December 12, 2008
The other new trend in unemployment media is the rise of the bailout joke.
Bailout jokes range from late-night punchlines (“”The three big domestic automakers are now saying they are working jointly on a new hybrid car. It runs on a combination of state and federal bailout money”) to warmed-over stockbroker jokes, but what I’m really thinking about are the extended gags, like Charles Bernstein’s poetry bailout or P.J. O’Rourke’s bailout for print journalism:
Remember, America, you can’t wrap a fish in satellite radio or line the bottom of your birdcage with MSNBC (however appropriate that would be). It’s expensive to swat flies with a podcasting iPod. Newsboys tossing flat-screen monitors on to your porch will damage the wicker furniture. And a dog that’s trained to piddle on your high-speed internet connection can cause a dangerous electrical short-circuit and burn down your house.
What is it that’s so funny about our economic disaster? I love Depression-era jokes: it’s hard to beat “the rich get richer and the poor get children.” And the gap between sudden poverty and creature comforts has always been funny: cf. Will Rogers’s “We’re the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile.”
But there’s something fishy here, and it ain’t the soup. The jokes don’t seem to come out of a shared sense of struggle or even a wry awareness of relative privilege. There’s almost a gleeful resistance to the idea that the current crisis is real — a sense that wealth created by bogus paper transfers can be restored just as easily.
And maybe that’s the way Paulson’s first bailout package was presented — the last technocratic trick to try to make this funny paper disappear from the books. There’s something absurd and funny about that. But I hope the jokes stay at this level; I don’t want to start making gags about bread lines again.