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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Debt-Ceiling Disaster Flick, Hollywood-Style

During the last two weeks of July 2011, the American media was focused on the debt-ceiling negotiations. In the midst of a summer with plenty of natural distractions, an increasing number of Americans were cluing in to find their federal government at a stalemate as the clock ticked to a possible economic catastrophe said to begin on 12:01am on August 3, 2011. The U.S. Treasury department had estimated that it would run out of ways to make up for the lack of additional borrowing authority on August 2nd.  To the media, that meant a clock ticking down to 12 midnight. In actuality, tax revenues were up so the actual date was said to be around August 10th. In any case, the U.S. would not implode at precisely 12:01am on August 3rd by any account, yet that made better drama, which in turn increased viewership.

I contend that the American people were, by in large, taken for a ride by the media and members of Congress who tacitly worked to build suspense toward a precise crisis-point in order to gain the attention of the people. Never mind that the possible crisis was self-inflicted; the media companies would have higher viewership numbers and the elected representatives would be at the center of attention. To deflect blame, the politicians used their press conferences to take partisan shots at the other party. The idea was basically this: I get the attention and you get the blame. Meanwhile, msnbc.com assures its viewers that it would be covering the crisis all weekend.

I suspect that the suspense was faked. The Congressional leaders quietly admitted that they would not allow the U.S. Government to default. Few viewers apparently picked up on that; nor did it stop the news networks from continuing with their ticking clocks and instilling still more fear of a financial collapse. Put another way, were the politicians really as worried as they said they were, they would not have been spending their press conferences to bash the other guy. Were an asteroid rapidly hurling toward Earth, members of Congress would really be too scared to be concerned that the other party had gotten a good shot in and therefore should be countered. The officials would not even think of partisanship if there were a real danger of collapse. Nor would they allow themselves to get distracted by bringing in other obfuscating priorities. Instead, they would be concentrating on coming up with a plan to blow up the rock.

It is interesting, by the way, that in spite of such sustained and constant news coverage of the "crisis" over weeks, an intensely concentrated or focused public analysis did not ensue. Rather, there was merely more time for "talking heads" to pontificate and argue over the partisan shots and distracting other priorities that kept attention from being focused on the debt-ceiling question itself. In other words, even saturated coverage by the news media did not proffer a better public discourse on the topic. Is there perhaps a limit to how well public discourse can function in a union of republics or countries (i.e., on the scale of empire)? Even if so, the conduct of the representatives in the representative democracy does not give one more confidence.

For example, neither the media nor the public had an accurate understanding of default. Rather than happening at 12:01am on August 3rd without a raise in the debt-ceiling, it would not have happened until or unless the Treasury department missed interest and principal payments on Treasury bonds. Going on a cash basis and even closing some government agencies do not signify default, which pertains only to servicing existing debt. To the extent that the final agreement was accepted under the assumption that default would ensue in a day or two, the various errors concerning the nature of the doomsday contributed to the problem.

What most concerns me, however, is that the actual behavior of the members of Congress may have belied their attention-grabbing scare tactics. Sadly, I think the American people were taken in by the disaster-film narrative; we gave the news media and the politicians the attention they craved and we let them convince us that it was do or die on August 2, 2011. We bought into the notion that the world as we know it would end abruptly at 12:01am on August 3rd.  Consistent with the Congressional leaders’ quiet admission that not raising the debt-ceiling was “off the table,” a compromise arrived just in time, like a vintage ending of a Hollywood script--arriving just in the nick of time. The suspense was pushed just to the brink (defined as 12:01am on August 3rd), then the quick climax, just as in a standard screenplay. No more than ten or fifteen pages are allowed after the critical event when everything comes to a head.

I contend that the powers in Congress and the White House were quietly managing this drama, and that it ended just as they sought (i.e., maximizing the dramatic element, and thus the attention). Compromise did not have to come at the eleventh hour; the agreement was reached because it had been agreed that it would be. In other words, the politicians were not primarily oriented to averting "crisis"; they allowed their other agendas to intercede and we enabled this by giving the attention they craved. In other words, we rewarded the very behavior that belied the representatives' own claims, and we did so by tacitly agreeing to sit through the self-inflicted (by us and them) drama.

If I am correct, the problem involves a conflict of interest wherein the news media and politicians had as much or more of an interest in the attention that goes with even a self-inflicted crisis than in solving the immediate problem itself (i.e., deciding whether to raise the debt-ceiling). To the Americans who thought the Russian roulette was for real—that the politicians would actually permit default—the attention-grubbing plot was undoubtedly not appreciated.  Nor was it in the interest of the United States. It is as though the politicians in front of the microphones were indifferent to the stress being put on people already stressed out over a languid jobless “recovery.” But the politicians came out as screwed up, you retort. Yes, and Congress itself has an even worse reputation than it had before the "crisis."

It should be remembered, however, that politicians (and journalists) yearn for attention for its own sake, and they will do their utmost to shovel the blame on the other politician's sidewalk so to get both the attention and the credit for averting the crisis the very possibility of which they themselves created. If this doesn't sound rational, it is because it isn't. The politician's desire for attention can be intoxicating and even self-destructive. In the case of the debt "crisis" orchestrated drama, simply for us all to go through it was destructive. We were so oriented to the clocks ticking down to doomsday that we missed the real destructiveness going on in our being taken in by the ruse itself. Put still another way, if the members of Congress really thought the U.S. could be facing economic catastrophe, engaging partisan shots would be beyond reckless, given the pivotal role of the members in "saving" the country. Their own partisanship and other intervening priorities belied their claims of the magnitude of the risk of default. At the very least, something was amiss in how the politicians were presenting the drama itself, given their conduct. Sadly, we, the American people, were taken in by the torrid narrative itself, and therein resides the true destructiveness of the drama.