Debt-ceil­ing chicken

The Covington News - - Opinion - THOMAS SOW­ELL Thomas Sow­ell is a se­nior fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, Stan­ford Univer­sity, Stan­ford, CA 94305. His web­site is www. tsow­

The big news, as far as the me­dia are con­cerned, is the po­lit­i­cal game of debt-ceil­ing chicken that is be­ing played by Democrats and Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton. But, how­ever much the me­dia are fo­cused on what is hap­pen­ing in­side the Belt­way, there is a whole coun­try out­side the Belt­way — and the time is long over­due to start think­ing about what is best for the rest of the coun­try, not just for right now but for the long haul.

How­ever the cur­rent debt-ceil­ing cri­sis turns out, the cur­rent eco­nomic tur­moil in fi­nan­cial mar­kets around the world should cause some se­ri­ous thoughts about the long run, and about the whole idea of a na­tional debt-ceil­ing.

Some peo­ple may have been shocked when the credit-rat­ing firm Moody's re­cently sug­gested that the debt-ceil­ing law be re­pealed, in or­der to avoid fis­cal crises which can throw world fi­nan­cial mar­kets into tur­moil that can in­jure coun­tries around the world.

Any­one who wants to show that Moody’s is wrong should be pre­pared to show the ac­tual ben­e­fits of the debt-ceil­ing, not its goals or hopes. That will not be easy, if pos­si­ble at all.

Too many poli­cies, pro­grams and in­sti­tu­tions are judged by what they are sup­posed to do, rather than by what they ac­tu­ally do and the con­se­quences of their ac­tions. The United Na­tions, for ex­am­ple, sur­vives as a glo­ri­ous idea, de­spite how cor­rupt, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and even dan­ger­ous its ac­tions are.

The na­tional debt-ceil­ing law should be judged by what it ac­tu­ally does, not by how good an idea it seems to be. The one thing that the na­tional debt-ceil­ing has never done is to put a ceil­ing on the ris­ing na­tional debt. Time and time again, for years on end, the na­tional debt-ceil­ing has been raised when­ever the na­tional debt gets near what­ever the cur­rent ceil­ing might be.

Re­gard­less of what it is sup­posed to do, what the na­tional debt-ceil­ing ac­tu­ally does is en­able any ad­min­is­tra­tion to get all the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits of run­away spend­ing for the ben­e­fit of their fa­vorite con­stituen­cies — and then in­vite the op­po­si­tion party to share the blame by ei­ther rais­ing the na­tional debt ceil­ing or by vot­ing for un­pop­u­lar cut­backs in spend­ing or in­creases in taxes.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is a clas­sic ex­am­ple. When all its sky­rock­et­ing spend­ing bills were be­ing rushed through Congress with­out even be­ing read, the Democrats had such over­whelm­ing ma­jori­ties in both the Se­nate and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives that Repub­li­cans had all they could do to get a word in edge­wise — even though their words had no chance of stop­ping, or even slow­ing down, the spend­ing of tril­lions of dol­lars.

Now that the bill is com­ing due for all that spend­ing and bor­row­ing, Repub­li­cans are sud­denly be­ing in­vited in to share the blame for ei­ther rais­ing the na­tional debt ceil­ing or for what­ever other un­pop­u­lar mea­sures will be leg­is­lated.

Many years ago, some­one said, “If you didn’t in­vite me to the big take­off, don’t in­vite me to the crash land­ing.” This was Obama’s big spend­ing spree, but “bi­par­ti­san­ship” re­quires Repub­li­cans to ei­ther split the bill or be blamed if the gov­ern­ment shuts down or de­faults.

What would hap­pen if there were no na­tional debt-ceil­ing law?

Those who got the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits from hand­ing out tril­lions of dol­lars of the tax­pay­ers’ money (plus bor­rowed money) would also get the clear and sole blame for the re­sult­ing sky­rock­et­ing na­tional debt and all the un­pop­u­lar con­se­quences.

Those peo­ple who want se­ri­ous and sub­stan­tial spend­ing cuts are ab­so­lutely right in what they want. There are not only gov­ern­ment pro­grams that need to be cut but whole gov­ern­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing Cab­i­netlevel de­part­ments, that are not merely use­less but pos­i­tively harm­ful on net bal­ance.

There are a lot of things that could be cut, and should be cut, in­stead of de­fault­ing on the nation’s debts. But that is not likely to hap­pen, if Obama and his me­dia cho­rus can in­stead blame the Repub­li­cans for forc­ing a gov­ern­ment shut­down or a credit de­fault.

Re­gard­less of how the cur­rent cri­sis is re­solved, Moody’s sug­ges­tion of re­peal­ing the na­tional debt­ceil­ing law de­serves some very se­ri­ous thought, be­cause that law is the cru­cial fac­tor in the po­lit­i­cal games that al­low big spenders to blame oth­ers for the con­se­quences of their own ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Those who say that the reck­less spend­ing and reck­less bor­row­ing of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion are the roads to ruin are ab­so­lutely right.

Too many poli­cies and in­sti­tu­tions are judged by what they are sup­posed to do, rather than by what they ac­tu­ally do.

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