Lucky you,” said my accountant the other day. “You've underpaid your taxes this year. That means you owe the state of California money.”
“I don't get it,” I said, wincing. “Why is that lucky?”
“You didn't hear?”
“If you were due a refund for 2008, California wouldn't send you a cheque. It would send you an IOU. And before you ask: no, this will not work in reverse.”
So this is what things have come to here in America's most financially powerful state - a state whose $1.8 trillion economy is theoretically the eighth-largest economy in the world (just behind the United Kingdom, France, and Italy). If you thought that the collapse of Iceland made things tricky, confidence-wise, just wait until this sucker goes down. Which it is expected to do this week or next, as it technically becomes insolvent, unable to pay tax refunds, repair roads and bridges, keep schools open, or indeed provide a wage for anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves on its payroll.
After years on the brink, it has finally come to this: California is going out of business.
How did this happen? Sure, the economy is bad. But this is a state whose money comes from the most bankable economic assets on Earth - the Long Beach ports, the Central Valley agricultural region, the defence contractors out in the Mojave desert, Silicon Valley, Napa Valley... Hollywood. How do you tax all this and end up amassing debts at the present rate of $1.7 million per hour?
Perhaps it has something to do with the man running the place. And I am ashamed to say that, yes, when the actor most famous for playing a killer robot in a so-so B-movie ran for governor, I was behind him. I defended his fiscally conservative, socially moderate agenda and loveable tendency to work movie tag lines into important policy debates. I believed in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “governator”. And like the five million Californians who voted for him, I'm feeling a bit silly now.
It was all talk in the end. For all Mr Schwarzenegger's swagger, he didn't have the faintest idea how to run a state that is at the mercy of laws put on the books at every election by the voters themselves, through a system of utter madness known as “direct democracy” (imagine, if you will, an army in which the troops can overrule the general, mid-battle, with a show of hands).
Still, nothing justifies the fact that Mr Schwarzenegger - who once railed against “economic girlie men” - has allowed California's budget to grow by 40 per cent to a morbidly obese $144 billion since 2004, setting the stage for a calamity of asteroid-hitting-the-Pacific proportions the moment tax revenues began to fall.
So what now?
The governor wants to raise taxes - exactly the same thing that his predecessor tried to do before being terminated by a certain Hollywood action star - while his fellow Republicans are objecting, without suggesting anything cleverer. Until a solution is found, California is done, dead, kaput. It is, as John Cleese might have put it, an ex-state. In the meantime, I suggest we put Mr Schwarzenegger on an aircraft, fly him back to Austria and ask politely for a refund.
A scoundrel's argument
Will Barack Obama turn out to be a similar disappointment? I hate to say it, but I have a bad feeling. Particularly worrying are those endlessly fawning Obama supporters who argue that Republicans who oppose the underpants-on-the-head insanity of the $787 billion “stimulus package” are unpatriotic and care more about their political careers than they do about saving the country from certain destruction.
This kind of talk sounds awfully familiar to me. We heard it in 2002, when the endlessly gung-ho supporters of one George W. Bush were telling Democrats that, unless they signed up to the underpants-on-the-head insanity of the Iraq invasion, they were unpatriotic and cared more about their political careers than they did about saving the country from certain destruction.
The trouble is, when someone puts a gun to your head, there's only one way to find out if it's loaded. And it involves them pulling the trigger.
A bit of an Ayres
Those of us here in America who aren't responding to the recession by having octuplets or applying for stimulus funds to build Frisbee parks are busy trying to get second jobs. It's getting a bit disconcerting, to be honest. One day you're getting your root-canal surgery and the next your dentist is serving you a full-fat mocha latte at Starbucks. I've even been doing a bit of moonlighting myself - launching the US edition of my new book, Death by Leisure.
It's too early to know if it's selling, but it has achieved at least one thing: a furious debate between blogging linguists on how the American (rhotic) pronunciation of my surname sounds hilariously similar to a certain British (non-rhotic) term for the derrière. I knew I should have taken that job at Dunkin' Donuts instead.