is outwardly calm, inwardly apprehensive. As if this battered old republic and shiny new mass-democracy were waiting for the next shock wave to hit.

This is what it must be like entering the eye of a hurricane. The torrential downpour has ceased. The air is still. But for how long?

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The clean-up crews are already busy. The funny figures that got this Landmark Health-Care Bill and circus past the Congressional Budget Office will now have to be rectified. They have served their purpose, which was to pass the bill, not say how much it will really cost.

Surely no one believes the figures the administration submitted to the CBO. As one old hand at this kind of fiscal legerdemain described the whole, computerized process of obtaining the CBO's imprimatur: Fantasy In, Fantasy Out.

And surely no one, especially in government, believes those cuts in Medicare and in reimbursements to physicians and hospitals will ever actually go into effect. Those were for accounting purposes only, like the government bonds that are supposed to back up Social Security.

The higher taxes that will be needed to finance this Lehman Bros. of health care aren't scheduled to go into effect until the mid-term elections are safely past. Or maybe the next presidential election. Various benefits are to come first. How prudent, politically if not fiscally.

It's an old sell: Buy now and pay later, if ever. Just put the bill on what the Brits call the never-never. No one can know what all these thousands of pages of health-care legislation amount to, only that they'll need to followed by hundreds of thousands of pages of regulation.

Here's the only sure result of this whirlwind now being sown: more and more massive deficits. At last report, this 44th president of the United States was running up a national debt greater than all his 43 predecessors combined -- and that was before Obamacare became fuzzy law. The sky ceased to be the limit long ago; we're far out in fiscal space now. Unmoored.

For the first time since my memory runneth not to the contrary, not just fiscal nerds but real live voters are beginning to take deficits seriously. Certainly the bond market is. There is talk of the U.S. government's losing its AAA rating. The U.S. Government. Investors are showing more confidence in Warren Buffett's bonds than Timothy Geithner's. At last people have started talking about the herd of elephants in the room. Maybe this isn't a lull in politics after all; maybe it's just shock setting in. Before the explosion of fury.