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May 7, 2008


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Column
By Mark Beardsley

Economic Plan: We Spend Our Way Out Of Debt
If Americans learn to live within their incomes, will the economy tank?
Just shy of a recession now, many Americans are feeling the pinch of reduced wages, higher prices and the credit and mortgage crises. According to a New York Times article on the economy, during the last quarter “Americans cut back on a wide variety of discretionary purchases,” conserving their cash for “necessary spending” last quarter.
The story notes that as housing prices fall, so does the ability of homeowners to borrow against those houses. Americans are reaching their credit limits, “forcing many to live within their incomes.”
That used to be considered a virtue — like a balanced budget, but the acceptable paradigm has become to buy now and pay later personally, while America pawns its future assets to the Chinese and other debt holders to stay afloat today.
The mortgage crisis, in part, came about because too many people bought houses they could not afford or, through home equity loans, borrowed more against their houses than they could repay. A credit crunch looms because millions lived off of their credit limits to maintain lifestyles not supportable by their income, and now it’s time to pay the piper.
We truly are a government of the people, so it is no surprise that the United States, even now, shows no propensity to live within its means. In fact, Congress approved President Bush’s “stimulus” plan, which, in essence, borrows $150 billion from the Chinese (and other debt holders) to grease the skids of Americans who were finally cutting their spending. The checks are expected starting this week.
So addicted to we to this spending rationale that — to protect the economy — Congress is bailing out some of the financial institutions whose greed and carelessness contributed to the mortgage crisis.
The only difference between a government that borrows money to stimulate spending and a consumer who uses a home equity loan to pay off a VISA bill is the scale. American personal spending is a mirror image of its government’s spending — or is it the other way around?
When your tax rebate comes, President Bush doesn’t want you to use it to pay down your credit cards. He needs you to spend it on a plasma TV, to put down on a new Suburban, or at least to visit Disney World. He wants a spending frenzy.
The late and colorful Commerce councilman Billy Bolton once noted two truths: “You can’t spend yourself out of debt and you can’t drink yourself sober.” Bolton, who had tried both, founded the Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in Commerce. He understood the solution to both is a fundamental change in lifestyle.
America is addicted to excessive spending, both personally and as a nation. Beating that addiction is critical to our national well-being, and if that means a recession, better to face it now than to force it on our children and grandchildren.
If that means a recession, even a depression, so be it. We can’t spend our way out of debt.
Mark Beardsley is the editor of The Commerce News. Contact him at mark@mainstreetnews.com.

Water Providers Need Flexibility During Drought
The Commerce, Jefferson and Bear Creek reservoirs are full. Lake Allatoona is full and Lake Lanier has partially recovered. Local water suppliers have petitioned the Environmental Protection Division to get out of the 61-county level four drought restrictions. Everyone has water to sell.
But state climatologist David Stooksbury, never deviating from what he’s been saying for six months, warns that the drought is still severe, and the proof that he’s right is at every stream or river crossing in Jackson County.
From the neighborhood creek to the stream through the pasture to the two branches of the Oconee River, stream flow is at record low levels for the end of the rainy season. It’s obvious to each of us as we drive around the county that while our lakes may be full, the streams that fill them are very weak. It takes very little stretch of imagination to see a high probability of a severe drought this summer, accompanied by declining reservoirs.
At least we’ve got a year’s worth of experience in dealing with drought. Water conservation measures will slow the decline of local reservoirs; we’ll stretch whatever water is available further than we would have a year ago. Still, we can’t be totally confident in our water supply, even in Commerce, where last year our reservoir helped Jackson County and Jefferson through the worst of times.
Nor can we see evidence that the state government has learned anything from the 2007 drought. The EPD continues to be silent, emasculated by the governor’s mandates and the General Assembly’s meddling. Local governments can’t get clear definitions of state rulings and policies and remain frustrated that their EPD-approved drought contingency plans — many of which are better than the state’s plan — are constantly rendered moot by declarations of the EPD or the governor that treat all river basins as if their problems are of equal severity.
Entering the dry months, local water providers need the flexibility to respond to individual system situations, but the state shows no sign of breaking from its two-headed, often contradictory, autocratic rule from Atlanta. The state climatologist warns that summer is likely to be very dry. Local governments appear to have a better grasp on the situation than the governor and the EPD, who should abandon the one-size-fits-all drought management practice and trust the local governments and water suppliers who best know their system needs and capabilities.

