How is the national debt not like a credit card? Let me count the ways

The news these days is filled with Tea Party wackos trying to explain to the rest of us exactly why it makes sense to oppose a raise to the debt limit. This one, highlighted by Steve Benen, is priceless:

“It is a compelling message saying we need to pay the bills that we’ve racked up. But it misses the whole point,” [Ohio Senator Rob] Portman told Fox News.

The Ohio lawmaker went on to compare the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling to credit card debt, equating Obama’s stated unwillingness to bargain over an extension to a free-spending teenager.

“Think about it in terms of a credit card,” Portman said. “If you have a son or daughter who exceeds the limits, what do you do? The first thing you do is probably rip up the card. The second thing you do is say, ‘We need to change our spending habits.’ This is what the president won’t do.”

Benen patiently explains why the U.S. government works completely differently from a parent doling out allowance to a teenager, but to my mind doesn’t dwell on exactly how wrong-headed the analogy is.

  • In the first place, if “ripping up the card” would destroy the global economy, you probably wouldn’t do that, would you?
  • Or, staying with the analogy, if the teenager needed to use the card to pay for transportation to work, which is the only way she could pay off the debt, you probably wouldn’t tear up the card in that case either.

More to the point, the debt limit is not like a credit-card limit. A credit-card limit is imposed by lenders. If you try to buy something using the card and it’s over the limit, the card won’t work. That’s not true about the US government, which can readily borrow more money. The only thing stopping it is an arbitrary, self-imposed limit.

The more you try to connect the analogy to the real-world situation, the less sense it makes. It’s almost as if the senator is deliberately deceiving us instead of explaining the real reason he doesn’t want to increase the debt limit.

Let me rephrase that. Almost certainly, senator is deliberately trying to deceive us rather than explain the real reason he is making such a fuss over the debt limit.

The real reason, of course, is that his party doesn’t control the government. Since the Senate and White House are controlled by Democrats, Republicans have few opportunities to do what they want. Since the debt ceiling is a bass-ackward law that requires Congress to authorize spending they’ve already authorized, then it gives them a chance to re-negotiate past agreements. Anyone who doesn’t like the current spending / taxation policies has a little bit of leverage in the negotiations because they can threaten to block a debt ceiling increase, which in turn would destroy the US credit rating and bring down the global economy.

It’s a bit like a teenager agreeing that the family should donate to the local homeless shelter, then later threatening to burn down the house if her parents don’t stop donating to the local homeless shelter.

In this scenario, what should sensible parents do? The Republican argument is that they should stop donating to the shelter, right? Otherwise, the house burns down! Screw the homeless.

But all this just illustrates how silly the parent-teenager analogy is. Parents have near-complete autonomy and are able to impose their will on children. The US government is a republic, with representatives who are given specific, limited powers. When you use the parent-teenager analogy all you have to do to make your side of the analogy seem “true” is turn the opponent’s position into the “teenager,” but that doesn’t mean that the US government works like a family, any more than the federal debt works like a credit card.

Fortunately it looks like the American public is finally starting to get wise to this tactic. They now realize that Republicans are giving us a false choice between exceeding some arbitrary “debt ceiling” and cutting popular programs like Social Security and Medicare. The so-called debt crisis is simply an opportunity for Republicans to try to shove their unpopular agenda down America’s throat, and it appears that in this case, sanity will, briefly, prevail.

Sometimes I wonder if the stupid analogies aren’t actually what helps push popular opinion past the tipping point: When people see that the analogies are irrelevant, they start to take a look at the actual policy implications of Republican rhetoric, and they don’t like what they see.

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