02 February 2009

Living Beyond Our Means - A Short Story

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship." - Unattributed

The curator sighed. After 36 years working for the Smithsonian he was filled with sadness. This is not how he wanted to end his career. This would be the last piece of artwork that would be boxed up from this gallery. It was one of his favorites from the early 1900s – a beautiful painting from the Arts and Crafts era of the Snake River with the Grand Teton mountain range in the background.

Under the Debt Reconciliation and Repayment Act all valuable artwork was categorized and sold off in large lots to countries holding the United States’ massive $43 trillion national debt – even after making payments it was now still 127 times the current estimated gross domestic product. Most of the extremely valuable pieces had already been packed up and sent away. Even priceless artifacts were given an estimated value. The majority of the Library of Congress had been divided up and sold to collections in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. The most horrifying acquisition was the sale of the Declaration of Independence to China. He supposed that everything had its price in the end. He wondered why America was still suffering when the rest of the world had returned to ecomonic normalcy more than 6 years ago.

The less valuable pieces and displays were merely discarded or burned rather than being placed in long-term storage. During a recent trip to a Smithsonian Warehouse to catalog a number of items destined to Venezuela, he had even caught a glimpse of a minor modern piece of art being used as a roof in one of the many shanty towns outside of Washington, D.C. The Emergency Homeland Austerity Measures Act called for strict budget expenditures. They had no choice; the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had stepped in to mediate the settling of the America’s debt in the aftermath of the collapse of the dollar. Under the terms of the agreement, the United States had to enact the EHAMA. Such trivial things like preserving history were ignored in favor of feeding Americans.

His thoughts drifted to the many times he discussed the economy with friends. They all assured him that everything would be fine. He was convinced that America could no longer afford to live beyond its means. His friends told him that he was overreacting, that the trillions spent in financially securing the banks and the many stimulus packages would finally set America on the right course. Of course, no one in the government considered how all that spending would be paid for. They were all surprised when foreign investors stopped buying U.S. Treasury Bills. With no funding, the bottom finally fell out from under the unsustainable initiatives. He grimaced with a pang of guilt at being right. He felt the heat in his head rising as his anger of what had been done to his country surfaced.

Five years ago a ragtag contingent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans disabled security and managed to storm the Capital. They demanded real change and ended up killing 15 senators and 53 congressmen before being killed themselves in the standoff. The government fearing another act like that quickly instituted martial law, disbanded the armed forces, formed the National Police, and passed The Firearm Prohibition Act. It took over three years but the majority of firearms had been confiscated. Rumor had it that there were some serious firefights between the National Police and the last holdouts who loudly proclaimed “…From My Cold, Dead Hands.” Well that is exactly what ended up happening. The metal from the guns was melted down and sold to countries to pay down the debt. The remaining gun stocks were initially destroyed in huge public bonfires vaguely reminiscent of the infamous Nazi book burning pyres. Later they were quietly destroyed after some environmentalists complained about the pollution. Now and then there was a report of someone who had slipped through the system and was caught with a firearm – mainly hunters trying to feed their families – and were sent to prison work camps without a trial. It was hard labor. Many in the camps died.

The official government press was tightlipped during the firearm prohibition campaign. The main news providers quickly towed the government line. Those that did not where conveniently shut down by the Federal Communications Commission under an emergency law. What real news was available from the internet was quickly silenced when Congress passed The Fairness in Media Act in an attempt to control what was being said in the media. The act essentially shut down the internet. They felt that too much negative news would incite more violence and demoralize Americans.

He stared at the blank walls around him. After so many years of providing the public with a venue to see, hear, and touch the history of the United States and the world one more Smithsonian Museum would be closed. Not that the public had been allowed access to the National Mall in several years; the entire area around the Capital and White House was cordoned off and only accessible to government employees on official business. The public was not allowed to enter the area because of security concerns.

The painting he was packing up was part of a collection destined for Brazil and their new museum of North American Art History. Not much he could do about it now. He called his wife and told her that he was leaving soon. It would be the last call made from the building. The workers were coming tomorrow to salvage the wiring and gut the building of anything of worth. The windows and doors would be bricked over and the yet another government building would be mothballed. He doubted the interiors would ever see any daylight except when the roof finally caved in. There was no money in the budget for even simple maintenance. The only living things to step in these halls again would likely be rats, spiders, and other insects.

Over the phone his wife told him that the elderly man next door had died that day. One of the more heinous parts of The Emergency Homeland Austerity Measures Act was the refusal of medical care for anyone over 65 years of age. The man next door had a history of cancer. Ten years ago at the age of 63, he had survived colon cancer. He was supposedly in remission, but he had not been feeling well of late and many of the same pains he had when he had first been diagnosed with cancer were returning. The hospital turned him away saying there was nothing they could do for him. They told him that he had no right using up valuable medical resources. His wife could not afford any outside treatment. They were left to suffer. To add insult to injury, dead bodies were discarded on the streets because no one could afford burial or cremation. The government came around and collected the bodies and dumped them in large pits. He was thinking of setting fire to his house just before he died to save them the trouble. At least he would go out on his terms.

He hoped that he would not have to wait long to get his rations today; one piece of hard bread, a bit of meat with questionable origin, rice or potatoes and if he was lucky a piece of fruit or vegetable. A tear rolled down his cheek as he turned from the building and walked down the overgrown and unkempt National Mall to his government-issued home.

An original short story by KCThinker. The story pretty much sums up how I feel right now – hopeless.

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