Monday, August 22, 2011

Palin's Goal: Looking for the DQ

cross-posted from Dagblog

Although it's been crowded out by actual news, there's been another uptick of interest in whether or not Sarah Palin will attempt to run for president. Palin herself is being even more inscrutable than usual these days. Her mixed messages seem baffling until you realize that Palin does not want what most people considering a presidential run want.

Most politicians considering a presidential campaign want to become President of the United States. They balance that desire against the grinding misery of actually running for the job: the endless daily schedule, the constant petty humiliation of raising funds, the life in a fishbowl. The usual question is whether you want the job so badly that you will sacrifice the rest of your life for a shot at it, and how realistic you believe that shot to be.

But Palin is facing a different question with different incentives. She doesn't want the job, and knows she can't win, but she wants to keep the campaign-mode freakshow going as long as she can. Most politicians try to sacrifice as little family privacy as they can while still getting elected governor. Palin quit her job as governor and put her family on reality TV. What other politicians see as the cost, Palin sees as the benefit, and she has no interest in holding office, which is what other politicians consider the prize.

I've argued before that Palin's profession has become potential presidential contender. She has stopped being a politician in order to play one on TV. The catch is that her media career is founded on the public's belief that she might make a serious run for the Oval Office. Once the general public understands that Palin will never get the Republican nomination, her A-list career will end and she will become a B- or C-list media figure. She'll still make very good money and be on TV, but she will make much less money and get much less attention than she does now.

The end of Palin's run on the A-list, if she sticks to the conventional choices a candidate faces, is roughly six months away. If she runs in the primaries, she will likely suffer a major defeat in New Hampshire and lose several other primaries pretty badly, and it will become obvious that she will never be a viable national candidate again. If she tries to avoid that defeat by sitting out, it will become clear that she is never running. Her core audience hates Obama, and will never accept that Palin sat out the 2012 campaign. Either way, Sarah Palin will stop being a hot commodity and become just another celebrity has-been.

I have always thought that Palin would use Obama's first term to rake in all the money she could, while she could, and then make her choice between the two conventional options. I no longer believe this is true. Palin does not want to relinquish her A-list status, and she is not willing to let the circus move on without her. Her strange behavior (the bus tour, the cancellation of the bus tour, staying out of the Iowa Straw Poll, showing up near the Iowa Straw Poll with her bus) only makes sense for a person who is trying to extend her political celebrity by not choosing. Palin wants to find a way to run and not to run at the same time. She can't get the 2012 nomination, and doesn't want it, but she also needs to keep people talking about her as a possible contender for 2016. She's looking to stay out of the race but stay around it.

Palin's perfect outcome would be to lose the race, but to lose in some way that does not seem like a real test of her political strength. If she loses a normal head-to-head matchup, she's finished. What she'd like to do is lose some strange, irregular contest that makes it look like she lost because of the freaky circumstances. Ideally, she would like to scapegoat someone else, like the Republican Party Establishment or Mitt Romney, and act the martyr. In Palin's perfect world, she would lose but people would walk away saying that she was robbed. Her goal is to create the impression that she has has not yet been given a fair shot.

Years ago, a Boston Globe columnist named Ron Borges predicted that Mike Tyson would either beat Evander Holyfield in the first three rounds or find a way to lose by disqualification. Tyson was no longer in shape to go the distance with another serious heavyweight, so if he couldn't knock out Holyfield in the first ten minutes, he would try to find a way to bail out by making the referees stop the fight. Tyson didn't want his weaknesses as a boxer to be exposed, Borges argued, so he would look for the DQ. That way, people wouldn't know for sure that he couldn't beat Holyfield. He didn't lose. He was disqualified.

Sure enough, in round three Tyson bit off a chunk of Holyfield's ear. And he had his DQ. That deepened Tyson's reputation as a freak, but it concealed the fact that he was no longer a real contender. It allowed Tyson (and others) to pretend that Tyson might have won if the match had gone all fifteen rounds. And more importantly, it allowed Tyson's managers to get him more big-money fights on pay-per-view, because he was still considered a contender.

