The Common Good

Debt Ceiling 101: Boundaries and Original Sin

The world as we know it may end on Oct. 17.

This statement seems hyperbolic. It sounds like another absurd prediction of the end times that garners far too much attention from the media. But this isn’t about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Unless the Congress raises the debt ceiling, Oct.17 is the date that the United States government runs out of money to pay its bills.

The consequences could be catastrophic.

Defaulting on our financial obligations would shatter the global confidence in the U.S. dollar that has made it the worldwide reserve currency. U.S. Treasury bonds would no longer be perceived as safe investments, which means creditors would demand higher interest rates to purchase the bonds because of the increased investment risk. The rise in interest rates would make U.S. debt more expensive to finance, leading to more government spending and slower economic growth. The U.S. Treasury believes a default could cause another recession far worse than what we experienced in 2008.

Of course, this pending crisis is completely manufactured and entirely avoidable.

Since 1917, Congress has limited the amount of debt the U.S. can accumulate. In order to borrow beyond the current limit, Congress must take legislative action authorizing an increase. This is known as “raising the debt ceiling.” This becomes necessary when the government’s bills exceed the amount of resources available.

Until very recently Congress has regularly raised the debt ceiling with little opposition and almost no controversy. Leaders from both parties realized the necessity of paying the bills already incurred based on the spending Congress had authorized. Basic math and common sense reigned in Washington.

Recently, however, conservatives in the House of Representatives have seen the need to raise the debt ceiling as leverage for winning concessions on other issues. After a prior showdown in 2011 cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.2 billion, President Obama and Democrats have refused to legitimize the tactic by negotiating over an issue of such significance for our economy and global financial health.

While initially seeming extreme, the analogy of hostage taking fits the circumstances well. Elected leaders of the United States are willing to risk economic catastrophe unless their demands are met.

Such a position is reckless and irresponsible, far more rooted in political ideology than sound public policy.

This failure of leadership, bordering on a denial of reality, also reflects a fundamental truth that Genesis has warned us about for thousands of years: there are limitations in the world that humans refuse to heed at their own peril.

The story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:4-3) is very familiar to us. God creates humans and places them in the Garden of Eden to work and care for the rest of Creation. While they are allowed to eat of fruit anywhere in the garden, God prohibits them from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A serpent proves persuasive and both Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit. Having gained the knowledge of good and evil, thus attempting to become like God, they are cursed and then banished from the Garden.

For centuries interpreters have sought to understand the meaning of this rich text. At its core, the story is about boundaries transgressed resulting in an innocence that cannot be recovered. By refusing to obey the limitations imposed on them by God – that is by attempting to control their own destiny instead of living into the vocation given to them – Adam and Eve suffer irrevocable consequences. Human interactions are distorted. Work is transformed from a labor of love to a life of toil. The relationship with God is damaged in ways beyond human redemption.

Boundaries are created for a reason. Limitations need to be respected. The costs of failing to recognize these truths have severe costs.

The debt ceiling is a boundary. It may not be an eternally established truth, but failing to respect it will likely have severe consequences.

As every American understands, defaulting on a mortgage, missing a car payment, or making other decisions that damage your credit score causes serious financial pain that can haunt an individual for years and decades. In most cases, it is caused by events beyond a person’s control – losing a job, unexpected medical expenses, or a tanking economy – that brings financial disaster. Nobody seeks out, much less invites, such destruction.

The United States has always paid its debts. Defaulting on our obligations would take us into unprecedented territory impacting our nation for generations. We could never again return to a time where our creditworthiness was unquestioned.

Those in Congress who are recklessly flirting with disaster might consider reading and reflecting on the early chapters of Genesis. We live in a world where actions have consequences. I hope our leaders in Congress have learned this lesson.

Rev. Beau Underwood is Director of Campaigns and Advocacy at Sojourners. He also works part-time at a Washington, D.C., congregation.

Image: Debt crisis illustration, mikeledray / Shutterstock.com

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