ONE AFTERNOON LAST WEEK, most of the eastside lost power in one of Savannah's increasingly frequent brownouts. Many traffic lights were out at the peak of rush hour.
Georgia Power is the company responsible for keeping our lights on. They're set to give you a big rate hike starting Jan. 1. You'll no doubt have time to think about that the next time you wait your turn to navigate a treacherous Savannah intersection with no traffic lights.
Georgia Power's parent firm is Southern Company. Here's how huge U.S. corporations like Southern Co. are "suffering" through the recession: They're sitting on nearly $3 trillion in cash reserves.
In fact, American corporations just finished their best quarter ever. As in, their most profitable quarter in all of U.S. history.
Yet we're still in a recession. The lights are still out.
Up in Manhattan, investment banks like Goldman Sachs took about a trillion dollars in bailout money -- courtesy of the last two presidents and of you, the taxpayer -- and another three trillion in low-interest "emergency" loans from the Federal Reserve.
They then sat on the money -- gave each other bonuses with it -- without lending it. Even though the entire point of the bank bailout was to get the banks to lend money again.
In any other business this would be called embezzlement and fraud. In a third world country it would be called looting the treasury. We'd make condescending jokes about it and Jimmy Carter would go and observe their elections.
That someone hasn't gone to jail for this is an everlasting indictment against our leaders and the people who vote for them. Future historians will struggle to explain it in a scholarly context.
(History buffs will remember that the guillotine was once an appropriate punishment for this behavior. Indeed, China recently executed a public official for much less malfeasance.)
Meanwhile, normal citizens are being asked to sacrifice for our country, because the deficit, all of a sudden, is our number one problem - bigger than jobs, bigger than terrorism, bigger than failing education, bigger than the two land wars in Asia we're fighting.
Have you noticed our definition of patriotism has subtly shifted? Sending used cellphones and blankets to "support the troops" is passé. Sacrificing to cut the deficit is all the rage.
For the children....
I've learned over the years that whenever someone tells me to do something "for the children," I reach for my wallet to make sure it's still there. That rule of thumb has never let me down.
Meanwhile, here's what we're doing for the children today:
Unemployment benefits for millions of American families ran out last week because Republicans in Congress, emboldened by recent success at the polls, refused to vote to extend them - supposedly because they add to the deficit, but really because it made a great bargaining chip for extending the Bush tax cuts for the upper two percent of earners.
It worked; as of now President Obama, displaying his usual toddler-level negotiating skills, appears to have traded two years of tax cuts for about one year of unemployment benefits, and called it a victory.
To give you an example of how intellectually and morally bankrupt things have become, the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent of the population, if extended, will add over $700 billion to the deficit over the next decade.
We're always told that tax cuts for the wealthy promote job growth. Amazingly, people continue to believe this -- and politicians continue to tout this -- despite decades of evidence to the contrary. The Bush administration created only three million net jobs over its eight years, as opposed to 23 million created under President Clinton, when the tax rate on the wealthy was higher.
I guess I don't have to remind you that things haven't gotten any better under President Obama with the Bush tax cuts still in effect.
Savannah's favorite Republican, Jack Kingston adds a new wrinkle to the old chestnut. He made the rounds last week on the news channels framing the issue not as helping the upper two percent, but of helping "small businesses."
I don't make light of Kingston; this January in the new Congress he has a better than even chance of being chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In other words, he could very soon be one of the most powerful people in America.
You don't get that job by being stupid, and to put it bluntly, nor do you get it by giving a hoot about small business.
Either way, the fix is in. The sacrifices of everyday Americans in the name of deficit-cutting -- a definition which has been stretched to include things which add to the deficit, such as giving the rich a tax break -- are great today.
You will be asked to make even greater sacrifices tomorrow.
President Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission recommended that the wealthy and corporations be given more tax cuts while you get the pleasure of (drum roll)...
Retiring later and for fewer benefits!
Big corporations, meanwhile, demonstrate their patriotism and sense of sacrifice by taking their hoarded cash and their tax cuts and offshoring your jobs to other countries -- often countries that are hostile to us -- without fear of investigation or retribution.
Surely something must be in it for us, you say. All our sacrifice cannot be for nothing. Surely our patriotism will be rewarded.
Of course it will. It's for the children!
THE GOOD NEWS: Lest you think that all we do here is dwell on the bad guys, for a look at some local people and companies who are doing the right thing by their customers and constituents- helping the environment while helping lower your electric bill - check out this week's story by local alternative energy advocate/expert Jack C. Star on the City of Savannah's fledgling, but exciting, geothermal energy program.
Quietly but steadily, Savannah is becoming a regional leader in this fascinating, groundbreaking field. Maybe one day it will help the traffic lights stay on!