The two extremes of the debt ceiling debate

So much has been going on with regard to the debt ceiling debate, I haven’t had time to compose any of my own thoughts that would contribute anything new to the conversation.

Now that the bill looks like it has passed the House and will presumably be signed by the President tomorrow, it’s safe to engage in a little Monday morning quarterbacking.

On the whole I agree with Charles Krauthammer, who wrote:

The distinctive visions of the two parties — social-democratic vs. limited-government — have underlain every debate on every issue since Barack Obama’s inauguration… The debt ceiling is but the latest focus of this fundamental divide.

The sausage-making may be unsightly, but the problem is not that Washington is broken, that ridiculous ubiquitous cliche. The problem is that these two visions are in competition, and the definitive popular verdict has not yet been rendered.

I hasten to point out that the “definitive popular verdict” will likely never arrive and we will surely always have people with opinions all across the political spectrum. This is, as they say, a feature, not a bug.

Regarding the terms of the debate, one thing that interests me the most is just what was considered “normal”, and what was at least originally considered a fringe viewpoint. On the one extreme, you had the President and much of the Washington political commentariat arguing for a clean increase in the debt ceiling with no limitations. This viewpoint roughly equates to “the government should be allowed to spend whatever it needs to spend regardless of how much revenue is being brought in.” On the other extreme, you have folks who are arguing for reducing spending, a viewpoint which might equate to “the government should spend roughly the same amount that it receives in revenue.” Despite the characterization that people in the limited government camp were heartless extremists bent on ripping apart the social safety net, very few people were arguing for anything as radical as a return to 1920 spending levels. Most were simply arguing that we should endeavor to spend only about as much as we bring in, not more.

In a normal household or business, the view that outlays or expenses should be roughly equivalent to income or revenue would be the only logical position to take. But when it comes to government, we are told it’s a special case and any spending by the government has a special effect, regardless of the cost to current or future taxpayers. It looks like that view is getting less and less traction, which in my mind is a positive development.

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