Doom Required

Out here in Hollywood, when a major studio is on a losing streak and losing big money, those who green-light projects get antsy. They need to come up with a cash cow, quickly, and anything original is not what they have in mind. Johnny Depp as a spaced-out tragically hip Tonto turned out to be a bad idea. A sequel to something that made a ton of money before might work, but recapturing the magic, as they say, is damned hard, and the previous stars have probably moved on with their careers, or they’re in rehab or jail. The idea of taking a gamble that the public will accept someone else as the sweet young thing, or someone else as the square-jawed resourceful hero, makes the studio guys queasy however – so they spend big bucks to sign-up as much of the original cast they can sweet-talk into giving it another go, and hope for the best. That’s where this summer’s junk comes from, but that’s overlooking the obvious. End-of-the-world movies always make money. Back in the fifties it was flying saucers or giant ants or a fifty-foot-woman, and then the Japanese chipped in with Godzilla and the big moth and all the rest. The production values were a few steps below amateurish, but the profits were huge. There’s a lesson there, and in the last few years we’ll had the world plunged into a new ice age, because of global warming of course, and the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, even if nothing happened in real life, another alien invasion – their spaceships were five miles wide this time – and a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, updated with not just a warning for humans to get their act together but the end of life as we know it – no machines of any kind will ever work again. This year it was a zombie apocalypse. Doom sells – and it’s never really doom. Plucky humans survive, somehow. There’s always a happy ending, or a hopeful ending. The only exception might be Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Strangelove movie – where no one survives. We wipe ourselves out in an absolutely inevitable global thermonuclear war. It’s a comedy.

Kubrick was, among other things, mocking all of us for blithely accepting the notion that doom isn’t really doom. He was making fun of our conditioned hopefulness. Life isn’t a Hollywood movie, or one of those other Hollywood movies, not his. We can ruin everything, and probably will. We certainly will. Whatever it is, it won’t be that bad, not really – somehow we’ll be fine? Dream on.

No one seems to believe folks like Kubrick. They’ve seen all the other movies too many times, and, as they say, Washington really is Hollywood for ugly people. It’s more than just the preening and oversized egos. It’s the assumption that there is no such thing as doom, really. Things always work out somehow. We’re plucky. Everyone knows that.

That means you get stuff like this:

As Congress braces for another debt-ceiling fight, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) told constituents the nation’s credit rating would actually be better if the United States defaulted on its debt.

Speaking at a town hall Monday in Orange Park, Fla., Yoho, who recently made news for calling an Obamacare tanning tax “racist” and expressing support for the birther movement, was asked about his position on raising the nation’s borrowing limit. He said he would not vote in favor of a debt ceiling increase, a response that was met with applause.

The Florida Republican and tea partier went on to explain that only a few business owners have told him it’s imperative for the government to pay its bills, then he argued that the country would benefit from a “major reset.”

Yep, he talked to a few business owners. A few even said they’d be fine if the government doesn’t pay them for this and that – they have other customers, but that kind of misses the point:

Yoho’s latest comments put him in the category of default deniers – lawmakers who reject the idea that a failure to raise the debt limit would lead to economic catastrophe. Economists have long warned, however, that the consequences of default are far more severe. They include a delay in Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits, collapse in prices for Treasury bonds resulting in record high interest rates, and a stock market plunge that could trigger a recession. When partisan bickering led to an impasse over raising the debt ceiling in 2011, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded by rating agency Standard & Poor’s.

This is pretty simple stuff. The last time around, even the threat that Congress would make it now impossible for the government to even pay the interest on the trillions of dollars in outstanding Treasury bonds, which we sold to pay for two wars and bailing out the big banks and most everything else, screwed our credit rating. That actually happened. Creditors are not impressed when you say you’re broke and you just won’t pay them, especially when, unlike Greece, we control our own currency and can issue more bonds – in effect, printing more dollars. Eventually that might deflate the value of the dollar a bit, but it sure beats having to pay triple the current interest to get anyone to ever buy a Treasury bond again, if they even want to. Stiffing your creditors doesn’t improve your credit rating.

There’s the matter of the world economy too. Treasury bonds, ours only, have always been the one safe haven where the world parks its excess funds. If we say they’re worthless – we won’t pay you back, or even pay the interest on them, all bets are off. The whole system collapses, worldwide, and there’d be chaos for decades. The entire structure of the world’s financial system would have to be rebuilt from scratch, and without us. That worries the financial market a bit. That’s more than a major reset. That’s doom, really.

Obama is on it:

“We’ve seen a sizable group of Republican lawmakers suggest they wouldn’t vote to pay the very bills that Congress rang up – a fiasco that harmed a fragile recovery in 2011, and one that we can’t afford to repeat,” Obama said in July. “Then, rather than reduce our deficits with a scalpel – by cutting programs we don’t need, fixing ones we do, and making government more efficient – this same group has insisted on leaving in place a meat cleaver called the sequester that has cost jobs, harmed growth, hurt our military, and gutted investments in American education and scientific and medical research that we need to make this country a magnet for good jobs.”

