While I do not regard myself as a “tea-partier” (indeed, I’m not even sure I know what one is), my own sense is that the House Republicans have operated throughout the “debt-ceiling” debate off two premises. The first is that they knew they had the stronger hand politically and they used it to their advantage. This is generally known as “politics,” and both parties do it. It is a matter of some indifference. The second, and this is more interesting to me, is that they forced the Congress, and indeed the country, to do some much needed soul-searching regarding federal spending, and that delaying such decisions couldn’t be done indefinitely through a combination of increased debt and taxation.

For this, they have been accused in the more liberal media as being “extremists” who mean to harm the country. But in today’s NYTimes, Joe Nocera ratchets up the rhetoric another level or 20, accusing the tea-partiers of being “terrorists” who are waging “jihad” on America. Now, I suspect that Nocera would not be likely to use these terms to describe actual terrorists who are engaged in genuine acts of jihad, but that aside I worry about such intemperate usage. If he genuinely believes that House Republicans will soon be putting “suicide vests” back on in an attempt to destroy the country, what is to prevent Nocera or persons of his ilk from moving pre-emptively and, well, killing these individuals before they can get their vests on? Either his language is so incendiary as to be positively irresponsible, for it confuses the meaning of both the genuine threat of terrorism and substantive political agreement while demonizing one’s fellow citizens, or he genuinely believes what he says, in which case he would have an obligation to eliminate his opponents either through incarceration or war. Does he really believe that the greatest threat to the country are those who don’t believe in the dogmas of Keynes? Can you imagine how the Times would have reacted if, during the campaign of 2008, a conservative pundit had referred to Obama and his followers as “jihadist terrorists”?

There is something disturbingly ugly about all this, and I confess it has me nervous. The faultlines in this country seem to me to be deepening, and the conceit that these chasmic divisions can peacefully co-exist ever more tenuous. For all their moral posturing, it seems to me the rhetoric of those on the left has been even more hate-filled and vitriolic than that on the right (although, granted, they just lost the recent battle), although there is plenty to go around. I’m not sure America is any longer governable, and I’m quite convinced that a potent combination of class resentments and moral/cultural disagreements is a-brewing, with potentially violent consequences.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Well said. If it is terrorism to ask one’s government to live within fiscal restraints that all of us must as individual citizens, then count me among them. Our government has become habituated into lying to us that their baseline budget of 7+% annual increases is not an increase in spending. How many of us can conjur up a 7+% annual increase in revenue in order to keep feeding this monster? (Worse, to earn enough to give the government a 7+% tax revenue increase, we would be forced to have an even greater revenue increase, due to the progressive nature of the tax code.)

    And I haven’t even addressed the questionable and arguably un-Constitutional uses to which the Feds put that tax revenue. Those are a whole different set of political wars.

    If the NYT’s writers want to make ugly unfounded accusations, abandon electoral government (for these Tea Party Independent’s were elected by like-minded citizens) in favor of an entrenched vampire-like ruling class, and thus instigate a real civil war, they would be doing exactly what they are doing now.

  2. Two things. First, can you explain how we’ve in any way addressed taxation in this agreement? I don’t see it, and we’re at rates that are at historic lows. Perhaps I’m missing your argument here. If anything, the lack of taxation, especially among the plutocracy is one of the primary (not the only) causes of our debt problem. That remains unresolved. I worry more about banana republic levels of economic inequality destabilizing the citizenry, which I think is what we’re seeing with our increasingly wave-like election cycles. I’ve been saying for some time that the Tea Partiers have more in common with the Wisconsin Union Protestors, and this is why.

    Second, Nocera’s comments are reprehensible, but be careful with the “Fox News Fallacy” here by thinking that the actions of one represent the totality. And I’m sorry, but this line is just laughable:

    “For all their moral posturing, it seems to me the rhetoric of those on the left has been even more hate-filled and vitriolic than that on the right (although, granted, they just lost the recent battle), although there is plenty to go around.”

    May I refer you to Limbaugh, Rush? Beck, Glenn? Or Savage, Michael? Surely you’re kidding here?

    Now, I do agree on your general point about America becoming ungovernable and class resentment. But economic benefits have not been broadly shared since the inception of neoliberal policies 40 years ago. What to do about that?

  3. “I’ve been saying for some time that the Tea Partiers have more in common with the Wisconsin Union Protestors”

    I just don’t see this at all. Public unions that have learned to rig the system similar to those who feel government should spend less to begin with? Seems more like hostage takers and hostages to me. Or at the very least the public unions are hostages who get a special vote in electing who their hostage takers are, and then get a cut of the ransom which they can then put to use in re-electing the same hostage-takers. They then get political protection and special deals in their hostage “contract” that allows them monopoly powers and freedom to act unlawfully in their demonstrations in order to intimidate the rest of the public. Nope, I just don’t agree with that at all.

  4. Lots of hostage-taking rhetoric as well these days.

    You could just as easily replace the word “union” with “corporation” in the above and get a similar effect. My point was that I think both groups are responding to an economic system that largely threw them overboard 40 years ago. That’s the similarity, and instead of realizing this, we turn against each other. And this makes Jeffrey’s point.

  5. There are extremists, utopians and scoundrels on both sides of the political spectrum, but it seems to me that the only clear-headed perspectives on our budget situation are found on the right. So, the challenge I pose to all the leftists is to show me one realistic plan for fiscal solvency put forth by a Democrat or leftist pundit. Obama, Pelosi and Reid just want to use the situation to force Republicans into some political trap; Krugman and co. at the NYT think that Keynesian policies are suddenly going to start working; even Klein and Iglesias (maybe the best of the well-known leftist policy writers) only tell us to raise taxes on the rich.

    At least on the right there is universal focus on cutting spending—some have even been wise enough to propose cuts to politically sensitive areas like defense and entitlements.

