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The New Yorker: Smash the Ceiling

Author: James Surowiecki
July 28, 2011

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In his piece for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki argues that instead of figuring out ways to raise the debt ceiling, Congress should simply go ahead and abolish it.

In the past few years, the U.S. economy has been beset by the subprime meltdown, skyrocketing oil prices, the Eurozone debt crisis, and even the Tohoku earthquake. Now it's staring at a new problem—a failure to raise the debt ceiling, which would almost certainly throw the economy back into recession. Unlike those other problems, however, this one would be wholly of our own making. If the economy suffers as a result, it'll be what a soccer fan might call the biggest own goal in history.

The truth is that the United States doesn't need, and shouldn't have, a debt ceiling. Every other democratic country, with the exception of Denmark, does fine without one. There's no debt limit in the Constitution. And, if Congress really wants to hold down government debt, it already has a way to do so that doesn't risk economic chaos—namely, the annual budgeting process. The only reason we need to lift the debt ceiling, after all, is to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. If the debt ceiling isn't raised, we'll face an absurd scenario in which Congress will have ordered the President to execute two laws that are flatly at odds with each other. If he obeys the debt ceiling, he cannot spend the money that Congress has told him to spend, which is why most government functions will be shut down. Yet if he spends the money as Congress has authorized him to he'll end up violating the debt ceiling.

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