Apr 23 JDN 2460058
I thought we had put this behind us. I guess I didn’t think the Republicans would stop using the tactic once they saw it worked, but I had hoped that the Democrats would come up with a better permanent solution so that it couldn’t be used again. But they did not, and here we are again: Republicans are refusing to raise the debt ceiling, we have now hit that ceiling, and we are running out of time before we have to start shutting down services or defaulting on debt. There are talks ongoing that may yet get the ceiling raised in time, but we’re now cutting it very close. Already the risk that we might default or do something crazy is causing turmoil in financial markets.
Because US Treasury bonds are widely regarded as one of the world’s most secure assets, and the US dollar is the most important global reserve currency, the entire world’s financial markets get disrupted every time there is an issue with the US national debt, and the debt ceiling creates such disruptions on the regular for no good reason.
I will try to offer some of my own suggestions for what to do here, but first, I want to make something very clear: The debt ceiling should not exist. I don’t think most people understand just how truly idiotic the entire concept of a debt ceiling is. It seems practically designed to make our government dysfunctional.
This is not like a credit card limit, where your bank imposes a limit on how much you can borrow based on how much they think you are likely to be able to repay. A lot of people have been making that analogy, and I can see why it’s tempting; but as usual, it’s important to remember that government debt is not like personal debt.
As I said some years ago, US government debt is about as close as the world is ever likely to come to a perfect credit market: with no effort at all, borrow as much as you want at low, steady interest rates, and everyone will always be sure that you will pay it back on time. The debt ceiling is a limit imposed by the government itself—it is not imposed by our creditors, who would be more than happy to lend us more.
Also, I’d like to remind you that some of the US national debt is owned by the US government itself (is that really even “debt”?) and most of what’s left is owned by US individuals or corporations—only about a third is owed to foreign powers. Here is a detailed breakdown of who owns US national debt.
There is no reason to put an arbitrary cap on the amount the US government can borrow. The only reason anyone is at all worried about a default on the US national debt is because of this stupid arbitrary cap. If it didn’t exist, they would simply roll over more Treasury bonds to make the payments and everything would run smoothly. And this is normally what happens, when the Republicans aren’t playing ridiculous brinkmanship games.
As it is, they could simply print money to pay it—and at this point, maybe that’s what needs to happen. Mint the Coin already: Mint a $1 trillion platinum coin and deposit it in the Federal Reserve, and there you go, you’ve paid off a chunk of the debt. Sometimes stupid problems require stupid solutions.
Aren’t there reasons to be worried about the government borrowing too much? Yes, a little. The amount of concern most people have about this is wildly disproportionate to the actual problem, but yes, there are legitimate concerns about high national debt resulting in high interest rates and eventually forcing us to raise taxes or cut services. This is a slow-burn, long-term problem that by its very nature would never require a sudden, immediate solution; but it is a genuine concern we should be aware of.
But here’s the thing: That’s a conversation we should be having when we vote on the budget. Whenever we pass a government budget, it already includes detailed projections of tax revenue and spending that yield precise, accurate forecasts of the deficit and the debt. If Republicans are genuinely concerned that we are overspending on certain programs, they should propose budget cuts to those programs and get those cuts passed as part of the budget.
Once a budget is already passed, we have committed to spend that money. It has literally been signed into law that $X will be spend on program Y. At that point, you can’t simply cut the spending. If you think we’re spending too much, you needed to say that before we signed it into law. It’s too late now.
I’m always dubious of analogies between household spending and government spending, but if you really want one, think of it this way: Say your credit card company is offering to raise your credit limit, and you just signed a contract for some home improvements that would force you to run up your credit card past your current limit. Do you call the credit card company and accept the higher limit, or not? If you don’t, why don’t you? And what’s your plan for paying those home contractors? Even if you later decide that the home improvements were a bad idea, you already signed the contract! You can’t just back out!
This is why the debt ceiling is so absurd: It is a self-imposed limit on what you’re allowed to spend after you have already committed to spending it. The only sensible thing to do is to raise the debt ceiling high enough to account for the spending you’ve already committed to—or better yet, eliminate the ceiling entirely.
I think that when they last had a majority in both houses, the Democrats should have voted to make the debt ceiling ludicrously high—say $100 trillion. Then, at least for the foreseeable future, we wouldn’t have to worry about raising it, and could just pass budgets normally like a sane government. But they didn’t do that; they only raised it as much as was strictly necessary, thus giving the Republicans an opening now to refuse to raise it again.
And that is what the debt ceiling actually seems to accomplish: It gives whichever political party is least concerned about the public welfare a lever they can pull to disrupt the entire system whenever they don’t get things the way they want. If you absolutely do not care about the public good—and it’s quite clear at this point that most of the Republican leadership does not—then whenever you don’t get your way, you can throw a tantrum that threatens to destabilize the entire global financial system.
We need to stop playing their game. Do what you have to do to keep things running for now—but then get rid of the damn debt ceiling before they can use it to do even more damage.