  6. I see a big difference between a private entity (corporation) getting my business on a day-to-day decision making basis directly under my control, and a public entity (public union) embedded in the byzantine political process which dilutes personal decision-making, and that for all practical purposes “negotiates” with itself with taxpayer money.

    Yes, both angle to make the rules favorable for themselves (as do we all) . But public unions are by design monopolistic and occupy a unique legally-preferential position. Today’s public unions are yesterday’s robber barons.

  7. Joe,

    Increasing spending and raising taxes does not qualify as a serious proposal. That will just do more harm to our economic competitiveness and send more jobs overseas.
    Furthermore, that budget does not address the sustainability of entitlement programs: it just removes the cap on payroll taxes. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but we’re going to have to reduce outlays in one way or another.

  8. It is worrisome that Nocera seems to have jumped the shark with this article. Even within his own piece, he cites Bruce Bartlett and then confidently proclaims:

    We’ve all heard what happened in 1937 when Franklin Roosevelt, believing the Depression was over, tried to rein in federal spending. Cutting spending spiraled the country right back into the Great Depression, where it stayed until the arrival of the stimulus package known as World War II.

    Except that Bruce Bartlett, in the very piece Nocera cites, indicates the precise cause of the 1937 is debatable:

    Economists are still debating the precise causes of the 1937-8 recession. While most say they believe that fiscal tightening is primarily to blame, some disagree. Perhaps it would have been positive if tightening was confined to the spending side of the budget, without the large increase in taxes. Maybe the fiscal contraction would have been benign if the Fed hadn’t tightened monetary policy simultaneously.

    It’s not just spending. Moreover, Bartlett’s chart indicates GDP skyrocketed not when the US entered WWII in late 1941, but in 1939. In fact, the chart indicates the two years of pain led to an economic boom, though like Nocera’s analysis, this gloss is a bit facile.

    Anyway, “we’ve all heard” that the US economy grew during and after WWII because the other industrial powers in Europe and Asia were blown to pieces. It’s easy to make money when you’re the only game in town, rebuilding other towns.

    Lastly, Nocera’s piece ignores the fact that the spending cuts are cuts to increases in deficits that cement in existing government spending levels that far surpass revenue. There will still be massive deficits and increases to public debt, just a bit smaller.

  9. What the Republicans did was say the sort of words that seem to you to mean they’d be more fiscally responsible, and then they raised the debt ceiling. They did not have to raise the debt ceiling; indeed, one does not begin a plan of fiscal responsibility by getting yet another credit card.
    Change isn’t going to come via elections, and this is yet another example. The Republicans lie- how many republican ‘Pro-Life’ presidents since 1972, and yet we still have abortion a country that’s supposed to be protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The Republicans lie, get into office, and pretend not to be able to do anything. The tea-party, sadly, is still stuck on the idea that they can do something within the current structure.
    The most effective thing we can do with the current structure is refuse to be a part of it. Republicans are depending on a lot of dissatisfied people voting for them simply because the are not Democrats. If we don’t vote, they will suffer, and if the statistics are dire enough, some of them will get the bright idea that they actually need to do what we want them to do in order to keep their comfy jobs.

  10. Krugman et al think government spending is like a grand money machine, where you throw in dollars and get some multiple of dollars back out of it. It’s absurd nonsense, but he’s writing for the NYT and I’m a nobody.

    The major problem with doing something about spending is that any corrections will involve short term pain and Americans have neither the fortitude to endure it or the attention span to remember what the problem was in the first place. And as bad as White Americans are in these respects, minorities are even worse–the browning of America doesn’t bode well for the future. As it is, the only conservative instinct we have left is our aversion to taxation.

  11. While I wouldn’t use Nocera’s terms myself, and wouldn’t encourage it in others, I don’t think it helps to construe him quite so literally as this: “what is to prevent Nocera or persons of his ilk from moving pre-emptively and, well, killing these individuals before they can get their vests on? . . . he would have an obligation to eliminate his opponents either through incarceration or war.”

    What Nocera is saying is hardly less incendiary than calling Obama a “socialist.”Obama is not actually a member of the Socialist Party, nor does he serve the cause of the socialist internationale. What those using the term mean is that, as far as they are concerned, progressive, New Deal-type policies are tantamount to socialism.

    Nocera is saying something similar. By hitching the question of spending to the debt ceiling vote, Tea Partiers jettisoned any attempts at persuasion. Instead, they used the threat of deep economic harm to American society as a way to gain their objectives.

    In light of the violent connotations of the word “terrorism” it is unwise–even inaccurate–to use it of the Tea Party caucus, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t capture a piece of the truth. Same for the term “jihad,” which is, like “crusade,” another word for holy war. Do you think no Tea Partiers have ever referred to their movement as a crusade? Still, “jihad” is unnecessarily uncivil.

    We can object to such usage without insisting on a literal construal of the terms.

  12. When exactly did the words “Keynes and Keynesian” become pejoratives?

    Keynes was a rather conservative bloke who reasoned in a time of economic free fall, allowing the economic structures and capacities of a nation to atrophy was ill advised. More to the point, he worried unemployment and the societal stresses accompanying it could push a population into the hands of people offering radical solutions (aka Fascism, Communism, etc.). This being the case, Keynes reckoned government might lessen these destabilizing forces by promoting policies that increased demand and reduced unemployment.

    Yes, during periods of economic contraction, Keynes suggested governments should spend money–even if this meant running deficits. However, he never advocated the perpetual accumulation of massive public debts. Instead, he thought governments should build up surpluses during goods times, and then use theses surpluses during downturns.

    While this is undoubtedly a overly simplified description of Keynesian economics, it nonetheless shows that Keynes does not deserve the vitriolic nonsense that has been heaped upon him over the past three years.

