A Bengali ‘boul gaan’ (folk song) that I faintly remember my old nanny singing to me, ended like this…
“Thol buyier raja ashi chilo lo
kurmur bhaja khiya gilo
“kurmur bhaja boro re mitho…”
‘Bouls’ were minstrels who wandered about from village to village, singing plaintive tunes filled, not with despair, but with a kind of wishful hope turned resignation. Later on, it became fashionable to host them at international festivals, tout them as valued proponents of Indian folk music and then treat them like shit immediately afterward. But that’s another story.
The song I just reproduced above, my nanny, Anima, used to tell me that it was from the time of the great 1874 famine in Bengal. Her descriptions were vivid. Of village folk surviving on roots and stuff. The song tells the story of the Raja of ‘Thol Buyi’ who visited this village at the famine’s height and was served ‘kurmur bhaja’ (bark and roots, fried crisp) and how he appreciated it greatly.
The point of the song was that not only were kings reduced to eating tree bark but as the famine stretched and the good times receded from memory, the kings even started enjoying crispy fried bark. The concept of borrowing your way out of crises hadn’t been born then. If you fell on hard times, likely that others did too and you all just hunkered down and braved it out. You watched loved ones stagger and fall by the wayside, did what you could do to help. And you just kept going.
And me? I have reached the stage when the whisky has to be scotch and the beer, Belgian. The slightest change in temp makes me switch the heating on. A trip to the library has to be on Bunty, our Honda, when I could have a leisurely walk through the woods back of our house, to get there. And the stuff that we throw away, it is unbelievable. Why, just the other day, we junked a computer, monitor and printer and then threw out the TV and VCR. Clothes? Why do you think places like the Salvation Army are bursting at the seams?
Which brings me to the point of this piece, about the debt crisis that the US (and therefore the rest of the world) faces. I must be forthright with you and tell you right off the bat that I don’t understand everything. Even after reading through the Q&As that the news magazines publish about the current ‘fiscal cliff’.
I do understand this much. The US, like any individual, borrows money and runs itself with those borrowed funds. These borrowed funds come from the sale of US Government bonds to creditor nations like China which now holds over 10% of the total debt. Yes, China, a nation which is viewed by most ordinary Americans as an adversary to beware of, a nation that is very likely to fight as an antagonist in any future war over the South Asian seas, actually owns 10% of the United States of America and its ownership is growing.
I am wondering what will happen if China were to call in the debt? Would the US negotiate the sale of one of its states as payment? Hawaii? Florida? Louisiana? No, that would hurt their poll prospects. I think they’ll start with territories like Guam, Wake Island, Palmyra Atoll, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Samoa, Bikini Atoll. You know, places that ordinary Americans have barely heard of, where there are more alpha particles from all those H-Bomb tests than there are people. If you happen to be in one of these joints, you better start thinking of moving your tush out of there soon or start taking coaching classes in Mandarin.
Or maybe, recognizing that most of the above real estate is worthless, the Chinese will make ordinary Americans work as bonded labor, on their paddy fields in Sechwan, to pay off the debt that their rulers have incurred on their behalf? I am imagining the Chinese landowners screaming at white American laborers, “Come here, boy!”
Of course a more likely scenario would be that China would realize that, when you lend money to a bully, you must be prepared not to be able to collect on the debt. What could China or anyone else do if the US one day just showed them the middle finger? Like, ‘I owe you…yeah…so? Sue me, dumbass’.
Like the limit on my credit card, the US too has a borrowing limit. While the credit card company decides my credit limit, the US law makers decide the limit of their own borrowing. Pushes and pulls of their individual greed have seen to it that the limit has had to be increased over the years, from around just $1.5 billion in 1980 to $16.5 trillion till May this year. Trillion, that’s 12 zeros after 16.5.
On October 17, a little over a week from now, that borrowing limit shall have to be increased further in order to avoid defaulting on interest payments. It will be like borrowing more, to pay the vig alone. Of course, the limit shall be increased as before, of that I’m pretty sure. When does all this end? Will it stop when Chinese ownership of America crosses 50%?
It is no longer about the Republicans and the Democrats. It is no longer about the Republicans bringing the world to the brink or about the Democrats and their grand-standing. No, it is something much deeper. It is the American mindset, their ethos. It is the way that the present generation of Americans have come to see life as being all about. It is the way that debt is viewed in that part of the world.
Whatever happened to cutting your coat according to your cloth? Why can’t we let all those deadlines pass and simply bite the bit and hang on? Why can’t we just toil, eat, drink, f–k, sleep, play, have a lemonade stand on our front lawn, till we are debt-free? We could go back to those Mom and Pop corner stores, have cotton candy instead of Doritos, watch reruns of ‘I love Lucy’ on the tele at home and ‘Ten Commandments’ at the drive-in, marry our high school sweethearts and raise seven kids and name them Khoka, Tukey, Teko, Bam, Piz, Kochi and Buro, drive trucks, burn our fires with cow-pie, belch and fart and giggle after? Do everything but borrow more. Yes, I agree that in the near term, it would be murder but look where doing things the easier way has led us to. So, why not try the ‘kurmur bhaja’ for a change?
If I knew that the Americans would listen to my sage advice, here is what I’d tell them…..
“For a short while, maybe a year or two, go easy on invasions, drone strikes, renditions, military exercises and eavesdropping. They all cost money and achieve nothing. I know it will be difficult. You have a long and glorious tradition of spending the tax-payers’ money wantonly. So many poor little rich folk will lose their golf club memberships. The next Bilderburg conference might need to be held at one of those Patel motels outside Minneapolis.
One more thing. Its Nobel Prize time. I can just see all your ivy league university think tank types dusting off their tuxedos with an anticipatory gleam in their eyes. After all, 89% of all the Nobel Prizes in Economics ever awarded, have gone to Americans. Please don’t get me wrong, but this prize really is meant to reward folk who work for the general uplift of economic conditions. Come on, man, deregulating the banking sector so that you can sell a mortgage to a guy living in a homeless shelter doesn’t count as economic upliftment.
I can understand the Nobel Committee being beholden to you guys, but can you tell your Harvard, Yale and Princeton economists to henceforth stop accepting the Nobel Prize for Economics at least until they have been able to find out what the word ‘economics’ actually means? (We can start a collection drive for them if they feel they need the prize money to pay the rent).
In fact, I’ll do even better. If you let me have their mailing addresses I’ll see that these economist types get a box of kurmur bhaja each, I promise.