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Turning into Traffic over the Debt Ceiling


On a family vacation, driving across country, a husband and wife get into a heated argument. The husband seizes the wheel from the wife, preventing her from turning away from oncoming traffic, and refuses to let go until he gets his way. The kids in the back are confused and scared, the husband and wife are screaming at one another, and meanwhile another car is barreling towards them. How do we feel about this man?


Let’s flesh out the story. The man and his wife have a longstanding, deep-seated ideological difference over how they should raise their children. The husband, with some reason, thinks the wife is too soft, and that her mollycoddling is destroying the character of their children. The wife feels the husband’s favored approach is too severe and uncaring. Now how do we feel?


It seems clear that even if the husband is correct about the issue at hand, his actions are unforgivable. They are, in fact, even worse because he has decided to risk the very tangible, immediate well being of the family for what he knows is a deep ideological divide. If this sort of thing is going to be resolved, it can’t be under the gun.


How should the media report about this story? Perhaps there should be intense reflection about the ethics of child-rearing, and it would be understandable if we spent some time debating that divided issue. But surely this is appropriate only after roundly condemning the actions of the father. The disagreements among Americans about the correct way to parent shouldn’t cloud the fact that the father’s handling of this situation was morally outrageous.


In the debates about the debt ceiling, something has gotten lost. Americans appear to think that both sides of the debate are being childish and unyielding, because the debate has become about fiscal responsibility. The Republicans have surely got a point: we are not being fiscally responsible, and something must be done. And they might be right that if the Democrats have their way we are in for some real problems in the long run. But the oncoming threat of voluntary default, which most agree would be devastatingly harmful to everyone involved, is only tied to that issue because the Republicans have seized the wheel, preventing us from avoiding harm until the Democrats cave. We must, they say, resolve these deep ideological disputes now, before Tuesday.


Whatever we think about the ideology involved, about the size of government or the fairness of taxing the wealthy, we should recognize the unreasonable behavior that has put us in danger. On this issue, there is only one party to blame. Blame aside, our path should be clear. We must assure our creditors that our political disagreements will not prevent us from paying our debts. This can only be done by raising the debt ceiling. After that, we can engage in the much needed debate about the way we balance our books.

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