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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Debt Ceilings and Democratic Despair

My wife rarely gets engaged--must less enraged--by politics. This isn't because she doesn't have any concerns or lacks informed opinions--she has plenty of both--but because it fundamentally doesn't interest, much less fascinate, her; she's just not drawn to investing much of her time and energy into something that she often finds, on the surface at least, both perplexing and frustrating. But sometimes there's an issue which strikes her as so desperate or so obvious or so crazy that she overcomes her usual apolitical stance, and can't help but become engaged. And enraged. The ongoing crisis over the raising of the federal government's debt ceiling--which came to a head with President Obama's and Speaker of the House Boehner both speaking last night at length about why the opposite side hasn't accepted their respective plans--has brought our family to one of those times.

This is what Melissa wrote on Facebook: "I never get political (odd, considering who I am married to), but this whole debt ceiling thing is making me increasingly more disillusioned with the American government. It. Doesn't. Work. I do not believe there's a single elected individual who has anything but his or her own best interests in mind. The greatest country, my a$$. I'd move to Canada in a heartbeat, if I could."

I sympathize with her--in part because, just three months ago, Canada had an election which looks to have meaningful consequences for moving the country (though whether forward or backward or neither depends on your point of view, I suppose). This stands in contrast to the US, which has seemed plagued by ever-increasing paralysis, gridlock, and mutual distrust ever since Obama's election in 2008 (with even the Affordable Care Act, which should have been a game-changer for our country, having instead just left at the very least a slightly bitter taste in almost everyone's mouth, and a constitutional controversy that doesn't seem to have any conclusion on the horizon), and which has now given us, quite possibly, the Worst Congress Ever. But I also sympathize with her because this whole debate over the debt ceiling strikes me as having been taken over by two utterly maddening realities. First, there is a contorted reading of the fiduciary responsibilities which the federal government is granted under that Constitution which is, from what appears to me to be any kind of sound accounting perspective, absolutely bonkers. Second, there is a game of political chicken driven by the mutual incomprehension possessed by two entirely distinct types of parties: the first, the one led by President Obama, being a historically normal American political party, with all its usual problems and dynamics, while the second, the one being led by Speaker of the House Boehner (if he is really in control, which ultimately may not be the case; some Republicans may simply have gotten to the point where they lack "the emotional capacity to accept a bargain that they don't see as a humiliation for Obama") that has apparently committed itself to an fiscal ideology that is, at the very best, seriously half-baked. Let's take them in turn:

1) Here's the basic nonsense with the debt ceiling, as I read the situation. Step one: the federal government passes a budget. Step two: that budget authorizes the federal government to spend a certain amount of money. Step three: the federal government then goes forward spending that money. Step four: as the budget authorized the federal government to spend more money than it had on hand, that money must be borrowed. Step five: the federal government borrows the money. Except wait! We have apparently talked ourselves, over the decades, into a rather bizarre accounting situation: the president, having signed the budget which Congress has passed, apparently has the constitutional authority to spend X amount of money, but he doesn't automatically possess the constitutional authority to obtain the money which Congress has already appropriated for him to spend! It's as if you got a paycheck, deposited it in a bank account, made a budget with your spouse which included plans for spending that money, your spouse agreed to it, but then when you went to pay your bills found that you needed additional approval for the money to actually move from the account to wherever you wanted it to go. Plain crazy.

If you've followed this debate, then you'll recognize that I'm on former president Clinton's side in agreeing with the "constitutional option"; the very idea that money could be appropriated, that a budget could be set, but that the money so approved could not actually be obtained without additional Congressional approval not only appears to me as simply nuts, but also a violation of the president's responsibilities to honor public debts under the 14th amendment. To force the US government into default by elevating a dubious fiscal procedure into unalterable constitutional doctrine is the sign of a people who actually think defaulting is a good idea.

2) And speaking of actually wanting a default, here's a nice analogy from Tim Burke, who, like many of us, is tearing his hair out at the madness coming from the supposed Party of Fiscal Responsibility:

[My Congressman's story] gets you right here, in your Little-House-on-the-Prairiest places: “Every day families in southeastern Pennsylvania make tough decisions in order to live within their means. Many are forced to cancel their family vacations, put off a car repair, or cut out purchases they can no longer afford. When it comes to our country’s bank account, however, both parties in Washington have not been practicing these same responsible habits.”

But why stop there? Let’s take the analogy a little further, because you know, the cuts that have been proposed by the President and rejected by his Republican opponents go a wee bit beyond canceling your family vacation or putting off a car repair. What do families do when their incomes are cut dramatically and abruptly, say, when one or both income-earners lose their jobs, Congressman?

Let’s finish your story of what happens every day. Why, sure, first Mr. and Mrs. Smith cut everything that’s a luxury. Vacations, cable, subscriptions, leisure, eating out. They defer maintenance of cars, houses, and their own bodies. Golly! I guess that means that people who were making the things that the family used to buy are going to have a bad story of their own to tell soon! And gee, I hope the story gets better soon, because when you don’t maintain cars, houses, and bodies, they break and then they’re really expensive to fix. Or you can’t get to work, you end up homeless, or you end up dead, I guess the story could go that way too! Oh, dear. This is turning into a bad story indeed. This is a story of how people who were very well-off become people who are poor....

Now there are other stories we could tell about the Smiths. Sometimes that family goes and gets several new jobs, none of them as good as what they had before, and brings in enough money that they only have to cut a few things, juggle their budgets. You know, they bring in new revenue. They look for jobs, they try to get back to where they were, because they’d rather be well-off than poor. But my Congressman doesn’t like that story for America! Sometimes that family takes on more debt in the short-term and works its way out of that debt slowly rather than drastically. all the while looking for new revenue. My Congressman doesn’t like that story either!

Look, obviously the analogy--neither Congressman Meehan's, nor Tim's--is perfect. Governments are different from families or businesses, and the rules for each do need to be different. But folks...seriously. What are we looking at here? We are looking at the federal government defaulting on its debts. Maybe that won't be a complete apocalypse; in fact, it almost certainly won't be. And moreover, I'm not blind to the possible upside here; nobody who tends to prefer saints over neoliberals, as I do, could ignore that maybe it would be good for the country to be a little poorer, a little more restricted in its choices, a little less aggressive overseas and less ambitious at home. But the evils that would likely come along with that upside--a desperate, vindictive, retrenchment, in which the expansive nobility of FDR's social justice ideas, however compromised they may have been and however many pathologies they may have inadvertently introduced, is replaced for the foreseeable future with an abandonment of any interest in working comprehensively for a more equal society--are enough to make me, as usual, fall back on hoping (as I did three years ago) for some progressive compromises here.

But it appears that any kind of discussion of revenue is officially off the table, and the Republican caucus in Congress continues to press forward, now selling the implausible fantasy of tying any kind of deal with the President to a constitutional amendment which would, in theory anyway, permanently cap all federal spending. I suppose I can't blame them: they are acting like a proper parliamentary party, advancing the interests of their platform, except that they are doing so confident of the knowledge that, if they get punished in the next election, they'll still control enough veto points in our government to prevent the Democratis from doing the same. Default, and democratic despair seem the order of the day.

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