Bottomed out

Welcome to the end of this column and the brave new age of cannibalism

No worries, friends and foes, Race to the Bottom may be history, but R.V. Scheide remains at SN&R. Watch for his byline in future issues.

It’s not easy being me. Take the other night, for example. I was cutting into a fat, juicy sirloin steak, unperturbed by the fact that some folks consider meat “the single most significant factor contributing to the destruction of the planet.” The medium-rare cutlet was tender and bled slightly; I couldn’t help but admire the fine texture of the muscle tissue as I cut along the grain. Each tantalizing morsel was more mouthwatering than the last.

I was about halfway through when it suddenly occurred to me that beef and human flesh probably have a lot of similarities. In fact, I speculated, if the steak on my plate had been cut from the small of a human’s back instead of a steer’s, I probably wouldn’t be able to taste the difference. That thought of course raised the inevitable question: If I was really, really, really hungry, would I eat a fellow human being?

The question is one of the central themes of Cormack McCarthy’s near-future doomsday novel The Road. In the book, which takes place after the H-bombs have been dropped and nuclear winter has set in, a father and son set out to find what’s left of civilization. For the father, the categories of good and bad are clearly delineated. Good people don’t eat each other. Bad people do. Unfortunately for father and son, just about everyone left on the planet has gone cannibal.

In real life, the bombs haven’t dropped yet, but give them time; the week is young. Meanwhile, hardly a moment passes without some grim reminder of the economy’s downward trajectory. The front-page headline on last Sunday’s Sacramento Bee very nearly made me vomit: “9,500 businesses go under.” Unemployment is above 12 percent, and when underemployed and discouraged workers are counted, some estimates place the figure at more than 20 percent.

With the state virtually bankrupt and Congress disinclined to provide a bailout or any additional economic stimulus, it appears the situation is going to get worse before it gets better—a lot worse. At every level, leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties have proven themselves entirely craven, cutting vital public services, from health care to mass transit to education, rather than raise taxes on their well-to-do campaign donors.

We are experiencing what Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, calls “disaster capitalism.” For decades, multinational corporations, aided and abetted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have wreaked havoc on Third World economies. When disaster strikes, be it an earthquake, a tsunami or a well-timed war, the money boys move in, loading countries down with high-interest debt, then raping and pillaging natural resources and public services when the countries can’t pay. Now, those same austerity tactics, under the guise of “balancing the budget,” are being applied here at home.

Two years ago, when I started Race to the Bottom, the writing was already on the wall, for those like me who were willing to search for it. The housing bubble created by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had long since begun deflating; trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and other exotic financial instruments based on inflated home prices became worthless overnight. Congress stepped in to bail out the “too big to fail” financial institutions with a $1 trillion bailout, and the Federal Reserve kicked in another $13 trillion in loans financed by U.S. taxpayers, accepting worthless “toxic assets” as collateral.

Translation: When the big banks start failing again, say, later this year when commercial and residential adjustable-rate mortgages begin resetting, it’s game over.

To be honest, I never thought we’d make it as far as we have. Many prognosticators, including myself, had predicted total economic collapse by last fall. The injection of $13 trillion in liquidity temporarily forestalled Wall Street’s decline, but did next to nothing for Main Street. If those 9,500 shuttered businesses in last Sunday’s Bee haven’t convinced you of that, nothing will, not even a snarky columnist.

I’ve had a lot of fun with Race to the Bottom, frying a judge here, exposing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Blackwater connection there, introducing readers to Israel’s unique relationship with the United States. It has been a pleasure corresponding with readers who both agree and disagree with me. But there comes a time to put away childish things. The end of our way of life is at hand. It’s eat or be eaten. However, before I go, I will leave you with one last thought.

When the going gets tough, the tough turn cannibal. Good’s got nothing to do with it.