  13. Matt, in theory it is possible for the government to spend money on a project or enterprise that will be worth it, so Krugman is not entirely mistaken. The problem is assuming by default any spending within certain categories (like infrastructure) is worth it: it may be, or may not, and this depends on many variables not within the government’s control. Moreover, no spending is neutral in terms of consequences for goods and values and ways of life (like prioritizing local economies), so spending needs to be justified in those terms as well but is hardly ever.

    Lastly, I don’t think looking at it through racial lenses is at all helpful, since it isn’t racial minorities that hold most cultural and political power and therefore most responsibility. Sure, they bear some, but not most. In fact, we’d be in worse shape if we exchanged all our minorities for white Washington elites, so I don’t think your argument about the browning of America is a sound one.

  14. Where I part from libertarians is on their insistence that government spending is always bad, always ‘coercive’, and always a failure of economics. I agree government spending can be worth it and can even have an economic benefit, albeit one that is always unknown prior to the spending. But this isn’t Krugman’s position at all. His is more that government spending is always good, there always needs to be more of it, and when it fails to produce the expected results (as in this current recession) that is merely evidence that we didn’t spend enough. Happily, this last proposition is entirely unfalsifiable and therefore he has no real responsibility for his vomit.

    On the minorities…sorry but it’s a blatant fact that they are more pro-big-government than whites. They don’t have much power outside of votes now but 1) one wing of our ruling party has made it their MO to pander to them and 2) barring any change they will be a majority in about 30 years. Mexicans, to take our biggest source of vibrant diversity, have absolutely no limited government tradition at all. So either they have a mass adoption of our tradition which we largely don’t believe anymore, and despite our assurances that their traditions are wonderful and should not be abandoned, or conservatism dies. Or maybe something entirely unforeseen happens that renders the whole question moot–I hope so, but I’m not counting on it. In any case, as long as our Washington elites insist on flooding the country with foreigners, the racial angle will remain.

  15. John Haas:

    Nocera is saying something similar. By hitching the question of spending to the debt ceiling vote, Tea Partiers jettisoned any attempts at persuasion. Instead, they used the threat of deep economic harm to American society as a way to gain their objectives.

    Then they would be extortionists, not terrorists as in “War on Terror.” But that is besides the point, which is that Tea Partiers did not jettison any attempts at persuasion any more than President Obama jettisoned any attempts at persuasion when he drew his line in the sand and refused any smaller debt ceiling increase that wouldn’t get him past re-election day even if it would prevent default and “deep economic harm.” Was Obama being a terrorist by insisting on this purely political measure at the risk of “deep economic harm”?

    Perhaps one is only a terrorist if one disagrees with the New York Times op-ed page.

    The policy fight was ugly and name-calling even worse, so we should avoid adding double standards for demonization to the mix. Let’s be equal opportunity demonizers at least. The Tea Partiers drew their lines in the sand just as other political interests did. They care about the country and believe that spending and entitlements need to be restrained for the long-term good of the country, and that this won’t happen apart from the will generated in a crisis. In this they’re only following the sad bi-partisan lead of the current powers-that-be, to their shame. But one ought to reserve the harshest critiques for those with the most power, and I don’t believe that describes the Tea Partiers.

  16. Matt, maybe it used to be true that minorities are more pro-big government than white Americans, but I don’t think that’s true anymore precisely because the Anglo tradition of limited government was abandoned. Unless, of course, one counts the guy who wants the government to “get its hands off my Medicare” pro-limited government.

    I’m not so sure white Americans are generally less pro-big government than minorities; they may merely be more hypocritical in their rhetoric, preferring big government (while not calling it that) when it favors priorities like nation building, suburban growth subsidies, or corporate bailouts. We had to kill capitalism to save it, remember? Minorities also oppose the government creation of legal fictions like same-sex “marriage” more than white Americans.

    Even if you’re right about who’s more pro-big government, responsibility still lies more with the cultural centers of power, not mere political votes. And that’s not something that can be attributed to minorities. The abandonment of the tradition of limited government in America was merely a part of a larger cultural and religious abandonment, and that happened long before minorities became a political force, which is why I think harping on minorities generally misses the point and wastes time.

  17. Albert, I see your general point.

    I would quibble over whether the desire to get us past the next election was a “purely political measure.” Can any resident of this republic believe it’s been a boon to our well-being that the debt-ceiling question has all but paralyzed Congress over the past several weeks? Is it purely political to believe it would be even more acrimonious and paralyzing the closer we get to the election?

    I suppose there are some: those who believe that, if we could just get rid of this Kenyan, what ails the republic will somehow magically go away.

    “. . . this won’t happen apart from the will generated in a crisis.”

    Fair enough; on the other hand, it should not be overlooked that the debt-ceiling crisis was itself deliberately generated. I can agree that some Tea Partiers probably do believe they did so in order to achieve a long-term good for the nation, but it was a crisis precisely because it threatened harm, and it constitutes a departure from our national tradition we are likely to rue.

    Conservatives who warm to the long-term goals being pursued have reason to feel ambivalent about what we have done to ourselves in their pursuance.

