I realize that I may be heading straight into some basic identity problems in saying this, but a trip to Washington last weekend prompted me to see some logic in the tea party movement's perspective on big government as practiced in our nation's capital.
I first saw Washington in 1961. I visited and lived there sporadically from then until 2001 when I betook myself to Pittsburgh. I still have family living in Washington and feel also that, as a writer addressing himself to international and national questions on a regular basis I have a duty to visit the capital of the American empire from time to time, to talk with people and to sniff the breeze.
As I was leaving there Sunday on the Dulles Tollway, a thought came to me. The United States is becoming more and more in its political, economic and social structure like the corrupt developing countries where I spent most of the 40 years that preceded my coming to Pittsburgh.
America's capital and the elite living there get richer and richer at the expense of the poor devils -- also known as taxpayers -- who live in the hinterland, such as Pittsburgh.
It isn't so much the civil servants. They continue to be paid relatively modest wages. If their salaries seem large to the rest of America, it is partly because they have to be paid a certain amount or they will simply not be able to live in Washington.
It is more the lobbyists, the consultants, the lawyers and the other parasitical professions that live off the government. Some of them are called Beltway Bandits, named after the I-495 highway that circles the capital, around which are clustered acres of buildings holding think tanks, universities and other entities living off the federal government.
Living off the federal government means living off the rest of us, feasting on our taxes. They are embarrassed to raise our taxes high enough to cover their income and spending. That might cause us to focus on what they are doing -- the wars, the contracts, the wasteful ways of doing things, the disregard of cost-benefit analysis of their actions. Instead, under the administration of President George W. Bush at least, they cut taxes. But they have also run up the national debt to $12.7 trillion. That is so much money that we can't even remember how many zeroes it takes to write it out.
The idea of the American people ever having to pay it off is something that our leaders don't want us to think about. There is pious language about not saddling our children and grandchildren with monstrous debt, but their actions indicate clearly that our so-called leaders don't mean that.
If any serious economist addresses himself to the issue, he has to say that just about the only way the debt could be erased is by inflation. Some of America's economists look at the figures each month and congratulate themselves that inflation is not excessive and that, therefore, no action has to be taken to restrain deficit spending. The Federal Reserve this month met and made a determination to keep interest rates at almost zero in order that the feeble economy, struggling to restart, wouldn't stall out.
I don't want to sound like Cassandra, or whoever tried to alert Henny Penny, but the fact of the matter is that inflation is probably the only way that America can get rid of $12.7 trillion in debt over the next hundred years.
Inflation has an allure to it. With it the $100 bill replaces the $20 bill as what comes out of the ATM. We find out who William McKinley and Grover Cleveland are -- the faces on the $500 and $1,000 bills -- and we begin to get used to bigger numbers. What usually finally happens in places like the Congo and Zimbabwe at some point is a drastic devaluation of the currency. The government knocks one or more zeroes off and new money is issued, perhaps with new faces. We could amuse ourselves thinking whose pictures would be on the new bills. My first guess would be Ronald Reagan.
The happy part from the point of view of a spendthrift Washington government is that the $12.7 trillion national debt, as well as the trillion-dollar budget deficits foreseen for longer than we can imagine, would go away much more quickly with the new, inflated dollar. The trouble for the rest of us, of course, is that our wages and salaries would never keep pace with the rise in the cost of living that inflation would cause.
The true picture of Washington as the epicenter of our leaders' access to the nation's wealth is seen in the prices of a solid commodity, real estate. In Washington, they continue to soar, pretty much regardless of the state of the rest of the U.S. economy. The reason is that neither the government employees, nor the thousands of lobbyists, consultants and lawyers, ever go away. If tax revenues decline, deficit spending and the national debt continue to grow to keep them fat and happy, amply supplied with cash to spend on houses and whatever else they want.
Washington house prices are so far out of sight that we in Pittsburgh can't even imagine them. A house in a modest suburb with three small bedrooms, no basement, no garage, a small living room and a small, combined dining room and kitchen goes for $550,000.
So, what I share with the tea partiers is true disgust at a Washington elite that lives high off the hog, no matter what the state of the U.S. economy, and deficit-spends without regard to what it does to the economy, thinking only of helping themselves to our money through government positions, contracts, consultancies and lobbying, whether elected, appointed or hired.
I find the rest of the tea-partier picture unappealing. For me the tea-party types are too bigoted, too old, devoid of credible leadership and imbued with many ideas that I consider lunatic. But they do have a valid point about the Washington elite and their spending of our money. Pass the sugar.
Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1976).