The U.S. Debt Ceiling: today’s version of the Maginot Line

The spirit of André Maginot lives today. Don’t think so? Take a look at the current U.S. preoccupation with the debt ceiling, to the apparent neglect of virtually every other issue, and the nature of the accompanying discussion. Then look ahead, to the challenge that is defining the 21st century.

But first, a little history. Thinking back to the history of World War I, with its deadly trench warfare, and seeing the reemergence of hostile German intentions, the French people, under the leadership of then-Minister of War André Maginot, built a line of defenses comprising machine gun posts, tank obstacles, big-gun casements, etc. They thought this would impede any German advance and define the line of combat (actually, export that combat to Belgium, to the north).

To quote from the Wikipedia entry on this topic: “Military experts extolled the Maginot Line as a work of genius, believing it would prevent any further invasions from the east (notably, from Germany). However, the German army in World War II largely bypassed the Maginot Line by invading through the Ardennes forest and via the Low countries, completely sweeping by the Line and conquering France in days. As such, the Maginot Line has come to mean a strategy or object that people put hope into but fails miserably. It is also the best known symbol of the adage that ‘generals always fight the last war, especially if they have won it’.”[italics added]

Hard to put it any better.

Let’s now turn to some of the similarities. First of all, the Maginot line was, like the debt ceiling, a human construct. In the case of the Line, the location may have been set by political borders, and by consideration of terrain, and perhaps a property right or two…but in retrospect it might as well have been put anywhere. Similarly, the debt ceiling is a wholly arbitrary figure, which might as well have been plucked out of the air. Back when it was set, it could have been adjusted a few hundred billions higher or lower without need for economic justification. Now the debt ceiling debate has been carefully crafted to sound like a choice between good and evil, but that’s a human construction, again not imposed by external realities. Many people on both sides of the discussion draw comparison to family finances, saying that at our individual level, we don’t have a choice to go on spending more than we make indefinitely.

True enough! The fact is, however, that most individuals and families do this at some points in their lives: when buying a house, when sending the kids to college, during periods between jobs, as a result of serious illness, and so on. Putting the hype aside, United States indebtedness and its rise since the financial sector collapse of 2008 is a serious matter, but not a choice between good and evil. It is a choice among priorities, a matter of balancing interests and preferences of the rich and the poor, the young and the elderly, the sick and the well (and all of us are in one or more of these and many other categories). It’s a matter for thought and discussion. But it’s become a matter of angry argument and tension only because some want to make it so.

Meanwhile, thinking back to the Maginot Line, what was going on while the French were debating the exact character, location, and expense of their defenses? The Germans were an appreciative, attentive audience. They were looking on, and faced a choice. They could attempt to develop forces that could take on the Maginot defenses, and get rather immediately bogged down as they had during the First World War. But they had been the losers, and so were spurred to think more creatively (remember that quote above about generals?). They made investments of an entirely different character: in mobile forces that were agile and could advance with lightning speed, and adjust and adapt quickly to changing needs and conditions. They focused on targets that were vulnerable and that mattered versus France’s most strongly defended points.

Our challenge today is not a sentient being, another nation, a “they” versus a “we.” It’s not an enemy with hostile intentions. But it is nevertheless a challenge, and like those World War II Germans, it’s coming at us from a different direction.

Our challenge is that much if not most of our financial system and our political decisions are based on environmental subsidies that are finite (much as the debt ceiling on a credit card). The key difference is that unlike the debt ceiling, these subsidies are a part of a natural system. They cannot be raised as a simple outcome of any Congressional debate.

The examples are numerous and quite diverse. Strained water resources, whether in the form of watersheds or aquifers. Marginal food supplies. Energy, whether fossil-fuel-based, nuclear, or renewable. Strategic minerals. The capacity of the atmosphere and oceans to assimilate carbon dioxide and other effluents. Marine resources. Our economic figures such as GDP ignore a large number of externalities such as the true costs of burning fossil fuels or consuming nonrenewable resources or the end-to-end costs of patterns of use and consumption that create considerable waste disposal problems at the back end. We ignore the contributions of ecosystem services such as flood control and pollutant cleanup and any decline in the resilience of these ecosystems and the biodiversity that supports us.  We build on floodplains and atop earthquake fault zones while making no discount in the value of such investments to cover the replacements that will be needed when disaster strikes.

Another difference. When it comes to our credit accounts, banks keep us (painfully) aware of our limit. We also have some idea of where we stand with respect to the debt ceiling (though as we read the news accounts or watch the television coverage, we find that where we are relative to the debt ceiling is somewhat murky, don’t we?). But we have little idea of what the natural limits are, and/or where and how they’ll strike. That’s because we haven’t bothered to find out. We haven’t made the small additional investment in Earth observations, science, and science-based services needed to assess our situation.

However, because the real world we’re living on does much of its business through extreme events, we can anticipate that the coming reckoning will feel to us much like that German blitzkrieg. The problems we’ll face will be very localized, and sudden in onset: much like, say, the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or the rapidly-surfacing famine across the Horn of Africa, or the current surreal juxtaposition of both flood and drought across the United States.

So, enjoy watching the fuss over the debt ceiling. But keep this in mind. In its avowed purpose (making slight adjustments for whichever side you listen to) of making our future safe, it, like the Maginot Line, is going to fail miserably.

For safety’s sake, protect that flank!

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2 Responses to The U.S. Debt Ceiling: today’s version of the Maginot Line

  1. John Knox says:

    Excellent analogies and essay, Bill!

  2. Pingback: Looking ahead to America’s Real Challenge…and Opportunity | Living on the Real World

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