  18. I have a couple of things to add to some of the comments made:

    1. While the “crisis” was indeed intentionally generated, both parties are equally culpable. When the Democrats controlled Congress in December they could have voted to increase the debt ceiling at that time, but Reid deliberately decided not to so that the incoming Republicans would have to share the responsibility for the increase. Neither he nor Obama counted on the Republicans balking on this. On the other hand, the House Republicans realized very quickly that they had a much stronger hand to play than did the Senate Democrats (who couldn’t win in the court of public opinion), or Obama, who had no plan, as members of his own party attested. The Republicans knew they could win a game of brinksmanship and played it accordingly. Politics all around. I suspect the pundits are mad not so much because of the way the Republicans conducted themselves, but because they knew their team had no chance of winning. Had Obama actually played some political hardball instead of sticking with his gaseous rhetoric, he might have altered the playing field.
    2. Keynes is not Krugman. Fair enough. But it is clear that Keynes was less concerned about the long-term ramifications of indebted spending, a lack of concern that is only justifiable if you don’t pay much attention to future generations. Krugman and Nocera say that the unemployment problem is a more central problem than the debt problem. Perhaps it is. But surely there ought to be room for persons to take contrary views on that, or, even if they accept that is true, disagreement as to whether government spending leads to higher employment. The lessons of the last three years ought to be a little sobering on that score.
    3. My point was not to suggest liberals are worse than so-called conservatives when it comes to name-calling. I was simply accusing them of hypocrisy. When Rep. Giffords was shot, they didn’t hesitate to suggest that it was Tea Party rhetoric that created the climate that made such shootings not only possible, but likely. If a Republican member of Congress gets shot, will they recant of their incendiary rhetoric?
    4. My central concern is that this rhetoric suggests that Americans do not like each other, do not trust each other, do not respect each other, and do not believe they have enough common ground to allow for mutual governance. Perhaps the incommensurability of our moral and economic ideas are so deep, as Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, that we are left with a politics that is civil war carried on by other means. But these things have ways of becoming real civil wars, and thus the rhetoric we use matters. John Haas’ claims notwithstanding, the use of terms such as “terrorists” and “jihad” (I wonder what a Muslim would make of this?) are calculated terms. He knows what effect they will produce in this political climate, and he knows the weight of moral opprobrium they carry. I don’t think it can be dealt with by simply saying “Well, we shouldn’t understand that literally.” Obviously not. But words matter. But since John and I haven’t been able to carry on with one another in person this summer, I am happy to have the opportunity to do it on the Porch. I’m glad to see John here.
    5. But I disagree with him on this: “Can any resident of this Republic believe it’s a boon to our well-being that the debt-ceiling question has all but paralyzed Congress over the past several weeks?” Count me as one. The rhetoric of the question is interesting, for if I believe it has been largely a good thing I must by definition be either not a member of the Republic (or at least not one in good faith), or simply not rational. But that’s not right. I believe that our debt crisis is much deeper than most people think it is, and I applaud those who drew attention to it. Whatever harm it threatened, and I think it was minimal, is nothing compared to the complete absence of fiscal discipline in Washington. And frankly, I think such debates and such dissent are part of our national traditions. Hell, John knows as well as I do that arguments concerning defaulting on debts are not new in our Republic. But maybe he is speaking of a national tradition of which I am not aware.

  19. Hey Jeff. Good to talk to you. Little hot on this porch of yours, however. Can’t a guy get a lemonade?

    “Neither he nor Obama counted on the Republicans balking on this.”

    Right, and that’s the tradition I was talking about. This has, until now, been a pretty pro forma procedure. We’ve never quite done this kind of brinksmanship before. We have seriously undermined–even with the deal–the standing of the US in the world. If only 14% of Americans have a positive view of Congress, imagine what they’re thinking in Singapore.

    “The Republicans knew they could win a game of brinksmanship and played it accordingly.”

    Sure. But that’s the problem. Threatening to wreck the economy–knowingly, or unknowingly–is of course going to force your opponents to capitulate. It’s like Lincoln said at Cooper Union: A highwayman puts a gun to my head and demands I deliver, or he will shoot, making me a murderer!

    While I understand the constraints of journalists–word-limits, the need to make it punchy, etc.– I would love to live in a world where we only called Nazis “Nazis,” only called “terrorists “terrorists,” etc.

    “… whether government spending leads to higher employment. The lessons of the last three years ought to be a little sobering on that score.”

    Who else is hiring? Spending–the kind that keeps people in jobs, keeps them in their houses, the kind that hires–doesn’t “fix it,”but it meliorates the social effects of an economic bust period. Ignoring unemployment will cost us money in the long term, too.

    Our debt problem–and our deficit crisis–is huge and will remain so for many years. Surely it’s good to discuss it, but this hasn’t been a discussion. Your concerns about incommensurability and incivility are warranted, and political gamesmanship will not go away. Where before, politicians bought votes with favors, they will, in an age of austerity, compel votes with nastier tools. As the pie shrinks, more and more people will feel the pinch, become involved in the squabble to defend theirs, and turn on each other.

    I remain convinced we will rue this.

    But I will not belabor my quibbles.

  20. Mr Polet,

    With all due respect, where exactly in any of Keynes’ writings did he ever say either, “Long-term deficits don’t matter. Or, we can simply push the bill for deficits onto future generations?” If you can point me in the direction of such information, I will gladly cede the point to you.

    And yes, I do think unemployment is a far bigger issue than the debt at the current moment. Jeremy Grantham (he’s the guy who predicted the housing bubble before anyone else) has said that allowing 15 million people to sit around unemployed for a year or more is possibly the worst decision the country has ever made. Not only are the unemployed unable to support themselves and their families, but their skills also degrade, which in turn makes it all the more difficult for them to find work. Personally, I think there are ways we could put these people back to work without adding to the budget deficit. John Medaille describes how the government could employ people on infrastructure projects in a way that does not add to the deficit in his latest book. We should have implemented such a plan at the very beginning of the crisis, but we didn’t. Instead we spent sixteen trillion dollars trying to save a bunch of irresponsible gamblers on Wall Street. Strangely enough, I’ve also heard this action referred to as being Keynesian economics at work. Again, I can find no support for such accusations in Keynes’ work, but that apparently doesn’t stop people from repeating such accusations.


  21. Mr Polet,

    You and readers who thought that refusing to raise the debt ceiling was a real option might consider this thought experiment, and explain how the Tea Party differs meaningfully.

