Against Raising the Debt Ceiling: What are they thinking?

Now that the crisis regarding chemical weapons has been resolved in Syria, for the moment at least, let’s turn our attention to what many see as a potential crisis here at home, a failure of Congress to agree to raise the debt ceiling.

English: Chart of the United States' debt ceil...

English: Chart of the United States’ debt ceiling from 1981 to 2010 in $ trillion. Click chart to enlarge.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have witnessed these struggles before and eventually the debt ceiling was raised in each case, but in 2011 the dysfunction prompted a lowering of our credit rating and a tumble in the stock market before an agreement was reached.

This year a Republican minority of Tea Party hardliners appear willing to take the issue to the limit. Ted Cruz and a few others in the Senate and more in the House appear to think either Obama will blink or they are willing to chance whatever disruptions in the world economy that a failure to raise the debt ceiling might prompt.

The conventional wisdom is that by hook or by crook the debt ceiling will be raised “Because they have no real choice if they want to avoid a U.S. default. A default would hurt the economy and markets, and most lawmakers know this. That’s why they regularly raise the debt ceiling before it comes to that.”(CNN Money)

However, judging from a  a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 44% of Americans are against raising the debt ceiling.   That statistic startled me and was enough to drive Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart  “nuts.”  his argument being that the 44% should have responded “I don’t know – because then they’d be telling the truth.”

What Capehart doesn’t acknowledge is that most of these people are sure they do know.  What disturbs me is that the Tea Party types seem to be voicing the anger and frustration of many Americans who are looking for a simple answer to our complex problems.  That simple answer is to cut government spending.

The simplicity of that “solution” makes it very powerful.  Positive plans tend to be complex which give rise to disagreements (Obamacare being a maximum example) which undermines action.  But lots of people can coalesce around “just say no” and if that poll can be believed, that is what is happening now.

If one argues that the debt ceiling being raised simply allows the federal government to pay bills it has already accrued, that it isn’t raising government spending, T. P. types might counter:   Yes, but how are we ever going to get spending under control unless we can turn around the trend and here is where we are going to dig in to do it.

And if told:  “Any default on the nation’s debts could be calamitous for the U.S. economy.  A default would rock Wall Street and hurt businesses and families by fueling a sharp increase in interest rates.”(Reuters).  They simply don’t seem to believe it.   Or, at least they believe that Obama would not let that happen.  It is like a game of chicken for them.   And their idea of guts is to not blink first.

If one points out that since 1940, Congress has effectively approved 79 increases to the debt ceiling, the reaction would be, well, that’s been the problem all a long.   If they hadn’t done that we wouldn’t be facing our current problems.

That the federal government has always functioned with a deficit from its inception, but our economy has continued to expand despite periodic set backs suggesting our key problem now is an economy that is barely growing and not the debt we have at the moment…  well, this starts sounding too egg heady for most Tea Party types, and wasn’t it the eggheads in government and Wall Street, the supposedly really smart people, who got us into this Great Recession to begin with?

So, you can see the line of thinking here.   And, according to that one poll, it seems to be gaining momentum. (*1)  It all reminds me of something H. L. Mencken once wrote, which I’ll paraphrase as:   For every complex problem there is a simple solution.  And it’s wrong.

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(*1) There are other polls which seem to contradict this one, which is not surprising since polls use different wordings or different questions altogtether.  As Huff Post describes one:   “Despite the lack of support for increasing the debt limit, a CNN/ORC poll released earlier this week found that 62 percent of Americans said failing to do so would cause a “crisis” or “major problems.”

So, if 62% of Americans see failing to raise the debt ceiling would produce major problems or worse, how many of the 44% who don’t want to raise the ceiling accept major problems as the cost of bringing the government to heel?  Your guess is as good as mine.

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