Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The deterrent factor of octuplets


I viewed the photos of Nadya Suleman's octuplet-distended tummy on the Internet this week, and began to wonder if medical schools shouldn't put a little more emphasis on First Doing No Harm. If Nadya's tummy represents the end result of generations of medical research and scientific thought, perhaps we should go back to witch doctors, with their masks and chants and amulets. This is what happens, I thought, when you let Republicans dictate the ethics of childbearing for eight years.

Just kidding. What I really started thinking about was that if Nadya's 14 children each had 14 children, and those children all had 14 children, and so on, she would have 196 grandchildren and 2,744 great-grandchildren and 38,416 great-great-grandchildren. By the ninth generation, she would have 20.66 billion descendants, three times the current population of the Earth.

Not to worry. If photos of Nadya's tummy ever get passed around junior high school cafeterias, you'll have young people who'll remain virgins until they're 35 and, without psychotherapy, maybe forever. I'm not sure Sigourney Weaver would agree to sequel all the way to Alien 8: The Octuplets, but if she does, I know what she'll look like after the grisly special effects.

Nadya's tummy could set off a junior-high moral revolution in this country. Millions of 12-year-olds could end up marching in the streets, stamping their feet and waving signs that read "We're tired of being mammals" and "Upload our minds to hard drives now."

But if Nadya Suleman's tummy is a self-limiting phenomenon, it's a metaphor for something not so self-limiting. If you consider Nadya's 14 kids as derivatives of Nadya, and their 14 each as further derivatives of Nadya, and so on down to the 20.66 billion Nadya-kid derivatives, you'll have a fair idea of how our financial system spawned a universe of empty financial products from a few ounces of mined metals and a few bushels of cereal crops.


Except that the financial derivatives have kept going beyond nine generations. They're really leveraged instruments of debt, and nobody knows how many generations they are from the wealth they derive from. Estimates of the dollar amount owed for all the derivatives in existence hover between 640 and 1.140 trillion dollars. That's enough dollars to destroy every forest on earth just for the paper to print them. Those old population-scare stories that had the continents covered with shoulder-to-shoulder people would come true with stacks of Federal Reserve notes if we were to print out the pictures of George Washington that we've promised to the world's corporations, countries and people.

It's fortunate for the trees that we can't print money as fast as it's being destroyed by unredeemable derivatives. But as a country, we don't do well without money, and our money is going the way of all broken promises. I don't know if the ultimate financial betrayal will come through inflation or more deflation, but I do know that the prime motive behind Obama's stimulus package isn't to develop infrastructure or fund social programs—it's to restore this nation's inflationary psychology and keep the game going for a year or two longer than it would otherwise.

In the end, whether it's deflation or inflation doesn't matter. The money or its value disappears and everything grinds to a halt, whether you're in Zimbabwe in 2009 or hitching from Oklahoma to California in 1931. A sluggish and thuggish barter system, based on scarcity and intimidation, takes the place of whole industries based on a trusted currency.

I will blame the Republicans for our new and crippled economy because for the last eight years they've been in charge of the financial system of this country, and before that they provided 20 years of free-market ideological pressure to devise new and fecund financial products.

But no matter whom you choose to blame, you should stay out of the way of the angry people coming down the pike with pikes. And pitchforks and torches. Some of them will be Arabs or Chinese or Europeans waving worthless sheaves of T-bills. Some will be FICA taxpayers waiting for Social Security checks that won't buy a month's worth of dog food. Some will be American junior high schoolers, waiting hopelessly for that hard drive that would let them escape from a world their parents can no longer afford.

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