The Debt Ceiling and Our Urge to Destroy Ourselves

As a kid growing up on the Gulf Coast the annual hurricane watch was a terrifying treat.  We were supposed to want the big storms to miss us, but we were disappointed when they did.  The old-timers told us stories about Carla that were meant to be frightening, but everybody’s quiet desire was to see one up close.

Even as an adult that thrill never quite faded.  The excitement of once again seeing an eye wall somehow drowns out the miserable memory of four or five days cleaning up debris in blazing heat with no air conditioning.

We are beginning to understand that human “rationality” is a far more complex idea than we once thought.  As a core in Congress threaten to blow up 150 years of American commercial dominance to make a point, it’s worth taking a closer look at the ways our personal emotional interests sometimes trump good sense.

First it’s important to understand how little pleasure we derive from happy circumstances.  How often do you wake up in the morning and feel a thrill from the fact that you aren’t nauseous?  Do you ever get a rush of pleasure from the realization that none of your bones are broken?  Our brains only receive the dopamine rush they crave from exceptional circumstances.  Any good thing, prolonged over time, ceases to excite us.  That helps explain why a spoiled child is so miserable.

We have to consciously train ourselves to appreciate steady good fortune.  It’s not bred in.  The benefits of being a wealthy, powerful society go unnoticed unless they are interrupted.  The fact that freedom, sound policy, and relative peace have bred developments in technology that have made us all effectively rich over the past fifty years counts absolutely nothing to our happiness tomorrow morning.  We are willing to toss it all in the can for the thrill of a storm.

But what about the harm that would result?  We have little ability to appropriately weigh harm that would be collectively shared, or is abstract.  Think about me as a kid looking at a potential hurricane.

I knew I had a very low risk of personal harm.  I got to stay up late and sleep on mattresses in the hallway.  School was out the day before and for God only knows how long after.  I didn’t have to write any checks or contribute any meaningful work to the cleanup.  And the misery of life after the storm?  Memory fades.  The billions of dollars in losses and physical risks some would face?  Too abstract to register.  A hurricane was an exciting party.

Psychologists call this “rational irrationality.”  It can be individually “rational” to engage in collectively destructive behavior if the pleasure we derive outweighs the pain of questioning cherished assumptions or the effort of serious thought.  The collective damage that results is too abstract to appreciate while the excitement of a potential cataclysm is hard to resist.

And since our politics has mostly devolved into entertainment it’s tough to get reasonable, technical leadership.  Barring a tangible threat like that posed by the Soviets, there is little to impose sound reasoning beyond having a mature political culture – something we don’t seem to possess anymore.   Competent people who perhaps make solid decisions in their personal lives are insisting on insanity from their public officials.  They are getting it.

You can see this kind of thinking in the arguments over the TARP.  Its most heated opponents seldom talk about how we should have structured it differently.  They don’t point to the Swedish or Icelandic models for dealing with a banking collapse.  They don’t argue for changes in regulation that would prevent those institutions from holding capitalism hostage.

They are angry that something was done and they want to make sure nothing can ever be done to stop such a collapse again.  In effect, they wanted to watch something burn and they are determined to get their wish.

If they don’t see a catastrophe result from this deficit ceiling standoff they are going to get it somewhere else and they are going to punish anyone who dares to participate in a solution.  And if the country as a whole finally grows up and denies them political power, they are going to make something exciting happen through other means.

That’s why they are unwilling to negotiate, unwilling to accept historic compromises that would accomplish what conservatives have dreamed of for decades, unwilling to settle for anything but collapse.  A rational approach would take this fight to the budget process starting in the fall.  That’s where Congress makes its decisions about what the country is going to collect, spend, and borrow for a coming year.  The consequences of an impasse would be a temporary government shutdown, not a default and a shock of uncertain magnitude to the global financial system.

And of course, this same Congress approved last spring the spending that made this hike in the debt ceiling necessary.  Basically, they wrote checks that they now refuse to honor and they don’t want to cope with the frustrating challenge of building a sensible budget through the normal process.  Where’s the storm in that?

The experience of watching a lunatic political block demonstrate how little they care about the country’s survival might sober us up.  A psychological disposition toward entertainment is not necessarily a destiny.  We can do better in our public choices just like most of us do in our private lives.  Jonah Lehrer in his book How We Decide suggests a mature approach, “Embrace uncertainty. Hard problems rarely have easy solutions.”  But everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the future belongs more to the Bachmanns and Kuciniches, not to the sober technocrats like Romney on either side.

Ambiguity is no fun.

