Watching our system deal with the debt ceiling crisis in the United States — a wholly self-inflicted crisis, which may nonetheless have disastrous consequences — it’s increasingly obvious that what we’re looking at is the destructive influence of a cult that has really poisoned our political system.
And no, I don’t mean the fanaticism of the right. Well, O.K., that too. But my feeling about those people is that they are what they are; you might as well denounce wolves for being carnivores. Crazy is what they do and what they are.
No, the cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.
Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.
So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.
The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president. Once again, health reform — his only major change to government — was modeled on Republican plans, indeed plans coming from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
And everything else — including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment — is according to the conservative playbook.
What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.
You have to ask, what would it take for these news organizations and pundits to actually break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault? This is the clearest, starkest situation one can imagine short of civil war. If this won’t do it, nothing will.
And yes, I think this is a moral issue. The “both sides are at fault” people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray.
It’s a terrible thing to watch, and our nation will pay the price.
The Guilty Parties
There’s actually a simple way to resolve the debt ceiling crisis: Non-crazy Republican leaders could support something like the plan proposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (in which the debt limit would be extended through 2012 and the deficit would be reduced by $2.7 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years) — which is, let’s be clear, a huge victory for the right and defeat for progressives — and pass it with limited Republican support and overwhelming Democratic support. Situation resolved.
This would, however, probably be the end of these Republicans’ political careers. And the answer is: so?
If you believe that default will quite possibly be a catastrophe — and leading Republicans probably do believe that — their unwillingness to take the action I’ve just described means that they are risking America’s future rather than pay a price in their personal political careers.
That’s cowardice on an epic scale, even if it’s the kind of behavior we take for granted nowadays.
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.