The United States: The Thriller’s Gone

The United States: The Thriller's Gone

I’ve been known to stretch before, and I’m sure what I’m about to say will make you scream, “Slow down, Mr. Fantastic.“, but go with me on this one:  The United States is running a dangerously close parallel to the life of Michael Jackson.

At first I was going to write about our parallels to Nic Cage in the sense that we’ve made A-list money (for a long time), yet we find ourselves in a precarious financial situation.  But as I started researching it and putting the numbers together, I despondently realized that our course had more in common with the departed Mr. Jackson that it did with the unfortunate Mr. Cage.

Bloggers, pundits, and other various eggheads have told us that our plight is close to that of Greece and that may be true, but I think that examining the life of Michael Jackson is worth doing too.  It’s certainly something more of us can relate to.

I’ve been told that before you give someone a criticism, you should first proffer a compliment.  In light of that, I’ll start with some good things.  Michael Jackson and the United States both share impressive “coming of age” stories.  They both gained tremendous success at seemingly improbable times relative to their existence.  Prior to World War I, the United States was considered a backwaters, agricultural nation.  And even after the first world war, it took a second one to make the world truly give them a seat at the table.  (Europe had little choice as most of it was ravaged)  Not bad for a country yet to see its bicentennial.  Meanwhile, Michael Jackson was a household name when most kids his age would be in grade school; he was on TV back when being on TV meant something.

Another similarity they share is that when their stars rose, they rose to heights that had previously not been imagined.  In the case of the U.S., their star rose as high as the stars themselves, eventually landing on the moon.  Meanwhile, Michael Jackson went on to become one of the most relevant performers (and dare I say artists) in all the history of the earth.

But not everything is sunny on these parallel tracks.  While Micheal and America both achieved so much in such short time, they both let success go to their heads in the worst ways.  Destructive ways, really… and those ways are what I mean to examine.

It seems that when you are the number one artist or the number one country on the planet, you start to build your own personal Parthenon.  The theory goes that if you are the best, you should have the best.  And believe me, the best is expensive.

People have expectations when your are “the wealthiest country in the world”.

“How can people be hungry in the wealthiest country in the world?”
“How can people not have health insurance in the wealthiest country in the world?”
“How can people not have pegasus/unicorns that make them morning lattes in the wealthiest country in the world?

I realize that two out of three of those questions sound like they are quite reasonable, but they’re not as rational as one might believe.  Being “the wealthiest country in the world” makes it easy to promote the notion that all people should have all things provided for them, but actually trying to do that creates a situation where you are no longer, in fact, the wealthiest country in the world.  It’s funny how life works that way.

Similarly, Michael Jackson seemed to reach a point in his life where he needed more.  More of what, exactly, I do not know, but I know it cost a lot of money.  During the last decade of his life, Jackson began to borrow money that he couldn’t seem to pay back.  The fact of the matter is that Jackson had both a revenue problem and a spending problem.  This article in the New York Times shows parallels between Michael Jackson and the United States that are truly chilling when you think about it.  I ask you to read the following quote, but really you should read the whole article.  (wording in “orange” is “my” emphasis)

It’s possible that Mr. Jackson’s biggest costs may have shifted in early 2000 away from his shopping sprees to simply shouldering enormous monthly interest payments on his debt. According to one executive involved in his affairs, Mr. Jackson was making monthly payments of about $4.5 million in 2005 on $270 million in debt. That works out to an annual interest rate of about 20 percent, a toll more familiar in the worlds of credit cards, subprime lending and loan sharks and not commonly encountered by wealthy people with substantial assets. But Mr. Jackson’s wildly errant spending had forced him to confront harsher realities.  -The New York Times (May 14, 2006)

The fact of the matter is that there comes a day when you have to pay the piper.  The above mentioned New York Times article explains in detail how one of the world’s wealthiest celebrities found himself desperate for money.  Had he managed his budget better, he would have never faced the (financial) humiliation and hardship that he did toward the end of his life.  It is sad that Michael Jackson has arguably been worth more dead than he was in the latter years of his life.  It is also sad that the United States has no similar option in store.  If the economy of the United States shatters, it’s not like anyone will shell out money for its “Greatest Hits”.

Just because you are the most successful “anything” of your time does not mean you should be in the habit of spending more than you make, even if you think that’s the only way to maintain this image of success you’ve become accustomed to.  It seems to be a pitfall that most people and most nations fall into once they reach a certain level of status, but I can tell you that those habits make self-destruction inevitable.  Michael Jackson died while trying to reverse his course, but he eventually did try to reverse it.  I can only hope the United States does better in this regard, and I hope they do it soon.  Because, believe me, at this rate, you can almost say The Thriller’s Gone.


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