I haven't said much (ha!) about the debt ceiling debate, mostly because the "debate" is so contrived, and because there is so little to say. Of course the government shouldn't default on interest or principle payments on US bonds. Of course we need to, over the long term, figure out how to reduce US debt. These are not debate points, they're mainly common sense.
This particular round of debt debate has been marked by a kind of brinksmanship that seems tired and familiar over the past few years, a part of our excessive partisanship, but is really somewhat new. We didn't used to take these disputes up to and past the point of no return. Governing is about compromise, and up until recently, compromise was generally possible.
This week, while few people were paying attention, the existence of the FAA ended. Right now, there is no government agency overseeing the airline industry, our airlines, our airports. The problem, apparently, was a fairly arcane debate in Congress about union rights for transportation workers. So for now, we have air traffic controllers. And not much else.
There's been a duel sense of brinksmanship and "everything but the abyss" in the discussions about the debt ceiling; there's been some cavalier talk that the August 2nd deadline mentioned by the Treasury Department is illusory, that Congress will just take this to edge and then find an agreement, that this is all theater. On the other side there's a "cooler heads" logic that says we just can't default on our obligations. It's unthinkable.
I'd just like to point out that default is thinkable. It's even quite likely, and this isn't just theater.
Government default is an option; it's always been an option, and at this point - for weeks really - the likelihood of default is an option that's been in the cards. Default may be terrible, economically devastating, full of enormous consequences and disastrous implications. But it could happen. And the fact that it may well happen in the next few days is something to plan for, not to pretend as unthinkable.
Since the question of raising the debt ceiling started coming up, there's been this conventional wisdom that it would get done. It might be ugly, it might be painful, but it would get done, because it had to get done. It always has to get done.
The thing about "conventional" wisdom is that it assumes, well, conventions. Conventional wisdom assumes an agreed upon set of base principles, certainties that are not questioned. The sun will rise. The sun will set.
"Our government cannot go into default" is actually not a certainty. Of course it can.
There was a moment in our nation - you can look it up - in 1968, when we stood on a precipice. There was a real potential for societal breakdown on a large scale, a powder keg of anger and frustration that could easily have boiled over, a real chance at revolution. Instead, elements of radical youth and radical black militants fell apart, and in many ways the radical left has never entirely recovered in this country.
I've been trying, for years, to convince people that the "conservative revolution" on the right is a similar trend.
The breakdown of debt ceiling negotiations results, in large measure, from Tea Party anger. What is Tea Party anger? At base, it's a refusal to accept a kind of prevailing conventional wisdom - that the kind of politics we have has to be "the way it is", that we have to agree to the "ground rules", that certain widely accepted notions always have to hold true. Who says we have to agree that default is unthinkable? Who says we have to agree to a compromise to get some of what we want? Why doesn't anyone have the balls to take a situation completely to the brink?
This week, we may get the answer to some of those questions.
I don't favor default; I don't look forward to it, nothing I'm talking about has anything to do with me wanting to see the debt ceiling extension fail. Default, and the economic consequences that follow from it, are in many ways a terrifying prospect. But there's a fallacy at work right now that's way more dangerous - a sense that, just because it's unthinkable, default can't happen. There's a complacency, which has been floating around since the economic downturn began, since 9/11 maybe, that as bad as things are, they really couldn't get much worse.
So many lives have, in so many ways, been largely untouched by the economic down turn, though many seem cavalier about that. Maybe you go to the movies a little less, maybe your vacation was a little less extravagant this year. That's a little inconvenient. That is not disaster. Default would likely mean disaster. How do we get food disaster. How do we live without an income disaster.
Maybe by tonight there will be an agreement. Maybe there's still a moment, and some cooler heads to pull this form the brink. Maybe losing some political face will turn out to be okay for some political leaders, and a deal will go through. If not, it's likely that this next week will involve some pretty serious financial reversals, and after that... who knows. Default is not unthinkable. Default is always an option. And things really could get a whole hell of a lot worse.