Debt Limit Chicken–And Worse

July 27, 2011.  It is now less than a week until the United States of America tells the people who have loaned money to us that we were, after all, a bad risk.  The debt limit confrontation has been pictured as a game of chicken between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner, the only presiding official in the Congress who opposes him.  Sen. McConnell will have to wait his turn.

So…a game of chicken.  We drive our cars toward each other at high speeds.  In the best outcome, you flinch and turn aside and I win.  In the second best outcome, I flinch and you win.  In the least good outcome, neither of us turns and we kill each other.  But now that I have gone that far, I realize that there is an outcome even worse.  We both flinch and turn into each other (that would be to the right for you and to the left for me—how very familiar that sounds!) and reveal ourselves not only as cowards but as incompetent cowards.  That would be worse.

I’m not sure that chicken captures all the elements of this contest, however, so I would like to try several others.  How about Russian Roulette?  You spin the cylinder, put the gun to your head, and pull the trigger.  You have five chances out of six of surviving—if you do it one time.  If you do it over and over—I’m not at all good at calculating cumulative probabilities—the odds get worse.[1] 

So let’s consider the roulette elements of the present situation.  President Obama can’t control the Democratic votes he needs to pass the compromise he prefers.  Speaker Boehner can’t control the Republican votes he needs to pass the compromise he prefers, which, until recently, was the same one the President preferred.  The two parties are highly ideological.  Votes which pitted 80% of Democrats voting one way against 80% of Republicans voting the other way were once unusual; now they are the commonest kind of vote.  The new Tea Party-backed Republican House members believe they owe intransigence to their constituents—it is their sworn duty—and that intransigence has now been turned against the leader of their own party.  This has led Eric Cantor, the Number 2 man in the House to tell them to “Grow up,” a sentiment also found on the lips of the President.  How awkward is that?

This is highly unstable.  Now we approach this brink over and over.  The probability of hitting the live chamber, by this analogy, goes up radically as you do it over and over.  Eventually, you will hit the live chamber—that would be the House in the present scenario—and you blow your brains out. Actually, that might have happened in the 2010 elections; it’s still too soon to tell.

The third scenario, one which captures yet another aspect of this impending disaster, is a champion battle.  I’m thinking of David and Goliath as an example.  I’m not really sure, now that I think of it, what was supposed to happen to the army of the defeated contestant.  Were they supposed to be massacred?  To be slaves?  To be put in internment camps?  I really don’t know.  But it doesn’t really matter, because the notion of “champion” is all I need.  Theoretically, if David wins, it is good news for the Israelites.  If Goliath wins, it is good news for the Philistines.  But fiscal default isn’t really like that.  If we default, both David and Goliath lose.  And all the people David and Goliath represent also lose.  All of us are killed or enslaved or put in camps, or whatever.  The cost to anyone of borrowing money for anything will go up, for instance.  You don’t need to be on the losing side to suffer this defeat because both sides are the losing sides—not just the champions but the armies and not just the armies but the civilian populations. Everyone—litigators, bundlers of financial instruments[2] and off-shore hiders of revenue and Chainsaw Al personnel departments—loses.

These three images together give us a fuller picture, I think, of what we’re up against.  This account sounds crude and contemporary to my ears, however.  This is how Lincoln put it.

“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”


[1] Your chance of living through 10 rounds of Russian Roulette is, by my naïve calculation, .161 so you’d be fine nearly 200 times out of 1000 tries.  Pretty good.

[2] This shows how far we have fallen.  Bundling was common among the Puritans of  New England and you never heard of anyone getting in trouble for it.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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