Sarah Palin is cruising for some version of the political DQ. She wants to lose but somehow pin that loss on the refs, so that she can avoid having her weakness as a candidate exposed and continue pulling down big paydays at contender prices. This is not easy to do, and she may very well mismanage it, but I'm convinced that it is her goal.

I don't expect Palin to be in the primaries throughout the nominating season. I expect her to jump in midway through the primaries, or to bail out before Iowa and New Hampshire, or even both. She may well attempt to create some kind of drama at the convention, although Republican party rules no longer leave much room for that. (I think her dream would be to have herself put forward at a divided convention, and then lose and blame her loss on some back-room deal.) She might well try a write-in campaign in certain states, which insulates her from the loss because she wasn't even on the ballot. I think Palin herself is improvising, based on political events that are hard to predict. She's close to being displaced by other candidates at the moment, which was surely not in her plans, and she's certainly going to try something to get some media oxygen back.

What I don't expect Palin to do if she can help it is to risk a big loss in a straightforward primary or caucus. She lost Iowa, which was once a real opportunity for her, about eighteen months ago; there's no way to win that caucus without major campaign infrastructure on the ground, and Palin hasn't built it. She can't catch up with the other candidates now. New Hampshire has always been out of her reach, unless its Republican electorate has changed radically over the last few years. I don't expect Palin to allow herself to be on the ballot in either state, or really in Nevada. She might try to make a stand in South Carolina, if she sees a chance, but the chance might not be there. What's more likely is that Palin jumps into the campaign after the first primaries and caucuses are finished, and does some strange version of a campaign that gets a lot of attention, goes nowhere, and provides a built-in excuse for defeat. ("She wasn't even on the ballot in twenty-three states! Half the delegates had been chosen before she even declared!" Whatever.)

And if Palin seems likely to be exposed at the ballot box, I expect her to quit the campaign with whatever half-baked excuse seems handy. If she can't find a way to make her claim sound convincing, she'll just spew some paranoid accusations around. Sure, that will only make her look crazier. But Palin would rather be considered crazy than lose an election with the whole world watching. If she runs and loses like a sane person, her market value will plummet. Crazy she can take to the bank.

Libya: That Was Quick

cross-posted from Dagblog

The Libyan revolution is coming to a rapid end, although there is fighting left to do. Twenty-seven weeks ago, Muammar Qadhafi's armed forces fired on peaceful protestors across Libya. Today, he's in hiding, and a rebel army that didn't exist six months ago, combined with NATO's air power, has managed to take control of most of the country.

Let me point out a basic truth: that was really fast.

It doesn't seem particularly fast to Westerners, because the rapid developments in other places and the Ritalin-addict speed of our news cycle makes a six-month war seem long. We're used to having the conventional phase of a war over within weeks. It took much longer than the Egyptian Revolution (or the part of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution that was covered on American cable), because the regime decided to fight. It took much too long for Obama to justify his actions under the War Powers Act. But it was still very fast. In fact, one of the problems that NATO policymakers face is that the rebels are winning faster than expected, and the Western policymakers haven't put any transition plans together. (This, of course, presumes that the Libyans need and will gladly accept a Western transition plan.)

A lot of complaints you hear from Westerners are, in one way or another, grounded in impatience. There was the now-discredited argument that the rebels could not win without Western ground troops, an argument that implies that it is unreasonable to wait 180 days for an army of irregulars to defeat well-equipped professional troops. There is the surreal and scurrilous complaint by Senators McCain and Graham this morning, who insist that President Obama should have taken a larger role in backing the rebels (because apparently success is not enough, and success without American casualties is, from McCain and Graham's pathological perspective, somehow unpatriotic). And of course, there are the realistic worries about the future of Libya which are expressed as an unrealistic concern that the Transitional Council doesn't have a plan yet.

