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Economist: Dicing with Debt and the Future

July 14, 2011


This analysis outlines eight reasons why the "Theory of Inevitable Compromise"--that Republicans and Democrats will ultimately hammer out a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling ahead of August 2--may not hold true in this instance.

"We have a system of government in which everybody has to give a little bit.” So said Barack Obama at the start of this week. But parse that sentence. Does the president mean that America already has a system in which everybody has to give a little bit? Or does he mean only that it ought to have such a system? It is not too much to say that the country's economic well-being hangs on the answer.

As the whole world knows, America's government is in danger of defaulting after August 2nd unless Congress raises the federal debt ceiling so that it can keep borrowing enough to pay its bills. For a while the markets assumed that because a default would be so scary, Republicans and Democrats would have in the end to agree on the spending cuts the Republican-controlled House demanded as its price for raising the ceiling. The Theory of Inevitable Compromise was that each party would have to give a bit because voters will punish whichever proves too stubborn. But here are eight reasons to wonder whether the theory is true.

First, for the theory to work, both parties need to believe that failing to raise the ceiling will trigger a default and the “huge financial calamity” Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Fed, gave warning of this week. Not all Republicans do believe that. John Boehner, the House speaker, is a believer, but the freshmen who bobbed into Congress last November on a tidal wave of tea are not. Some say that the government could keep paying foreign creditors by slashing domestic spending, and that this would be just fine—even though Mr Obama refuses to guarantee even that Social Security (pension) cheques would go out without a deal.

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