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.
Also on HuffPost:
The Deficit Has Grown Mostly Because Of The Recession
The deficit has ballooned not because of specific spending measures, but <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?s[id]=FYFSD" target="_hplink">because of the recession</a>. <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">The deficit more than doubled</a> between 2008 and 2009, as the economy was in free fall, since laid-off workers paid less in taxes and needed more benefits. The deficit then shrank in 2010 and 2011.
The Stimulus Cost Much Less Than Bush's Wars, Tax Cuts
Republicans frequently have blamed <a href="http://projects.nytimes.com/44th_president/stimulus" target="_hplink">the $787 billion stimulus</a> for the national debt, but, when all government spending is taken into account, the stimulus frankly wasn't that big. In contrast, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/29/cost-of-war-iraq-afghanistan_n_887084.html" target="_hplink">the U.S. will have spent nearly $4 trillion</a> on wars in the Middle East by the time those conflicts end, according to a recent report by Brown University. <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/revisiting-the-cost-of-the-bush-tax-cuts/2011/05/09/AFxTFtbG_blog.html" target="_hplink">The Bush tax cuts have cost nearly $1.3 trillion</a> over 10 years.
The Deficit Grew Under George W. Bush
When George W. Bush took office, <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">the federal government was running a surplus</a> of $86 billion. When he left, that had turned into a $642 billion deficit.
The Deficit Is Shrinking
<a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">Last year's federal budget deficit</a> was 12 percent lower than in 2009, according to the Office of Management and Budget.<a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">The deficit is projected to shrink</a> even more over the next several years.
Investors Are Paying Us To Borrow Money
<a href="http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/interest-rates/Pages/TextView.aspx?data=realyield" target="_hplink">The interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds</a> is <em>negative</em>, according to the Treasury Department. Investors are even paying us for 30-year Treasury bonds, when adjusted for inflation.
Investors Are Not Running Away
<a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/niall-ferguson-has-been-wrong-on-economics-2012-8" target="_hplink">Conservative commentators</a> have been warning for years that investors will run away from Treasury bonds because of the national debt. So far it's not happening. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/treasury-yield-record-low_n_1555975.html" target="_hplink">Interest rates on Treasury bonds</a> continue to hover at historic lows.
Health Care Reform Reduces The Deficit
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/04/republican-platform-2012-factual-mistakes_n_1840795.html#slide=1461142" target="_hplink">Republicans have blasted the Affordable Care Act</a> as "budget-busting." But <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/04/republican-platform-2012-factual-mistakes_n_1840795.html#slide=1461142" target="_hplink">health care reform actually reduces the deficit</a>, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The U.S. Is Borrowing Less From China
<a href="http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/30/fear-of-china-syndrome/" target="_hplink">The U.S. government is borrowing much less from foreign countries</a> than before the recession, according to government data cited by Paul Krugman. That is because the U.S. private sector is financing our bigger deficits.
We Spend A Lot On Defense
<a href="http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258" target="_hplink">Defense spending constituted 20 percent</a> of federal spending last year, or $718 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This adds up to <a href="https://twitter.com/AJInsight/statuses/241269134996959234" target="_hplink">41 percent of the world's defense spending</a>, according to Bloomberg TV anchor Adam Johnson. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/19/mitt-romney-military-budget_n_1687601.html" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney has vowed</a> to not cut defense spending if elected president.
We Spend A Lot On Health Care
<a href="http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258" target="_hplink">Health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, constituted 21 percent</a> of federal spending last year. In contrast, education constituted 2 percent of federal spending. Meanwhile, <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/08/19/2956609/middle-aged-blues-over-paul-ryans.html" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have promised not to change Medicare</a> for Americans age 55 and older.
Republicans May Want Large Deficits For Now
<a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/corporate-taxes-deficits-and-labor-vs-capital-during-reagans-first-term-2012-7" target="_hplink">The federal budget deficit ballooned</a> under Ronald Reagan, and that may be just the way Republicans like it. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/06/tax-cuts-republicans-starve-the-beast-columnists-bruce-bartlett.html" target="_hplink">Some Republican thinkers</a> have proposed <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/opinion/22krugman.html" target="_hplink">"starving the beast"</a>: that is, cutting taxes in order to use larger deficits to justify spending cuts later. Since Republicans ultimately want lower taxes and a smaller government, what better way is there to cut spending than to make it look urgent and necessary?