It is possible to have a sensible political culture, but only if we decide to get our entertainment elsewhere.  In the meantime, might as well board up the windows and hoard batteries.  Whether it’s the debt ceiling or something else, looks like a storm coming.

About Chris Ladd

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.
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21 Responses to The Debt Ceiling and Our Urge to Destroy Ourselves

  1. dedc79 says:

    I tend to think the current disaster-in-the-making is built on a pretty simple misunderstanding. The tea party caucus of the house has become emboldened by their ability to pass legislation in the House and block legislation they don’t like. That has all been well and good because the house keeps passing laws that die in the senate. This debt ceiling debate is the first conflict where simple inaction is in and of itself a disaster. The Tea Party’s sense of itself, that it is the mouthpiece of America, is coming up against the fact that they at best control a single house of Congress, so they continue to insist on passing legislation that has no chance of becoming law. They also realize (even in all their lunacy) that this is the most leverage they are ever likely to have unless/until they take the White House. They mistake this power, which is considerable, for control, which they still do not have.

  2. Vern R. Kaine says:

    Great post! I hold a belief that 90% of the population ultimately wants to be dependent, wants to be cared for, and wants to be saved, but since this also comes with a lower sense of self-worth they prop that up with bitching about politics, the economy, “evil” banks and credit card companies, etc.. They get “off” more on misery than they do happiness, because they see misery as more certain and therefore, more real.

    If I understand your post correctly, this is why they talk like they want to do everything to avoid a hurricane yet want, as you say, to see one up close. They say, “Never again!” to the financial collapse and yet they do nothing to really help prevent the next one. if people are so worried/concerned/angry/etc. about their own personal finances or our country’s finances, then I’m very surprised to see the large numbers of average, everyday people flying in to Vegas to gamble, eat, and shop daily that I do.

    Politics, it seems, is just more entertainment. It’s boxing or the classic war movie watching the punches and bombs thrown by the different parties. It’s “The Real Housewives” watching a bunch of politicians with serious entitlement issues (enter Nancy Pelosi) spending more than they have or should be. It’s the classic “feel good” movie where no matter what hardship happens in the middle, some superhero comes in to save the day in the end.

    Again, if I understand your post correctly I agree with your conclusion:that it is possible to have a sensible political culture, but only if we decide to get our entertainment elsewhere. Right now, however, I believe the majority of us are glued to the drama rather than the ultimate outcome.

  3. I agree very much about the porblems of “politics as entertainment”– wrote about it earlier today, in fact. But I believe you are engaging in false equivalence when you write: “everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the future belongs more to the Bachmanns and Kuciniches, not to the sober technocrats like Romney on either side.”

    This is true about the GOP, but not the Democrats. Pres. Obama is a cautious, empiricist, sober technocrat. You didn’t see Nancy Pelosi turning the debt ceiling into an opportunity for a hostage crisis (to end, say, the occupation of Iraq, or the Bush revenue reductions, even though both were unpopular).

    Under the Reid plan, we get $2.7 trillion in cuts (one can reasonably take issue with the headline number, but it’s substantial) with zero in the way of revenue increases. It’s a huge compromise by the Democrats– especially when you consider what the GOP deserves in policy concessions for holding America’s financial credibility hostage: nothing.

    But the compromise-happy Democrats are giving them a policy victory anyway.

    And the GOP is refusing to take it.

    Because they’re 70-95 percent insane.

    The technocratic Mitt Romney was killed off somewhere around version 2.8 (not the 1.0 who ran to the left of Ted Kennedy on many issues, nor the 2.0 who served as a technocratic governor of Mass., but in the update around 2006 when he decided he hated the state he was governing and should change all his positions to appeal to the GOP base). He may well in his heart of hearts be a technocrat, but he’s trying his best to act like a crazy person in order to pander to the crazy people who constitute GOP voters.

    His position on the debt ceiling is 100% identical to the childish tripe that Boehner’s desperately trying to load up his bill with right now: “The answer for the country is for the president to agree to cut federal spending, to cap federal spending,and to put in place a balanced budget amendment.”

    The Democrats are a cautious, centrist party. The Republicans are extremist, to the extent they can be said to have policy views.

    • “The Democrats are a cautious, centrist party.”

      You obviously live nowhere near San Francisco. Sometimes I feel like the protagonists in the Movie, Red Dawn – the old version. 😉

      If you think Nancy Pelosi is rational, I have a bridge I want to sell you.

      • I’m perfectly willing to entertain the idea that some Democrats on local councils in CA are extreme. But they have little impact on the centrist national Democratic party & its leaders like Pres. Obama.

