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Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

-Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

The Roman senator Cato, I learned today, is supposed to have ended every speech by saying, “Carthage must be destroyed,” and when the Romans finally took his advice, Garret Keizer tells me in the most recent Harper’s, “they found within the walls of the domed city a multitude of clay urns containing the charred bones of children.” Sacrifices to the great god Moloch—a god who demands human sacrifice.

What, I wonder, will some future civilization think when they comb through the ghosts of America’s cities. There won’t be urns of bones; No, our children are sacrificed without fanfare or remembrance. But make no mistake, we feed them to Moloch with zeal of ancient Carthaginians.

In the days leading up to the debt ceiling deal, Moloch's acolytes carried the word from the temple that a sacrifice was needed. And so we cut discretionary spending, mostly of the non-defense variety, a euphemism chosen, as Ezra Klein says, because no one knows what the hell it means. But that pot of money does mean something—it means people. Education and Social Services, the things that enrich children and keep us safe, the things that keep the homeless from dying from exposure in the streets and families from feeling the pain of hunger in their homes.

But, we were told, a sacrifice was needed, and so, we offered up the most vulnerable among us to Moloch.

And all this week, as the stock market wobbled, our Wall Street patricians began to moan and wail. The acolytes carried the word, once again, that what we need is a sacrifice. Before the Republican-forced, S&P downgrade, Paul Krugman tells me (h/t digby), "the interest rate on US ten-year bonds was 2.56 percent." Now, it’s 2.24 percent. Krugman continues:

You would think this would amount to strong evidence that the downgrade totally failed to shake confidence in US debt.

Yet people who listen to radio and TV reporting tell me that most stories attribute the stock plunge to the downgrade, and are telling listeners that the case for immediate spending cuts has gotten even stronger.

::

Sacrifices, these days, go by all sorts of names—grand bargains and spending cuts and government pork—and the tools we use aren't nearly as crude as Carthage's. We don't use knives; we wield super-committees. And as our putative wise-men throw entitlement programs on the slab, Moloch prepares for another feast.

The gallows humor joke of it all is that sacrifices don't work. If they did, Carthage would still be standing, and America wouldn't be in this mess. This isn't the first time we've tried on austerity, after all. Sacrifices don't work. We need to teach our children, not bury them. We need to feed our hungry, not starve them. We need to employ the unemployed, not watch as they lose their dignity and their homes.

But you know this, and my moralizing about it does little good for anyone, to say nothing of those on the chopping block.

But there's something odd about that. Why is it that the Democratic base knows that worshiping Moloch yields only dead children, but our national discourse is wrapped up in the size of the sacrifice, not if we should be having one at all? Why is it, to steal Garret Keizer's image, that Washington discourse is all-too-often like "two different ways of making war on children, two rival sects in the ancient religion of child-devouring Moloch"?

When we debate spending cuts in the middle of recession on the order of trillions (yes, trillions with a 't'), we are playing the same game ancient Carthage played. We are playing with lives. So as the super-committee meets to discuss more austerity and more sacrifice, let's look up our congressmen and let them know that the only way to change the conversation is if a critical mass of our representatives refuse to discuss this on the Republican's terms.

Carthage, after all, must be destroyed.

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