Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Debt-Ceiling Thought Experiment

As a little partner post to Alex Cahill's discussion of the negotiating tactics used in the debt-ceiling debate, I'm including a thought experiment that I think pretty-well captures what went down. I'd love - love! - for someone to point out the distinctions that make a difference here.

“Married to the Debt Ceiling”

Suppose that, as most couples do, you take out a mortgage with your wife. When you make up your mind about payments, you agree that on your current combined incomes, you can make the payment while still meeting your savings goals, paying for vacations, all of that. Well, five years down the road, your wife has a change of heart. She says, “Honey, really, we’re spending too much. And if you don’t agree to cut the cable bill, the internet, your craft beer spending, and the kids’ piano lessons, I’ll refuse to contribute to the mortgage.” You argue about this ad nauseam, trying to get her to agree to a mix of her cuts and what you see as less harmful cuts – a compromise. She refuses, over and over. But then, when you suggest that one of you takes on a new job in order to increase your combined income, she just walks out of the room and won’t speak to you for a week. And as the next payment date approaches, you see that your wife is serious: her monthly contribution to your joint checking account is still missing; you’ll default on your agreement with the bank if you don’t pay. So you say to her, “Look, enough is enough. We agreed to pay this bill together, and we’re going to lose the house if you don’t pitch in.” She smiles at you and replies, “Well, we don’t have to. I’ve contributed enough to our account this month that if you cut the things I’ve asked you to cut, we can still make the payments on our mortgage.” You’re dumbstruck. She continues, “When you think about it that way, really, it’ll be your fault if we lose the house.” Having seen that she’s willing to sabotage your home in order to get the cuts she wants, finally, in order to keep your agreement with the bank, you concede the point. You cut the bills she demanded, and you write your mortgage check.

Seems to me that the wrongness of your wife’s behavior in this scenario isn’t just that you’re married and she shouldn’t do that to someone she’s married – although, that’s wrong, too. And no one thinks that there shouldn’t been discussions between mutually committed parties about what sorts of things they should, together, be spending money on. What’s wrong here is that you had an agreement with a third party that she threatened to violate if you didn’t perform some action on her behalf, an action towards an end having nothing to do with the third party. How then, I would wonder, is this wrongness any different than the wrongness of the behavior of the Republican members of the House of Representatives?

And to be honest, there are "moderates" out there who indicate that these disagreements are good, and that “arguments concerning defaulting on debts are not new in our Republic.” Bull. It seems like their position on this is that of your wife’s nosy friend, who says, “Of course, you’re right that she shouldn’t extort you. But hasn’t this little spat been productive for your marriage?”

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