        Do you have any examples of policies Rep. Pelosi has supported that contribute to this view of her “irrationality”? In the direct comparable position to today’s GOP– Speaker in a position to embarrass the president– she never pulled anything remotely as dangerous as the insane Republican Party is pulling right now.

        • She thinks natural gas is not a fossil fuel for one. She made the current President look like a fool by ignoring his own pledge for no earmarks by presenting him with a pork-laden stimulus bill. She lied about the information she knew prior to the Iraq invasion and shamelessly tried to pin it on the CIA. She constantly engaged in defeatist language during the course of the Iraq War, which put soldiers’ lives at risk. She steamrolled Obamacare through Congress, which does little to contain costs. I can find a lot more examples, but I haven’t started searching yet.

          Pelosi is one of the most skilled politicians in Congress, but she is also one of the dumbest.

        • “She steamrolled Obamacare through Congress, which does little to contain costs.”

          Well, that is false:

          “She made the current President look like a fool by ignoring his own pledge for no earmarks by presenting him with a pork-laden stimulus bill.”

          I don’t think that actually happened.

          “She lied about the information she knew prior to the Iraq invasion and shamelessly tried to pin it on the CIA.”

          Last I heard, that one was still up for debate: But I haven’t heard much about it lately, so maybe that’s true.

          “She constantly engaged in defeatist language during the course of the Iraq War, which put soldiers’ lives at risk.”

          That’s silly. It’s the fault of the folks who invaded Iraq for no reason– George Bush & the GOP, with a ton of acquiescence from the catastrophically centrist Democratic Party– that soldiers died there, not the people who didn’t want to see our soldiers die for no reason.

        • Anyway, aside from my currently-awaiting-moderation comment on your personal dislike of Rep. Pelosi, all reasonable people of good faith can agree, in light of the debt ceiling hostage crisis– and the behavior of folks like Mitt Romney– that the GOP is insane from top to bottom, whereas the Democrats are all too eager to engage in compromise.

          • I don’t think either party is insane from top to bottom. However, I think the insane elements control both parties.

            The problem is that there are few centrists on either side. And, no, I do not think Obama is a centrist, anymore then you might think President Bush was a centrist, particularly after Obama spent most of his political capital going after healthcare when the most pressing issue was the economy.

        • Reflectionephemeral,

          All this back and forth about Pelosi inspired me to write a quick little ditty for you.

          Stay tuned.

      • Scott Erb says:

        Ah, but your complaints against Pelosi are that she’s very effective at getting things done that you don’t like. You can’t get health care past and rise to Speaker of the House if you’re not rational and can’t manage coalitions. Anyone who gets to that position is always going to infuriate the “other side.” I don’t think Pelosi would have every put herself in the position Boehner did this week.

        I also don’t really think one should complain about “defeatist language” from politicians in a democracy. As one who also thought Iraq was a disaster from the start, I think it’s important that those who think the war not only wrong but also one that damages the US and is unnecessary has a moral obligation to speak out. Pelosi’s (and any leader’s) obligation is to the United States people, to try to get the right policy. I also can’t see how comments made by a politician can put soldiers’ lives at risk. Enemies don’t care what Pelosi says, they probably don’t even know who she is. The soldiers are professional enough to do their jobs. I think that claim is a bit off base.

        • Scott,

          The time for speaking out is before, not during a war. Congress overwhelmingly voted for action in Iraq, Democrats included. When things started looking difficult, many Democrats abandoned the effort and starting blaming Bush and calling servicemen and women “war criminals.” Ted Kennedy was a perfect example. Furthermore, Democrats used the war as a wedge issue to win Congressional elections in 2006 and the Presidential election in 2008. While I had friends fighting and dying, many Democrats were calling them war criminals. I will always resent this until the day I die.

          Competent enemies follow domestic politics very closely. Al Qaeda and insurgents never bested American forces on the field of battle. Kill ratios have been as high as 30 to 1, yet the military never publishes them because of the stigma of Vietnam body counts. Where al Qaeda has the most pull is in its psychological warfare operations. The sheer shrillness and self-righteousness of many Democratic politicians during the period were not helpful for the American military.

          I don’t disagree that Pelosi was effective. She was. But being a good politician does not equate with being intelligent. It has more to do with deceit and sheer ruthlessness.

