One of the things that I hope to successfully convey as Congress proceeds from the pooch punt that averted that "fiscal cliff" (that Congress created so that they could heroically avert it) to the fiscal crisis moment slated for March of this year, it's that debt ceiling hostage takers are dangerous psychopaths. Yes, we can trace instances of Congresscritters shaking the chandeliers on the debt ceiling going back many presidential terms -- heck, there was once a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama who troubled the Bush administration over it. It was a dumb idea then, as it is now.
But what's changed to make things worse is that this is no longer mere idle talk and procedural bravado -- there are people in Congress who truly see default as an ideal alternative to having to concede any points in what should be a rational process of negotiation and deal-making. Rep. Michele Bachmann made her willingness to destroy the global economy for the glory of Tea Party Caucus a central selling point for her presidential candidacy. And now, legislators who were once considered reasonable have become enablers to the lunatics. (And unfortunately for everyone, a key enabler to this madness has been that former Illinois Senator, who opened the door to negotiating over the debt ceiling back when he was still hopeful of a "grand bargain" on the debt.)
But the enabling isn't just happening in Congress, it's happening in the media, as well, which is why another thing I would like to make clear is that those who see debt ceiling lunacy as a legitimate side in a debate or just one more interesting point of view among many are just as culpable in what could be a pending economic calamity as the lunatics themselves. I'm not alone in this concern. Greg Sargent has done a fine job outlining the logical fallacy behind legitimizing debt ceiling hostage taking and notes in particular that by and large, the media has framed the entire fiscal debate incorrectly:
Indeed, you can read through much of the coverage and come away with the sense that this is a typical negotiation: Democrats want a rise in the debt ceiling; Republicans want spending cuts; therefore, the two sides are squaring off for a game of chicken to see who can extract more from the other. That’s not what’s happening at all, and any accounts that portray it as such present a deeply unbalanced picture.
Exactly right: we should not be talking about a "debate" over the debt ceiling, or portraying a rise in the debt ceiling as a thing that Democrats "want" or are bargaining to obtain. I require oxygen to continue respiring. Oxygen is not something I "want" or am bargaining to obtain. Give me oxygen right now or I die and that's that. The rise in the debt ceiling is similarly necessary, because Congress has already agreed to spend a certain amount of money, and according to this dumb ritual, must now affirm their intentions to fulfill their previously agreed-to obligations. This is not a matter for debate -- the country and the economy needs the debt ceiling rise, full stop. (Once it's raised and the world is not going to pitch into economic oblivion, everyone can have a terrific debate over the long term budget trajectory, propose laws, have votes, survive vetos and campaign on the results or lack thereof.)
Henry Blodget, in taking up the cause of the trillion-dollar platinum coin, similarly characterizes the entire notion of having a "debate" over the debt ceiling as hopelessly silly-slash-bordering on bonkers, and he does so in a way that's both stark and accurate -- and admirably so:
To be clear:
The "trillion-dollar coin" is a ridiculous idea.
It is an absurd legal gimmick that would ordinarily be the farthest thing from the minds of serious, responsible people who have been elected to lead this great country through a challenging period.
But the problem is that some of the people who have been elected to lead this country have revealed themselves to be unserious, irresponsible people.
By threatening to turn the United States of America into a deadbeat nation that refuses to pay its bills.
That is as simple a distillation of what's at stake as I can imagine, and yet I bet that in the next two months of Sundays, the pundits booked on America's political chat shows will fail at anything other than pointlessly mystifying this situation -- and putting our well-being at risk along the way.
It wasn't always this way. But as Alec MacGillis explains over at The New Republic, as idle talk over debt ceiling hostake-taking evolved, seemingly overnight, into a more serious and dangerous psychosis, the media coverage has shifted in reverse. Where the hostage-taking was once portrayed properly, as "brazen and unprecedented," the media now gives the hostage-takers a pass.
And since the "fiscal cliff" was "averted" and the media has shifted focus to the next big battle, discussion of the debt ceiling dead-enders and their future plans has only gotten more blithe and unconcerned. MacGillis provides a fine example of what's been steeping in the Beltway brain since New Years Day -- this passage from the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza that treats debt-ceiling hostage taking as a perfectly natural and polite thing to do, never registering even a scintilla of shock over the implication of using the threat to tank the global economy as a bargaining tactic:
"Make no mistake: No deal on the fiscal cliff was a political loser for Republicans; this is an issue they needed to get off the table in order to find better political ground -- debt ceiling -- to make their stand."
This is like saying, "Now that the issue of what to wear to brunch has been settled, we can now proceed to strip naked and slice off our own genitals with a rusty paring knife," and never even twitching at the hot, molten insanity of the idea that was just expressed.
MacGillis writes (and I emphasize):
So: a threat to plunge the nation's [sic] into default and with it imperil the nation and world's economy, seen only a year and a half ago as the political equivalent of a nuclear option, is now viewed as "better political ground." What to make of this? The shift in mindset is surely in part a function of basic human nature: our remarkable ability -- for good or ill -- to adapt ourselves to new realities. More than that, though, it is a function of that far more Beltway-unique tendency, to report and comment on politics and governance as pure gamesmanship in such a way that conveys savvy but not judgment. And if it's all a sport, who's to object if one side has radically shifted the goalposts? Good for them, if they can get away with it. And after all, the higher the stakes in the clash, the better the story.
Some people just want to watch the world burn, and some people just want to get that story first. They're all dangerous.
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This story appears in Issue 31 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available January 11.