In short, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. We can doom ourselves – we’re getting there.

On the other hand, maybe it is like a Hollywood movie, because it seems everything now depends on one strange man who on a good day looks a bit like a dyspeptic turtle:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election battle against a credible conservative opponent upends congressional politics in a way that makes it harder to avoid a government shutdown and debt default. In recent years, the Kentucky Republican has had a knack for cutting deals at the last minute to break impasses and avert fiscal crises.

This time around – as federal government funding expires Sept. 30 and as the U.S. brushes up against the debt limit in the fall – playing that role could end his career.

“I’ve watched McConnell closely and after the fiscal cliff resolution he’s taken on a very different role, including last week sabotaging Susan Collins on the transportation bill. He’s very fearful of a challenger to his re-nomination,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And stepping in at the last minute to do a budget deal or save us from breaching the debt limit would be disastrous for him.”

Senate Democratic leaders also worry that his re-election dynamics make crisis likelier, especially with Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) more powerless than usual, having promised his ultraconservative members he won’t negotiate privately with President Obama.

“His lurch to the right and his desperation to portray himself to the Tea Party as the chief opponent of the President absolutely makes it more difficult to get a deal,” said a senior Democratic aide, speaking anonymously to discuss internal matters. “In the past he would swoop in at the end and negotiate, and now we just can’t be sure he will be able to do that.”

Mitch McConnell’s trapped:

In the final hours of 2012, McConnell negotiated a resolution to avoid tax hikes as part of the so-called fiscal cliff. At the end of 2011, he negotiated the agreement to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. And earlier that year the White House relied on him to iron out a deal to avert a catastrophic default with just two days to spare. Conservatives fought against all of those deals, demanding deeper spending cuts and zero tax hikes every step of the way. McConnell wasn’t running for re-election then, but he is now.

A McConnell campaign spokesman didn’t return a request for comment.

Add to that silence this dynamic:

The Democratic leadership aide lamented that “as we saw last week with the transportation and housing bill, he isn’t even willing to just vote no and stand aside – he actively worked to block a bipartisan bill and create more gridlock. In September he is going to have to decide if he wants to be relevant in the negotiations and work with us to get a deal, if he will stand back and let the moderate Republicans take the lead, or if he will actively work to sabotage a deal and hurt the country to help himself back home.”

McConnell’s other challenge is that President Obama can hurt him simply by praising him.

Doom is at hand, and Josh Marshall adds this:

Whether or not McConnell finally wins or loses is basically a secondary point. It’s what he’ll do trying to win from now until Election Day 2014.

For all his nonsense, since 2010, it’s McConnell who has secured deals several times to prevent congressional Republicans, particularly House Republicans, from running the economy totally off the rails. But now he’s in a fight for his political life at home to prove that he is the ultimate Tea Partier. So anything he goes soft on, like avoiding the shutdown of the entire federal government or preventing the first debt default in US history, will get laser-like scrutiny on the right and perhaps lead to his undoing at home. That could mean losing his primary battle with Bevin – which I agree is quite unlikely but not impossible – or getting so beat up during the battle that he’s too damaged to defeat Grimes next Fall.

Whatever the mix of outcomes, McConnell now has to out-crazy the crazies on Capitol Hill to stay alive politically.

Matt Bevin is his challenger on the crazy right, by the way, and Alison Grimes is the Obama Democrat. Let’s just hope McConnell doesn’t start talking about “precious bodily fluids” like the guy in the Kubrick movie, and here’s a little inside baseball:

With another showdown looming over the national debt, Washington insiders last month received some unsettling news: Rohit Kumar, a Republican aide who has played a key role in warding off disaster, is leaving Capitol Hill.

Kumar is the guy who came up with a way to sell a $700 billion bank bailout to anxious lawmakers in 2008 when the financial system was collapsing. And he’s the guy who figured out how to let conservatives raise the debt limit while voting against it in 2011 when the nation was days away from default.

As Congress braces for a possible government shutdown next month and the fresh danger of default before Thanksgiving, the departure of Kumar, the chief negotiator for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is a huge loss. And he’s just the latest in a surprising exodus of senior GOP staffers that has worried people in both parties and darkened the outlook for the confrontation this fall.

Doom really is at hand, and it’s not a comedy, according to one of Josh Marshall’s readers:

I work in the investment industry and I am watching the town hall meetings, this thing with McConnell – and it is bringing flashbacks to 2011. I don’t think most people understand just how close we were to a real meltdown that summer. Without Biden and McConnell, there would have been a default and that would have dwarfed 2008. Now normally, the country would be able to count on the fact that they averted disaster last time, so therefore, they will find a way to avert it again this time. But as I’ve thought about it all week (and for some time before this week), I’ve had a nagging thought that this is all wrong. But, I couldn’t put a finger on it either.