    You take out a mortgage with your wife, with each of you agreeing that on your current combined incomes, you can make the payment while still saving, etc. Okay, well, five years down the road, your wife has a change of heart. She says, “Honey, really, we’re spending too much. And if you don’t agree to cut the cable bill, the internet, your craft beer spending, and the kids’ piano lessons, I’ll refuse to contribute to the mortgage.” You argue about this ad nauseam, trying to get her to agree to what you see as less harmful cuts, but she refuses. And when you suggest that one of you takes on a new job in order to increase your income, she just walks out of the room and won’t speak to you for a week. And as the next payment date approaches, you see that your wife is serious: her monthly contribution to your joint checking account is still missing. You’ll default on your agreement with the bank if you don’t pay. So you say to her, “Look, we’re going to lose the house if you don’t pitch in.” And she replies, “Well, we don’t have to. I’ve contributed enough this month that if you cut the things I’ve asked you to cut, we can still make the payments on our mortgage. When you think about it that way, really, it’ll be your fault if we lose the house.” So finally, in order to keep your agreement with the bank, you make the cuts your wife demanded and write the mortgage check to your bank.

    Seems to me that the wrongness of your wife’s behavior in this scenario isn’t just that you’re married and she shouldn’t do that to someone she’s married – although, that’s wrong, too. And no one thinks that there shouldn’t been discussions between mutually committed parties about what sorts of things they should, together, be spending money on. What’s wrong here is that you had an agreement with a third party that she threatened to violate if you didn’t perform some action on her behalf, an action towards an end having nothing to do with the third party. How then, I would wonder, is this wrongness any different than the wrongness of the behavior of the Republican members of the House of Representatives?

    And to be honest, when you indicate that these disagreements are good and that “arguments concerning defaulting on debts are not new in our Republic” it seems like your position on this is that of your wife’s nosy friend, who says, “Of course, you’re right that she shouldn’t extort you. But hasn’t this little spat been productive for your marriage?”

  22. If I can jump in following Mr. Schroeder, I did want to say that this–“Whatever harm it [defaulting on our debt for the 1st time in history, losing our triple a rating, and all the rest] threatened, and I think it was minimal, is nothing compared to the complete absence of fiscal discipline in Washington”–is a key assertion on your part. I won’t argue against it (it’s a judgment call where we come down) but I do think much if not all of what you’re saying here is dependent on believing just that.

  23. To Mr. Schroeder,

    I find similes likening the US government’s politics and policy to a “family” are limited, if not limiting. (And that’s regardless of which party or Party makes the comparison.)

    At the first, I took a vow to my wife to love and honor her (in “good times and in bad”, no less); statesmen pledge to honor and defend the Consitution, country, et al. On a basic level, I don’t find those levels of committment level; nor, would I say a family/household/marriage could be easily equated to a country/people/polity.

    But past that are two more issues: size and source of funds. Families are much smaller and nimbler than countries, which affects both the policy-making method and implemenation. Too, even the largest, most powerful families (in the “free” world) are dwarfed in ability by nature, Church, State, geography, funds, other familes, etc.

    Lastly, there is source of funds. This includes both income (read: tax dollars) and ability to print/issue funds. In a family, income is based on labor or ROI, not a fiat power to collect taxes. At the very least, the relationship is far more distant than, say, a woman “cutting her husband off” to get her way. Senators and Congressmen aren’t offering their own money (or even that of their consituents, directly) to build a budget, their spending is based upon our money.

    As for the ability to print the stuff, that’s probably the biggest difference. Even if a family agreed to some kind of “currency” to be used among them (e.g. more chores=more privileges), no one else is going to take that stuff. And certainly no one’s ability to borrow or trade will be affected by it.

    I’ll grant that any analogy necessarily has limits. But I’d also argue that perhaps better comparisons for our country’s budgetary woes would be large coporations, other countries, or smaller governments within this one.

  24. Mr McCain, (btw, feel free to call me Aaron)

    I think I already addressed some of your points of disanalogy in my “Seems to me…” paragraph. The wrongness of the behavior here involves the threat to welch on a debt to a third party – not that Republicans had some kind of ‘vow’ to Democrats or the country or whatever. Although, that said, we’re a Republic. So, when our government defaults on a debt, it’s not strictly speaking ‘the government’ defaulting, but me, you, and every other citizen defaulting. In this way, then, Republicans were negotiating on ‘our’ behalves, rather than on their own behalves – much in the same way that the wife, who is a party to the agreement, threatens to hold out on her husband. The Republican negotiating position represented some part of the Republic threatening to ‘hold out’ on another part of it.

    As for your point about the source of funds – and about size, for that matter – I don’t see how that shows that my analogy is, in fact, disanalogous. After all, the debate on the debt ceiling wasn’t about how to pay our debts, but about whether to pay them in the first place. So the fact that the government has a number of options for how to pay really doesn’t seem relevant, when the question that’s holding up negotiations is whether to pay.

  25. Thanks for the reply, Aaron.

    Forgive me for my somewhat meandering initial post. I’m afraid you struck a bit of a nerve in me, with your family analogy. My first reaction is almost always, It’s just not that simple!, something you’d probably agree to. Usually, though, the person making the comparison is either a fool, an idiot, or not present; thus, rebuttal is far more difficult. I took this opportunity to lay bare most of my grievances an the analogy in general, whether they had particular bearing on your remarks.

    All that said, I think we can still settle upon something about which to debate in good faith: Households are small, with all members profoundly affected–in short order–by “major” decisions; whereas, polities can be distant, disjointed things, wherein actions are likely to have proundly different effects on the members. Of course the Members of Congress should be acting toward some good beneficial to our long-term success as a nation. Do they? That’s an open question.

    In this case, I guess my issue is the matter of “scope”. For a family, even one of some means, cutting off funds of several thousand dollars a month is a sizeable sum. Too, the house itself represents their safety and well-being. To borrow your images, I’d perhaps have said, If the family can’t pay the cable bill for a few days, their FICO score would get hit a few points.

    Does that make any sense? Maybe I’m just rambling again.

    Oh, and I don’t mind being called “Barry”–unless, of course, you’re not old enough to vote or buy beer in this country.

