The Debt Ceiling Debate, Morality, and the Economy

Or, Magic Networks of People and Their Things …

The ongoing, quite painful and confusing political standoff in Washington is a dual cliffhanger. There’s the slow motion game of Democrat and Republican behemoths playing chicken over continuing regular Federal government funding. And there’s the simultaneous slo-mo race toward the edge over raising the Federal borrowing limit. All of this is a big deal. It’s political drama. It’s also a sometimes genuinely tragic and sometimes melodramatic confrontation with the fact that many of us either need or take for granted certain government services. And it’s definitely a spectacular bare-it-all moment, when it becomes clear that the American voting population is BOTH split AND ambivalent in their beliefs about how money and debt work across private-public and local-global boundaries.

This post addresses this last issue: the ambivalence we have about money and debt.

This ambivalence may be gleaned from survey data published by the Pew Center, in an opinion poll report that I addressed in my previous post on the government shutdown. In the top right panel, it is clear that most people polled state that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, it’s cause for worry. In fact, the Pew Center report notes that the aggregate opinion favoring raising the debt ceiling has actually improved since the last Washington standoff over this issue, from 40% in 2011 to 47% earlier this week. Yet, the political partisan divide in opinion about how serious the debt ceiling persists. And it’s, well, really conspicuous. For non-Tea Party Republicans, the opinion pattern is almost precisely flipped, when compared to the overall population. 47% of “mainstream” Republicans don’t think it’s a problem if the Federal government cannot borrow enough money to pay existing bills and debt obligations. 40% see raising the debt ceiling as important. The opinion that the debt ceiling should not be raised is by far most common, though, among Tea Party Republicans, where a large majority (64%) are not worried about any consequences of going past next week’s deadline (after which the Federal government will have insufficient funds without the ability to borrow more).

Now, this is clearly a situation in which large groups of adults within a single cultural system simply have developed incompatibly divergent beliefs about how reality works–and is going to work in the near future.

Basically, one of two things are expected to happen if the borrowing limit remains unchanged as of next week. EITHER the US Treasury will reach the debt ceiling, it won’t be able to borrow more dollars, and a full-blown international political and financial crisis will ensue … OR the debt ceiling is reached, the Federal government tells private and foreign government owners of previously issued US bonds that they shouldn’t necessarily expect to get the money they’re legally owed–because after all, the US is a sovereign power, no, THE sovereign power on the planet–and everyone else will meekly accept this pecking order … or perhaps even better, everyone wakes up, realizing that none of us should have become addicted to buying and selling financial paper in the first place, agreeing to negotiate peacefully over debt forgiveness.

I am not at all a fan of the excesses of the contemporary global capitalism. But I don’t think that the way to improve the status quo is having one of the essential, dominating nation-state players just shut its eyes and suddenly pretend it’s not really critically tangled up in the international lending/debt/currency system on which so much of the globally interconnected economy depends. And thus, most of us sincerely hope that we won’t get to witness an empirical test of how reality will work if the existing US debt ceiling stays in place. Because it won’t be a controlled laboratory test. It will indeed be a big, complicated reality in which we’re all involved. It should be clear from the trillions of dollars flowing around in financial markets globally–and from the fact that economically, politically, and militarily powerful nation states are directly involved, major players in markets exchanging sovereign government debt (American, Japanese, and Eurozone countries especially)–that the crisis outcome is much more likely.

And here’s where the ambivalence underlying American opinion patterns is revealed. A large majority of Americans SHOULD look at the situation and conclude that–whether or not any of us likes how much money governments and international financial corporations are lending and borrowing–there’s gonna be major international political fallout. Because if the US defaults on its debt, then trillions of nominal dollars worth of Treasury bills will suddenly no longer be worth that much. It’s not a stretch to imagine very frightening plausible scenarios; if the US cannot figure out a way to raise the existing Congressionally approved debt ceiling quickly, these scenarios certainly all involve a lot of turmoil. Imagine the value of US dollars falling quickly on international exchanges, suddenly making it more expensive for China to export goods to the US. While factory layoffs and civil unrest ensue in China–only magnifying the ballooning government animosity toward the US over the sudden drop in US Treasury bill and dollar reserve values–there would be ongoing domestic US uncertainty about government support for infrastructure, police, schools, the social and healthcare safety net, not to mention military and intelligence readiness and effectiveness. It is hard to imagine further starvation of the Federal government not having prolonged negative consequences within the United States, affecting health and well-being across the now-proverbial 99% of the US socioeconomic spectrum. Thus, I think that many people who state that it’s no problem to pass the debt ceiling deadline are confusing the specifics of how US debt is issued with a much more general discomfort. I can understand this discomfort, which is about the massive scale of the global financial system and the way that mind-boggling amounts of debt bind nation states–and their constitutive, often distinguishing national identities–in otherwise unwilling intimate economic interdependencies. We respond to our local helplessness over global forces–which we cannot symbolically represent with familiar kinds of actors, with familiar interests–with quite profound emotional unease.