Strong Support For County’s First War Victim
Thanks to all who turned out last week to line the highways of Jackson County in support of the family of Sgt. Shaun Whitehead as his body was brought back from Iraq. It was a moving display of respect for one killed doing his duty.
Hopefully, there will be no more funerals for local soldiers, but with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s just a matter of time. A half a world away, most of us experience the war only as a note in a newspaper or a sound bite on TV. Our young soldiers risk life and limb in America’s name while we go about our daily business scarcely inconvenienced, but Shaun Whitehead’s death reminds us that for the soldiers and their loved ones, these wars are real, are important, and are sometimes devastating.
The war in Iraq is divisive, but we are united in love and support for those who fight it. Sgt. Shaun Whitehead brought us together, reminding us of the risk every soldier takes for his or her country. We are grateful for his service and humbled by his death.


Column
By Susan Harper

Language: The Greatest Gift
Straightening up the shelves in the children’s library recently, I came across a little book called “Fire Snake” that I’d never seen before, although it had been there for about 28 years. Fire snake! I was captivated by the vividness of the phrase, and thought immediately of another such phrase, “wizard’s breath,” an English translation of the Swahili word for lightning bugs.
It was no surprise, then, to open the book and find out that “fire snake” also comes from Africa: from the prophecy of a Kikuyu medicine man named Mogo, who said that God had shown him the future in a dream, and it was not good. “A famine will come to this land,” Mogo told his tribal elders, “and afterward strange people will appear. They will come from the big water in the east, and they will have skin as white as the bellies of frogs and will dress in colors of the wings of butterflies.
“The strangers will carry magic sticks that spout fire. They will bring a great iron snake with as many legs as a centipede, and it too will spit fire. The iron monster will stretch a great distance,” he said, “from the big water in the east to another big water in the west.”
The magic sticks, of course, were guns. And the fire snake? It was the trans-African railway from Mombasa, Kenya, to Lake Victoria, in Uganda. Mogo had no way to understand what he had seen in his dream, though. Where he lived, there were no roads, no carts or wagons, no pack animals; if you wanted to move something from one place to another, you carried it on your head. Still, he found a way to bring this unknown thing into language, which was the beginning of knowing it. Even better, he found the perfect, resonant metaphor, and it has come ringing down through the decades for more than a century and is with us still.
Of all the heart-wrenching things I have heard about the Austrian children who were imprisoned in a basement from birth, the very worst is the possibility that some of them will never have language. Language is our ticket to the wide world, but we have to get it punched before we hit puberty. After that, the ability to grasp the whole concept of language leaves us, never to return. Children thus deprived are trapped in the narrow corridor of a dog’s world, with about the same size vocabulary. No wizard’s breath for them. They may hear the sound those words make; they may even learn to associate that sound with the phenomenon of little flashing lights in the dark. But the metaphor, the lovely notion that lightning bugs are really the exhalations of a Great Magician whose very breath has the fire of creation — this will be forever beyond them.
Language itself is limited. Annie Dillard says in “Living by Fiction” that our eyes can distinguish 20,000 different colors, but we only have names for a few. “I cannot tell you,” she says, “because I do not know, what my language prevents my knowing.” Still, blessed with the tools of language, we resort to metaphor and the world colors up: lime green, barn red, ivory, sky blue, cerise, chartreuse, magenta, and white as the bellies of frogs.
Susan Harper is director of the Commerce Public Library.



 

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