Are debt ceiling deniers nuts? It depends on your definition of the word “nuts”.

The saga going on in Washington over the issue of fiscal management is slowly turning from worrying to downright depressing. We’ve seen this movie before, I realize. I’m not just talking about the government shutdown which set in at the beginning of this month, and which is frequently compared with the shutdown we experienced in the 1990s. I’m also, of course, talking about some politicians’ decision to use the raising of the US government’s debt ceiling as a negotiating tactic, a strategy which we horrifyingly watched play out a little more than two years ago, narrowly missing disaster.

To recap, the US is one of just a handful of countries which has a legislative cap on its debt level that is separate from the other legislative process of approving budgets. It’s a technical issue only, and one that previous generations of policymakers dealt with relatively unceremoniously, by voting to raise the debt ceiling when the barrier came close. No big deal.

But recently, some politicians have had the brilliant idea of blocking the raising of the debt ceiling as a way to get stuff that they want. As many observers have pointed out, this is analogous to a terrorist hijacking an airplane and demanding a million dollars in exchange for not crash landing and killing everyone. This time, the ransom being asked for is some policy concession, and the disaster being threatened is a worldwide financial crisis.

Now, there are many things to discuss here, and many reasons to be angry. But there is one particular side of the story which I find the most fascinating, which is some individuals’ insistence that not raising the debt ceiling is no big deal. This is not true, of course; according to pretty much every economist which knowledge of how the US Treasury works, without the ability to borrow, the Treasury will no longer have access to the cash necessary to pay its obligations. One such obligation is to pay out its regular interest payments to creditors, meaning that without a debt ceiling rise, the US government will default on these payments. That’s a nightmare scenario not only for this country but for the entire global economy, because US Treasury bills and bonds are so commonly owned, used as collateral, benchmarked against, etc. Basically, the entire worldwide financial system is at risk of grinding to a halt if Treasury instruments stop paying. And, according to most economists, that means another worldwide economic disaster potentially worse than the one we just experienced a few years ago.

So why are certain public officials denying the devastating impact of not raising the debt ceiling, and seemingly pushing us on purpose towards the abyss? In some cases, it may be that these individuals legitimately don’t understand the issue. But I find this impossible to believe. Never mind for a moment the steady stream of economists’ dire warnings in recent weeks pleading for a raising of the debt ceiling. Perhaps even more notably, every Congressman and Senator has key supporters and donors in the business community who are undoubtedly eager to voice their concerns.

On one of the web’s most underrated economics blogs, Chris Blattman asks exactly this question. Are those trying to push us towards a default truly nuts, or are they simply acting rationally in pursuit of their own self-interests?

I’d emphatically argue the latter, with the following caveat: threatening to engineer a global economic catastrophe in the rational pursuit of one’s own self-interest is also nuts. Probably more nuts, actually. If you think this is not nuts, then I think we need to redefine the word “nuts” to include this behavior.

You see, part of the failure of the political process to deal with this issue is technical and legal (see a good take on this here). A handful of Congressional representatives reside in voting districts that are so heavily conservative that pushing for a debt ceiling crisis may actually enhance their popularity back home. So, if you take a pure political science-based view that elected representatives should just worry about getting reelected and nothing else, then these individuals are doing nothing wrong. They’re simply reflecting the preferences of their constituencies.

So, for whatever technical reasons, this model of political self-interest isn’t maximizing the welfare of voters collectively (I would say that’s an understatement). So what’s the solution? A technical fix? That would be great, but I’ve got another much more radical idea: How about our elected representatives do what’s right for the whole country, instead of just doing what will get them reelected?

To illustrate, here’s how a hypothetical exchange between a voter and representative might sound right now (scenario #1):

VOTER: I don’t want to raise the debt ceiling. It sounds like more debt, which I dislike. I know the economists are saying it will be economic armageddon not to do it, but those guys don’t know what they’re talking about.

REPRESENTATIVE: I like being a Congressman and having money for campaigns. Will you vote for me and give me money if I vote against raising the debt ceiling?

VOTER: Sure.

REPRESENTATIVE: You got it then. You’re probably right, nothing bad will happen.

Here’s how I’m suggesting things should go (scenario #2):

VOTER: I don’t want to raise the debt ceiling. It sounds like more debt, which I dislike. I know the economists are saying it will be economic armageddon not to do it, but those guys don’t know what they’re talking about.

REPRESENTATIVE: Yeah… um, I’m not going to do that.

VOTER: If you don’t do this, I won’t vote for you.

REPRESENTATIVE: That’s OK, I got into this job to serve the best interests of the American people, not to get reelected. But I appreciate it. Good luck with the next guy.

The representative in scenario #1 is acting “rationally”… also, the representative in scenario #1 is seeking to threaten the economic lives of hundreds of millions of people. In this case, rational self interest is the very definition of lunacy.

The current debt ceiling drama is a visible, high-stakes, suped-up example of a more common story that plays out every day in democratic political systems. A self-interested player is simply playing the game, assuming that everything will work itself out. But because of certain failures in the model, that narrow expression of self-interest ends up threatening the welfare of the entire society.

The contribution of the Baha’i Faith here is, first and foremost, to promote a dialogue between representatives and voters that more frequently resembles scenario #2 than scenario #1. That may sound like a fantasy to some, but it’s the real-life way that the global Baha’i community is organized and functions in the absence of clergy. There are no “constituencies” in Baha’i democratic elections. Our representatives are elected on the basis of their capacity to make good decisions, period. Those individuals are not accountable to the people who voted for them, but rather, the wider society. They are trustees of the community humbled with the responsibility of doing what’s right, not political “winners” granted the gift of power over others.

In order for such a system to work in the broader society, you need more than just some clever technical fixes. You also need a fundamental change in the quality of the human spirit. You need such a wholesale change in culture that to narrowly and selfishly pursue one’s own interests would truly seem “nuts”, and to selflessly serve others would be considered the norm. That’s the real challenge. The debt ceiling mess is just another warning that we need to start right now.

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