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Debt Ceiling Showdown

Suicide Watch

by Jack Random

As grains of sand drip one by one through the hour glass, marking time as we move toward the debt ceiling deadline, the political posturing takes on the appearance of a game of chicken or Russian Roulette.

The comparisons are apt but as time slips on and the posturing continues unabated, another metaphor presents itself: A suicide watch.

I don’t pretend to know what consequences will immediately follow the fairly abstract deadline of August 2nd but as Thelma and Louise must have thought in the back of their minds as they prepared to drive over a cliff: it can’t be good.

Our nation has endured civil war, world wars, depressions, recessions and horrific tragedies of all kinds but never have we so blatantly tightened the rope around our own necks and prepared to jump into the void.

Memorably portrayed by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in the 1991 film classic, Thelma and Louise had their own reasons for testing the theory of life after death. Apparently our politicians in Washington also have reasons but they are not as compelling. Moreover, Sarandon and Davis got to live on without the consequences of their characters’ decision while the drama in Washington plays out in the real world.

There is a danger in comparing the nation’s business to our own personal affairs as both President Obama and Speaker John Boehner so often do. Too often the analogy falls short. For example, if you or I declare bankruptcy the stock market doesn’t tank. If you or I do not pay our bills, the banks and credit companies do not fold.

If we personally behave irresponsibly the consequences of our actions are largely confined to our families and ourselves. If our government behaves irresponsibly the effects are global.

There are occasions, however, when the best way to explain an economic issue is to personalize it. The debt ceiling and the ill-conceived Balanced Budget constitutional amendment are cases in point.

For most of us it is not difficult to imagine being buried by an avalanche of credit card debt. Your creditors do not care what circumstances gave rise to your fiscal imbalance (like a president asking you to go shopping as an act of patriotism or pimping home ownership during an ongoing mortgage fraud). You are expected to pay your bills.

Given that scenario, your fly-by-night financial advisor recommends that you give yourself six months to settle your accounts and beyond that date you must refuse to pay your creditors no matter what.

The date arrives and you still carry debt. Despite numerous warnings from all involved, you stick to your advisor’s recommendation and refuse to pay. You subsequently lose your car, your job, your home and your credit.

Imagine that the same financial advisor convinces you to sign a contract that you will never spend more than you make in any fiscal year. You tighten your belt, adhere as much as possible to a strict budget and for a time you seem to be doing fine until an emergency arises. You’re laid off at work. You’re confronted with extraordinary medical bills, your car breaks down, your rent rises and/or your child’s college tuition triples with little notice.

You go to your financial advisor to appeal for an exemption. He excoriates you for your reckless ways and turns you down flat. Suddenly, you’re broke, bankrupt and out on the street while your financial advisor is suing you for his fees.

The first scenario is the debt ceiling. The second is the Balanced Budget amendment. In both scenarios the financial advisor is the rightwing of the House of Representatives (aka, the Tea Party).

In this situation as in so many others we have only ourselves to blame. In a wave of anger and frustration we elected a sufficient number of these intransigent fools to hold all of congress hostage and paralyze the US government.

The multi-national corporations that created the Tea Party and financed its candidates must now be wondering what they have wrought.

I refuse to believe that our elected officials are so drunk on their own press clippings that they will allow this to go down but I am forced to accept that the nation’s default has entered the realm of possibility. With each passing day, as the gamesmanship goes on, that possibility grows.

Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe our failure to meet our financial obligations will be no more consequential than a little mortgage meltdown. That crisis to a large extent was also self-inflicted and I was not wrong about that.

Were it in our hands, how many of us would be willing to take the chance?

The alternative: Fire your financial advisors and end the Tea Party reign of terror before it is too late. Or maybe it’s too late already.

Jack Random is the author of Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press.)