The future of Libya really is worrying. But if they had a plan already, that would be even more worrying. The transition Libya is about to begin may succeed or fail, but it certainly won't succeed with a plan put together hastily.

This morning I came across a complaint that the rebels don't have any clear leader. That's true. But having a clear individual leader, before they've put together any kind of governance or power-sharing plan, is not at all a good thing. What was the Qadhafi regime but an individual leader who took precedence over any other governmental principle? The quickest transition is always a coup by a strong man, who doesn't worry about process but simply grabs operational control and keeps it. That's also the most inefficient and undemocratic transition; strong men don't deal with the country's real problems and needs. They don't fix underlying tensions or nagging dysfunctions. They just grab a country with all its flaws and hold on as long as they can.

Working out a sane political future for Libya is only possible if it happens slowly and peaceably, with the Libyans themselves working out an arrangement that includes all of the necessary political constituencies and ensures a functional administration. You can't achieve that in a minute. It requires a set of complicated negotiations and compromises. And you can't plan it from London or Paris or DC, because the people who need to compromise and negotiate and share power are not in those places. In fact, the nature of Qadhafi's regime, which suppressed most public political expression, ensures that Western policymakers don't have any idea who the real constituencies are or what concerns they have.

Actual nation-building, working out a viable set of political arrangements and building a functioning national administration, takes time. It took the United States something like a decade and a half, if you include the Revolutionary War years, to work out a practical and effective set of basic governing institutions, and the work continued well after that. The Transitional National Council hasn't even been on the job for six months.

The Libyans, acting on their own and dealing with their own internal political realities, could still make a mess of their country. That would be all too easy. And taking more time won't ensure success. But haste, in this case, ensures failure.

What the Libyans need, when the last shooting is over, is time to work out a plan that they can live with for the next 20 to 200 years. During that time, they need to keep domestic peace and to keep basic government services like water, energy and transportation working uninterrupted. They may not get that time. They may not manage to use it. But if they don't, they will have a new set of problems that will haunt them for decades.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dividing My Books

cross-posted from Dagblog

This summer I've moved house three times. My job and my partner are in two different states, a common problem for my generation of college professors. I count myself lucky that our jobs are only a few hundred miles apart, which means the highway and not the airport. But keeping a one-person apartment in each place has stopped making sense, so we've bought a house in one city and rented a professional's bachelor pad, a short walk from my office, in the other. Voila! Three moves: from my partner's old place to the new house, from my old apartment to my new one, and from my old apartment to the house. If anyone needs some spare boxes, I'll leave them in the comments section.

And yes, I have the carbon footprint of a brontosaurus. Any time someone wants to put some money into high-speed rail, or simply stop beating up on Amtrak, that would help me turn the guilt into something practical.

Although it's definitely a first-world, luxury-box problem, packing for more than one destination turns out to be slow and complicated. The two great questions of moving, "Should I keep this?" and "How do I fit it in the box?" have picked up a dilatory and nagging third, "Which place should this go?" Should this pot or pan go to the kitchen I share with my partner, or become part of the bachelor-pad cooking set? Which umbrella goes where? You can't simply stow it all in boxes and load it into a truck; every individual object needs to be considered. Again, this complication, like so many other wastes of energy and time, grows from luxury. Could there be a more privileged question than "How do I divide my overly numerous possessions between my multiple homes?" (Except of course, "How do I get this done before my trip to Europe?")

The big problem for me, as always, is my books. I have far too many and, of course, not nearly enough. Even after I part with some, there are hundreds and hundreds to sort. Faced with so many books, and so many different places to keep them, I'm forced to consider why, specifically, I keep each book, what I'm likely to do with it, and why I find myself in the various places I keep them. At the very least the problems of privilege should make you think about your privilege. Why have I amassed all of these objects?

