Humans are cooking the planet into a nightmare out of a science-fiction movie. Nearly four years after the end of the Great Recession, America faces a permanent unemployment crisis, declining middle class, backward infrastructure and the prospect of years of anemic growth. The rich are more powerful than ever, with a historic share of national wealth; the same is true for the multinational corporations — but the wealth is not trickling down. Amidst these self-inflicted troubles, the Republican-controlled House is refusing to pay bills it has already approved. This is the essence of the debt-ceiling standoff. The House appears willing to flirt with, or even bring on default to get its way.
That way would be major steps to repeal the New Deal, Great Society and the domestic programs of the "Commie Dick" Nixon administration. Especially in their NRA-approved gun sights are Social Security and Medicare.
Such is the hostage-taking before which President Obama always bends. This time he claims he won't...blah, blah, blah. But a powerful block of Congress even discussing default is serious; this political dysfunction helped bring on the credit downgrades in 2011. Enjoy this relative stock rally while you've got it. As the debt-ceiling date draws closer, in February, markets will be turbulent. An actual default, which by its very nature would be disorderly, means worldwide chaos and potential depression. It would take the world's leading economy, and a government whose currency and Treasury bonds are the safest in the world, and flush it down the toilet.
Most Serious People poo-poohed the idea of minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin. Mr. Obama's Treasury says it will neither do that nor invoke the Fourteenth Amendment. It's all on the Republicans, the president seems to be saying. This is a peculiar circular reasoning in dealing with today's GOP and a House with its red-state members in safe seats. What is more fantastical? Minting the coin in an attempt to break the hostage-taking and just carry on the normal activities of government? Or continuing to engage in a rational conversations with fanatics?
It's difficult to find an analogy in American history. The Mexican War, started on Mexican soil by President James Polk, was enormously controversial. The Whigs and John C. Calhoun's Southern Democrats opposed a war for territory. When the war dragged on and the Whigs narrowly won the House, they even tried to put in an early version of the debt ceiling to rein in Polk. By that time it didn't matter. Thanks to the brilliant generalship of Winfield Scott and able junior officers such as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the stars and stripes was flying over Mexico City. But even then, both sides operated from rational thinking. Opponents, in addition to their moral outrage, feared that expanding the nation's territory would raise sectional tensions and preferred to focus on internal improvements of the existing nation ("the American System"). Polk and most slaveholders wanted more land for cotton, America's biggest export by far, and they wanted California.
Only 13 years transpired between this comprehensible division and the start of the Civil War.
Now we're dealing with a party that has been taken over by extremists who don't believe in science, think foreign aid is a huge part of the budget, want to (as Paul Krugman says) repeal the Enlightenment — don't even understand how the federal government works. Most come from net "taker" states and all from states deeply dependent on government spending.
But they are willing to put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk to get their mythical Ayn Rand America. They have successfully focused the national conversation, such as there is one, on "entitlements" — that would be the minimal social safety net into which you and I have paid our entire working lives. Never on our wildly disproportionate "defense" spending, whose chump change included $600 million to train and equip the Malian army that promptly defected to the jihadists (now France is cleaning up the mess). Never corporate welfare, including that for the fossil fuel industries cooking the planet. Never tax rates and loopholes that are outrageously low. Let's hurt the poor and middle class and call it fiscal prudence, conservatism. Our most pressing problem is not the debt or deficit and, as Europe shows, austerity merely chokes growth making the debt worse.
The sense I get from D.C. hands is that the Republicans couldn't possibly do what they say, right down to risking default. But this is coming from rational, well-educated people who have good jobs in media or policy, living in New York or Washington made rich from finance and imperial largess. The oldest of them even remember the rational calculations that kept the United States and Soviet Union from vaporizing each other in the Cold War. They also can't believe the oligarchs wouldn't force the House to "compromise" (although considering how far right the center has shifted, a compromise will still be bad). This even though these extremists came close to the red line in 2011 and were not open to the control of the moneymen.
Most of these reasonable observers and wonks have never faced a crazy person with a gun or knife or baseball bat. I have. I take the Republicans at their word. If Mr. Obama doesn't, we're in big trouble.