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C. Fraser Smith: Ghouls, goblins and the U.S. debt crisis

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Rupert Murdoch, who was driven off Page One, may be the only one to find something good in the recent implosion of confidence and credit in governments around much of the world.

President Barack Obama and Congress have been taking the lumps that had been heaped until a week or so ago on Murdoch after the phone hacking scandal here.

I watched the British and Scottish newspapers unload on the president during a recent trip to Scotland. There was no sparing of Obama here, though I think writers had a somewhat difficult time absorbing the reality of tea party mindlessness.

When the debt-ceiling crisis seemed to pass, The Times’ Aug. 2 Scotland edition called it “The Humbling of America.”

The story began, “Washington was poised last night to pass an historic deal on debt and spending cuts, lifting the threat of financial crisis but leaving President Obama weakened and his country humbled in the eyes of the world economy. … As the spin and rhetoric of an epic week of politics start to subside, Mr. Obama faces a hardening perception that he has capitulated to Republicans at every stage of the debt crisis and in a broader war over the size and scope of government.”

In its Aug. 8 edition, under a headline drawn from remarks by GOP presidential contender Tim Pawlenty, the newspaper said, “Time to downgrade the President … ”

It quoted Congresswoman Michele Bachmann blaming Obama for the credit rating downgrade that quickly followed what had been called a crisis-evading agreement by the White House. “This happened on your watch,” Mr. President. “You were AWOL. You were missing in action.”

Crisis or charade?

The press here, deeply in love with allegory, likened the last few days of the debt-ceiling drama to a horror movie. “Week of the living dread,” was the headline on a story in the Financial Times on Aug. 6 and 7.

“Three months ago the world economy was recovering,” wrote Alan Beattie in London, “stock prices were up and central banks were planning a return to normality.

“Enter a terrifying procession of ghouls. The US economy has started to stumble lethargically, as if bitten by a zombie. The Eurozone countries, one by one, are being drained of life blood by a swift and merciless vampire.”

A common observation: Few if any countries are really confronting the problem of unemployment beyond the hollow cry of jobs, jobs, jobs.

The world economy may survive, but may also be slumping into death throes.

Said Jerome Booth head of research at a London-based fund manager: “If the Eurozone is ignoring the corpse (of the economy,) in the U.S. “the cadaver has been placed in a chair, given a cup of coffee and engaged in conversation.”

What really mystifies the writers and officials here is what a columnist in The Times called an “own goal” — soccer’s term for putting the ball in your own net.

This was a reference to what many here have called a charade — a made-up crisis designed for the tea party Republicans to keep their campaign promises to avoid new taxes or to repeal old ones that go almost entirely to the wealthy.

“The country that can borrow astonishingly cheaply,” said Beattie in the Financial Times, “is choosing not to, while the nations that are (really and truly, no kidding) on their way to default are getting deeper in debt.”

Nothing but werewolves

One of the sharpest thrusts came from Columbia University Professor, Jeffrey Sachs. His column ran in The Times of London’s Aug. 9 Opinion page:

“The U.S. crisis is the result of the blatant irresponsibility of its political class. At the core of the crisis is the determination of both Republicans and Democrats to shower the rich with tax breaks and largesse, mainly to reap the rewards of campaign contributions but also to serve their personal interests as Congress and the White House are now dominated by millionaires.

“There isn’t a scintilla of evidence that either Democrats or Republicans were representing the broad values of voters in the recent stalemate. The majority of voters were clear in poll after poll: tax the rich, end the war and protect social spending. That we got nearly the opposite in the actual debt deal is a testimony to a money-infested political system that is less democratic than at any time in the past century.”

Tying up the horror movie thread, Alan Beattie wrote: “We have got to the point in the horror movie when the audience starts to fear that all the characters are werewolves and there are no normal people left.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.