No sooner do we avoid the fiscal cliff than we find ourselves facing a debt ceiling crisis. As they did in the summer of 2011, rightwing House Republicans are threatening once again to hold the country’s debt ceiling hostage unless they get substantial budget cuts (although they never spell out exactly what cuts they want). Unable to resolve the conflict in August, Obama and Congress postponed it until after the election, and here we are.
As you probably know, Congress must borrow money to pay for debts it has incurred by promising to pay for defense, entitlement programs, and other government spending. To discipline itself, Congress imposes debt ceilings on itself, but every year it breaks through that ceiling, which means that it must raise it when payment time comes due. If the ceiling is not raised, our check bounces and our credit rating goes down.
Given the economic harm that will be done to both the U. S. and the global economy if the U. S. does not pay its debts, GOP rightwingers are essentially saying, “We’ll shoot ourselves [“ourselves” being America] unless you give us what we want.” This led me to look for analogous hostage dramas in literature.
At first I could only think of instances from movies. One is the scene in Blazing Saddles, which I invoked the last time we went through this drama, where the black sheriff takes himself hostage and threatens to shoot himself if the lynch mob doesn’t back off. Check out my post as it is no less relevant today.
In the Blazing Saddle scene, however, the “hostage taker” successfully pulls off his stunt. Now the landscape has changed, the GOP appears to have less leverage than it had in 2011, and people are more skeptical of the threats. Newt Gingrich, of all people, explains why:
Everybody’s now talking about, “Oh, here comes the debt ceiling.” I think that’s, frankly, a dead loser. Because in the end, you know it’s gonna happen. The whole national financial system is going to come in to Washington and on television, and say: “Oh my God, this will be a gigantic heart attack, the entire economy of the world will collapse. You guys [the GOP] will be held responsible.” And they’ll cave.
A group of German nihilist scam artists pretend they have a hostage—one of them has sacrificed a toe to make it appear plausible—to get a million dollars. The Dude and his friend Walter know there’s no hostage and point this out, but the nihilists continue on anyway. Here’s the interchange:
Nihilist: Ve vant ze money, Lebowski.
Nihilist #2: Ja, uzzervize ve kill ze girl.
Nihilist #3: Ja, it seems you have forgotten our little deal, Lebowski.
The Dude: You don’t HAVE the fucking girl, dipshits! We know you never did!
[the Nihilists, stunned, confer amongst themselves in German]
Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?
Walter: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Nihilist: Ve don’t care. Ve still vant ze money, Lebowski, or ve fuck you up.
Walter: Fuck you. Fuck the three of you.
The Dude: Hey, cool it Walter.
Walter: No, without a hostage, there is no ransom. That’s what ransom is. Those are the fucking rules.
Nihilist #2: His girlfriend gave up her toe!
Nihilist #3: She thought we’d be getting million dollars!
Nihilist #2: Iss not fair!
Walter: Fair! WHO’S THE FUCKING NIHILIST HERE! WHAT ARE YOU, A BUNCH OF FUCKING CRYBABIES?
In an article about Mitch McConnell yesterday, Will Saletan of Slate all but says that the Senate Minority Leader lacks a hostage as he makes Sunday talk show demands:
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, wants Democrats to cut a lot of federal spending without raising any more taxes. Unfortunately, his party just lost the presidential election, failed to capture the Senate, and doesn’t have enough support in polls or the business community to shut down the government or refuse to raise the national debt ceiling, which would trigger a default and another credit downgrade. So what does McConnell offer in lieu of clout? A lot of bluffing.
Unfortunately, comic though the scene in the movie is, one the Dude’s friends gets killed, even though the nihilists are routed. Engaging in hostage games can be like playing with fire.
The one literary hostage story that seems relevant to our current situation is the O’Henry short story “Ransom of Red Chief.” In this story, there is an actual hostage—the young son of a banker—who is such a holy terror that the kidnappers discover he provides them no leverage at all. Here’s the note they get from his father in response to their ransom demand:
Two Desperate Men.
Gentlemen: I received your letter today by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbors believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back.
Very respectfully, EBENEZER DORSET.
The kidnappers conclude that $250 is a great deal and leap at the bargain. If Gingrich has correctly assessed the downside of taking the debt ceiling hostage, this could also be the situation of the GOP. Do they really want to end up extricating themselves from their own plot as Obama wields Mr. Dorset’s leverage?
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, picking up on a Suzy Khimm observation in The Washington Post, says that, if the GOP really wants to hold something hostage, it could choose instead simply to close down the government in March. That’s when it must pass another budget to keep the government running:
If Republicans really want to shut things down, this is the way to do it. Don’t get me wrong: I still think they’d be crazy to do it. Cutting spending while the economy is still weak is a recipe for disaster. But that’s a difference of opinion, and a perfectly legitimate one to solve via the political process. Refusing to pay bills you’ve already run up isn’t. Neither is risking the country’s credit rating and its historic position as the world’s most reliable lender.
I wonder if we’ll ever start calling telling the hostage takers to go ahead and shoot the hostage, go over the cliff, tank our economy, shut down the government, whatever. The GOP may want to remember that Gingrich tried shutting down the government in the winter of 1995 in a confrontation with Clinton. The eventual result was electoral disaster for Republicans and reelection for Clinton as we were reminded why we need government.
It’s time to recollect that there’s a different way we could conduct our affairs. We could engage in good faith negotation in which Republicans give some on taxes and defense spending and Democrats give some on entitlement spending. If we were smart, we’d do some more infrastructure spending first and then, when we were back on solid economic footing, engage in serious deficit reduction.
Then again, such common sense measures lack the thrill of hostage threats.
Added note: I’ve thought of another film about incompetent hostage taking. In Ruthless People, Bette Midler has been kidnapped by two mild clothes designers who have been screwed by her unscrupulous husband. As it turns out, however, he wants her dead and so refuses their demands. They’re start lowering their asking price, first to $100,000, then to $50,000, causing Midler to wail, “I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!”