Some I need for work, which usually passes as a bullet-proof excuse in our culture. I couldn't do my teaching, my research, or my professional writing without a whole lot of books. In fact, my job requires more books than I could ever personally own. No one can teach college literature without a college library, and no one can write a scholarly book without a serious library AND inter-library loan. But there are plenty of books that I either use all the time or am likely to need unexpectedly. I want to be able to check them when I need them, and I don't want to hog the library's copies for months or years. A few are old and relatively valuable, things I've tracked down on the used-book market over the years, and I've often been grateful for those purchases. Those books have helped me out of more two-in-the-morning research puzzles than I should be having at this age, and saved the day when I needed to fact-check something right before a deadline.

Some books I have for personal and sentimental reasons. Some are beloved favorites, which I've read and reread over the years and expect to read again. Some are by friends or members of my family. A few are autographed by someone famous, or soon to be famous. A few others are collectible for one reason or another, and a bunch of old science-fiction paperbacks are collectible in the sense that I collected them because those particular books have gotten hard to find. Some I have because, frankly, I feel like should have them. (Yes, Moby Dick is surely available in the public library and no, I won't reread it over the next two years, but I have it in the house for the same reason I have a copy of The Federalist: I'm an American.) And of course, there's a pile of books that I have because I'd like to read them.

Some of the division is easy. The personal keepsakes and collectibles, the books by friends, and the inscribed gifts almost all go to the house. Who knows what my autographed copy of Blowing Smoke will be worth some day?

Other books obviously go to my campus office: textbooks and student anthologies, books I often consult while planning lessons, works about teaching methods and about academia itself. The "advice for new faculty" books are no longer for me to read but to lend out to new colleagues, and belong close at hand in my office.

But things get complicated fast. I occasionally use those expensive old reference works to plan lessons, but mostly use them for research and writing, so they stay at the house in my study. I almost never get much writing done in my campus office, where I'm generally busy with teaching tasks or committee work. And I expect to do more of my writing at the house than I get done in the new apartment, where I will probably only manage to get one solid block of writing time a week. So every book in my academic field has to be examined. Is this a teaching book, or a writing book? If it's both, how often do I use it for one and how often for the other? In the meantime, dividing the books involves planning my weeks, plotting out which of my tools will be in this or that place at this day or that hour. This collection of essays will be in my office, which means using it while I am on campus. This invaluable research tool is shelved in my house, which means using it for research early on weekend mornings, or on Sunday afternoons. This is what I hope or expect to get done in my apartment near campus, and these are the books I need to leave there in order to accomplish that.

The new working week apartment is the part I don't quite have in focus yet, the place where I can't quite imagine myself. I have very few work-related books there, since I will almost always be just coming from or about to go to one of the other two places. It holds several books that I can read one section at a time (essay collections, back issues of McSweeney's, superbly organized works of non-fiction). It has enough fuller-bodied works to keep me from being bored when I eventually, inevitably, get snowed in for an extra night or over a weekend. (In some ways, the bookshelf there is like the bookshelves in summer homes, except that it's the winter non-vacation home.) And since almost all the bookshelves there are in the living room, where visitors can see them, those books need to look minimally respectable. Although I hate to admit it, one of the reasons I own books is to display them, and thereby to display certain things about myself: education level, personal tastes and interests, things like generation and background. So the books in my living room don't necessarily need to be impressive (because the most impressive ones are in another living room), but they can't make me look like a mess either. It's a truth that I don't like, but books are partly about the face I show to others, and the face I show myself.

