By Paul Whitefield
2:47 PM CST, January 23, 2013
Would the country be better off without a debt limit?
Maybe. Probably. Honestly, I don’t know.
But I’m certain I would be.
If I didn’t have a debt limit, I’d have a house in Malibu, and a Ferrari, and a Gulfstream, and … OK, yeah, I’m shallow and materialistic. So shoot me.
It’s a silly question, though, right? I mean, we all have debt limits. (Well, maybe the sultan of Brunei doesn’t.) Given that, the average American takes a common-sense attitude toward debt and applies it to the government.
But apparently, that’s dumb.
As my colleagues Jim Puzzanghera and Don Lee wrote Tuesday (and as my colleague Jon Healey has written on several occasions), the debt limit of the federal government is a different animal than the debt limit of me, you and your Aunt Shirley in Des Moines.
As some really smart economists said in Tuesday's Times:
The University of Chicago's survey of 38 academic economists found that 84% agreed that "a separate debt ceiling that has to be increased periodically creates unneeded uncertainty and can potentially lead to worse fiscal outcomes." Just 3% disagreed.
"It's a very unusual provision because in most countries, if they vote for a budget, they either have to borrow the money to pay for it or they have to raise taxes or cut someplace else," said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
"Separating out the spending from the actual payment for the spending is just a reckless fiscal policy," Kirkegaard said.
Hmmm. Wonder what happens when those economists go to buy a car?
But OK, I get it, I think. Still, like string theory, or quantum physics or the Big Bang, sometimes it’s hard to wrap my mind around all this. So I turn to real-life examples to help.
Take my friend Bob (not his real name, kinda like Manti Te'o’s girlfriend). Seems Bob's wife was also “separating out the spending from the actual payment” -- in his case, meaning she had no problem acquiring nice new clothes and such, but she was a little lax on the paying part, such as their credit cards and their mortgage.
So Bob imposed a debt limit: He cut up her credit cards. (Well, first he yelled a lot, then he cut up the cards.)
Did this work? It did. Was Bob happy? He was. Was Bob’s wife happy? She wasn’t.
So would this fix the country too? I'm looking for bipartisanship here, so let's hear a Republican's view first of the debt ceiling’s worth:
"In the simplest of terms, the debt limit helps hold Washington accountable to hardworking taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill for Washington's spending habits," Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) said Tuesday during a House hearing on the issue.
Which is fine, although that little word “helps” says it all, doesn’t it? Because you’re not really holding anyone accountable if you’re voting to raise it every time you need to, which Congress has done 76 times since 1962.
No, in this debate, the voice of reason is from the Democratic side of the aisle, in this case one Jerrold Nadler, a representative from New York.
"Let's abolish the debt ceiling, and if people think we're spending too much money, vote to spend less money," he said.
Works for me.
Though I really would like that new Ferrari.