  26. The USS CRISIS is a reeking hulk of a rusty tanker dead reckoning with an inventory of clueless happy memories over changed seas. The complaints about how hard this so-called debate was are Exhibit One of how profoundly mystified the American is about our besotted fate. Of course sobering up is a tad difficult. Sobriety is entirely insufficient in a world of want. This should all be damned difficult because lethargy has lulled us all into a fat and happy sense of invincibility.

    Minding a budget and reducing the Leviathan while reinvigorating the Local is going to be vary hard to do but the lapsed-republic has managed to confront difficulty before. Unfortunately, at this juncture, the political landscape seems to be entirely devoid of even rudimentary forms of leadership. Polls will take the leadership plum out of a feller. When a platoon of sharpies with K Street Addresses are stuffing your pockets while telling you how grand you are, any common sense is gone.

    I doubt any competing Boobus Americanus Lumpenproletariat Armies could manage much of a civil war unless it was formatted for Reality Television or a NASCAR Race and gave weekends and holidays off. Or, maybe if war were turned into a leisure-time activity it might find a broader personal involvement. Come to think of it, war already is a leisure time activity for most Americans. Most of us watch leisurely as our Debt Drunk Government sends folks off for their fourth deployment in areas of only dodgy relevance to our National Security. This is done, of course, to “keep the wars over there”. Yes, it is a successful campaign, this “keeping wars over there”. The state of permanent war is bleeding us out with vigor.

    But Lo! The rhetoric now stumbles upon “Jobs”. “Jobs” shall be our savior and with them, we can resume the Fountain of Youth known as the Growth Economy. Keynes can get his tweeds dry-cleaned.

    It must be bad because even the cheery-faced tarts and scrubbed suits on the telly news are too often lugubrious now. This must be hard work. Boo Hoo hoo, its so hard.

    Get used to it, its going to get harder to the point that these idiotic times will come to be seen as “the good old days”.

  27. “After all, the debate on the debt ceiling wasn’t about how to pay our debts, but about whether to pay them in the first place. So the fact that the government has a number of options for how to pay really doesn’t seem relevant, when the question that’s holding up negotiations is whether to pay.” Says Mr. Schroeder.

    But is that right? Raising the debt limit seems to me to have more to do with whether or not to accrue even more debt, not whether to pay off the debt we have. As many have pointed out, there is sufficient cash flow/revenue stream going to the Treasury to pay the interest on the debt (i.e., we can make our minimum payment). What this debate is about is whether we continue to borrow more money in order to pay for things above and beyond that. This is a fight on whether to increase the debt, not pay it.
    If we continue to need to borrow 40 cents on the dollar spent in order to meet all of our “obligations” (which include debt interest, social entitlements, federal payrolls, and everything else under the discretionary spending tent) then the question shouldn’t be about whether we borrow more to continue our spending binge, but what can we cut back on. The Federal government is not immune to the laws of economics, if only because we private taxpayers are not.
    The Congress, or at least the part that isn’t “holding us hostage”, is the one that put us in this mess. They now go into denial, and scream and cry like the drunk cut off by the bartender, about being held hostage from spending more money. The so called budget deal has merely said we’ll continue selling you booze, but at a slightly reduced rate of increase. You used to drink with a built in 8% annual increase, so if we cut it back to 7% it’s a “reduction”. Hoorah.
    If we merely froze spending at current levels – and I really mean current levels, without any baseline budget voodoo, we’d save $400 billion a year compared to the $25 billion a year claimed by the Budget Control Act. So by making NO spending reductions whatsoever, we’d do better than this budget deal. That tells you all you need to know.

  28. Blaming it all upon Congress when we have something like a 35% voter turnout, well, thats kind of like blaming a socket wrench for the blown engine when two thirds of the nuts bolting the head down never were installed properly.

    There are no easy answers to the current challenge and a way-of-life geared toward easy answers is going to make the transition back into reality a tad difficult. It should be difficult. The United States of America should require a bit of heavy lifting. Political platitudes are the junk food of a Republic. It is Back to Basics but it should be back to basics with people who can chart, phrase and good-humoredly present the course that lies ahead.

    Instead, we get strident remonstrance, stubborn defense of indefensible terrain and the cockamamie notion that “compromise” is some kind of victory rather than a quick cop-out so we can go into recess.

    That the ratings agencies did not throw out our fantasy rating in 2008 should disabuse anyone of the notion that credit-worthiness is what the credit-rating agencies are actively engaged in. No, what is afoot is akin to alchemy and alchemy never did create gold out of a tincture of bats ear and stove black.

    What you are watching, gentle reader is denial on a continental scale. That said, whether the Tea-partiers charter the bus into the ditch or the smarmy liberals, it likely does not matter because a wreck has no constituency.

  29. Mr. Sabin, I do not disagree with your general point. We should all apologize to Jimmy Carter:


    You are certainly right that the citizenry doesn’t have much ground for blaming congress (see Walter McDougall’s two-parter elsewhere on FPR). But having no ground is hardly going to stop them.

    Meanwhile, the credit agencies collude in the fantasy, and it’s probably good they are. Confidence isn’t all we need, but without it, we’re sunk even further.

    I can only see two routes out:

    1) someone attacks Pearl Harbor

    2) the rapture.

  30. Hi ruralcouncil,

    My point was that if House Republicans thought we shouldn’t run a budget deficit this year, they should’ve negotiated for that during the 2009-10 budget negotiations last spring. The Republican-controlled Congress authorized a budget that spring that required expenditures in excess of projected income. And since the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t authorize additional taxes or sale of federal property to cover the spread, what other options remained to the President to take the actions that the Republican-controlled Congress authorized? After all, the President doesn’t get to pick and choose which of the debts he will pay of those that Congress has authorized, right?

