The Debt Ceiling Debate Is Like ... (Enter Metaphor Here)


It's a hostage negotiation! It's a lunch conversation! No, it's the debt ceiling debate.

In an effort to explain the infinite insanity of the debt ceiling negotiations, commentators are grasping for metaphors. And many are quite good! The classic comparison is to a hostage negotiation, where Republicans threaten to vote against raising the debt ceiling -- "shoot the hostage" -- unless Democrats give in to spending cuts.

But this metaphor is incomplete. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would hurt Republicans at least as much as Democrats. For any elected official to hold our financial credibility hostage means holding a gun to his own head, not a hostage's.

To me, the debt ceiling, itself, is silly enough to take a pejorative metaphor. Imagine if you asked your family to vote every month on whether you should pay off the house credit card bill. Your spouse would say yes. Your children would say yes. Your neighbor, if you cared to ask him, would say yes. There is nothing to be gained, after all, by not paying a bill you can afford to pay. So why put the family through a vote in the first place?

So it is with a debt ceiling. Ever year or so, the U.S. borrows enough money that we have to raise our legal debt limit. As a platform to demagogue against the majority party, this vote has proven extremely useful. As a means of minding the deficit or assuring foreign investors, it's as silly as polling your wife and neighbor when you receive each month's Chase credit card balance. Families don't vote on paying off credit cards. Governments shouldn't vote on raising debt limits. Indeed, most don't

On to more metaphors. Ezra Klein compared the partisan bickering to the world's most absurd lunch conversation.

You and I have decided to have lunch together today. We both need lunch. We both know we're going to have lunch. But we don't agree on where to eat. So you propose Mexican, but I counter with Chinese, and warn that if you refuse, neither of us will get to eat lunch ever again. Deal?

Of course not. But that's pretty much the GOP's strategy on the debt-ceiling negotiation.

Jon Chait compared and contrasted the GOP's strategy with Dennis Hopper's character from "Speed":

Dennis Hopper's villain in "Speed" didn't really care if he gained a reputation as the kind of guy who would kill innocent people for money. The GOP leadership, by contrast, is very eager to avoid being seen as willing to raise middle-class taxes, shut down the government or foul up the economic recovery.

Now, it's entirely possible that Republicans are crazy enough to shoot the hostages. That would cause a lot of short-term pain. But if the alternative is to let them slowly bleed Obama to death on policy, to threaten unpopular actions at no cost to themselves, and to force Obama to assume complete responsibility for their willingness to undertake actions even they agree would be harmful, what choice does he have?

Got more metaphors? Got better metaphors? Put 'em in the comments section -- or tweet them with the hashtag #debtceilingmetaphors.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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