US debt ceiling division may be the harbinger of greater crises to come

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
A tellin’ me, I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that
Sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Even before the Summer of Love began, the peerless Buffalo Springfield, as ever ahead of the curve, was singing about its demise. Their ominous, prophetic single of February 1967, For What It’s Worth, was inspired by the previous November’s Sunset Strip riots in Los Angeles between police and local kids over a draconian curfew designed to put an end to the youth scene that was just beginning to flourish. Both the song and the riot were a foretaste of the gaping divisions to come—over Vietnam, Civil Rights, and the generation gap.

As the present government shutdown has metastasized into a crisis about America’s debt ceiling, Stephen Still’s dark narrative has been playing endlessly inside my head. For the social and political divisions that have been revealed over these past few weeks may well be harbingers of greater crises ahead.

With the October 17th deadline inching into view, the date when America—for the first time in its history—will default on its payments if the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling is not raised by Congress, both sides have morphed into sullen teenagers. To sum up: President Obama has said he will only negotiate over other issues when a clean bill raising the debt ceiling is passed, and House Republicans will only pass such a bill if the president agrees in advance to negotiate over other issues. This would be funny if the consequences were not so dire.

The White House thinks it has little immediate incentive to let the Republicans up for air. The most recent poll numbers, published Monday October 7th, make it clear that House Republicans are hated for what they are presently doing (the Washington Post/ABC News poll has them with a negative 46 percent disapproval differential), House Democrats are strongly disliked (negative 16), with the public finding the White House’s shenanigans only distasteful (negative 6). In the hateful shark tank of Washington politics, this constitutes a win for the President.

But he must be very careful. As one American commentator observed over the weekend, ‘Can anyone remember the name of the Speaker of the House in 1929?’ Presidents and not Congress are ultimately held accountable for the economy, however factually unreasonable that is. If the Obama administration really thinks an actual default will help them, they are even farther gone than I fear.

While it is easy (and correct) to blame the political pygmies in both parties, as Churchill rightly observed you get what you deserve in a democracy. And here politics is merely following the American cultural bandwagon. For Washington isn’t doing this to the American people. Truth be told, culturally in 45 of 50 states the American people (despite what they say) like the present state of affairs, to the extent of continuing to vote for one-party governments at the state and local levels.

And as Darwin realized, once self-selection starts it is a very difficult process to stop. People with cosmopolitan, leftish views like living in New York City and San Francisco where they know such points of view are favorably looked upon, just as those who cherish traditional American values like to live in places like Texas and Nebraska.

While this has always been true, intellectual flabbiness—the basic yearning not to be challenged by other views but to instead cocoon oneself in news sources and neighbors who sustain one’s own prejudices—has taken this natural process an unnatural step further. A majority of the country finds itself surrounded by people of very like views, who just cannot understand how the other side can be so incredibly stupid. Why compromise with morons?

So yes, the Goldman Sachs assessment that a default would have immediate costs of 4.2% of GDP matters, as does China’s increasingly exasperated pleas that—as holders of $1.28 trillion of US debt—someone, somewhere better remember that this process is unlikely to result in Beijing being terribly keen to buy more. Certainly this act of political self-immolation would signify a dramatic reversal of fortune, with America transforming itself from leading the global economic recovery to being the primary millstone around the world’s neck.

Far worse, as Buffalo Springfield would recognize, this calamity would represent such a fraying of American society that its future political stability can no longer be complacently assumed by anyone. These are the real stakes of the events of the next few days, and they simply couldn’t be higher.

By Dr. John C. Hulsman, October 10, 2013, City AM

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