    I repeat ‘Republican-controlled’ only tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, Democrats, the President, and Republicans alike authorized a budget in excess of projected revenues. So – and this is a real question for the ‘we have enough money for foreign debts’ people – in the absence of the President having been authorized to collect additional revenues in the form of taxes, how was the country supposed to cover the spread from what was going to be collected to what the Congress approved?

  31. Hi Mr. Schroeder,

    This isn’t Republicans versus Democrats problem, so I’ll resist making it about that. I don’t think we taxpayers can trust any of them. We have an entrenched elitist ruling class now, made up of politicians and faux capitalists. And for the record, there was no authorized budget this past year. It is inherently unclear how the POTUS can prioritize debt payment, since it really hasn’t happened before. Payment of interest on our debt instruments involves our reputation and credibility of US Treasury securities as a safe haven investment…which is what the markets are worried about short-term. Payment of our operational outflows is rather different … the Social Security Administration, for instance, has the authority to sell off its US notes on the open market to raise cash to meet its payment responsibilities. That’s why POTUS was lying when he threatened non-issue of SS checks. Medicare is a different animal, as are federal salaries and other outflows. There, he may have to choose. Given we are now in three undeclared wars, I suggest he pay the troops first. Especially given his current popularity ratings.

    Congress doesn’t authorize debts in the annual budget. They authorize use of funds. (Though they do authorize the debt ceiling limit, a gimmick to make it supposedly harder to over-authorize spending.) The President’s Executive branch departments, agencies, and the like then spend it, … which is to say they enter into agreements and contracts to obtain services or goods to execute their missions. That is where the debts are created. Nothing requires the Executive branch to spend all the money that Congress authorizes … but good luck finding one that doesn’t. When more is spent than is coming in, the Treasury Department (run under POTUS’s appointed executive leadership) has to make up the difference by borrowing … issuing debt instruments that are auctioned off to the rest of the world. Admittedly, Congress behaves irresponsibly when they authorize spending far in excess of what they could reasonably anticipate getting in revenues. But we should all realize that , (1) POTUS doesn’t have to accept the budget, and (2) the Executive branch has the final authority on whether or not we grow our debt.

    As to your final question about what was the country supposed to do to cover the difference between revenue and expenditures? I can only say (with a slight tone of exasperation in my voice) that we should not be allowing that to happen. This is our greatest collective failure as voters. We as citizens should not be voting for people who promise the moon on a weekend at Rehobeth beach salary, who instigate social programs with no thought to how much they will cost in the future, who have such poor understanding of basic economics and wealth formation. As a friend of mine once said, people who don’t understand what is compound interest pay it, those who do understand it collect it. Anyone with available credit can live high on the hog for a while. The pain of paying for it will arrive eventually. Our national debt is the sum total of our accumulated annual deficits and the cost of interest paid on those deficits. The first rule of good governance (be it at the family level or national level) is live within your means.

    There will be those that say increasing revenues is the way to go to balance the equation. But paying for government is not the purpose of our nation’s economy, but rather a side effect. And government is like a brake on the economy; it can slow it, but not grow it. At least not in the long haul, as we are seeing in the failed Keynsian experiment just performed, which may have made some short-lived frothiness but nothing substantive. Unemployment checks don’t fund new industries or create jobs. Over the long term, economic prosperity is a function of efficient use of capital by private entities. Efficiency is best approached by allowing free markets. Free markets are best achieved by allowing choices. Choices are best achieved by allowing smart people to make use of their ideas, enthusiasm, and opportunities. The markets will decise who wins and loses. This creates wealth, which the government then taxes.

    Government is good at interfering with all of these and trying to force “winners” and “losers” through legislative and regulatory fiat. And they have a terrible track record. There is a fundamental problem in how government sees its role. They like to think of themsleves as “leaders”, when in fact what we should want them to be is custodians and caretakers of our civic institutions. A motley collection of independent cantankerous individuals determines where we go socially and economically as a nation, not those we elect. When politicians try to lead, they create chaos, uncertainty, and inefficiency. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get them to shut up, sit down, and do their real jobs. Their real jobs are not so glamorous, much more mundane, and frankly not all that difficult … and we usually elect the kind of people who aren’t willing to take a back seat, admit that, and listen. The custodian fails to take out the trash because he is too busy telling the businessmen how to run their businesses.

    Thus, we have a classic goose-that-layed-the-golden-egg problem when it comes to raising revenues. Some interference can be tolerated, but too much and you ruin the whole scheme. We are very close to, or perhaps already overshot, that point. Working America is about to go John Galt on the Feds.

  32. John Haas,

    I think the President just didn’t want to have to deal with another debt ceiling battle, regardless of whether it would have been more prudent or not. But the point wasn’t whether it was a tenable and reasonable position. The point was that he brooked no argument about it. He drew his line in the sand. The Tea Partiers drew their line as well. So why are the Tea Partiers extortionist-terrorists for taking their stand but the President not? Sure, we can discuss which policy was better for the country in the long term over many, many blog posts. But this one was about the polemical language used which I think works off a double standard, creating smugly self-righteous hypocrisy.

    And I’m still not sure if commentators understand that since some are still implying (the marriage example) that it was only the Tea Partiers holding the national economy hostage. That’s the NYTimes spin/script which is being bought hook, line and sinker. But it’s false and does nothing to advance civil and charitable discussion. It only demonizes Them while appealing to the vanity of Us.

    The more that happens, the less fruitful rational discussion can be and the greater the temptation for violence, as in: We can’t talk to these Terrorists. So we have “no choice” but to coerce them.

    All the while being blinded to one’s own hypocrisy and double standards.

  33. “Working class America is about to go John Galt on the Feds.”

    Well, at least we know where we stand.

    (So, about the budget. You’re saying that a 2011 budget was never passed more or less obscures the debate. Call the spending that Congress authorizes a “budget.” A budget authorizing spending through September 2011 was passed last spring. Therefore, a budget was passed. We can agree, at least, that Congress authorized spending for (part of) the 2011 fiscal year that was in excess of the expected revenues. Can’t we? A rose by another name, yeah?)

