Monday, July 25, 2011

Could the Loose Cannons Push America Into Default?

Smash the Ceiling, advises James Surowieki in The New Yorker. Suroweiki sees Congressional votes on increasing the national debt as useless.
One argument you hear for having a debt ceiling is that it’s useful as what the political theorist Jon Elster calls a “precommitment device”—a way of keeping ourselves from acting recklessly in the future, like Ulysses protecting himself from the Sirens by having himself bound to the mast. As precommitment devices go, however, the debt limit is both too weak and too strong. It’s too weak because Congress can simply vote to lift it, as it has done more than seventy times in the past fifty years. But it’s too strong because its negative consequences (default, higher interest rates, financial turmoil) are disastrously out of proportion to the behavior it’s trying to regulate. For the U.S. to default now, when investors are happily lending it money at exceedingly reasonable rates, would be akin to shooting yourself in the head for failing to follow your diet. 
The danger, Surowieki concedes, is that when push comes to shove,  cooler heads don't necessarily prevail. "As the economist Thomas Schelling showed many years ago, 'It does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, coolheaded, and in control of oneself' when it comes to brinksmanship."

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