The US is Politically BankruptRoundup
tags: debt ceiling, political history
Rebecca L. Spang is a professor of history at Indiana University. She is the author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture and of Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution.
At least for the moment, the U.S. Senate has averted a crisis over the federal debt ceiling, after some Republicans in the chamber grudgingly agreed yesterday to help Democrats put off a reckoning until December. That the United States has endured confrontation after confrontation in Congress over the issue—and will almost certainly do so again mere weeks from now—is, as many other commentators have noted, utterly absurd. If you were in the prime of your life; had a good, stable job; and needed money to make your beautiful, old house safe and comfortable, wouldn’t you take out a loan—and especially so if you found out lenders were rushing to give you money at just about 0 percent interest?
The U.S is not a homeowner, but it can well afford to borrow, and failure to raise the congressionally created debt ceiling is tantamount to saying the U.S. will not make good on payments it has already promised to make. This completely unnecessary bankruptcy crisis perpetually looms on the horizon—not because the country can’t pay its bills but because enough powerful people won’t let it. In the past, similar mistakes have led to catastrophe.
As a historian of the French Revolution, I cannot help but think of the impending state bankruptcy that pushed France into crisis in the late 1780s. In terms of “economic fundamentals,” prerevolutionary France was in good shape: It had Europe’s biggest population, thriving agricultural and manufacturing sectors, and an effective tax rate well below that of Great Britain. Nonetheless, decades of conflict over the size and purpose of its central government meant that disputes over budget deficits and national debt dominated French public debate. For years, the monarchy had endeavored to tax the super-wealthy; in response, many aristocrats, traditionally exempt from paying the head tax levied on commoners, decried those efforts as tyranny. Claiming to speak for France as a whole, members of a tiny and extremely privileged elite stymied all plans to tax their wealth—and did so in a way that rallied public opinion to their cause. Who else would defend the rights of the French nation against the encroachments and greed of expanding Big Government?
Norman noblemen and Paris magistrates were, we could say, the Koch Brothers of their day: bent on conserving their own position by fueling grassroots populism. Their successful depiction of the monarchy’s budget crisis as a result of its own opulence—even today, don’t we imagine that France’s money was spent on Marie Antoinette’s dresses and cakes?—made state finances into a moral, rather than political, issue. Like so many in the United States today, these critics of the centralizing monarchy couched political arguments in what looked like financial or budgetary terms. None of these self-interested aristocrats intended to start a revolution. But by blocking needed tax reform, they provoked a political showdown that eventually turned the summer of 1789 into a social, cultural, and economic crisis of unparalleled proportions.
Of course, 18th-century France differs from 21st-century America in countless ways. The United States has developed a host of mechanisms—including the creation of the Federal Reserve system and the rule exempting basic budget bills from filibuster—to stabilize the economy and protect the functioning of government. But these mechanisms work only if officials consciously activate them.