Maugham Describes Sequester Politics

Graham Sutherland, "Somerset Maugham"

Graham Sutherland, “Somerset Maugham”

Unless a miracle occurs, the sequester goes into effect this coming Friday, giving us (I think I have this correct) our sixth manufactured financial crisis since the Republicans seized control of the House in 2012. Even if we avert this one, there are two more waiting in the wings, one for later in March and one in May. I don’t want to make light of these self-inflicted wounds because they are slowing the recovery and costing thousands of people their jobs, but the situation makes me think of the a wittily sardonic short story by Somerset Maugham. “Louise” is about a woman who always gets her way through strategic illnesses.

Before applying the story, let’s take stock of the crises:

–In April of 2011, Congress came to within hours of a government shutdown before appropriating money for the new fiscal year.

–In July 2011, only a last minute bargain persuaded Republicans to raise the debt ceiling. Refusal to do so would have triggered a world-wide financial crisis. A Congressional super committee was set up to come up with a balanced budget solution, with the threat of debilitating and haphazard sequestration cuts both military and non-military spending if it failed. It failed.

–In September 2011 the Republicans threatened another government shutdown over appropriations. This time the crisis was averted a few days ahead of the deadline.

–In December 2012, the country almost went over the “fiscal cliff”—everyone’s taxes would have gone up, thereby plunging us into back into recession—before a last minute bargain got us through.

–At the end of January 2013, the debt ceiling crisis returned. This time business groups pressured the GOP to postpone it (to May).

–On March 1, 2013, the sequester cuts are due to go into effect.

–Later in March, there looms the possibility of another government shutdown as Congress must aprorpirate funds for this coming year.

–In May 2013, Congress will need to increase the debt ceiling again.

And now for the story. (If you want to read it on-line, you can find it here.) Louise is a supposedly frail woman who is a master of passive-aggressive maneuvering.  She would be oh so accommodating to the desires of others if she could only remain healthy, but she is always falling sick. Of course, she is only sick when it suits her, and she outlives both of her protective husbands. She also almost sabotages her daughter’s wedding.

The narrator appears to be the one person sees through her and he regularly calls her out. Here’s how he describes the dynamics of her marriage with her first husband:

[Tom] doted on Louise. With her weak heart he could not hope to keep her with him long and he made up his mind to do everything he could to make her few years on earth happy. He gave up the games he excelled in, not because she wished him to, she was glad that he should play golf and hunt, but because by a coincidence she had a heart attack whenever he proposed to leave her for a day. If they had a difference of opinion she gave in to him at once, for she was the most submissive wife a man could have, but her heart failed her and she would be laid up, sweet and uncomplaining, for a week. He could not be such a brute as to cross her. Then they would have a quiet little tussle about which should yield and it was only with difficulty that at last he persuaded her to have her own way. On one occasion seeing her walk eight miles on an expedition that she particularly wanted to make, I suggested to Tom Maitland that she was stronger than one would have thought. He shook his head and sighed.

 “No, no, she’s dreadfully delicate. She’s been to all the best heart specialists in the world, and they all say that her life hangs on a thread. But she has an unconquerable spirit.”

Determined that Louise won’t do to her daughter what she has done to her husbands, the narrator confronts her. The story’s masterfully constructed conclusion is vintage Maugham:

“I’ve begged her to marry him. I know it’ll kill me, but I don’t mind. Nobody cares for me. I’m just a burden to everybody.”

 “Did you tell her it would kill you?”

 “She made me.”

 “As if anyone ever made you do anything that you were not yourself quite determined to do.”

 “She can marry her young man tomorrow if she likes. If it kills me, it kills me.”

 “Well, let’s risk it, shall we?”

 “Haven’t you got any compassion for me?”

 “One can’t pity anyone who amuses one as much as you amuse me,” I answered.

 A faint spot of color appeared on Louise’s pale cheeks and though she smiled still her eyes were hard and angry.

 “Iris shall marry in a month’s time,” she said, “and if anything happens to me I hope you and she will be able to forgive yourselves.”

 Louise was as good as her word. A date was fixed, a trousseau of great magnificence was ordered, and invitations were issued. Iris and the very good lad were radiant. On the wedding-day, at ten o’clock in the morning, Louise, that devilish woman, had one of her heart attacks and died. She died gently forgiving Iris for having killed her.

So that’s how I see this economic game being played at the moment. The GOP, although it  is always complaining that large deficits will cause the economy to get sick and die, nevertheless ran up large deficits under George W. Bush. Now, however, it fears we will have a heart attack. Of course, as with Louise, “deficits don’t matter” (Dick Cheney) when it suits Republicans’ own purposes—which is to say, when it comes to low taxes on the wealthy and robust military spending.

After a long period of acting like one of Louise’s overly accommodating husbands (see summer of 2011), Obama has finally called her bluff and is refusing to give into her demands. She, to spite us and prove that it’s not really a bluff, is prepared to have her heart attack. To the dismay of military hawks and some Republican governors, it appears that the cuts will go through.

Unfortunately, given the way the sequester works, she won’t die alone. I suspect she won’t gently forgive the Democrats when we all start feeling the pain

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