Debt Ceiling Idiocy Shows the Dangers of Living in a Fantasyland
It's not even the good kind of fantasyland with rides
Debt Ceiling Showdown is Washington’s shittiest long-running show, and keep in mind: This city had The Capitol Steps for 39 years. No other country has a “DELAY ECONOMIC DESTRUCTION” button that needs to be pushed at periodic intervals in much the same way that Desmond on Lost had to punch numbers into a computer every 108 minutes to avoid Armageddon. Congress spends a lot of time responding to emergencies that they, themselves, created, much like an arsonist who also happens to be a volunteer firefighter.
I can’t tell you how much I don’t want to talk about the debt ceiling. I would rather pass Sputnik through my bowels than talk about the debt ceiling. I'd rather enter a common law marriage with a baboon. I’d rather attend an elementary school band recital every night until the sun burns out than address this needless, dangerous extortion attempt by the GOP’s Autobahn wing. But here we are, trying to find a way forward that’s compatible with the Bizarro World of false narratives that Republicans have been living in for years.
The first falsehood warping Republican brains is the idea that the deficit needs to be mostly or completely eliminated to avoid catastrophe. This idea has become a bedrock of Republican orthodoxy over the course of several decades. Remember the National Debt Clock, which showed up in Times Square in 1989? Remember the Balanced Budget Amendment that was part of Newt Gingrich’s 1995 Contract with America? Remember Paul Ryan’s YouTube videos, which were delivered with the solemn tone of a tough-love dad who’s worried about your marijuana use? Conservatives keep warning of a fiscal crisis that never comes. Of course, the kernel of truth here is that debt does matter; leftists who have convinced themselves that it doesn’t are in a cult every bit as deranged and disappointingly sexless as the Republican one. But it’s become an article of faith on the right that we must move the deficit towards zero AND FAST, which doesn’t comport with reality.
Republicans love to compare the federal budget to a household budget. But the federal budget is different from a household budget in a few crucial ways. For starters, you and I can’t print money. I mean…I suppose we could. I could run off a few million Maurer Bucks on the ol’ HP ink jet, but if I try to buy a Whopper with them, they’ll kick me out of Burger King. Also, my self-produced currency is unlikely to become a coveted store of value around the globe, and that remains true even in a world in which people buy Dogecoin. In contrast, the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, which makes it easier for the US to borrow money. Finally, a lot of federal borrowing is done in-house; America can borrow money from Americans, whereas I can’t borrow $1,000 from my son, because he is both a baby and a deadbeat.
Which is to say: We don’t need to balance the budget. And in fact, we shouldn’t: A singular focus on a balanced budget would cause us to pass up low-interest-high-yield investments that we should make. Our goal should be to keep the debt manageable, and our definition of “manageable” should change depending on economic conditions. The obsession with zero deficit is an overly-simple view promoted by people who either have ulterior motives or who don’t understand how the federal budget works.
The second Republican misunderstanding driving this insanity is the idea that a vote to raise the debt ceiling “puts more money on the nation’s credit card”. In reality, the money has already been charged to the card, and raising the debt ceiling just lets us pay the bill.
Here’s where a household analogy might be useful: If I put $10,000 on my MasterCard, then I owe MasterCard $10,000, end of story. Nothing erases that debt, least of all some crazy-ass rule that I’ve implemented at home. I can’t call MasterCard up and say “There’s a rule in my house where payments need to be approved by a ‘fifty plus one’ vote, and the baby and the cat have formed a bloc that my wife and I can't out-vote, and they won’t release the $10,000! So, sorry, we can’t pay you.” MasterCard doesn’t care about that — the debt already exists and isn’t going anywhere. So, I either pay my debt or suffer the consequences, because every creditor in the world operates according to a system fundamentally similar to the one used by Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas:
The third relevant brain worm is the myth that the budget could be balanced through a few relatively-painless cuts. Republicans frequently object to suggestions that they want to cut Social Security or Medicare, and obviously, tax hikes are as heretical to GOP doctrine as Lobsterfest is to Orthodox Judaism. So, if the deficit is a crisis, then what’s the proposed solution?
Republican rhetoric tends to focus on non-defense discretionary spending. That is: nuts-and-bolts government function stuff like highways and diplomacy, plus more touchy-feely stuff like environment, health, and education. That stuff doesn’t butter a typical Republican’s toast, and even a liberal like me will admit that not every penny of that spending is crucial funding keeping vulnerable Americans from being dragged out to sea by economic currents and ripped apart by sharks. But to talk about non-defense discretionary spending as a solution to the budget deficit is basically a non-sequitur.
The bottom line is that there just isn’t enough money there. Non-defense discretionary spending is usually around $600 billion (adjusted for inflation); the deficit has averaged $1.16 trillion over the past 15 years. So, if you carved out the whole District of Columbia, floated it into the Atlantic ocean, and then sank it along with the entire federal government, you’d be about half way to where you’d need to be. For context, this spending is slightly below where it’s been for the last 35 years as a percentage of GDP. To allege a budget crisis and then shift to talk of shaving non-defense discretionary spending is like announcing a plan to lose 100 pounds and declaring that you’ll get there by reducing how often you eat bananas foster.
These three myths combine to form a simple, misleading, narrative, which goes like this: The government is on the brink of a fiscal crisis. This crisis can be solved without tax hikes or cuts to popular programs. Members of Congress who vote to raise the debt ceiling are authorizing more profligate spending instead of getting our fiscal house in order.
How much does the GOP base believe this narrative? Well, they believe it enough that most Republican members of the House seem scared to vote to raise the ceiling. We also might deduce something from the fact that the most zealous debt ceiling warriors seem to be those Republicans who are least in touch with reality. To wit: Major players include Ralph Norman, who doesn’t appear to know what the debt ceiling is, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, of whom former RNC chair Michael Steele recently said: “She doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.” GOP leadership has ignored White House calls for proposed spending cuts, and of course they have: No cuts exist that are big enough to satisfy the Republican base and that are popular with the rest of the country. The GOP is reaping what they sowed: They promoted a lie, people believed the lie, and now those same people are demanding that their leaders take action in response to a crisis that doesn’t exist.
This happens to Republicans a lot. When they won a surprising trifecta in 2016, they suddenly had to deliver on the “terrific” and “great” replacement for Obamacare that they’d been promising. Of course, no such plan existed, and Republicans had to either end insurance for tens of millions of Americans or admit that they’d been caught in a lie. You may recall that their solution was to have the guy with brain cancer kill the bill and then pretend to be infuriated by his betrayal. That type of play-acting is necessary sometimes when you live in a fantasyland. Republicans find themselves in a similar spot once again, and it remains to be seen if enough House members have terminal illnesses to bail them out.
I write a lot about false narratives. I do that because I don’t think that good ideas can come from a warped understanding of the world. Our brains can craft solutions to complex problems, but only if we know what the problems are. I frequently take on left-wing narratives because that’s where I think the most interesting debates are; it seems like the far left is trying to see how much bullshit they can get liberals to swallow, and I’d like to swallow the minimum amount. I see the GOP as a harrowing reminder of what happens when bullshit becomes a staple of your diet. The Republican Party has lost the ability to diagnose problems almost entirely, and their debt ceiling lunacy is another reminder of just how deep their delusions have become.
My reading comprehension is generally on the plus side of adequate but I'm struggling here. When I read "tax cuts are as heretical to GOP doctrine as Lobsterfest is to Orthodox Judaism", I said , huh? The GOP thinks tax cuts are bad? Maybe I don't understand heresy, or Orthodox Jews. I think a understand Lobsterfest.
Hope you're okay.