The War of the Debt-Ceiling Analogies



Tags: spending, government, trillion, budget, congress, boehner, credit, ceiling, choice, dollars

A funny thing happened on the way to a resolution over raising the nation’s credit limit: The most basic definitions of easy-to-understand words such as “spending,” “increase” and “budget cuts” went out the window faster than Anthony Weiner’s political career. 

The debt ceiling, which has been set by Congress since 1917, is currently $14.3 trillion, an amount that the feds are likely to brush up against any minute now, despite its having been goosed upwards no fewer than 10 times in the past decade. If the government maxes out its credit card without cutting back on spending, it will eventually have to face a stark choice: stiff its lenders (leading to god knows what sort of financial meltdown) or prioritize its accounts payable from most important to least important (with the latter not getting any more government cash).

The high stakes, and inevitable political melodrama that comes with it, have produced a double-rainbow of demonstrably false statements about the basic matter at hand. New York Times economics blogger (and former Reagan administration official) Bruce Bartlett, for example, wrote about “President Obama’s endorsement of large budget cuts,” much like Speaker of the House John Boehner saying that under his debt-limit plan, “Spending cuts exceed the debt limit hike.”

Would that either of these phrases was even vaguely true. While the government continues to borrow more than 40 cents for every dollar it spends, neither Obama or Boehner has proposed reducing year-over-year government expenditures by a penny. To the extent that Obama’s preferred path can even be divined from his peevish oracular pronouncements about “eating peas,” he’s talking about raising annual government spending from $3.8 trillion this year to $5.7 trillion in 2021. The 10-year budget plan that Boehner and the Republicans are pushing calls for spending $4.7 trillion in 2021. 

Only in Washington can minor trims in massive anticipated spending hikes be considered budget “cuts.” Which explains why the bond-rating agency Standard & Poor’s has warned that whatever happens this week regarding the debt ceiling, the US needs to present a credible long-term plan in the next three months to stabilize and decrease its staggering debt load or face a credit downgrade.

The debt limit, in other words, is just the canary in the coal mine. The real problem is a long-term trend that can’t be explained away with slippery language.

When pols and their co-dependents in the press aren’t waterboarding the English language, they are making grotesque allusions that alienate Holocaust survivors and cineastes with equal force.
In an attempt to build support for Boehner’s debt-limit plan (which promises to “cut” a whopping $22 billion from next year’s yet-to-be-written budget), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) showed House Republicans a clip from a recent gangster movie called The Town. Leaving aside for the moment the refreshing honesty of Congress finally admitting that it’s inspired by criminals, the scene featured a character asking for blind faith from his partners in crime: “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.”

But Democrats were not about to get outdone in making repellent debt-ceiling analogies. White House spokesman Jay Carney, part of the revolving door between media (Time magazine) and Obama’s White House, compared the possibility of having to prioritize government spending to an acclaimed novel and movie about a Jewish mother during the Holocaust who must decide which of her children to save. “It’s a Sophie’s choice, right?” mused Carney. “Who do you save? Who do you pay? That’s an impossible situation that this country has never faced, and should never face if Congress does what it was elected to do and does its job.”

As if paying creditors, Americans living below the poverty line, active military personnel, and recipients of cowboy poetry grants can’t be ranked in terms of who gets tax dollars first.

More than a decade into the 21st century, it’s well past time to wonder just what the hell Congress thinks its job is, other than to do what the Soviet Union never managed and destroy America from within. As economics writer Ira Stoll notes, in nominal dollars the federal government spent about $2 trillion in 2000, about $3 trillion in 2008, and will spend about $4 trillion this year. Revenues have not kept pace because there is simply no way they could keep pace. And instead of going through a regular, democratic budgeting process—the bare minimum we should expect from the incompetents running the country—Congress has punted, failing to produce a budget for more than 800 days.

If all this suggests a movie, it’s not The Town and it’s certainly not Sophie’s Choice. It’s Titanic, which is all about a supposedly impregnable ship being sunk by hubris and carelessness. Though at least the captain and the officers of the Titanic eventually acknowledged that they were sinking.

Faced with such a massive mismatch between actual spending and imaginary revenue, it makes sense that politicians are trying to control the definitions of the plain words that so vividly unmask their pretensions. But it doesn’t mean the rest of us have to go along with destructive fantasies that masquerade as fiscally responsible plans.

In October 2008, Barack Obama said, “We’ve lived through an era of easy money, in which we were allowed and even encouraged to spend without limits; to borrow instead of save. Once we get past the present emergency, which requires immediate new investments, we have to break that cycle of debt.”
Here we are, three years on and trillions of dollars in government spending (“investments”) later, dreaming of a best-case future in which we go even further into debt.

If the first step of solving a problem is admitting you have one, we haven’t even made it out of bed yet.


Reason.com and Reason.tv editor in chief Nick Gillespie and Reason magazine editor in chief Matt Welch are co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America. This article orginally appeared in The New York Post.

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