Friday, September 27, 2013

Reason #304: On The Debt Ceiling

The United States had no debt ceiling until 1917--its debt obligations were minor, and sporadic, enough that Congress was able to authorize them on a case-by-case basis. The Second Liberty Bond Act in 1917 set limits on the debt the nation could incur, but they were different from one category to the next, and there was no one absolute limit until 1939. In 1979, noting the insanity of requiring that Congress pass one bill to incur debt and another bill to pay for it, they instituted the Gephardt Rule, which essentially linked the debt ceiling to any raise of the overall national budget--if they wanted another ten bucks, well, then the debt ceiling would have to go up ten bucks. Easy-peasy.

That worked okay for a little while; then came the Republican revolution in 1994. It wasn't until Newt Gingrich and his cronies swept into the lead in Congress that year that the debt ceiling and the budget were once again severed, which is what led us to this point--where Congress can increase spending as much as it wants without having to vote to actually pay for that spending. Brilliant, right?

Anyway, it's true when Obama says that before his administration, no Congress had ever actually used that authorization as a level to extract miscellaneous agenda items from the other party. During a period of divided control of Congress, Ronald Reagan famously had to harangue Congress to allow raises in the debt ceiling eighteen times (and George H. W. Bush seven times, though admittedly, the Democrats were in control by then).

The point is, as much as Republicans are supposed to be the fiscally-conservative party, the debt ceiling's history as a political tool is decidedly bipartisan; since it doesn't actually limit spending in any way, is makes an easy cudgel with which the party not in control of the White House can hammer the party that has control of the White House, on purely rhetorical grounds.

Moreover, the Department of the Treasury has a number of "extraordinary measures" it can enact to continue making payments on existing debt for months beyond a theoretical breach of the debt ceiling, so it's really the perfect rhetorical tool--it sounds bad, and it can hurt perception of the American economy's stability, but Republicans can wave it around as much as they want without doing direct harm to the economy (which is to say, if our credit rating gets downgraded because of their nonsense, they can still blame the president).

Of course, the executive branch has the power to authorize an increase it unilaterally and to hell with Congress, as Nancy Pelosi noted recently. But at this point, I say why not?

Further Reading

Wikipedia: United States debt ceiling

Wikipedia: History of United States debt-ceiling increases

Friday, September 13, 2013

Reason #303: Sure, Give Putin the Nobel. Who Gives a Shit.

Proving that there's no one they won't rally behind if it allows them to criticize Obama, Fox News has joined the still-relatively-scarce calls for Russian Prime Minister President Emperor Whatever Vladimir Putin to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his spearheading, if that's what you want to call it, of the effort to take international control of Syria's supply of chemical weapons.

Some even go one step further, suggesting that Obama should turn his own Nobel, which even I'll admit he barely earned, over to Putin--since compared to the guy who last week was getting ready to bomb people, Putin is obviously the real man of peace here.

It's all fairly silly, of course, but this morning I heard someone on NPR, I'm not sure whom, make the case that the United States should want nothing more than for Putin to win a Nobel--because it will mean we've pushed him, through his own pettiness and egotism, to become a better leader.

I have a friend at work who's very into the Myers-Briggs personality matrix--INTP, ENFJ, all that stuff. I've never really been that interested in it--not that I don't think it makes a certain degree of sense, but I prefer to take people on a case-by-case basis rather than attempting to fit them into some sort of personality box, accurate or otherwise. After working with me pretty closely for a couple months, my friend decided that I'm an INTJ--intuition, something, something, judgment. As you can see, I still wasn't too interested.

But one thing I thought was interesting was that the INTJ profile he showed me mentioned Putin as a famous example of the INTJ type (which is actually fairly rare). So I've been feeling an odd sense of kinship with the piece of shit for the last couple months.

And make no mistake--he is a piece of shit. "Egotist" is the least critical word I can think of to describe him. Which is why the Nobel idea really isn't half bad. At the end of the day, it really doesn't mean a damned thing--obviously, since they basically gave it to Obama for being black and popular at the same time. So if stroking his ego a bit actually motivates him to take the whip he's got hanging over Syria and crack it a couple times, and in the process save thousands of lives (or at the very least, rid the world of some chemical weapons), then by all means--give him a fucking Eagle Scout badge while we're at it. He can have mine.

Could Obama have handled this Syria situation better from the beginning? Probably. But that Obama is willing to take advantage of a good idea that he didn't necessarily have himself is a sign, to me, that he actually does care about helping the people of Syria, instead of just looking like a big, decisive, tough guy. You know who was decisive as hell? George W. Bush.

I've said here before that I think when you're the president of a country like ours, there are some situations where there simply are no good answers, and good leadership is about knowing which decision damns you the least. So when it comes to war, and potentially killing innocent people to get at the less-innocent ones, I think a little indecision is damned refreshing.

Further Reading

Vladimir Putin, The Next Nobel Peace Prize Winner?

Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize

Friday, September 6, 2013

Reason #302: The Conversation

So now that I've got that out of my system, I can talk about Syria a little more directly. I argued quite specifically for missile strikes a little while back, and while I stand by that argument, I have to admit I've heard a lot of good points made against them in the last week--and a lot less crazy bullshit.

The Washington Post had a great article about Syria over the weekend (below) that (subtly) makes the case for strikes insofar as they would enforce the worldwide "norm" against using chemical weapons. Even if we can't single-handedly remove Assad from power without invading and turning it into a redo of Iraq, and even if we don't necessarily want the rebels to be running the show over there, punishing Assad for his apparent use of sarin still has intrinsic value--provided it's an effective lesson, and that he's willing to listen.

What I'm not so sure of is whether he would listen. The best argument I've heard against the strikes, and there have been many, is that Assad is literally fighting for his own survival--if he sees his options as either "use chemical weapons and win" or "don't use chemical weapons and die", then he's going to use them, and any other measures he deems necessary, to stay where he is, no matter what the West thinks about it. Assad can't go back, after all this, to just being an iffy Ahmadinejad figure on the world stage; someone we tolerate, but don't like or take seriously. So what's his motivation to ever play nice again?

The problem, of course, is that that argues for regime change--something no one in America has any interest in anymore, thanks to the recklessness of the Bush administration. As far as I'm concerned, Assad being free to gas thousands of his own people with impunity because the West wasted all its gumption on another invasion entirely is just another entry for Bush's list of crimes against mankind--maybe not in the legal sense, but certainly in the moral sense.

Of course, that's also why I can appreciate Obama giving this decision over to the congress--even if the prolonged debate renders the results less effective, and even if he admits it's a formality and his mind is already made up. After Iraq, seeing a congress that actually may not vote to authorize the strikes, that isn't breaking out the war paint at the mere possibility of throwing a couple hundred missiles around, is a welcome sign, and shows that Obama really wants this debate to happen, even if it makes him look bad afterward.

As much as I support Obama in a general sense, I still don't really know what I think about all this. But for once, at least, it's nice to be asked.

Further Reading

Reason #287: Death From Above

9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

Chris Hayes States Opposition To Syria Intervention