Children With Matches, Playing in the Powder Magazine.
…That would be your present-day Republican party.
The just concluded budget skirmish was a mere amuse bouche to the gluttons-for-(other people’s)- punishment that is your modern GOP. The New York Times reports today on what looks to be the mother of all budget battles to come over the vote to raise the debt limit.
I’m waiting for the chorus of the swaddled commentariat to tell us just how principled are Republican moves like these:
…they will again demand fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling
If they don’t get what they want, and actually block the Treasury from raising more obligations, then this is how the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St. rather demurely describes the consequences:
Once the limit is reached, the Treasury Department would not be able to borrow as it does routinely to finance federal operations and roll over existing debt; ultimately it would be unable to pay off maturing debt, putting the United States government — the global standard-setter for creditworthiness — into default.
The repercussions in that event would be as much economic as political, rippling from the bond market into the lives of ordinary citizens through higher interest rates and financial uncertainty of the sort that the economy is only now overcoming, more than three years after the onset of the last recession.
That is: with still achingly high unemployment; wage stagnation; food and energy cost hikes; the rise (again) of the financial sector’s share of corporate profits nation wide; the increasingly worn safety net and all that, the GOP is threatening to make life worse on just about every economic and social axis imaginable.
The irony is that it may be our last, best hope that the monied class will be able to tame the beast they’ve unleashed. Here’s Jamie Damon, head of JP Morgan Chase and someone often seen as one of the non-monstrous Wall St. types:
“If anyone wants to push that button, which I think would be catastrophic and unpredictable, I think they’re crazy,” Mr. Dimon said recently at the United States Chamber of Commerce.
But the problem is that this is what he — and the rest of us — have to contend with:
Representative Mick Mulvaney… dismissed warnings about default as “just posturing,” and said Democrats should bear the responsibility for passing any measure to increase the borrowing limit.
“It’s their debt,” he said. “Make them do it. That’s my attitude.”
Except, of course, this “Democrats did it” nonsense is simply false. Here’s the key part of the Times piece, an all too rare fact-based description of where our current debt comes from:
In fact, the debt was created by both parties and past presidents as well as Mr. Obama.
Of the nearly $14.2 trillion in debt, roughly $5 trillion is money the government has borrowed from other accounts, mostly from Social Security revenues, according to federal figures. Several major policies from the past decade when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress — tax cuts, a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — account for more than $3.2 trillion.
The recession cost more than $800 billion in lost revenues from businesses and individuals and in automatic spending for safety-net programs like unemployment compensation. Mr. Obama’s stimulus spending and tax cuts added about $600 billion through the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
The Times is being unnecessarily bipartisan here, certainly. The two great leaps in debt as a percentage of GDP over the last several decades came under Presidents Reagan/Bush the former and then again, with turbojets, under Bush the Lesser, the undisputed heavyweight champion reckless spender.*
But the Times still got the key point right: Obama-led policy has contributed minimally to the debt — probably too little in fact, when you recall that the stimulus money still hasn’t fully hit the street.
The debt limit is approaching now for two reasons more than any others: years of incompetent, ideologically-driven GOP-led economic and tax policy — largely designed to transfer wealth from public to private hands and from the bottom and middle to the rich — and then the loss of revenue in the recession engendered by that shameful record of misgovernment.
So, to catch my breath, here’s the state of play: we face a debt limit test very soon. Failure to raise it will cause significant harm to most Americans. The GOP is playing Russian roulette with that test. This is not the behavior of people capable of governance. They are hyperactive kindergarteners with a tendency towards pyromania.
There are surely real debates to be had. We’ve got a long way to go to get to a satisfactory and ultimately affordable health care system. We have to figure out how to be and feel secure without spending ourselves into oblivion. It might be nice to figure out how to ease off an oil-centered energy path sometime soon…and so on.
But these are not discussions that can happen when one side is made up of inmates determined to burn down their asylum.
I’m not going to scream at the Democrats for perceived weakness, nor for a propensity to bargain badly. We do not as a rule view damaging America in the pursuit of political advantage to be acceptable. That leaves us vulnerable every time the GOP cozies up to barrel of dynamite, smoldering cigar in hand.
Even so, I do think that every political move from now to 2012 and beyond has to be considered in terms of how well it frames the GOP as an irreparably shattered institution.
There’s nothing left to save in the party of Lincoln. Whatever we can do to help them go the way of the Whigs, we must…
*The enormous increase in debt under Reagan, marks the point when we first were confronted with the great tax cut lie — what I think of as that huge steaming pile of that which emerges from the south end of a north facing horse captured beneath the Laffer Curve. Reagan inherited a debt level of 32.5% of GDP from President Carter. His tax cuts and profligate spending left us owing 53.1% of GDP at the end of his second term, and the Bush extension pushed that total to 66.1%. Bill Clinton’s combination of tax increases and constraint on the rate of government growth (and, for the most part, a policy of minimal military recklessness) enabled him to leave office having pushed the debt back down to 56.4% — which model of prudent, small “c” fiscal conservatism was so wholly abandoned by Bush the Minimal that he left office having blown the debt up to unprecedented heights: 83.4%.
To sum up: both parties have certainly played a role in the expansion of US national debt — after all, Democrats controlled one or both houses of Congress throughout the Reagan-Bush years. But as far as presidents go, it’s all GOP since 1980…all except that spending undertaken in the last two years to dig out from the financial crater left by the utter failure of Republican governance. So whilst I give props to the Times for highlighting the minimal contribution to the debt driven by Obama policy choices, they are a little too fair and balanced on the rest of it for my taste.
Image: Henry Holiday, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carrol, Fit the Seventh: The Banker’s Fate, first published 1876.
Hieronymous Bosch, Extraction of the Stone of Folly, (detail) before 1516.