But after seeing the coverage of the town halls this week and listening to the right wing turn on their own, little by little, I guess I get it now. These people really are nihilistic and the only thing that will satisfy them is a total breakdown of government. Only then, they believe, can we have our “freedoms” and our “rights”. I don’t pretend to understand how you mentally get to that point, but that’s where they are.

So, an investment banker thinks this would dwarf the 2008 economic collapse, and adds this:

I know that there have always been crazy people in this country throughout our history, but there have also always been rational people who think first about the country and act accordingly. But that’s not where we are today. Rational people have been voted out or left and in their place are the Lee’s, Cruz’s, Rubio’s, etc. And while they claim to be capitalists and free market proponents, they couldn’t negotiate themselves out of a paper bag in the real world, and they have no understanding of practical economics. You can spout Ludwig von Mises all you want, but it has no practical application to the real world.

Which brings me back to McConnell. For all of the issues I disagree with him on, at least he was rational and would cut the deal to keep us from going over the big cliff. If he’s gone over to Crazyland and Boehner has abdicated any remaining parts of his speakership, then what’s left?

This guy is worried:

A government shutdown can be dealt with, that won’t kill the economy, but the debt ceiling default will. And without someone who can/will cut a deal, it’s unnerving to watch.

Of course it is, but another reader, an investment advisor, argues that things will work out:

The rank and file GOP seems more nihilistic than ever. Not only are they not afraid of something truly untoward – they seem to crave it. So I get that. And certainly GOP leadership has less control over the rank and file than it ever has. I get that too. But the radicalism, nihilism and disarray of the GOP have their limits. If that wasn’t the case, then the effort to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare would be on track and I think everyone acknowledges that that crazy idea is going nowhere.

So why is the idea of triggering a debt default any different? Okay, yes, I can see that it’s different in certain respects. The effort to defund Obamacare was more clearly flawed and I would imagine there are some semi-sane GOPers who aren’t willing to go to the mat over defunding but would go to the mat over the debt ceiling. But if Obama and Dems hold firm, and I presume they will, then leadership and various sane voices in the GOP will pull the party back from the brink for the simple reason that they want to hold onto the House in 2014. They are clearly poised to hold on, but in the event of a debt default debacle, all bets would be off.

As with an absolutely inevitable global thermonuclear war, perhaps, enlightened self-interest will save the day:

The last time debt default was on the table Boehner clearly saw that this was a losing issue for the GOP and quickly punted, creating the new deadline later this year. I just fail to see how the calculus has changed. Sure, Mitch McConnell will have to align himself with the crazies. And sure, there will be lots of heated rhetoric and it will look dicey for a while. But at the end of the day, Boehner will ignore the Hastert rule if he has to and Harry Reid will get enough Republicans to avoid a filibuster. And there will be threats of Boehner losing his speakership over the matter. And they’ll come to nothing.

I wouldn’t bet my life on all of that, but as long as Obama and Dems hold firm, I feel pretty good about the debt ceiling. Of course there’s lots of other fiscal stuff that has to be resolved. And I expect it will get pretty ugly and the stock market will probably get whacked at some point. But a debt default? Pretty unlikely from where I’m sitting.

That’s cheery, and we never did have any global thermonuclear war – that was just a movie too – but we could have. We came close a few times, and Kevin Drum, frames the current threat level this way:

Here are the reasons for optimism:

A fair number of Republicans think it would be suicidal to shut down the government.

And here are the reasons for pessimism:

The tea party has gotten tired of constant betrayal by Republican leaders and is more hunkered down than ever.

Mitch McConnell, who cut several of the most recent deals, is in a tough primary fight and can’t afford to be seen as a compromiser this year.

John Boehner doesn’t have even a pretense of control over his caucus anymore.

The exodus of top aides who actually did the spadework makes negotiations more polarizing than ever.

An awful lot of Republicans seem dead serious about this business of passing a budget only if it repeals Obamacare.

House Republicans have already demonstrated an inability to get agreement within their own caucus for even a fairly simple appropriations bill.

His summary assessment:

Let’s just say that things look grim. The tea party lunatics are madder than ever, the guys in the trenches have given up, and the Republican leadership is MIA. Against that we have a few columnists bringing up the specter of 1995. But that was 18 years ago. For the modern conservative crowd, that might as well have been the middle ages. They’re eager for a showdown, and I have a feeling they’re going to get one.

That sounds like a Hollywood movie, and seems to be the real-life situation too. Washington really is Hollywood for ugly people, and Hollywood is where there’s always a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. They’ll get their fight, and things will work out. Pluck and common sense always win the day – everyone knows that – they win the day even in the smoldering ruin of a world where the sweet young thing and the square-jawed resourceful hero are the only two left alive to carry on, as the music swells and the credits roll. Did we sign up for that movie?


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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