Russian roulette is the macabre game of death, in which a revolver with a single bullet is passed around, each player pointing a gun at his head and pressing the trigger. There is, mathematically speaking, a one in six chance of blowing one’s brains to smithereens. This morbid game of chance, strangely enough, has now been adopted as the primary fiscal model by that once-august body known as the United States Congress.
As numerous commentators have observed, the two-party political oligarchy that dominates American politics has becomes hopelessly polarized. That polarization in turn has morphed into political paralysis, leading to an inability by policymakers to craft rational economic directives in the midst of an ongoing global economic crisis. The result is tepid economic growth at best, fueled by massive, trillion dollar per annum deficits that require staggering amounts of borrowing by the U.S. Treasury to stave off national insolvency. Therein lies the problem. The Obama administration must periodically come to Congress for authorization to raise the national debt limit; without such congressional approval, the government loses its authority to borrow money. In a situation where Congress is politically divided, with the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and venting unrestrained hostility towards President Obama, the entire economy of the United States is held hostage to this political version of sausage-making.
The last stand-off over the debt limit led to The Budget Control Act of 2011. The GOP acquiesced to raising the debt limit on condition that the Obama administration concurred with over 900 billion dollars in spending cuts over the next decade. And herein lay the minefield. Since the Democrats and Republicans could not reach consensus on those precise deficit reduction measures, they did agree to creating a poison pill for themselves, which has since become known by the non-pharmaceutical name of sequestration. If Congress could not agree on which spending cuts to implement, arbitrary reductions in federal spending outlays would occur automatically, with 85 billion dollars in budget cuts coming into effect in the current fiscal year.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, for this was playing Russian roulette with fiscal policy and management of the overall national economy. Who in their right mind among the two political parties controlling Congress would want the entire globe to witness American legislators playing a game of Russian roulette as their methodology of economic management? Yet that is exactly what has now happened.
There are arguments currently underway as to how much of an impact 85 billion dollars in arbitrary spending reductions will have on a still fragile economy. These concerns miss the essential point. The fact that America’s political establishment has allowed such a spectacle to occur presents a discordant image to the global bond market that is essential for lending the credit that keeps the United States solvent. And increasingly, those critical lenders are seeing the fiscal decision-making of the United States being transformed into a farcical display of political expediency. There will come a time when the bond vigilantes will simply have had enough of an increasingly dysfunctional political system still acting as though it presides over an unassailable superpower. When that time has come, the mother of all sequestrations will have arrived.