An Emerald City Negotiates the Debt Ceiling

Taking the Acela down to Washington, D.C., is a telling experience. All along the way, you see the state of America’s eastern seaboard as it struggles to hang in during this tough economy: closed and abandoned buildings, stores, and homes; crumbling roads. You also see the destitute people and places who were forgotten long before the economy even collapsed — where the good times left long long ago, if they were ever there at all.

And then you reach D.C., and, for the majority of the city that makes up the political establishment and its economy, it’s like the economic crisis doesn’t exist. The streets are clean and smooth. The potholes I slam into in Boston just don’t exist. People are bustling everywhere. Intense like Bostonians, yes, but clearly feeling more secure in their day-to-day existence.

When I booked a hotel room for this trip via hotels.com, the website listed literally 16 hotel rooms available within the city proper. All but three were at the Four Seasons or Ritz. The other three were at a Marriott. Cost: $535 after taxes. Why? No rooms. The debt ceiling negotiations are on. Every lobbyist in the country must be in the nation’s capitol, haggling to make sure their piece of the pie doesn’t get whacked in the austerity movement sweeping over the politicians.

Austerity. The D.C. politicians are all enamored by this concept with the August 2 debt ceiling deadline nearing. We need to “eat our peas,” says Obama of the federal government. Meanwhile, the rest of us have been “eating our peas” for three years — bailing out the fools and thieves who created this mess in the first place, losing our jobs or our homes or watching our friends and family lose theirs. Small businesses are laying people off or struggling to find business. And Boston’s not even the worst of what’s out there.

But then you learn that “eating our peas,” according to D.C., isn’t fixing the mess that brought it all on, or finding a way to create jobs, or making investments to help people open or reopen businesses in those shuttered buildings. Nope. They are arguing about just how much to cut out of the federal budget. They are wondering how many more potholes we can take in our roads. How much more do we want to allow insurers to hike premiums? How many more kids can we cram into our schools? They want to make us “eat more peas” as if it is all of our fault, not theirs or those who outright robbed this nation blind.

Easy for them to say. Those politicians that make up D.C. will be able to keep going to nice restaurants even if there is another, even deeper crisis from their decision. They’ll be able to buy health insurance the average person or company can’t afford — that or they will simply continue to legislate it for themselves. Their kids will always be able to go to private schools.

I used to think that it was a cliché, a political maneuver, when someone said of a longtime politician: “He’s gone D.C. He doesn’t understand what real Americans are going through.” But in many cases, it is both cliché and true. Many of those in D.C. really don’t understand. It’s like the Emerald City down there, and they all think they are the Wizard of Oz. Even better: they all keep pretending we haven’t seen behind the curtain and realize many of them are just a bunch of petty fools.