The Debt Ceiling and Collective Punishment

There is a strong (and growing) chance that, barring an epidemic of reasonableness breaking out in the nation’s capital, the US will default on its debts sometime in early August, perhaps as early as a week from today.  At that point, the government will not be able to meet all of its financial obligations, including interest payments on the debt, Social Security payments, Medicare reimbursement, etc.  However, it will continue to be able to meet some of those obligations.  Therefore, one effect would be that the President and his administration would have to prioritize certain kinds of payments that would be made first, while other types of payments may not be made at all.

As long as priorities have to be set, I would like to see the following: instead of cutting of Medicare, Social Security, military salaries, etc. entirely, let’s cut them only in those states whose Senators will not support a clean debt limit hike.  Every state has two Senators (that makes assigning responsibility easier than by representation in the House of Representatives, which varies widely by state), so if both your Senators support, or reject, a debt ceiling hike, you get 100%, or 0%, respectively, of whatever money the federal government is able to set aside for those purposes.  If your state is split, you get 50%.  (Using Senators instead of Representatives also makes the math easier)  Its pretty well-established that many, if not most, of the states whose Senators will likely reject a clean debt ceiling hike are government spending mooches, so they have even more to lose.1

Its a form of collective punishment.  Likely nothing will persuade citizens to move their Senators (and Representatives) to support debt ceiling increases, or moving said leaders out of office, than depriving them of  their increasingly invisible government benefits.  Someone might argue that what this proposal really does is hurt the poor and the vulnerable who are dependent on these benefits, a charge to which I am particularly sensitive.  However, when the choice is between depriving all of the poor, or depriving only a portion of the poor (and a disproportionate number of the white rural poor who voted Republican at that), I would almost always choose the latter.  But, as the cliche goes, elections have consequences, and they ought not to just have consequences for the ruling class, but for those that elect them.

I’m fully aware of how politically infeasible this kind of proposal would be.  Collective punishment is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war, and after all, politics is war by other means (Joe Klein on Gingrich in the New Yorker).  Any President who tried it would be committing electoral suicide for him/herself and their party, since any swing state that was deprived would henceforth cease to be a swing state.  But one can dream…

1 I am presuming for the purpose of this post, and I think with good reason, that a “clean” debt ceiling vote would break down on predictably partisan lines, with Democrats voting for and Republicans voting against.  That means that NC (where I grew up) gets 50% of its payments, Texas (the state in which I currently reside) gets nothing (as does Utah, where many family members reside), while NY and CA would get 100%.


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