At this moment, a sizable percentage of southeastern Australia is on fire. More than 62 separate wildfires are raging, the three largest of which are poised to merge into a single monstrous "mega-fire" that could eventually threaten the suburbs of Sydney, or even the city itself.
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, power has been lost in thousands of others, and the entire state of New South Wales is under a state of emergency. If those three large fires merge, fire officials are deeply pessimistic about their ability to get the situation under control.
The rural area where the conflagration began is prone to wildfires, though not at this unprecedented scale, but that did not stop New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell from successfully spearheading an effort to slash millions of dollars in funding from the Rural Fire Services that are now desperately trying to contain the destruction.
Mr. O'Farrell is a fiscal conservative, because of course he is. "There is not much we can do except wish those extraordinary volunteers and paid firefighters out there every success and every luck," said O'Farrell earlier this week.
He's exactly right, too. Cut their funds and wish them luck as the flames lick their heels. It's the conservative way.
Here on the other side of the world in America, another sort of fire is threatening to burn out the futures of millions of people. A bunch of billionaires are working hammer and tong with their bottomless pockets, their hired Congressional stooges, their idolaters in the press, and all those useful idiots who hate government but love Medicare and always vote, to destroy Social Security and Medicare because government programs that actually work really well are the enemy, and must be scourged.
At the forefront of this crusade is the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which has already spent a billion dollars trying to convince Congress to come together on a "Grand Bargain" that eviscerates the social safety net represented by Social Security and Medicare, which are only the two most successful and important government programs besides the GI Bill.
Peterson's wingman is billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller, formerly of Duquesne Capital, who is spending gobs of cash trying to convince young people that Social Security is the reason they're looking down the barrel at an increasingly grim economic future. Wall Street Journal columnist James Freeman described on Monday how the heroic Druckenmiller "has been touring college campuses promoting a message of income redistribution you don't hear out of Washington. It's how federal entitlements like Medicare and Social Security are letting Mr. Druckenmiller's generation rip off all those doting Barack Obama voters in Generation X, Y and Z."
Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect had this to say about the conniving nonsense being spewed by Druckenmiller and his pals in the press:
Where to start? If you itemize all the reasons why recent college graduates face a wretched economy, Social Security doesn't even make the list. What does make the list are unreliable jobs that pay lousy wages, the aftereffects of a financial bubble created on Wall Street, and unaffordable college that leaves graduates starting life with more than a trillion dollars worth of debt.
The biggest lie in Druckenmiller's crusade is the premise that the income distribution problem is somehow generational and that he, as a billionaire, has anything whatever in common with most college students or most recipients of Social Security. One of his pitches to students is that Social Security is excessive because he, a very wealthy man, receives it but doesn't need it.
But for the vast majority of the elderly, Social Security is a lifeline, and a meager one at that. Some two-thirds of all seniors depend on Social Security for half of their income. Fully 46 percent of elderly widows and other unmarried seniors depend on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. The entire projected 75-year shortfall in the Social Security trust funds that conservatives make such a big deal about is around one percent of GDP per year. We could make it up with modest tax increases on wealthy people like Druckenmiller.
Mr. Kuttner's excellent analysis of the reasons why young people today face a brutal economic future left out a few things. Spending on "defense" in America accounts for almost five percent of GDP, and that's just the stuff on the books. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were funded via supplemental spending bills outside the federal budget, and that tab has twelve zeroes on it (Read: more than $1,000,000,000,000 and counting).
Then there is the Black Book, the secret stuff we aren't allowed to know about, because freedom and stuff. Plus all the handouts to corporate America. Plus the incredibly kind tax rate for billionaires like Drukenmiller, who like as not have stashed a vast chunk of their fortunes in secret overseas bunkers so as to be spared the agony of paying a pittance in taxes to help the workers who made them rich when they get old and sick.
And yet, as ever, the impulse in America's delusional center-right-and-more-right political discourse is to ignore these glaring problems - which are, in themselves, very simple solutions if they could ever be properly addressed - and go after Grandma and the Social Security check she depends on, and which she has already paid for.
In Australia, the fear is that the fires being battled by heroic public servants who got their funding cut were initially started by arsonists. In America, the arsonists are in Congress, on Wall Street, and in the White House to no small degree.
As these budget negotiations commence, and cuts to Social Security and Medicare are bandied about as "the responsible thing to do," it is the American people who will have to stand on the fire line and contain the pyromaniacs in whatever way we can.