My books feel to me, on some deep and irrational level, like my most important possession, my patrimony. "Books constitute capital," as Jefferson said. Some people own land, and I own a library. They are the visible embodiment of the educational and cultural privileges I've been given, which can otherwise seem evanescent. Degrees are abstractions; books are solid. Slowly mastering the particular intellectual training demanded by my field is a much less tangible achievement than amassing hundreds of well-chosen volumes. It's not so much that I have the books to show other people what a scholar I am. It's that I have them to remind myself. Years ago, when I drove across the country to start Ph.D. work, I left behind all of my books except the ones I would actually need for my specific academic work (just a milk crate or two loaded into the car). And that was a reasonable decision, but a depressing one in the long run. After a while I slightly felt cut off from the world of reading and writing that my work was allegedly about. Why study English lit if it means not having your favorite novels with you, and not owning any poetry that you wouldn't write an essay about? I don't have that problem today, with a dozen boxes still left to unpack. But the sorry truth is that I only feel at home when I've put books on the shelves. They are a physical connection to my chosen work, and to all the reasons that I chose it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The California Preview

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, the Iowa Straw Poll went overwhelmingly to candidates who would have been considered fringe last time around, with Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul combining for something like 55% of the vote. Some Democrats are taking this as consolation, on the theory that even if Obama is vulnerable the Republicans will nominate someone too extreme to beat him. Meanwhile, we have the usual "centrist" columnists indulging the the usual "centrist" fantasies about some miraculous "centrist" third-party candidate who will solve all of our intractable problems by being, um, "bold." (Because who loves bold solutions more than someone who considers both the mainstream party platforms too extreme?)

All I can say to that is: whatever. I've been here before, dude. Last time it was called "California," and it didn't go well. In fact, it's still not going well. And now we're repeating the California debacle on a grand scale.

In California, where one can have a long and very successful political career inside a single red red red or blue blue blue district, the Republican Party has long resisted nominating moderates for statewide office: only truly true conservatives are pure enough to get the nod for Senator or Governor. This, of course, is a great plan for losing, in a gigantic state with plenty of very blue districts in it. But compromise is for wimps.

This often tempted the Democrats into nominating dull and uninspired candidates who had paid up their party dues and who would not always set the world on fire, but could step back while the Republicans doused themselves with gasoline. About ten years back, a steady and reliable centrist Democratic Governor, the aptly named Gray Davis, was in real political trouble, with his popularity diving from the high fifties to the low forties. Privatizing the electrical grid had turned into a debacle with sky-high prices and occasional rolling blackouts, Davis was unable to fix the problems or to rally the voters to his side. Since he was so vulnerable, and the governor's mansion was in the Republicans' grasp, they nominated a good ideologically pure conservative to make sure they got full value after they won the election. And that's why they didn't win the election. The guy they put up couldn't even beat Gray Davis.

This is what set up the recall election that made Schwarzenegger governor. The Democrats were hoping to stagger through because the Republicans were even more unpopular than they were. And the Republicans were too ideologically rigid to do the sensible thing. It was only through the strange recall process, which sidestepped the Republican nominating process, that a moderate Republican (exactly the candidate the political situation most favored, and the kind of candidate the GOP should have put up to begin with) got on the gubernatorial ballot at all.

There's your Obama-will-get-through-this-because-they're crazy strategy, right there. And I'm not eager for a repeat with higher stakes. Sure, Obama might stagger to a 47%-42% victory, the way Davis did in his re-election campaign, but what's he going to do after that? It's a recipe for a mess.

And for the Friedmans of the world, longing for an independently wealthy centrist to arrive on a big white horse, Schwarzenegger's governorship should provide an illustration of how well that goes, which is not well at all. I despised Schwarzenegger's first campaign, but his attempt to govern was basically sensible and reasonable, and it got him absolutely nowhere. Difficult financial problems don't respond to personal charisma. And entrenched political difficulties don't magically fix themselves when you elect an "outsider." In fact, the problems were worse because Schwarzenegger was basically a governor without a party. His fellow Republicans in the legislature were too ideologically pure to listen to him, and the Democrats didn't owe a Republican governor anything. Neither party had really backed him, and neither had any stake in helping him. Arnold couldn't pass a budget. By the second term, he couldn't pass a slow U-Haul on I-5. Nothing makes legislative partisanship worse than taking the party leadership away. The rank and file legislators just revert to their base political instincts.

