Saturday, July 16, 2011

Playing "Chicken" with the Debt-Limit

The news media are having a field day, counting down the days to August 2 (or thereabouts) when the U.S. Government will no longer be able to pay all its bills. We have all gotten so used to this adolescent style of governance in which everyone postures until the last possible minute before striking whatever deal can be made. After all, how many contract negotiations have gone down to the wire? How many bills have been passed in the waning hours of a congressional or legislative session?

In most of those other cases, however, regardless of how immature the process and absurd the dithering, there was usually a reasonable expectation of eventual resolution - because it could be assumed that the parties involved wanted a resolution. That's less clear in this current case. For years, the debt-limit has been routinely raised, because everyone understood it had to be. (That didn't prevent individual posturing politicians, confident that the problem would be in any case solved by the grownups who were voting, from casting their own vote against an increase - as Senator Barack Obama once did). But this is different this time. There just don't seem to be enough grownups around anymore to do what needs to be done.

The bottom line, of course, is that we (the United States) have been eating some very expensive meals for years now, and (as regularly happens) the bill needs to be paid. This is not about increasing entitlements or other discretionary spending. It's about paying the bills we've already committed ourselves to. A case can be made, of course, for going on a bit of a diet, but that is another matter.

Which brings us to the heart of the problem. While there is plenty of blame to go around and both parties have earned their fair share of it, the pressing immediate problem has to do with one party's peculiar attitude toward government, and that party's apparent desire to use this crisis further to reduce the role of government. Hence the obsessive preoccupation with not raising taxes. The issue for them is not how to pay for the things people apparently want and expect their government to provide, but finding a way to stop providing for them (using the excuse that we can't afford them anymore).

No doubt, something will be done to prevent a catastrophe or at least minimize its effects. But it's not likely to be the grand bargain compromise an earlier era would have come up with, back when governing was still at least important as posturing and electioneering.

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