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Signs of the Times

The other day, wending my way from Woodsville, N.H., 40 miles south to Plymouth, I came across several "stimulus" projects – every few miles, and heralded by a two-tone sign, a hitherto rare sight on Granite State highways. The orange strip at the top said "PUTTING AMERICA BACK TO WORK" with a silhouette of a man with a shovel, and the green part underneath informed you that what you were about to see was a "PROJECT FUNDED BY THE AMERICAN RECOVERY AND REINVESTMENT ACT." There then followed a few yards of desolate, abandoned scarified pavement, followed by an "END OF ROAD WORKS" sign, until the next "stimulus" project a couple of bends down a quiet rural blacktop.

I don’t know why one of the least fiscally debauched states in the Union needs funds from "the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" to repair random stretches of highway, especially stretches that were perfectly fine until someone came along to dig them up in order to access "stimulus" funding. I would have asked one of those men with a shovel, as depicted on the sign. But there were none to be found. Usually in New Hampshire, they dig up the road, regrade or repave it, while the flagmen stand guard until it’s all done. But here a certain federal torpor seemed to hang in the eerie silence.

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Still, what do I know? Evidently, it’s stimulated the sign-making industry, putting America back to work by putting up "PUTTING AMERICA BACK TO WORK" signs every 200 yards across the land. And at 300 bucks a pop the signage alone should be enough to launch an era of unparalleled prosperity, assuming America’s gilded sign magnates don’t spend their newfound wealth on Bahamian vacations and European imports. Perhaps if the president were to have his All-Seeing O logo lovingly hand-painted onto each sign, it would stimulate the economy even more, if only when they were taken down and auctioned on eBay.

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Meanwhile, in Brazil, India, China, Japan and much of Continental Europe the recession has ended. In the second quarter this year, both the French and German economies grew by 0.3 percent, while the U.S. economy shrank by 1 percent. How can that be? Unlike America, France and Germany had no government stimulus worth speaking of, the Germans declining to go the Obama route on the quaint grounds that they couldn’t afford it. They did not invest in the critical signage-in-front-of-holes-in-the-road sector.

And yet their recession has gone away. Of the world’s biggest economies, only the U.S., Britain and Italy are still contracting. All three are big stimulators, though Gordon Brown and Silvio Berlusconi can’t compete with Obama’s $800 billion porkapalooza. The president has borrowed more money to spend to less effect than anybody on the planet.

Actually, when I say "to less effect," that’s not strictly true: Due to Obama, one of the least-indebted developed nations is now one of the most indebted – and getting ever more so. We’ve become the third most debt-ridden country, after Japan and Italy. According to last month’s IMF report, general government debt as a percentage of GDP will rise from 63 percent in 2007 to 88.8 percent this year and to 99.8 percent of GDP next year.

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September 3, 2009