The cover image of an old toy, showing a Time Bomb.
When Will the Debt Blow Up in Our Faces?

While much of the debate over this week’s deadline to raise the debt ceiling has been intricate and hard to follow, the wrangling has really obscured what is going on here:  a strategic effort to steer the country in opposing directions by at least three or four different factions.  If the future of the country were not at stake, one could easily think of it as a game, in fact, several different games.  As long as one recognizes that this is much more serious than a kid’s game, the analogies are relevant to display the actual simplicity of what is going on.

The Game of Chicken

This is a life or death “game” (really a challenge of wits) where two drivers start out at some distance, facing each other on a country road.   Both speed toward a one-lane bridge in the middle.  The idea is actually simple.   Each “player” wants to be able to avert a disaster (a head-on crash), but also wants to “win” and gain the privilege of calling the other’s bluff and “a chicken” for swerving.  You assume the other guy has enough sense to swerve, so you are tempted to stay straight on course, taking the small risk (you think) that you are wrong.

The current budget debate resembles this foolish game.  But it is a bit more complicated than that.  In the automotive version of the game, neither side denies they are playing the game.  While I am not the first to recognize the analogy, Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans for playing the game, while claiming they are acting on principle.   Nevertheless, any stubbornness (for good or for ill) in ones position means you’ve come to play the game.  I am not suggesting that stubbornness isn’t called for.  The difference between the debt crisis and the game is that our leaders don’t have any choice on whether or not they will play.  They’ve been elected; they must play.  It appears there is no consensus on any plan: The John Boehner Plan, The Cut, Cap and Balance plan, The Senator Harry Reid plan, or the President Barack Obama “I-don’t-have-a-plan” plan.  Any plan to hate all other plans does not qualify as a plan, either.  It might be the right thing to do politically to vote “no” on any plan that doesn’t balance the budget next month, but it is not a plan.  Anybody who votes “no” on all plans, but offers no plan in exchange should be held accountable.  Everyone should vote “yes” on some plan, so we know where they stand.

The game of chicken is essentially being played by the House Republicans (including Ron Paul, and Michelle Bachmann) and the Senate Democrats.  If no bill ever reaches Obama’s desk, it will be politically difficult to attach blame on him, even if the economy suffers badly before the 2012 election.  On the other hand, I have to think the President is bluffing on the veto threat.  Serious fallout from the debt crisis would fall squarely on him, if it followed his veto pen.

The problem with the “chicken” analogy is this.   While eventual doom is predicted for not acting, the exact date moment of doom is uncertain.  The Obama administration suggests that failure to meet the deadline will result in an immediate government default on its debt obligations.  The fact that we really have an indefinite deadline makes me think of two other childhood games: Hot Potato and Milton Bradley’s Time Bomb.

Passing the Buck

Hot Potato is a childhood toy/game consisting of a potato that you pass around a group, each person hoping that the alarm doesn’t go off while you are holding it.   Time Bomb  was a similar toy designed to “blow up” after a random number of seconds following the bomb being set.  The players tossed the toy as quickly as possible hoping not to get caught holding the bomb when it went off.   The primary difference between the two games was the rule in Hot Potato that it be passed around the circle.  The Time Bomb could be tossed to anybody in the circle.  The current crisis certainly represents the latter: there is no logical passing of this thing back and forth.

There is no question.  Whether or not the debt ceiling is raised, there is a day of reckoning coming.  The ongoing huge national debt is unsustainable.   The only question is not if it will blow up in our faces, but when.




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