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Who Run Bartertown?

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I am a sci-fi movie junkie, and one of my all-time favorites is the Mad Max series. These tales are of a post-apocalyptic Australia where scavengers battle to the death on ruined highways over who controls the world’s last few drops of gasoline. Great stuff, if you find the end of the world compelling narrative. (For me, this was inevitable, since I grew up as a Cold War kid near Bethlehem Steel, which had multiple Soviet warheads targeted on it for decades.)

In the last Mad Max movie, Beyond Thunderdome, the story takes place in this quasi-city called Bartertown, which has developed its own form of sustainable energy in the form of methane distilled from pig droppings in a vast, squalid underground farm. The guy who runs the operation is a dwarf named Master, who rides piggyback on a developmentally challenged giant named Blaster. The conflict is that Auntie Entity, the mayor of Bartertown, doesn’t like that Master Blaster routinely shut down energy production if they don’t get what they want. And so Auntie Entity hires our hero to kill Master Blaster and solve the power struggle. Things go downhill from there, as you might imagine.

Every time I read about the impending federal shutdown, which is scheduled for tomorrow but might be forestalled by an emergency spending bill, I think of Bartertown. What we have here are two parties whose interests are as entrenched as they are opposed. Both had good and bad ideas. Neither has shown a heck of a lot of interest in dealing meaningfully with the other. In the end, it does not look likely that there will be a shutdown, or if there is, it will be a short one before somebody blinks and a deal is made.

The funny thing is that the most immediate budget concerns are cuts in the $20 billion range that compared to the larger budget, are small potatoes. And yet, there are larger philosophical issues over society and the extent of governance attached to these expenditures that lead to political contests outsized to the amount of money being discussed. This way lies gridlock.

Having looked at the proposed FY 2011 budget -which the New York Times has a really good interactive graphic of here – I must say that I find most interesting the proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, that attempts to tackle our federal health spending (among other things) head-on. These costs are utterly mammoth (as well as our defense costs, which also merit serious scrutiny, as we have massive inefficiencies built into our military spending) and they deserve to be given at least as much consideration as any of us give our own corporate budgets each year. For the life and health world, Ryan’s proposal will come as good news, as it includes a wholesale ejection of PPACA, though I would be sad to see that go entirely; some of the harsher measures in it, including the rise of exchanges and the medical loss ratios have forced the industry to address very uncomfortable questions regarding its own efficiency, and to get rid of PPACA out of hand would negate the industry’s need for a harsh reality check on issues such as the evolving role of intermediaries and the best way to deliver life and health products into the largest number of hands.

For a more detailed look at Ryan’s proposal, go here. Very interesting reading, though Slate does give a pretty nice summation of it.

In the meantime, the ongoing political theater regarding the budget showdown is giving us a pretty good look at what the 2012 presidential campaign might have in store. So long as it doesn’t involve the candidates duking it out in Thunderdome, I think we’ll all be okay. Then again, I’m guessing that for more than a few people out there, a little Thunderdome might just be what Washington needs. Two men enter, one man leaves.