If our current Senators and Representatives won't reliably listen to Obama and Boehner, why on earth would they listen to someone with whom they have no political relationship or alliance? If Beltway columnists managed to make enough animal sacrifices to the gods and get, say, Michael Bloomberg elected, that would not be the end of Washington gridlock. That would initiate a new era of much deeper Washington gridlock, as the President of the United States would find himself with no one who would cast a vote, let alone a difficult vote, to help him out.

California is still a political basket case, and it's in real trouble. And lately I've been hearing the same allegedly clever ideas that made California's problems worse passed around as possible "solutions" for the whole country. It's a little like proposing that we put the whole country on the San Andreas fault. It worked badly before, and it will only be worse on a larger scale.

Monday, August 08, 2011

What Tools Does Obama Have Left?

cross-posted from Dagblog, with discussion thread here.

I've thrown away the woe-unto-ye-Barack-Obama post that I started after the debt ceiling debacle, because lots of other people have written it, and truth be told I've written it already myself. Let's take for granted that Obama needs to put up more of a fight against the Republicans, and that compromise and sweet reason aren't working. Here's the question: what to do now?

Let's skip "use the bully pulpit!" and "talk to the American people!" We've all heard those, and to be frank I don't see the weekly radio address turning this mess around. I'm interested in the question of what he can actually get done, rather than what message he should send. Let's also rule out "be tougher" and "don't compromise" as too vague; what would "being tough" actually entail? And let's save the argument about how he'll never do the right thing, because he doesn't want to for the next thousand and six discussions about that.

Let's imagine that the ghosts of Lincoln, Kennedy and FDR appear to Barack Obama tonight, tell him it's time to save the Republic, and put a ramrod up his spine. He wakes up tomorrow determined to stop those conservative maniacs and take the country back, just the way people with blogs are always saying he should. My question is this:

When he wakes up tomorrow, all fiery and determined, what specific steps are available to him? What can he do?

He's not going to be able to get anything through the Legislature, with an angry opposition party controlling the House and a bunch of "centrist" Democratic Senators focused on appeasement. No matter how much he wants to, he can't get laws passed, because it turns out that the executive branch is not in charge of legislating.

And he's still going to have the problem of his appointees being locked up in confirmation limbo, with a huge pile of judicial and sub-cabinet-level appointees stuck in the Senate after two and a half years. He can't make that problem go away just by wishing.

So what can the President of the United States do in this ugly position with the powers that the Constitution grants him: the power to make recess appointments, the oversight of the justice department, supervision of the federal bureaucracy (including all of the regulatory agencies), and the power to veto legislation? What can Obama do with the powers specifically invested in him as President, rather than in his unofficial Presidential roles as party leader and bully-pulpiteer?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

God Bless the National Debt

cross-posted from Dagblog

Let's get one thing straight: without a national debt, there is no national defense. This has always been true.

We can all sputter righteously about the evils of borrowing and debt, but a United States government that did not borrow would either have to do without any military at all or else make do with a tiny, ill-equipped military with troops who almost never got their pay, which is what we had before the Washington Administration. Access to credit has always been central to effective government operations, and especially to effective military operations. Gimmicks like "debt ceilings" and "balanced budget amendments" not only threaten the effectiveness of basic, everyday governance but make the government completely incapable of responding to an emergency.

Alexander Hamilton, our first Treasury Secretary, understood how important it was to finance government operations, because he had served at Valley Forge, where American soldiers went without food, without blankets, and without shoes. Hamilton did not blame the British for that suffering; he blamed the Continental Congress and he was right. (Congress was also to blame, after the Revolution, for refusing to pay the veterans of Valley Forge the pensions they had been promised. Next time you hear a "principled conservative" rhapsodizing over the Articles of Confederation, that's what they're rhapsodizing over.)

