(heat) stress test

Back in the day, stress test had one meaning…it referred to tests for heart disease. The idea was simple. Many of us were walking around seemingly healthy but that was because we weren’t being subjected to a sudden emotional shock or physical challenge that might cause a latent cardiovascular condition to surface. So doctors and nurses hooked us up to an EKG and put us on a treadmill, and looked at how our hearts responded to peak physical demands.

Beginning in 2008-2009, during the financial-sector meltdown and its aftermath, we’ve seen this terminology and the concept behind it extended to banks. The idea: a bank’s capitalization, its assets-to-loans ratio, and other metrics of health may superficially look good under prevailing market conditions, but how would the bank look were we to experience an economic downturn, or if this or that class of borrowing instruments were to turn sour? Is it over-exposed to a particular risk or set of risks? Much that’s happened over the past few years has turned investors skittish. In response, regulators, like those doctors, have been stepping in – in the United States, across the European Union, and worldwide.

Live in DC? Or anywhere along the eastern seaboard? These days, you’re also undergoing a stress test. With temperatures in the low 100’s during the day, and remaining in the 80’s throughout the night, many Americans are experiencing heat stress, which is manifesting itself as heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke. Symptoms? Profuse sweating, nausea, vomiting, headaches, lightheadedness, and muscle cramps. Critically important to stay hydrated and to stay cool, especially if you’re elderly, very young, or ill.

Those heat stress symptoms don’t sound like the prescription for the most clearheaded thinking, do they? Maybe that’s why…

…U.S. political leadership is choosing to put itself to a similar stress test this weekend – wrangling over whether or how to raise the national debt ceiling. It’s taken a while to lay the groundwork for this particular stress test. First both sides had to agree to impose a ceiling, and then agree on when and how to raise it. [For a history of U.S. debt, click here.] Recently they’ve taken additional measures to transform a decision that used to be part of Congressional routine, and to turn it from a tool for running the country into a weapon of mass destruction. How? By signing on to a couple of pledges – pledges that proscribe the use of some of the tools that would otherwise be available for running the economy.

[Nothing against pledges. The right pledge on the right occasion? Brilliant. To love, honor, cherish and obey your spouse, forsaking all others? Awesome. Pledging to uphold your federal office?

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

A privilege.

But adding to, or subtracting from, those carefully, thoughtfully crafted, historically-tested pledges? Pledging to meet these ends while never taking my left hand out of its pocket? Or defining “enemies” to include U.S. citizens whose politics differs from mine? Or to include scientists whose conclusions don’t conform neatly to a given ideology? Maybe not your or my best idea. Talk about handcuffs. Pledges are filled with unintended consequences. They quickly trap us into parsing the words instead of adhering to the spirit of the pledge.]

But this debt-ceiling stress test is different from the first two. In the cardiac test and the bank test, the test is imposed from the outside on the patient and the bank – and for their own good – to head off problems rather than create them.

In this latter trial, as a small group of leaders have put themselves under truly enormous stress, they have also exposed 300 million Americans to the same duress, not to mention the several billions of people worldwide who are dependent upon the stability of the U.S. government and its finances.

But you and I are not just bystanders, are we? We’re also voters. As voters, how are we supposed to judge the high drama on Capitol Hill and the White House? We’re getting virtually all our information secondhand. Hard to tell where righteousness lies, isn’t it?

Back in Old Testament days, King Solomon resolved this dilemma, and established through this one act an eternal reputation for wisdom. The event? He was confronted by two women, each claiming to be the mother of an infant. Solomon had no firsthand knowledge to balance against the competing claims. He threw up his hands. “Very well, then! Cut the baby in half.”

“Great idea!” said the first woman. “No!” said the second. “Give the child to her!” That was all Solomon needed to hear. “Give the child to the second. She’s the true mother of the baby.”

So…perhaps we might ask ourselves…which faction has the best interests of America, both immediate-term and long-term, at heart? Which faction is more interested in holding America’s interests hostage to a political bargain? And let’s favor the former and maybe not so much the latter.

Another reason for concern? All of us are hoping that our political leaders will be thinking clearly and acting wisely throughout this crisis. But the evidence from psychologists is not encouraging. They find that we’re not necessarily at our most creative under stress, especially when that stress exceeds certain threshold. You’d think the normal pressures of dealing with jobs, health care, wars on three fronts, immigration, and many other matters would accumulate to tension enough for any politician, without choosing to pile on more. Yet that’s just what’s happening. The andrenalin levels of those Beltway players right now are off the charts.

As for the rest of us? Sometimes you’ll hear management gurus characterize it as “responsibility without authority.” Business leaders responsible for their companies. State and local governments responsible for their people. Parents responsible for their families. Waiting to see if we work in a stable economic context, which can be relied upon, or a chaotic one, where no footing is sure. 

Lots of folks feeling stressed-out, feeling the heat today.


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