Debt Ceiling Talks Were All Political Theatre

“We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.”

President Barack Obama uttered these words in April after releasing his long form birth certificate to prove (in a way no president has had to prove) his citizenship and, by extension, his legal right to hold the office of president. A summer later and an economic default averted, these remarks ring even truer. The debt debacle has been one massive sideshow.

If the volatility of the stock market in the past couple weeks is any indication, it would have been problematic for the world economy if the United States had defaulted on its debt obligations. My PolicyMic colleague Sara Gelber notes that both the economy and individual citizens would have been adversely affected in such a scenario.

In hindsight it is clear that the debt crisis was mostly political theatre, a standoff led by Republicans eager to show those who gave them a majority in the House in 2010 that they are serious about reducing the deficit. But taking this spending fight as justification for not raising the debt ceiling was distracting for a few reasons. First, the squabbles about reducing the deficit were disingenuous, as raising the debt ceiling was about paying off past spending, not limiting future spending. Second, while the deficit is large, many economists argue that it is not problematic to continue running a deficit in the short term (particularly if the government is infusing money into the fragile economy) because investors will still buy our debt; by contrast, it would be catastrophic not to raise the debt ceiling. And third, both sides were bluffing. No majority of rational politicians would want to be blamed for further destabilizing our fragile economy.

So, as the debt crisis comes to a close, we are left with a government even more divided along ideological lines, a Congress less likely to work together to solve our nation’s largest problems, and a debt ceiling “deal” that will most likely not result in any real cuts. As The New Republic’Walter Shapiro argues, using the historical example of the Gramm-Rudman bill of the 1980's, “once confronted with actual cuts to actual programs — instead of numbers games like pious promises to slash $2.5 trillion in federal spending over the next decade — Congress will return to its legendary history of budgetary subterfuge.”

Now that the sideshow has exited stage right, the American public is left with an empty, disheveled stage. Maybe after the recess, Congress can return and put as much energy into realizing a jobs bill as they have put into posturing over the debt ceiling.  

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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