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The Virtue of Principled Compromise: Brief Thoughts on the Debt Ceiling Crisis

by Carson T. Clark on July 25, 2011

What’s my perspective on the debit ceiling debate? If I may defer to Benjamin Franklin, as portrayed on HBO’s John Adams: “I’m an extreme moderate… I believe anyone not in favor of moderation and compromise ought to be castrated.” Now, please don’t misunderstand my meaning. I’m more of a “dual extremist” than I am “centrist.” After all, I voted for Obama and have already said that I’d probably vote for a competent Tea Party candidate next year–in my estimation, that excludes Palin or Bachmann–because they’re the only ones who are taking the debt issue as serious as necessary. My belief is that the Founding Fathers were extraordinarily wise. They quite intentionally established a form of government where it was painfully difficult to get anything done. They set up a system replete with checks and balances because they believed that with ease comes corruption. They understood that if one made the government simple then it’d quickly digress into authoritarianism. Thus, whereas most people see gridlock, corruption, and efficiency in our government, I see a complicated mess that’s working pretty much as it’s intended to. I keep hearing these jeremiads from those are either political polarity, and that itself gives me a measure of comfort. The system that everyone complains about and laments is, all things considered, actually functioning pretty darn well because the two sides bring balance to one another. This is perhaps most easily seen in a long-term, historical perspective. Notice the remarkable presidential parity since WWII: Truman (D), Eisenhower (R), Kennedy (D), Johnson (D), Nixon (R), Ford (R), Carter (D), Reagan (R), Bush (R), Clinton (D), Bush (R), Obama (D). That’s six apiece. As for the short-term, this debt ceiling crisis is the perfect example. Both sides are fighting tooth and nail, trying desperately to do what they think is best. That process tends to produce an overall moderating effect that seems to make sure neither ideological extreme goes too far. This I greatly value. Rather than seeing compromise as a dirty word, I see principled compromise as a virtue and a signifier of wisdom. Of course, all of this is contingent upon both sides actually compromising. If that breaks down we’re all pretty much hosed.

  • Ian Sansot

    I completely agree with (hold on, do all of my comments on here start that way now?) your discussion of political gridlock. Particularly, “Thus, whereas most people see gridlock, corruption, and efficiency in our government, I see a complicated mess that’s working pretty much as it’s intended to.” And before you think I’ve moderated anymore, just know that I’ve held onto that little political nugget since high school.

    However, I don’t understand what you’re meaning to say toward the end, when you start talking about principled compromise (beginning with “Rather than seeing compromise as a dirty word…”). Could you elaborate?

  • Kurt Willems

    Compromise, if it leads to social Darwinism is unchristian :-)

  • Joel Nordell

    Your last two sentences are exactly right — unfortunately, this seems to be exactly what’s happening lately.

    The big problem with the Tea Party is they are clinging irrationally to the tax cuts from the 2000s, and it is completely unreasonable (and illogical) to try to address the debt problems without considering reverting back to pre-2000s tax rates.

    The page I’m linking to below is really interesting, showing the impact of policy changes under the last two presidential administrations on the national debt. Its goal is not to assign blame for the debt, but to bring clarity to the debt debate and point out how unreasonable it is to talk about reducing the debt while simultaneously taking its largest contributor off the table.

    • Carson T. Clark
    • Joel Nordell

      Great link — gotta love!

      Really, the deficit problem is summed up in the Outlays vs. Revenues Since 1930 chart: spending has sharply increased at the same time that revenues have sharply decreased.

      I wonder if there’s a chart somewhere that shows how the various categories of spending (S.S., medicare, national defense, etc.) have changed over the past decade as a percentage of GDP? In other words, what actually accounts for the increase in spending?

      I’d love to see that federal spending pie chart from factcheck rendered instead as a line chart over time, like the outlays & revenues chart. That would be interesting.

    • Carson T. Clark

      “Really, the deficit problem is summed up in the Outlays vs. Revenues Since 1930 chart: spending has sharply increased at the same time that revenues have sharply decreased.”


  • jason dye

    there is nothing good in this latest fight. the GOP isn’t doing anything but grandstanding. The Tea Party doesn’t understand the first thing about how the economic system works (as they’re proving again and again), the Democrats are not really progressive or liberal, with few exceptions. There is no real polarity or two-party system.

    It’s all parlor tricks. They will end this soon, but right now they’re just playing the stupidest game of chicken ever. And Kurt’s right – if the Dems give up the social programs for the Republicans wishes, it’s disastrous for our nation’s poor.

    • jason dye

      In other words, there is no principles to the compromise that the Tea Party is seeking here. They’re not seeking debt-reduction. They’re seeking some recognition for looking like they’re fighting debt-reduction, while hurting the most vulnerable.

    • Carson T. Clark

      If/when Andrew Holmes replies, I’ll likely see you two as proving that the system is working 😉

    • Kurt Willems


  • carringtonam

    I enjoyed your post very much and I agree with it. Very thoughtful and very good. What you have articulated about separation of powers and compromise is near the heart of Federalist 10. I would just add a couple of thoughts.

