Cake or debt ceiling?

October 8, 2013

Politics is full of hard choices and tough tradeoffs. Raising taxes hurts the economy even as it funds crucial government services. Bombing Libya might stop a massacre but it could trap America in another country's grinding civil war. Cracking down on global currency manipulation might help American manufacturers or it might invite devastating reprisals.

The debt ceiling isn't like that. The debt ceiling is "cake or death?"

Eddie Izzard fans will remember the reference. The comedian has a famous riff about why the Church of England wouldn't have been able to pull off the Spanish Inquisition. They're too soft. Too polite. "It would be tea and cake or death," Izzard says." Tea and cake or death!" The problem with that, of course, is who would choose death?

"Cake or death, that's easy. Anyone can answer that."

There aren't too many "cake or death" choices in politics. But the debt ceiling is one of them. On the one hand, there's breaching the debt ceiling and causing a global economic catastrophe. It "would be like the financial market equivalent of that Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell," Michael Feroli, chief economist at JP Morgan, says.

On the other hand, there's...not breaching the debt ceiling. Nothing bad happens if we don't breach the debt ceiling. Nobody dies. Taxes don't rise. China doesn't start a trade war with us. The economy continues to recover.

It's "cake or debt ceiling." And anyone can answer that. Anyone, that is, except congressional Republicans, who are threatening to choose death unless Democrats agree to serve the cake with a side of Obamacare delay.

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Neil Irwin | October 8, 2013