How the Doomsday Machine Explains the Debt Ceiling
When Value, or Effect, Exists Only in Assumptions About Others' Thinking
The New York Times, and other newspapers, reported on January 19 that the United States had reached its $31.4 trillion debt cap—a development that the Times described as a result of “decades of tax cuts and increased government spending by both Republicans and Democrats.” We can look forward to accounts of the Department of the Treasury’s “extraordinary measures,” or accounting gimmicks, to keep the government running and avoid an economic disaster. These accounts will inevitably include references to the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause and calls by politicians for negotiation, fiscal responsibility, patriotism, good old-fashioned common sense, bipartisanship, etc.
It is difficult to predict how long this back-and-forth White House-Capitol Hill dance will last, but it has become increasingly clear that about the only real value of the debt ceiling is that congressional Republicans believe that not breaking the debt ceiling matters to Democrats. Thus, Republicans think, if Democrats believe Republicans might be crazy enough to breach the ceiling, Democrats will agree to more or less any demand put forward by Republicans including the draconian spending cuts Republicans seem to have in mind. This kind of “Do what I say, or I’ll shoot” (as the gun is pointed at the shooter’s head) approach is not new.
In director Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1963 movie, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Russian ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) tells U.S. President Merkin Mufley (Peter Sellers) that the Russians have invented a “doomsday machine”— a network of underground nuclear weapons that cannot be disarmed and are automatically triggered by a nuclear attack on Russia, resulting in global devastation. However, as national security expert Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers, again, eerily anticipating Henry Kissinger) witheringly explains, the doomsday machine is of no value if Russia does not publicize it. Ambassador de Sadesky offers a feeble, but very human, excuse for Russia’s failure to disclose the doomsday machine. Here is the scene:
The idea that life imitates art is not a new one, but the parallels between the debt ceiling and Dr. Strangelove’s doomsday machine are intriguing. Neither the debt ceiling nor the doomsday machine has any positive or constructive value, each is based on an assumption about what others might think, and each potentially puts events in motion that may lead to an avoidable widespread catastrophe.
None of this is an argument for ignoring the potential devastating economic consequences of a breach of the debt ceiling that outlasts the period (which, according to the Times, runs through early June) when the Treasury runs out of extraordinary measures. And, today’s events are, in movie terms, a sequel: there was debt ceiling brinkmanship between Congress and the Obama administration in 2011 and 2013 with negative consequences.
A reasoned conversation by Congressional and fiscal policy leaders, as part of or after the posturing and negotiation to come, about the continuing utility of the debt ceiling is probably too much to ask. It may be that the best we can hope for is a mini-life lesson: we should be wary of situations where the only utility for something seems to be its assumed effects on the minds of others.
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