  4. Alan Scott says:


    ” Under the Reid plan, we get $2.7 trillion in cuts (one can reasonably take issue with the headline number, but it’s substantial) with zero in the way of revenue increases. It’s a huge compromise by the Democrats– ”

    Listening to people I believe, that $ 2.7 trillion is a lie . It is actually zero . Everyone in Congress knows it . Harry Reid jacks up the assumptions on spending like the Afghan surge , then counts the savings when it doesn’t happen . This is why Tea Party members will not compromise with Reid . You guys put out Democratic Party talking points and never check your facts . If Senator Reid and President Obama ever begin to tell the truth and offer real cuts, we will compromise . No problem .

    • Scott Erb says:

      All you can with is what the CBO says about either plan. Alan, to simply declare the other side “liars” with no evidence and use that as excuse not to compromise is not rational, and it prevents real efforts to compromise. No side can ram their agenda through. The President has to oppose the Boehner plan because he cannot allow one group in the House to hold the economy hostage to get passed what otherwise would not pass. For once both sides agree that deficits need to be cut. Give them a chance to do it. Compromise is the only way that such cuts can happen, and you can’t compromise if you just dismiss the other side as liars from the start!

  5. Scott Erb says:

    Yikes, I think both Obama and Bush were centrists. Bush’s spending is running up the deficit more than Obama’s after all (Obama’s spending was one time stimulus for the most part, Bush’s wars and programs like the pharmaceutical drug program keep costing). But overall I think Bush gets a bad rap. He was wrong on Iraq and that cost him and his party dearly. But he adjusted his goals in Iraq in 2007 and salvaged at least a face saving end. He was adamant that Islam is a religion of peace, he tried to work with Democrats when possible — and frankly by 2008 I found myself starting to think he’d grown into the job rather well.

    The meme of Obama and Bush as extremists is created by the “other side” in each case, designed as a rhetorical device. It cannot be maintained if you look at their actions. The people most angry with Obama now come from the left wing of the Democratic party. They think he’s let the Republicans take advantage of him in earlier deals, and that he’s too eager to compromise. His admission that we need entitlement reform (meaning cuts) has a number of people on the left furious. Yes, he passed a stimulus in 2009 – but I daresay that’s not economic extremism, to pass a stimulus in a deep recession. The Democrats were unfair to Bush, the Republicans are unfair to Obama. I can see turnabout as fair play, but our country needs to break that cycle.

  6. Scott Erb says:

    I don’t think the time to speak out is before the war. If you think the war is wrong, you speak out during it. I’m shaped in part by my study of Germany. That argument was made against Germans who opposed WWII — and it was effective. How can you speak against the fatherland when we’re at war, when the allies want to destroy Germany? Watch the movie “The Final Days of Sophie Scholl” (German language with subtitles). The same arguments — demoralizing the troops, not supporting the country….No, I’m not comparing the US to Nazi Germany only going on the principle — if you believe a war is wrong and misguided, you have to speak out against it, even after the decision has been made.

    • Scott, that’s fair.

      I am more upset with the sheer alacrity and blood-curdling glee at which people opposed it.

      It really upset me.

      • Scott Erb says:

        Yes, I agree there. I know people in Veterans for Peace who were so angry and emotionally upset about the war that they engaged in intense protest. I could understand them, but it certainly wasn’t glee that drove them. Many felt that the US was making another mistake like one that so changed and sometimes damaged their lives.

        My own opposition was based in political science. I was teaching American Foreign Policy at the time, and our class was split between pro- and anti-war factions. I was proud of that class, we had good discussions, disagreements remained civil, the class wasn’t afraid to disagree with me, and stayed on topic. My disagreement with the war was based on poli-sci theories: From a realist perspective the US was engaged in trying to change the status quo and alter the balance of power in a way that was dangerous, would lead others to ally against us, and would over-extend our resources ultimately weakening us. From a Comparative Politics perspective we learn that democracies are very difficult to create, and must rest on a foundation of a political culture that can support them. The idea that Iraq could quickly and successfully become a democracy seemed very naive. I never went to any protests or anything — I don’t like protests. I also understood the allure of the neo-conservative vision of the US using its power to reshape the mideast to become market democracies.

        • Scott,

          I was talking specifically about politicians.

          I would agree that the war made little sense via comparative politics, but believe it did make sense from a realist perspective. The long and short of it is that after 9/11 it became untenable for the US to have permanent bases in Saudi Arabia without putting the Saudi royal familily’s hold on power at risk. However, the US still needed a presence in the region to ensure oil supply stability. Add our belief that Saddam was producing weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam’s 16 UN violations and you had a compelling reason to invade. The other problem is that no one can prove a counterfactual – i.e., what would have happened had we not invaded?

  7. There does seem to be a desire for suffering on some one’s part. This is a great post.

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