What Makes This Debt-Ceiling Debate Different From All Others?

Yes, another blog post about the Debt Ceiling. I will keep it brief, so as to not waste your time (or mine). In fact, I’ve been avoiding saying anything about it, except for a tweet-critique of Obama’s condescending, fallacy-ridden speech earlier this week. That was easy — a warm-up, I guess.

In the last day or so, I’ve been thinking about why we are so involved in this debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. A little bit of reading confirmed what I had suspected was true, based on bits of information I had collected thus far: this debate is similar to those that have been going on for decades. We are being threatened by our President with default, and/or with a failure to issue Social Security checks; we’re being threatened by others with various horrible consequences associated with our level of debt reaching unprecedented heights. Congress wants assurance of significant spending cuts — perhaps even a Balanced Budget Amendment — before agreeing to an increase. Both sides are jockeying for political gain. Etc.

So how is this debate any different, particularly from an Objectivist perspective? Why is it so important to us? I think there are two (related) reasons: First, this is the first time that we have seen Ayn Rand’s ideas explicitly brought into the debate in any significant way. Since we know her ideas are true, and therefore good, we have, for the first time, some real hope that those ideas might win the day and our politicians might do the right thing. Our expectations have been raised. The second reason follows from the first: Because we see that Rand’s ideas are being aired and considered, we might for the first time be faced with the prospect of our politicians choosing to evade the truth, should they decide, this time around, after hearing arguments based on Rand’s ideas, to raise the debt ceiling or increase taxes. As things stood before, we could view our politicians as ignorant. Now, if “business as usual” — i.e., a smoke-and-mirrors calculation of spending cuts, and/or promises of a future “committee” to “investigate” cuts — prevails, we must conclude that our politicians are consciously choosing the wrong — evil — approach.

Or must we? Do enough politicians actually understand Rand’s ideas, such that we can say they are choosing to evade reality if they compromise on the debt-ceiling issue this time around? Or is it still too soon? What do you think?

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14 responses to “What Makes This Debt-Ceiling Debate Different From All Others?

  1. I would have been inclined to level the charge of deliberate evasion and immorality a good bit sooner — at least as it regards certain individuals.

    If I get your question, though, it’s really to ask if things are so clear now that voting to increase the debt ceiling is in itself prima facie evidence of evil and evasion. I don’t think so, at least not yet. This is the first time that Ayn Rand’s ideas may have been brought into the debate in a significant way, but it takes time for someone to come to integrate and understand those ideas objectively. It can’t be expected overnight — a la “Now that you’ve seen the argument, you must either accept it immediately or be branded as immoral.” I think more time and clarity is needed to get there, but exactly how much more is something I’d have to think about.

    • That’s what I’ve been thinking about during bits of free time, for the last day or two. What is the best “compromise” that we can reasonably expect to come out of Washington right now? If Objectivism is sometimes hard to grasp, even for Objectivists, how hard to grasp is it for non-Objectivist politicians (or worse — members of the media)? The last I heard is that some Tea Party members are holding out, and refusing to support Boehner’s plan. That’s great, but it is hard for me to say what the final outcome should be, this time around.

      Obama clearly won’t sign (and the Senate won’t even pass) a plan that meets the Tea Party’s standards. So should they get behind something like Boehner’s plan, just to avoid having Obama take matters into his own hands, which he’s apparently threatened to do? I gather he thinks he can unilaterally raise the debt ceiling because of a clause in the 14th amendment to the effect that the debt of the U.S. must not be called into question. I’d hope that, if he did that, he’d be impeached, but I’m not so sure. It may be too soon…

      • I don’t think that Obama has nearly the leverage in all of this that some are attributing to him. I think the talk about invoking the 14th amendment talk is overblown. If he tries to unilaterally increase the debt ceiling, I think he will be impeached, and the Tea Party will certainly explode in protest. So that’s an empty threat.

        Personally, I’d be happy to see nothing done, and gridlock persist until the administration is forced to capitulate. Once the ceiling is reached it’ll be forced to reduce current expenditures by 44%, and we’ll have a de facto massive cut in government spending. The administration won’t be able to get away with not making payments on the debt or to the military, which for the most part are all that we really need. So doing nothing in my view is a complete win, unless you’re worried about a public relations fallout and think it’ll go against the Republicans.

        Everyone’s afraid of a repeat of 1995, but I think things have changed radically since then and the Democrats will get most of the blame this time instead. At some point they’ll realize that the “Cut, Cap & Balance” deal they were offered is better than a perpetual 44% cut, let the bill come up for a vote in the Senate, and pass it. The only problem with that plan is that it requires courage and rectitude on the part of the Republicans, which isn’t exactly something that we’ve seen a whole lot of in the past.

        • I hope you’re right re: the 14th Amendment “excuse” and whether Obama can use it. As for the public relations issue, I think it depends on whether the culture is still one of compromise-worship. It may not be, in which case the Republicans will be rewarded if they hang tough. Unfortunately the vote count on Boehner’s bill looks dangerously close right now, including some surprise votes in favor of the plan (Allen West and Dana Rohrabacher).

  2. We’re eating our seed corn.

    • But haven’t we been doing this for quite some time? What I wonder is whether enough politicians truly understand the moral premises behind, and consequences of, their policies, such that we can expect a different outcome in this debt-ceiling debate.

  3. The true statemen know that we need to lower taxes, cut spending and de-regulate. This requires policies and programs. I think that that is the road the true tea-party conservatives want to travel.