Hamilton (and Washington) understood that this was no way to run an army or a country, which is why they supported the Constitution, and why Washington backed Hamilton's program to put the nation on a sound financial footing. That footing required America to pay its debts, but also to contract them; nationalizing the debt, assuming the individual war debts run up by the thirteen states, was a key element in the program. God bless the national debt; it is part of the legacy of the Founders, and we'd be in trouble without it.

Of course, our national debt has grown much larger since FDR's presidency, an increase which is generally associated with New Deal social programs. But the largest New Deal program still kicking, Social Security, has taken in $2.6 trillion dollars more than it's paid out. (Social Security only "contributes to the deficit" to the extent that the trillions that have been taken from it for other purposes will need to be repaid.) But it was also under FDR that the United States went from having a fairly small standing army to having a huge, permanent military establishment. We did not demobilize after World War II as we did after previous wars. Instead, we built a global military bent on maintaining a significant technological edge over the rest of the world. That takes money. More than money, it takes financing. You don't maintain a fleet of superb fighter planes, or train people for Seal Team Six, by waiting for next month's withholding taxes to come in. The Army, Navy, and Air Force that we've had since the Forties are only possible because we undertake public debt.

The public's power to borrow is most important in emergencies, when there are pressing needs that simply can't wait. If we are ever attacked by a foreign power, we need to win the war first and pay for it later, just as we did during the Revolution. You don't wait to repel an invader until you've saved up for ammunition; if you do, it will be the invader collecting next year's taxes anyway. The same goes for responses to terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Cleaning up September 11 could not wait until the next April 15. Hurricane relief can't wait until we've moved other things around in the budget. And when the Mississippi floods, you have to stop the waters while they're rising, not when you've saved enough in this or that government account.

If politicians feel that the government debt has grown too high, they should consider raising revenues to pay for the programs they've voted for, rather than playing shenanigans with arbitrary "debt ceilings." (The debt ceiling doesn't prevent Congress from putting the government into debt; it just prevents the Treasury from issuing the bonds that keep the country running. It's like sending your kids to the market for a hundred dollars of groceries, handing them forty dollars, and forbidding them to let the store put the rest on account.) What the "debt ceiling" does is prevent the government from responding appropriately to emergencies when it's too close to whatever the artificial magical number is. What would we have done if, God forbid, there had been an earthquake and tsunami in California last month, when the Treasury had officially "exceeded its borrowing authority" and Congress was dithering around? Making it illegal to borrow for present needs, no matter the severity of those needs, is reckless and irrational.

And what would a federal balanced budget amendment do, except render the federal government permanently unable to respond to any event that hadn't been explicitly written into the budget eighteen months in advance? Surely, no one can believe that a "balanced" annual budget would not have every possible penny of the year's revenue spent in advance. The political process would demand that all of the year's revenue be spent, either directly or in tax rebates; if it would really take a Constitutional amendment to keep lawmakers from spending more than that, we should always expect that they will spend every cent that they are able. And how then would a "Budget-Balancing" United States respond to an unexpected military threat, or natural disasters, or any other crisis? How would it be able to respond even to a sudden economic downturn, which would unexpectedly lower the government's incoming tax revenue and throw the budget out of balance in the middle of the year. Imagine, for example, that the country underwent a massive financial crisis followed by a long economic slump while we had two separate armies fighting overseas. I know you can picture it if you try.

If the Republicans had passed a balanced-budget amendment back in 2005, when they had the White House and both Houses of Congress, our nation would likely have gone bankrupt in 2008, unable to deal with the banking crisis or to pay and supply our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are lucky that no such suicidally absurd provision appears in our Constitution. And we are lucky that Alexander Hamilton long ago set us on a wiser and sounder path.

God bless the national debt, I say. I am grateful for its role in keeping our country healthy, safe, and sound. And may the credit of the United States extend without blemish for a thousand years.