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These Convenient Machines

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The gods hiccupped yesterday. That is to say, Gmail and Facebook each went down for many users for several minutes or so. Predictably, everybody panicked (read: flocked to Twitter) and mocked each other's panic, and some contemplated becoming, if only briefly, preternaturally productive.

If Harry Potter ever lost his wand, he would be left as unutterably alien to his own world as a quadriplegic quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. So many simple but essential tasks once taken for granted would suddenly be impossible. If there had ever been a time when J.K. Rowling's wizards got along magically without their enchanted twigs, the knowledge of such a feat would be as lost on Harry as wilderness survival in a world without Wi-Fi or functioning smartphones is on most Americans.

Convenience is a tricky beast. As a group, we are technologically defined by our desire to do everything with nothing in no time at all. From DVR to YouTube, our attention spans shrink to minute intervals. In iPods and smartphones, erstwhile communal hotspots collapse into digital singularity. Through Xbox or social networks, we find our companionship online. As the latest devices emerge on the market, we are already bored with gadgets that would be magical to dead giants whose wars mutilated continents and disrupted civilizations.

The more our lives are functionally consolidated into ever fewer and smaller tools, the more susceptible our world becomes to more targeted disruption. Would it have been imaginable a couple decades ago that glitches in the product of a few institutions could stymie half the world in an instant? Yet now, in the twilight of 2012, Google links my email, Internet browser, search habits, contacts, calendar, video watching, and innumerable accounts for websites not already linked to my Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Take out three companies, and my world stops. Take away my smartphone, and I couldn't even find my way around the metro area I've lived in for years. I would go on about my laptop, but it would already be useless without our Silicon Valley overlords, and my body is fighting symptoms of withdrawal just thinking about all this. Excuse me while I watch some YouTube videos and check my Facebook feed to soothe that creeping anxiety...

All right, that's much better.

It's perhaps fitting that the latest instance of fiscal consolidation should occur around the engines of the cloud. Five weeks ago, voters in California opted to raise taxes on top earners in the state in order to resolve a spiraling budget crisis. The preliminary numbers are ostensibly favorable, and Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is heartily encouraging President Obama to follow through with such a plan at the national level. But if the gods are in the cloud, the devils are, as ever, in the details.

As Walter Russell Mead observes:

There are two essential developments to note here. First, California will rely on a tiny group of people to erase $5 billion in debt. From now on, more than half of all the government operations will be funded by less than 1 percent of the state's residents, who account for less than 20 percent of the state's total income.

Second, the state economy is doing well at the moment relative to the rest of the country, but it is still losing jobs and skilled workers to lower-tax economies in Nevada, Texas, and the Southeast.

This tax-funded surplus will allow the state to momentarily ignore the underlying problems that drive the deficit. But the problem of the escalating costs of pensions and public services and the blue social model has not been resolved and will only worsen with time.

For the federal government, the top 10 percent of households already accounts for more than 70 percent of income taxes and over half of all revenue. Since the recession, the federal tax burden has fallen on all but the top quintile. As taxes increasingly become the provenance of a shrinking base, our entitled deficit grows unchecked. How massively unsustainable must our system of taxes and borrowing get before we decide to rethink our asphyxiating choices? What happens when the next shock comes and the few key pillars of wealth cannot hold? What happens when the model fails?

Consolidation -- like the convenience it breeds -- is a tricky beast, indeed.