Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Economic Equivalent of the Civil War?

I made the mistake of watching some cable news while eating lunch today, and heard Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), member of the House Tea Party Caucus, say that not only will he refuse to vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, he thinks Congress should lower it.  Andrea Mitchell was dumbstruck, and like a teacher with an amazingly dense six year old student, tried to explain to him that raising the debt ceiling was necessary to account for spending already appropriated by Congress. Broun was unmoved by this appeal to reality.

Broun seems either unaware or unconcerned that his position would require an immediate cut of about 40% in government spending. And since things like interest on the debt cannot be cut, it would really mean a larger cut on the rest of government spending. Does Broun want an immediate 40+% cut in defense spending? No? Then we have to cut even more from everything else.  Next week.

Tea Party activists gather on Capitol Hill for a 'Hold the Line' rally, June 27, 2011 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
You could not find a single economist in the country, no matter how conservative, who would tell you such a massive and instant cut in government spending would do anything but plunge the U.S. into another Great Depression in a matter of months, if not weeks.

But Broun does not seem to care. In his world, all that matters is paying down the debt. Everything else will just work itself out. He lives in a fantasy land of ideology, where facts can be made to conform with beliefs.

Broun and other reality-denying Republicans like presidential candidate Michele Bachmann insist that the debt ceiling should not be raised. Period. They are on the verge of causing a financial cataclysm.  Speaker John Boehner may not be able to pass debt ceiling his bill through the Republican-controlled House tomorrow because of them.

And it is his own fault.

Last December, in the wake of the November elections, I wrote that the GOP had become John C. Calhoun's party--the party of no compromise, of standing on principle come hell or high water, consequences be damned. I concluded then:
A decade later, Calhoun's irresponsible mindset would lead to the Civil War. Today's Republicans will not, one must hope, produce any calamity on such a dramatic and grand scale. But they embody the same narrow, anti-majoritarian, self-destructive approach to politics that the senator from South Carolina did. And the results of that will not be pretty.
Well, it has now gotten ugly. It may not be the economic equivalent of the Civil War, but it's close enough.

I noted then that Boehner had adopted the "no compromise" rhetoric of the Tea Party in his "60 Minutes" interview. That was the first sign that he would attempt to appease and co-opt rather than lead the Tea Party caucus.

Then in February on "Meet the Press," when confronted with the birther nonsense so prevalent among Republicans, he said:
It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.... the American people have the right to think what they want to think.
No, it isn't the job of a leader to "tell the American people what to think." But it IS the job of a leader to educate people about the difference between the truth and a lie. Boehner treated the question of Obama's citizenship as a mere matter of opinion. I don't believe it, he said, but it's OK if other people do. No, it isn't. Not when we are talking about matters of fact and not of opinion.

And that bring us to where we are today. Boehner's caucus is filled with people so economically ignorant that they really don't think we need to increase the debt ceiling, that we can let it go by, only pay some bills, and thereby, by default, balance the budget now. Boehner knows that this is not true, and he has said so.

But he has spent the last 8 months appeasing the Tea Party know-nothings. He has treated matters of fact as matters of opinion. He has played their game, and now that it is coming down to the wire, he cannot suddenly get them to see reality. Today a Tea Party leader called for Boehner to be replaced as Speaker for not reducing spending right now.

Boehner will have a choice over the next few days. He can either continue to bow to the Tea Party radicals who have no sense of economic reality, or he can make common cause with Democrats and pass a bill that gets us beyond this manufactured crisis and thereby incur Tea Party wrath. He can be John C. Calhoun and go down in flames, or he can be Henry Clay and put the good of the nation first, ahead of party unity and personal ambition.

I hope he chooses the latter, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.


  1. Mark, maybe the federal system just doesn't work any longer. I'm reading this Gordon Wood book collection of essays, each featuring one founder or another, and I'm struck at how (perhaps excluding Washington) each founder seems to have some ambivalence abou the permanence of the central government they had worked to set up. So I guess I'm saying, if the founders didn't take a federal system as a permanent given, shouldn't it be okay to think about the pros and cons of disbanding it? Maybe it's just not a good structure at the current scale (like trying to make Europe work as a federation).

  2. I was just reading a review of that book yesterday and thinking I need to pick it up. (Also, Wood is coming to Wofford to give a talk this year, so I hope to get to meet him.)

    Certainly they were aware that they were not necessarily getting everything right the first time. They understood what they were doing as an experiment. They were, after all, products of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. The amendment process being in the Constitution is itself an admission that they knew they didn't get it all right. And then they made 12 changes to it in less than 15 years.

    What is your case for the kind of changes we should be considering?