About Not the Debt Ceiling

July 29, 2011

It was my fullest intention to write this week about the debt ceiling. I was going to answer all your questions about what it was, what it meant, what the stakes were. I had real-life anecdotes that put it into terms that non-politically savvy people could understand. I had an essay prepared on why liberals didn’t need to worry about the debt ceiling so much, and an essay to conservatives on why raising the debt ceiling was in their own best interests.

But instead I’m going to write an essay on why I’m not going to write about the debt ceiling.

As vogue as politics have become in the last few years, the population of people who actually care is still relatively small, and I accept that. There were segments on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the Late Late Show that exposed the fact that nobody really even knows what the debt ceiling is. It seemed to me that it was perfect fodder, then, for me, as my personal goal is to provide what I consider agenda-free education on current events and such. Could there be a more perfect topic than one that all of us are thinking about but nobody understood?

I started conducting research. What did people want to know about the debt ceiling? What were their misconceptions? What were they afraid of that the didn’t have to be? What weren’t they afraid of that they should be? What I learned over two weeks of discussions is that nobody really cared what the debt ceiling was.

http://a.abc.com/media/_global/swf/embed/2.6.9/SFP_Walt.swfOn some level, people seem to believe that the debt ceiling is a completely fabricated term. It seems to fall in the same category as Y2K, or the Clinton Impeachment, or the outrage over Janet Jackson’s nipple, or that weirdo in California who said the world was ending. The politicians spend all their resources making a big deal out of something, but the consensus among most people is that no matter what happens, whether the debt ceiling passes or whether it doesn’t, when August 3rd rolls around, life will just go on as if nothing had happened.

And that’s as good of a reason as any why we should stop thinking that just because we’re a democracy, the average person somehow has any clue what’s really going on. It’s not their fault, though. Just as Hollywood movies have to blow something up or spend millions of dollars in computer effects to keep an audience’s attention, news media and politicians have been ramping up the rhetoric for so long that we just assume that everything from Washington is just the latest overblown faux-crisis. Even the Washington insiders are exploiting this jaded view of themselves—this week, Republicans literally referred to Harry Reid’s proposal to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “gimmicky.”

That’s not to say that people don’t have opinions about the debt ceiling. Boy, are there opinions. I even had this crazy idea of addressing those opinions, contributing to the discourse, dispelling some myths, but as I took a serious look at the substance of what people had to say about the debt ceiling, it was very clear that they still didn’t care about the actual issue of raising the debt ceiling. They care about the battle between liberals and conservatives, and the higher the stakes, the more intense the battle. But the opinions themselves are almost entirely just political mad libs, where they just pulled out their arguments about health care reform, or tax cuts for the rich, or the ACLU, and swapped out the nouns with “debt ceiling” and “default.”

I’m not saying they don’t care whether we raise the debt ceiling. They care. They really, really care. But very few people are willing to admit that they had never heard of the debt ceiling until earlier this year, and even now they don’t know what it is. Think back to when Clinton was impeached. Everybody made a really big deal about that. People took sides, and from how they put it, they saw the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal or the subsequent hearings (depending on which side you were on) as the bellwether of the end of our society. Then Clinton was impeached, and everybody was shocked and stunned that he got to keep on being President. Why? Because at no point did anybody really care what “impeachment” meant. They never made any effort to find out. It was just the latest noun in their word salad of political outrage.

It’s no wonder, then, that people don’t take the current debate over raising the debt ceiling seriously. Most people can’t differentiate between the current debate and the other 10 things a year that they’re told is the worst thing ever to happen in the history of America. They don’t care what the debt ceiling is, because they’ve got other things to care about, and it didn’t seem to hurt them any that they didn’t really understand Y2K or impeachment or so-called armageddon.

And so if I were to spend an entire week publishing online a survey of the debt ceiling and its history, who would read it? How would it prove to be a constructive use of my time?

I don’t have a problem, by the way, with people thinking they have better things to worry about. Ultimately, that’s the smartest stand to take, because if Speaker Boehner and President Obama are as powerless as they appear to be, there’s certainly nothing that any of us can do. However, there are also plenty of people who take one side or another and take it very, very seriously. They believe that nothing less than the permanent integrity of our nation rests in this decision, that the unprecedented move of defaulting on our debts would cause an irreversible, worldwide catastrophe, that if our government cannot raise the debt ceiling, they will officially be the worst government in the history of democracy. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not, but what’s important here is that they don’t care whether they’re right. They don’t even care what they’re talking about. And their reckless abuse of ignorance is patently obvious to everyone.

Their willing ignorance is what has led 65% of Americans (that figure is based on nothing) not to care, but more importantly, it is what has empowered politicians to have these fights at all. If politicians thought that nobody would care, they wouldn’t bother trying to earn political points on these issues and they’d just do their jobs, but if they thought that Americans would actually attempt to educate themselves and make rational decisions based on the facts they were presented, they wouldn’t take these hardline stances and they would govern with open minds and nuance, which would inevitably lead to agreement and compromise. But the Darwinian nature of a two-year political cycle has long sifted out the governors of nuance and they have been replaced by the politicians best able to exploit their willfully ignorant base, whether it’s the no-taxes moral majority of the right or the black man of hope versus the feminist icon of empowerment on the left.

If there is any one thing that Americans should truly be afraid of, one thing that ultimately does cause visible permanent damage to our national well-being, the willfully ignorant angry mobs who spit in the face of facts and reason are it.