Cyclone Phailin and the U.S. national debt ceiling make landfall

Consider two planets.

On planet Real World, Cyclone Phailin, the product of natural atmospheric and oceanic processes, hit the Indian coast on Monday, October 14. A cause for great concern since it first formed as a tropical depression on October 4, Phailin at one point reached category 5 strength as measured by the Saffir-Simpson scale (loosely speaking, sustained winds greater than 156 mph). News media noted that the last such strong storm on that coast killed 10,000 people. This time around, the death toll so far stands at only 21. Yesterday, the Capital Weather Gang attributed this to five causes: (1) effective storm warnings; (2) evacuations; (3) less low-lying land vulnerable to storm surge inundation at the precise landfall location; (4) weakening of the storm at landfall, and (5) perhaps an earlier over-estimation of storm intensity. Government leaders and the public alike learned from previous experience; took the Phailin forecast seriously; adopted conservative measures; worked together as best they could to protect vulnerable populations; and reaped the rewards.

Meanwhile,

on planet Surreal World, the U.S. debt ceiling crisis – not a testimony to nature’s awesome power, but rather to human shortcomings, including a tragic propensity for self-destruction – is according to reports only two days away. National leaders have issued the equivalent of storm warnings. They’ve stressed the dire consequences for elderly or disabled on social security or veteran’s benefits. They’ve made clear that this self-imposed default threatens (1) the stability of global financial markets and (2) the U.S. dollar’s unique though fragile status as the world’s reserve currency. They’ve pointed out that loss of either might cost U.S. citizens and others trillions, not billions, of dollars.

But unlike Cyclone Phailin, those same leaders are not urging anything equivalent to evacuation. Remarkably, they’re doing the reverse. They’re in effect dragging 300 million of us down to the beach and waist-deep in the surf-zone with them. We could all be victimized, put at risk by the financial storm surge. The partial government shutdown is estimated by economists to amount to 0.1% of GDP each week it lasts. After just two weeks, that loss already amounts to $30B; that’s rapidly getting into Hurricane Sandy territory. Triggering a debt crisis promises much worse. Each trillion dollars the country might lose works out to $3000 for every one of us – man, woman and child.

At this writing, the outcome is in a state of flux. What looked to be an emerging Senate consensus now seems headed to collide with yet another House alternative. Even should the Senate version prevail, we’re told what we should hope for is a raincheck: a pushback/rescheduling of the dates for both a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling crisis, to perhaps four to six weeks after the Christmas holiday season – at which time we get to replay all today’s anxiety and dysfunction for days and weeks.

Really?

Our leaders are telling us the best they can do – their stated goal – is a perpetuation of this wholly contrived crisis atmosphere for another three months? And that they give us this much time only because they don’t want to disrupt the holiday season?

The American public might deserve more credit for holding the long-range view than that negotiation suggests. For that matter, we might hold a more solemn view of the reason for the Christmas season than a purely economic one. It just might be that we see that as an annual celebration of a year-round set of values about the importance of forgiving and trusting one another… and indeed loving one another (as in being committed to each other’s best interests as well as our own).

That’s the real damage that’s being done by the current debt-ceiling/government-shutdown dustup. It’s not the financial consequences, grave though they may be. It’s the deterioration of national values and social fabric. The fraying of a shared sense of common purpose. Of the greatest good for the greatest number. Of unity. Of trust.

In the early 1960’s, when I was in college, I worked a couple of summers at Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh. The company held weekly seminars for new employees… on all sorts of subjects. One speaker told us about brainwashing and POW camps run by North Korea during the Korean War. He said the North Koreans isolated US officers and the educated, and placed them under heavy armed guard. They placed the uneducated enlisted men in a separate camp, where they taught them American history, the first such course for many of these poorly-schooled men. They taught the truth, but covered only those episodes and incidents where the United States was less than its best, either domestically or internationally. During the weeks of instruction, they had the prisoners form small groups just before lunch and tell each other stories of shame from their respective personal lives back in the states. Stories of stealing from their parents. Vandalism. Lying. Bullying. Sneaky, underhanded behavior. Anything, so long as it was negative. It was all supposed to be good fun. But if any US soldier refused to tell such a story on himself, the guards would announce that no one in the small group would get lunch that day until that soldier told a story. His own comrades would then pressure him to give it up. After a short period of this, the North Koreans had so broken down the trust among all the groups that planning an escape was out of the question. A handful of soldiers were then able to keep thousands of US POW’s penned up.

Even though no North Koreans are involved, something like that breakdown happens when our political leadership engages in nothing more than bitterness and rancor; when accommodation and compromise and service to the American people are jettisoned in the name of short-term political advantage, and when the truth is twisted and abused in the name of “staying on message” for the evening news. We risk losing the trust in our leaders and in each other… trust we’ll need to cooperate with each other someday when a real, external crisis threatens.

The United States, its leaders and its people (as in all of us) are quick with advice for the Indian people and their leaders when it comes to their need to reduce governmental corruption, respect women, improve religious tolerance, deal with Pakistan and China, build infrastructure, foster innovation, and more. The last few days, perhaps we could learn a few lessons from them.

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