    • I think you’re right, but my guess is that only a fraction of the Tea Party members (and fewer of the rest of the GOP) understand the moral foundations behind their policy positions. And without that, how long can they hold out before they cave in to pressure? Do they understand the principles behind individual rights enough to effect a solution that will avoid any of the many disasters we’ve been warned about, without compromising those principles? (And can that even be done at this point, given how far down this road we are, and how few Tea Party (and similar) members we have in Congress right now?) It would be great if Tony, above, is right, and we can continue on just fine with a government that is forced to cut 44%. But that may not be consistent with an appropriate phase-out of the various entitlement programs.

      • I agree selfishness and not altruism is the moral base of capitalism. I think this virtue (selfisness) as opposed to latter is the issue not only for political programs and policies but for all human endeavors. And it is here (all human endeavors) I sense an awakening. And
        if not, it needs to be.

  4. James Reinsma

    I don’t they are aware that some of the things they are advocating for originated from Ayn Rand. I think they are merely looking at the practical implications and not the moral–if of course we are speaking about spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment. However, Obama and his leftists argue that we must raise the debt ceiling and tax the rich because it is the *moral* thing to do in order for people to receive their social security checks (of which they take out 3x as much as they put in to SS). This issue is nothing new. The conservatives have no moral justification for their proposals which is why Obama and the left have any leg to stand on. I think most people disregard Ayn Rand saying, “She is too idealistic,” or “Her views are too simplistic.” Though most, if not all, don’t actually know what Rand advocated and they context drop her every time her name is even mentioned. If they do not compromise and the right- good- decision is made I don’t think Rand will be acknowledged; which is unfortunate because then this situation has a very real chance of arising again.

    • But if they do make a good decision, e.g., refuse to raise the debt limit or taxes, and instead make massive cuts in spending, then that could buy us enough time to continue to educate people about the principles behind individual rights. Really, it’s all a race against time now, given how quickly the national debt is piling up. Check out this visualization of the deficit, debt, and unfunded liabilities if you haven’t already (the URL is apt): http://www.wtfnoway.com/

      • James Reinsma

        Oh I don’t disagree that if they make massive cuts in spending that there will be time to educate people. I was answer the general question proposed in the article which was (not verbatim), “Are we going to see an application of Rand’s philosophy by government officials or will reality be ignored?” My argument was: *If* the right/good/moral decision is made (refusal to raise the debt limit, etc) they won’t claim it on moral grounds as Rand would, first and foremost; and because they wouldn’t recognize this, it would leave to door open to fall into the same trap again. Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. reiterated my point (more articulately in my opinion). Yes, lectures and educating people about Rand’s ideas and how they are applicable to this exact situation could be done in the “window” you refer; but without doing that the politicians certainly won’t claim Rand and/or morality as their justification for that correct decision. That’s my long way of saying I agree with you.

  5. Just a brief note before I head off to work, and I haven’t read the rest of the comments,. so I hope I’m not being repetitive. I think it is far too early for us top in our hopes on a few politicians who mention Ayn Rand in passing, as I don’t think they understand the issues (and some are being evasive). I say this because as Obama was giving his moral lecture on the idea that the government has to take care of the lame, the halt, and the blind, and anyone else who wants to be on the public payroll, the Republicans did not give a counter argument about the proper role of government. They seem to be able to see the economic theory in Atlas Shrugged but not the moral theory presented therein. And the debate has to be about the underlying issue of the morality and government interface. If the Republicans continue to capitulate on the moral issue, then the politics of socialism will logically follow, and that is where we are heading. So, until they declare that it is not the proper role of government to support the underprivileged, we will continue to head down the same old road to socialism.

    Besides, on the economic side, the Republicans are not willing to cut the budget — they are only willing to decrease the increase in the Federal budget. But I think the moral issue of who to cut off is preventing them from cutting the budget to lower than it was last year. It would be like me saying that I really wanted that mansion down the street, but decided not to buy it, thus saving me $5k per month; rather than saying that I spent X dollars last year and will spend X-Y dollars this year, cutting my budget. The first is faking the whole idea of cutting a budget. If they are not being evasive on this matter of what it means to cut a budget, then I don’t know what else to call it. Something happens to them when they go to DC and normal mathematics and economics goes out the window.

  6. M.Stern

    Do enough politicians actually understand Rand’s ideas…

    No. I don’t think any of them do. The best that can be said is that a few Republicans (a handful at most) have read Rand and agree with some _superficial_elements of her philosophy. But that’s all you can say. Ayn Rand is currently detested in most social circles in North America. Most intellectuals don’t even consider her a real philosopher. It is earlier than we would like to think, probably by a few centuries. Maybe longer.

    The question is better framed as: is there enough historical data available for Republican politicians to grasp the fact that a _large_ welfare state _must_ self-destruct and therefore we face an urgency to significantly cut government (which means do the exact opposite of what Obama and Democrats want)? I don’t think our society can even begin to contemplate a non-welfare-state political arrangement.

    I do think that there is enough evidence from the last 100 years that extensive social welfare state programs, high taxes and high regulatory burden, and inflationary fiscal policy are devastating to a country. On _those_ grounds (not on Rand’s influence) the Republicans should have the knowledge and the FORTITUDE to oppose Obama and DEMAND pro-limited government policies.

    But they don’t and that begs the question: why?

    My theory is that altruism has worsened every decade since the modern version of it has been unleashed (by Kant, Compte, etc). A new, extremely virulent strain of altruism which is currently laced with egalitarianism has come to dominate the West. It has a death grip on all ethical considerations and thus defines ALL political debates. Without Rand, it cant be challenged.

    So there is where we are at. It doesn’t look good for us. We may be the generation that witnesses the next Fall of Rome. Terrifying.

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