Week 26 of the Quarantine
When summer’s gone
Where will we be?
Where will we be?
Where will we be?
Morning found us calmly unaware
Noon burned gold into our hair
At night, we swim the laughin’ sea
When summer’s gone
Where will we be?
– Summer’s Almost Gone, by The Doors
Summer has come and gone.
And another birthday, too. That makes it 72 times in our lifetime the leaves have grown heavy with the late-summer dew.
And 18 times national presidential elections absorbed the public’s attention, like an obnoxious drunk at a cocktail party.
It marks a complete interest rate cycle, too. Interest rates hit a cyclical low in the late 1940s. Once again, just over three score and 10 years later, they seem to have reached another epic low.
We were born after a spell of hysteria, brought to a rapid and emphatic close when the U.S. dropped the A-bomb on two Japanese cities.
By then, the world was exhausted from two world wars in 30 years… and fed up with the “isms” – communism, socialism, Nazism, totalitarianism. It was ready to take a deep breath and go back to normal.
Besides, “the bomb” was soon in the hands of the Soviets, and the price of stirring up trouble suddenly seemed too high. It was time to settle down and get back to work.
People go crazy from time to time. Back in the 1930s, it was Europe and Japan that caught the fever, while the U.S. remained largely immune. This time, it might be the other way around.
Birthdays put us in a reflective mood. We try to remember what it was like before… and wonder, have things really changed so much? Or is it just us?
Of all the things we’ve seen in our 72 flu seasons, the events of the recent six months are surely among the strangest. Never before has the economy been shut down to try to prevent a virus from spreading.
And never before has any government tried to offset the damage by passing out so much free money (which it “printed up” especially for the occasion) – including paying many people more than they made on the job.
This year, the federal government will spend two dollars for every one dollar it collects in taxes – a first. Its deficit will reach almost 20% of GDP – another first.
Only once before in our lifetime did a president panic so completely and give in to such bad advice. That was 49 years ago… when Richard Nixon briefly imposed wage/price controls and permanently imposed a fake (unbacked by gold) dollar.
That was the closest equivalent to last week’s proclamation by Donald Trump that henceforth, he would set the terms of rental contracts himself… specifically telling renters they didn’t have to pay their rents until after the election.
The political gain is obvious; there are as many as 40 million renters who might vote, but only a handful of landlords.
The long-lasting harm is incalculable. Landlords typically have expenses, too – notably, mortgages. If they can’t collect their rents, they can’t pay their mortgages.
And then, the banks take losses… and on up the financial food chain. The losses do not go away… they just get moved around.
How many hand-to-mouth renters will be able to catch up on four months of unpaid rent in December? How many will walk away instead?
But the deeper damage is to the system itself. Free enterprise depends on two things: property rights and private contracts. Conservatives used to believe that the government’s real job was to protect the former and enforce the latter.
And if you can overthrow private, win-win contracts because the unemployment rate is over 8%… or because a virus is on the loose… what can’t you do?
What contract is safe? Who will want to invest, knowing that a conniving government might ruin the project with a presidential decree?
And what next?
Now, the summer has slipped away, leaving us calmly unaware that anything has changed.
Yet, it is so different. The hysteria is still upon us.
The looney Left Wing is sure we are all sinners, who can only be redeemed by “taking the knee,” tearing down statues, and reconstructing the nation from 1619 on up.
The delusional Right Wing hopes to hold on to our “conservative values” with armed vigilantes, flag-waving, and restrictions on Chinese imports.
But the real source of America’s success is already a goner. The government no longer even pretends to respect its limits, and the economy is now managed by the federales themselves, bureaucrats.
And all agree, left and right: whatever economic jam we’ve gotten ourselves into… we can print our way out of it.
Time to Reflect
And here, 5,000 miles away from Washington, on Labor Day… still “quarantined” by the Argentine government… we sat on our stone veranda and recalled a wooden porch… long ago.
Our father was still wearing a uniform in the summer of 1948. He had been posted to Goose Bay, Labrador. Master Sergeant William Bonner asked permission of his captain to come back to Maryland to attend the birth of his son and namesake. But the answer came back in the negative.
“You were there when the keel was laid; you don’t need to be there for the launch,” he was told.
So Mother was staying with her parents, near Annapolis, with a two-year-old girl already and another baby on the way.
Maryland Route 2, now a busy thoroughfare, was a gravel road back then. It ran from the tobacco fields along the Western bank of the Chesapeake, where the first colonists arrived in 1634, up to Annapolis, and then, on what became Governor Ritchie Highway, all the way to Baltimore.
But the two ends were vastly different.
There was no electricity in our house. No running water, hot or cold. No central heating. And air-conditioning had scarcely been invented, much less brought to the homes of Southern Maryland.
The summer of 1948 was hot. But under the shade of a tall oak… sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch, drinking a glass of lemonade… it was a languid, serene heat… rich in odors… intoxicating… sensuous. And what a delight it must have been when the heat broke in September.
Civil War Veteran
We lived in that house many years later. We added electricity, plumbing, central heating, and insulation. But we could never recover the magic of the place before modern conveniences made it more comfortable.
It was so overgrown, the wisteria had worked its way in between the lap-siding… and bloomed in one of the bedrooms. The outhouse, too, was covered with vines – honeysuckle and morning glories; you could barely open the white-washed door.
And behind it was a remarkable treasure. In a heap of vines so thick that in summer, nothing could be seen through the leaves, there was the fallen-down house of a “Civil War veteran.”
This part of the state had deeply southern sympathies, probably because the tidewater was fairly flat and suitable for the kind of field crops that made slavery (barely) profitable – tomatoes, melons, and corn on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, tobacco on the western side.
So, when the war broke out, the young men from both sides of the bay rushed to the Stars and Bars, taking their horses with them. Our grandmother’s great uncle, Zacharia, did so… and came back a damaged man. He spent the rest of his life in the little cabin.
But by the time we came along, the cabin was a shell, held up by trees and vines. We could still go inside, but carefully…
The floor was rotten… and so were the steps that led to a tiny bedroom on the first floor. The window glass had long since disappeared, and the rotting frames provided easy access for black snakes, which loved the place.
But why are we reminiscing? We don’t know, exactly.
But something important has changed – maybe in us… maybe in the world. Maybe over seven decades. Maybe over only the last seven years.
We’re trying to figure out what, exactly.
So we are remembering what it was like… before COVID… before Trump… before the War on Terror and the War on Drugs… before the fake dollar, the fake boom, the fake “conservatives” and the fake recovery… before air-conditioning and automatic transmission… before the internet and working remotely…
We’re remembering people long dead… and a time when they wore face masks only if they were going to rob a bank…
And we are trying to imagine what it must have been like for our mother, sitting on that porch 72 years ago, rocking her newborn son to sleep…
…calmly unaware of all that was to come… when the summer was over.
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