    In any event, my critique of the Republican (Conservative, House Republican, tea partier, whatever) negotiation tactics is that the position is taken, at bottom, in bad faith. My argument here has nothing to do with which economic theory you believe. If you think debts are to be paid, and you vote to authorize spending in excess of revenues, on pain of practical contradiction, you can’t but favor the means to pay those debts. And indeed, it’s not clear what is the Constitutional mechanism whereby the President could choose items of spending he was to direct the treasury to pay for, and which he was to left unpaid. Given no other direction than seems historically to have been given a President for how to cover the spread between a Congressional authorization and the projected revenues, it seems like anyone negotiating for the first ‘budget’ in good faith would’ve also expected him to borrow the difference – else, why authorize the expenditure?

    It seems to me that when you admit that Congress acted irresponsibly in the first place by authorizing such expenditures, you’ve conceded the point of my original argument. Republicans negotiated in bad faith, and used the threat of default to extort cuts that were not at all tied to the obligation to pay what they had previously authorized. Whether you believe Keynes, or…who? Ayn Rand? Hayek?…seems immaterial to this point.

  34. Uh it is and was an act of terrorism to jeopardize this countries and the world’s economies to achieve a political gain. Especially when all reasonable economists suggest it is the wrong thing to do at the wrong time.

  35. The husband/wife analogy is a poor one in the context of the ongoing debt debate. If my wife had said to me after five years of marriage “Honey, I’ve had a change of heart about paying off our 30 year mortgage” I would have quickly pointed out to her that it doesn’t make any difference if her heart had changed, because our bank still has a written and enforceable contract we both signed that required that we pay them. Mortgages are essentially irrevocable agreements because banks are kinda’ fussy about wanting to get paid after lending money.

    When Congress enacts spending bills (and tax legislation) they are never irrevocable; they last only as long as that Congress (or a later one) decides those spending and tax bills are good policy. Fiscal legislation has never been the Law of the Medes and Persians, has nothing in common with a binding 30 year mortgage and we taxpayers know that. When Republicans chose not to place taxes on the table during the debate they were no more threatening default than was Obama when he scared the bejesus out of my in-laws with he pronouncement on 60 Minutes that he couldn’t “guarantee” that Social Security checks would go out on August 2. Actually, he could have, he just chose not to do so. Come to think of it, if Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi had not chosen to avoid raising the debt ceiling last December when they still had large majorities in the Senate and House, the fears this spring and summer over a possible debt default could have been avoided. Instead, they chose for political reasons to leave the problem up to John Boehner to handle, so it’s tough for me to find sympathy for their crockodile tears being shed now.

    The choices we have on our debt are ridiculously easy to understand; they are just unpleasant to face. We can either raise revenue, lower spending, or do a combination of the two. If we want to raise enough revenue to deal with the debt then we have to expand the base. That means more people will have to pay taxes than are now doing so. The last tax year statistics I saw (I believe for 2009) showed that over 45% of all federal income tax filers paid nary a single penny in federal income tax. If you want to continue to avoid taxing that group you can’t realistically deal with the problem because, as Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.”

  36. “It seems to me that when you admit that Congress acted irresponsibly in the first place by authorizing such expenditures, you’ve conceded the point of my original argument. Republicans negotiated in bad faith, and used the threat of default to extort cuts that were not at all tied to the obligation to pay what they had previously authorized. ”

    That is absurd. First, Congress authorized so why that is Republicans fault? These aren’t consensus decisions, they’re based on majority votes. Why blame the minority? Second, both sides threatened default if they didn’t get their way. It is nothing more than uncivil rhetoric to chose to blame one side over the other. Notwithstanding your semantical gymnastics to say that there was an annual budget that was endorsed by Republicans, there was not – and even if there were, it extended no further than 2011. Perhaps it is clearer to say that Democrats extorted stopgap budget votes from Republicans by bringing us to the brink of government shutdown multiple times. But as I said, I don’t see a hill of beans difference betweeen the two major factions. As is well stated in David’s last post, the annual deficit and budget process is not at all like a multi-year contractual obligation, so why is it bad faith to try an rein in federal spending?

    The only bad faith I see is in the past decades of Congress passing legislation they knew wasn’t going to be able to be paid for without incurring massive national debt. And each successive Congress burying their heads in the sand, kicking the can further down the road, …pick your favorite analogy. And in current entrenched politicians in trying to pretend that we can continue along our merry fiscally irresponsible way, if we just get another bigger line of credit.

    As is clear now (but wasn’t at the time this thread started), the credit rating has been downgraded – regardless of the debt ceiling limit. It is nothing less than what we deserve, because it was never fundamentally about authorization; it was about magnitude of the national debt compared to the vitality of our economy. It was about our inability as voters to elect rational people to office who understood the limitations on their powers and purse. Because when you get down to brass tacks, the federal purse is limited by the national economy and the purses of the taxpayers. The market shocks we are now experiencing are the result of burgeoning new awareness about economic limits in a highly regulated society. We’ve lived the past couple of decades with the pedal to the floor, engines screaming, willfully blind or ignorant of the needle on the gas gauge drifitng lower, and suddenly the engine is sputtering and the needle is on E. And no gas stations in sight willing to sell us any more fuel on credit. James Howard Kunstler’s vision has come home.

    I hear Obama is a great fundraiser … almost 1 billion dollars this time around. If he wants to impress me with paying his “fair share”, he should donate it all to the U.S. Treasury and refuse to run for a second term. His type of politics (practiced by many opportunists and political ponzi artists since the 1930’s) is what got us into this mess to begin with. He isn’t responsible for the full set of woes that befell us, but he’s the last snake oil salesman in town, and he’s the one that is getting caught.

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