Bear with me here for a minute, and this rant will get to the point.
I was trying to explain the government shutdown to an Italian friend of mine last night (“so have you fixed the Silvio problem yet?” was my first-pass attempt to not talk about US politics before getting drunk enough to keep it from depressing me; I failed). I’ve come to realize that a successful overturn of the ACA by the petulant child wing of the Republican party would be an act of illegitimacy on the order of the appointment of George W. Bush as president by the Supreme Court in 2000. Now, I’m not a fan of ACA either – in trying to halfway reform the system while keeping most of the players who are the cause of the problem in the first place happy, it ignored the structural failures and misalignments of interest in health financing, and will end up being an incredibly expensive way to insure a few more people against medical bankruptcy while continuing to line the wrong pockets, but it is what it is, and it is the law of the land, and this is not how you go about changing the law of the land.
There are too many root causes of this problem, any one of which alone leads to an ungovernable country. The gerrymandering of safe congressional districts means the only thing that the petulant children have to fear is a primary challenge from even more petulant children. Those who have decided to overturn the ACA at all costs have absolutely no incentive to consider anything else, and, I suspect, are too ignorant1 to realize the gravity of the situation they are provoking. The lack of any real political journalism in the American mainstream means that public opinion is no longer held by an informed electorate, it is manufactured by political marketers. The drive toward “balance” in about half of what pretends to be political journalism means that the actual narrative (“legislative process held hostage by extremist minority”) is obscured by the fictional one (“there are two sides to every story”). If anyone sees a way out of this that doesn’t involve two generations of education, more prior restraint than is prudent, and a new constitutional convention, I’d like to know what it is, and if not, I’d like to go ahead and get on with rebuilding the system from scratch, thank you very much.
I really don’t care about the budget that much. I send my money and my hundred-page stack of forms to the IRS every year, enriching a very nice expat tax accountancy outside Basel in the process, then forget about it. Basically the only services provided by any level of government in the US that I actually have occasion to use are air traffic control and consular services, both of which are still open. Closing the national parks and taking all the various websites the government runs with decent science on them down makes America look like a partially failed state abroad, which I guess is at least honest. The fact that almost 90% of the Department of Homeland Security has managed to convince the rest of the country that it is “essential” is appalling but, given the twelve-year-long-and-counting fear bender America’s been on, utterly unsurprising. But the last time we went through this back in the ’90s because Bill wouldn’t let Newt sit up front on Air Force One, the world didn’t end, and it won’t end this time.
The budget ceiling is a little different, because nobody really has any idea what will happen if the US defaults, and anyone who pretends to is lying to themselves. I would be shocked if the set of contractual obligations triggered by a US default is anywhere close to internally self-consistent. If we learned anything over the past five years about the effects that financial markets have on the real economy in the face of widespread uncertainty, I think the reality-based community can agree that we don’t want to go there.
Here’s one possible endgame I see:
- The standoff continues.
- The House whips fail to get the votes to authorize a debt ceiling increase.
- To avoid a the uncertainty of a default, the Treasury department holds a bond auction anyway (I presume this would be the 30-year TIPS auction scheduled for 17 October) violating the debt ceiling.
- The executive branch will now have clearly violated the law; let’s assume that Treasury wouldn’t do this on its own, so this would have to be on the direct orders of the President.
- President Obama is impeached by the House of Representatives.
- Since impeachments are, always have been, and ever shall be political, President Obama is acquitted by the Senate.
I have fairly serious disagreements with the President, most of which have to do with the fact that his administration been as thoroughly compromised by the national security state as everything else has. But on balance, it looks like this would be a plus for him, and I’m okay with that. Given the choice between impeachment and being the guy with his hand on the tiller when the economy crashed again, I’d take impeachment. The petulant children in the House aren’t going away, so he’s not going to get any of the various things on his agenda done anyway. The Clinton impeachment taught us that absolutely nobody of any consequence will care about it, but it will be a nice long winter’s entertainment and a perfect honeypot to occupy the attention of the petulant children, half of whom would probably be and/or act confused why impeachment doesn’t mean the automatic end of the ACA.
If we’re going to have bread and circuses (hold the bread) instead of a government, let’s do it right, shall we?
 … or are playing too ignorant for the benefit of the constituency that elected them: the effect is the same …