    1) You articulated the restrictive and moderating roles of separation of powers, with which you are right on target. The writers/ratifiers of the Constitution also saw another side of it. Power isn’t necessarily unified in itself. There is a certain power and weakness in deliberation, in unity, and in judgment. They thought to divide power along these lines so that the different branches would be constructed to best realize different kinds of power. Legislative power speaks of generalities (as all laws do) and necessitates deliberation. Thus it is a good idea to have a Congress that has lots of people acting in a slow manner, so they can truly deliberate. But they are slow and sometimes swift action is required. That’s where the single-person executive is good.

    2) the massive growth of public administration the past century was an explicit attempt to get past separation of powers in the name of efficiency. In fact, that was an important argument of the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century (see Woodrow Wilson on this if you are more interested. He is very clear on how separation of powers is passe and we should move to a more united government).

    3) I like the two party system. I do because I think it makes politics much more moderate than multi-parties would because it takes such a diverse coalition to get 51% of the vote that a great amount of moderating occurs.

    Anyway, good thoughts again.

    • Carson T. Clark


      Love your comments. They’ve got the ol’ brain churning.

      Quick replies:

      1. Hadn’t considered that second thought. Interesting…

      2. Interesting again. Hadn’t linked progressivism with efficiency as such. That makes perfect sense with what I know of Wilson…

      3. Two words: Jesse Ventura. That’s my argument against third parties.

  • Kim Larsen

    This is so depressing.
    Did you all go to public schools?

  • Kim Larsen

    I don’t know what compels me to come back to this. Someone has to I suppose.

    1) The 2-party system (which wasn’t by design, remember) and more specifically the separation of powers, was not intended to birth the best of ideas. That is a pipe dream in any system. It is intended to slow down the action, as carringtonam says. The idea is that no intervention is usually better than bad intervention. As it applies here, the problem is not how to raise the debt ceiling. Don’t do it. Fine. The causative issue in this crisis is all the ways that our government and its multitudinous auxiliary tentacles has circumvented the intent of our constitutional design and has acted to create an unserviceable, unfathomable debt.

    Just btw, the Progressive movement of the late 19th century is responsible for much of the demise of our society, especially via public schools. Thus, my earlier comment.

    2) jason, read some history instead of textbooks or popular media and you will come to the conclusion that those programs are indeed the cause of the vulnerability in so much of our population. This is probably the point that provoked my discourteous earlier reply.

    4) The debt, the excess spending, can be found in a myriad of duplications and obsolete programs and legislative pork and all of the manpower that supports it. Military spending trends downward. But the bulk of our unfunded liability is in transfer payments via Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and pension guarantees. There isn’t enough private wealth to fully fund it. And private wealth declines under increasing taxation & regulation. The golden-egg laying goose myth is the truth that survives. (Tolkien)

    3) A teaching moment. Government is NOT an economic entity. It produces NOTHING. It is an economic influence, unfortunately. It can influence for good, such as encouraging sovereign states to cooperate on bridges and rail guage and roads to enable cross-border transportation of labor and goods. It often influences negatively by sucking the blood and air out of the economy. It often influences negatively by inserting arbitrary incentives and disincentives. Further, because government is not an economic entity, “revenue” is actually not revenue in the sense that it is in a private sector entity. Government “revenue” is merely a matter of absorbing economic revenue for diversion to its purposes. Therefore, lowering tax rates has far less to do with increasing the cash flow to government coffers than it does with increasing the volume and velocity of the real economy. Tax rate cuts are not spending. Tax rate increases are, in fact, detrimental to the cash flow to government because they starve the economy. That safety net, even if it’s provided by a unified, one-branch, one -party government is terribly inefficient, according to history and to deductive logic.

    I apologize for sounding angry and dismissive. These things are terribly important; they have real consequences and I’m very angry that educational standards and methods of the last 50+ years have left its people with so little framework for understanding.

    As I’ve posted elsewhere, doing the right thing will be extremely painful.
    Doing the wrong thing will be more so.

  • Drew Downs

    Your response wasn’t just a little angry, it was venomous. Particularly the snotty derision of public schools. In many ways, I think you are actually proving Jason’s point.

    My experience of the current debate is that we are screwed by our worship of Greek philosophy and are irrevocably wed to dualistic thinking. The two-party system doesn’t breed moderation or even polarization, but one-on-one combat in which one side is forced into taking an unreasonable position simply to be at odds with their opponent. If you look at the Canadian system, the Conservatives made a coalition with the liberals to form a government–that’s actual compromise.

    How it fuels this debate is that we now have over 100 Republicans in the House who have voted to raise the debt limit in the past suddenly demanding reseprocity for allowing the government to pay creditors for the credit it has already spent. If they really wanted to deal with the issue of debt, then deal with the issue of debt itself, not tying it to the payments it makes to it’s creditors. And since they like making the family’s budget analogy, they are saying “we need to reign in our spending” by refusing to pay off their credit cards rather than dealing with the spending. And since approximately half of the problem with the deficit (leading to problems in the long term with debt) is the sharp decline in revenues due to the millions of unemployed, the only viable long-term solution to the debt crisis is cutting unemployment in half. All the plans on the table will raise unemployment.

    Lastly, to deal with the actual sense of compromise, the current offers on the table can only be considered compromise or moderate if your definition of compromise is giving Republicans everything they asked for in the beginning. Even Obama’s Grand Bargain was 75% GOP. This is not compromise, it is mutually assured destruction.

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