October 9, 2013

The debt ceiling fight is looking more and more like it will turn into a protracted blame war over default. It’s a fight on tricky terrain, mostly because the debt ceiling is such a strange, poorly-understood beast in the first place. Normal people don’t have the time or the inclination to sort through the arcane history of goofy, pointless legislative anachronisms. So Obama and Democrats, naturally, are seeking ways to explain it with comparisons drawn from everyday life that people can grasp on an intuitive level.

But Obama could be picking better metaphors than the ones he’s currently using.

At his press conference yesterday about the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, he showed a notable tendency to explain the problem using folksy personal finance metaphors. More than once, he compared the debt ceiling to someone just unilaterally not making their mortgage payments:

“I say, imagine, in your private life, if you decided that I’m not going to pay my mortgage for a month or two. First of all, you’re not saving money by not paying your mortgage. You’re just a deadbeat. And you can anticipate that will hurt your credit, which means that in addition to the debt collectors calling, you’re going to have trouble borrowing in the future. And if you are able to borrow in the future, you’re going to have to borrow at a higher rate.”

The general problem with this kind of illustration is that governments are not anything like ordinary people. At a minimum, a person isn’t immortal, and doesn’t have her own sovereign currency and printing press. Though this is a minor offense — not nearly as bad as saying we have to cut Social Security because “we’re broke,” for example — it still could be better. Ed Kilgore argues that calling people who miss loan payments “deadbeats” is unfair, while Matt Yglesias says it badly understates the actual danger:

As it happens, I once didn’t pay my mortgage for a couple of months. What happened was that I had some arrangement whereby the payment was automatically taken out of my checking account with PNC and handed over to Bank of America. But then I refinanced my loan, and somehow in the course of refinancing the automatic debiting had ceased. Consequently, I missed two or three months worth of mortgage payments before BofA sent me enough angry paperwork for me to realize what was going on…


The debt ceiling’s really not like that. Of course Obama’s whole point in the press conference was to say that the debt ceiling is a really big deal. And it is a really big deal. Which is why he shouldn’t analogize it to household bill payments. If a normal person misses a payment here or there, really nothing catastrophic happens…The debt ceiling difference is that timely payment of treasury obligations is integral to the larger functioning of the financial system. It’s not just that a handful of bondholders might not get paid, it’s a shaking of the whole global web of finance.

Yglesias is right, but despite his campaign to eliminate metaphors and analogies forever as tools of Satan, I think they’re just too good an explanatory tool to abandon. It’s such a bizarre and extreme situation that it’s only natural for someone to reach for a concrete, understandable example. So let’s see if we can’t develop a better one.

Suppose we have a small, isolated community high in the mountains somewhere. So small, in fact, that they’ve only got one bank in the whole community. Everyone’s got their deposits in this bank, and the bank has money loaned out to hundreds of businesses and residents.

Now this bank is run by a board of directors. There is fierce disagreement about what kind of loans the bank should be making — a small minority of directors thinks the bank is making too many loans to poor people. They put this point to the shareholders at the last board election, but lost badly. So the minority faction has decided to lash itself to the bank’s vault door so the clerks can’t get any cash out. They’ve got what money is in the tills, but eventually it will run out, people won’t be able to cash their checks, and there will be a catastrophic run on the bank. The minority faction issues an ultimatum: no one gets into the vault unless the board changes its lending policies. Give us what we want or the community gets it.

In this scheme the minority faction is, of course, the House GOP. It’s not quite correct in all the particulars, but it captures the essence of the situation: a radical minority which just lost an election on the merits is threatening economic violence against the community to extract concessions from the duly elected majority. The contempt for the democratic process thus revealed is staggering.