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Of Lemmings, and Cliffs

January 4, 2013

Lemmings have a bad rep. Unusual among mammals, lemming populations naturally fluctuate widely, from superabundance to near extinction. In the 1500s, the explanation for these fluctuations was that lemmings dropped from the sky during the winter and then died off when the grass grew in the spring.

In our more sophisticated age, it is supposed that lemming population collapse is attributable to mass suicide, as lemmings inexplicably charge off cliffs to their deaths. The misconception was popularized in 1955 by a Disney comic showing large numbers of lemmings jumping off Norwegian cliffs.

Conservative members of the House of Representatives, and a few Senators, have shown their own willingness to jump off of cliffs, at least on the condition that they get to take the country and our economy with them. In April 2011, Congress passed a budget that called for more borrowing than was authorized by the debt ceiling then in place, but Congress did not commensurately raise the debt ceiling. That summer, Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless major portions of the budget that Congress had passed were undone.

Conservatives often say that the country should balance its budget just like American households do – disregarding the fact that most American households don’t in fact balance their budgets; they borrow, by means of mortgages, credit cards, or other forms of debt, to buy things now that they’ll pay for later.

Conservatives don’t seem to mind the idea that, unlike the common household, their decision to buy a thing doesn’t end the discussion of whether they are obligated to pay for the thing. If an American household orders some furniture, that household doesn’t get to take delivery and then take a vote on whether to pay for the furniture – the bill is due and payable because the order was placed and delivery was taken. Failure to pay results only in a wrecked credit rating, not to mention repossession of the furniture.

Turns out, our country’s credit rating works pretty much the same way. The mere fact that we debated whether to raise the debt ceiling to pay for all the stuff we had ordered resulted in a downgrade of the American credit rating. Standard & Poor’s reduced American sovereign debt from a AAA rating to AA+, which is lower than Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore and most of Western Europe, and on a par with Austria, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. A lower credit rating means that the borrower has to pay higher interest rates for credit. Conservatives promise to do the same with this year’s debt ceiling debate.

Successful negotiation requires that you make the other side think that they want a deal more than you do – that you are perfectly willing to go without a deal. You don’t go into a used car dealer talking about how you absolutely must own that SUV in the corner. You start negotiations by saying that you’re really just looking, and that SUV is nice but seems to have a lot of wear, and you really would prefer something in red, and maybe a sun roof.

In debt ceiling negotiations, conservatives will get nothing if everybody thinks they really want a deal. To get anything out of the negotiation, conservatives have to convince everyone that they are perfectly willing to leave the table without a deal.

Since leaving the table without a deal means an American sovereign debt default, which would have calamitous effects on our economy immediately and for decades to come, conservatives’ negotiating tactics require that conservatives convince everyone else that they are willing to ruin the American economy now and for the foreseeable future.

Patriotism was once considered a conservative value. No more, I suggest. No more.

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