10/10/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Shutdown Blues

Most Americans understand how the government shutdown and potential failure to raise the debt ceiling will damage the economy. Less understood is the damage they're doing to the American psyche. I'm losing sleep as I worry about the impact of this unseemly spectacle on the economy, on the country, on my mother if she does not receive her Social Security check on time, and on my own personal finances. I don't think I'm the only one.

There are no circumstances that justify shutting down the government or not raising the debt ceiling. Such things shouldn't happen in a nation that considers itself exceptional. Do we look exceptional to the rest of the world right now? We look like a nation where democracy has broken down. More than 70 percent of Americans oppose the shutdown, but a small minority in Congress is thwarting the will of the majority. There is less public support for raising the debt ceiling. This is due to a misunderstanding of what the debt ceiling is. Raising the debt ceiling is not like raising the debt limit on a credit card. Rather, it is equivalent to not paying your credit card bill. The Congressional Budget Office projects the fiscal year 2014 budget deficit will be $500 billion. If the debt ceiling is not raised, this would require that $500 billion, about 14 percent of the budget, be cut by the end of the fiscal year. (Cuts could be as high or $750 billion, or 20 percent of budget, as the debt limit has already been exceeded, and Treasury has been moving around funds to pay bills.) This would have a devastating effect on many government programs, and sharply slow economic growth.

Two factors complicate the resolution of this standoff and confuse the public. First, a misunderstanding of the term "negotiations." A negotiation would take place if the Republicans had a budget, the Democrats had a budget and they got together to discuss their differences and compromise. What we have now is a situation in which the Republicans are saying, "Accept our budget or our terms, or we will shut down the government and refuse to raise the debt ceiling." That's not a negotiation. That's blackmail. Suppose the Democrats tied a gun control bill and an immigration bill to the government funding bill. Government cannot function if legislating-by-threat becomes the norm. Second, the media and much of the public are blaming both parties and the president. This crisis was precipitated by a small band of right-wing radicals. Read the book It's Even Worse Than it Looks, by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. They don't let the Democrats off the hook, but they lay the chief blame for the current dysfunction in Congress upon the Republicans, citing the tactics Republican Congressional leaders employed during the ceiling debt fiasco of 2011. According to Mann and Ornstein, "Today's Republican Party has little in common even with Ronald Reagan's GOP, or with earlier versions that believed in government. Instead it has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . all but declaring war on the government."

Ignorance and hubris are a lethal combination. Never have I seen anyone exhibit those qualities more brazenly than Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and many of his followers. They seem unaware that only two members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes the world's developed countries have lower taxes, as a share of Gross Domestic Product, than the U.S. Those are Mexico and Chile. They also seem unaware that the deficit is declining and is expected to average less than 3 percent over the next decade. And they seem unaware that there are no successful nations with more limited government than the U.S. When America had very limited government at the turn of the last century the only people doing well were rich, white men.

As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth (adapted from the Bible), "Pride goeth before destruction, and a high mind before the fall." If we do not come to our senses soon, we are headed for a long fall, and for the end of American exceptionalism.