I think that it is important to focus on this contemporary American unease–genuine ambivalence about the costs and uncertainties of being part of a global economy, despite the benefits it has yielded in sustaining growth in the standard of living for millions of Americans, even as the poverty has persisted and income inequality increased over the past 40 years. An anthropological perspective can facilitate understanding here. This approach has to do with illuminating why–even though we may know better on some level–emotionally laden sentiments and narratives guide our social actions and statements. It is thus vital not to confuse reasonable emotional unease about the current economic system with emotional resolve based on ritualized and mythologized dramatic narratives that blind us to the ideological force of those narratives, while leading us toward terribly damaging spiteful actions (see Hamilton [1970] for an evolutionary biological definition of spite).

I really sympathize with Tea Party Republicans in terms of the reasonable foundation for their concerns. But consider the poll data in the panel above left. People in the Pew Center poll identifying themselves as Tea Party Republicans comprise the only sub-sample in the survey in which more than 30% express the opinion that the government shutdown does not pose a wider economic concern. Indeed, the Tea Party opinion level on that count is at 45%. Yet, there is still a small but significant majority of Tea Party-ers who state that the government shutdown’s possible economic effects are somewhat or very concerning. Ambivalence. All this borrowing is not good, and the sheer scale of the US government is indeed disconcerting. But the story that the Federal government’s spending is THE problem preventing us from getting out from under the powerful leverage that globalized buying and selling of debt has over our lives–well, it’s terribly shortsighted and too narrowly focused. One should not believe and be moved by that story. I certainly don’t expect that someone who holds this story dear will like either the message or the messenger. But I would hope to pull rank as a teacher and remind folks that logical, critical thinking is a fairly good way to make self-interested decisions and take personal responsibility, even if those decisions involve a reversal of previous positions and beliefs … and even if those decisions involve and precipitate further change in the future.

An Anthropological Lesson on the Morality of Exchange Networks

The Tapu Quarantine (painting) by Gottfried Lindauer. Available from the New Zealand Texts Collection, Victoria University of Wellington, under a CC BY 3.0 license.

And as an ever-aspiring critical-thinking anthropologist, I would hope to add a unique insight based on the broad perspective anthropologists do have, concerning the multitude of ways that humans develop addictions that distort our sense of what we can and can’t control in the large, flowing networks of people and their things–on which our very survival and flourishing depends. In the current American case, we’re worried about addictions to dramatic mythical stories that have seemingly pleasing side effects. But that are damaging in the long-term.

The story that our woes are due to out-of-control public spending has three mythologizing, intensely emotional storylines. It asserts that individuals and families seek more control over the future of their children and grandchildren, something that is rendered uncertain by government policy. It asserts that government use of its police power to extract taxes on income and assets gained is a further affront to individuals and families, since those taxes are subsidizing policies that render the future more uncertain and out of individual/family control. And it asserts that on top of everything else, the forced transfer of a portion of income and assets to others should be largely–if not completely–stopped, not only because it adds to future uncertainty, but also because transfer payment recipients are not really deserving, and their exclusion is what should really define the limits and sovereign power of proper society. I wish that it were simple to gain control over the future. There is a depressingly pervasive, unacknowledged moral problem with so many of us being moved by stories that only ritually seem to provide control, but really just end up excluding from society people we can really afford to include … and ethically should include. There is also something in the dynamic of exchanging things in larger networks that–although it gives us a source of economic growth and wealth–means accepting some loss of control over our future and that of our children and grandchildren. The potential for growth and improvement comes with risks, as well.

Perhaps the best anthropological example of how a culture can metaphorically and cosmologically understand this seemingly magical dimension of large exchange networks comes from traditional Maori (New Zealand) teachings, discussed in the classic ethnological analyses by Marcel Mauss (The Gift 2002 [1925]) and Marshall Sahlins (Chapter 4 in Stone Age Economics 2004 [1972]). In addressing how giving, receiving, and reciprocating define the moral core of human social relations, Mauss turned to the teaching of Tamati Ranapiri, a Maori sage. Ranapiri had earlier been interviewed by the ethnographer Elsdon Best at the turn of the last century, discussing among other topics the exchange of valuable things, “hau taonga.” Mauss took Ranapiri to be articulating the fundamental social concept that a material gift–once given to another–must be returned in some form, because the thing itself is an inalienable, essential (and thus marked, sacred) part of the soul of the giver. Sahlins argued that there was something more–and perhaps more prosaically familiar–to the story.

Relying on his colleague Bruce Biggs’s new translation of Ranapiri’s Maori transliterated text, Sahlins pointed out that, in all of Ranapiri’s examples and glosses, gifts gain value when given and held for some time by a third party. When that third party repays the initial recipient in some reasonable way after a period of use, the latter gains from being the middle man in this chain, facing the choice of keeping the profit (in the form of a thing) or repaying the original giver. Ranapiri makes clear that there are moral and cosmological costs to hoarding. With traditional Maori beliefs in ritual sacrificial offerings to the forest and in casting witchcraft spells, failure to maintain the cycle of giving, receiving, giving further, and then eventually returning always leads to withering or even destruction. And Sahlins argues persuasively that the exchange of things across human networks is seen metaphorically by Ranapiri as resembling a priest’s offering to the forest, which supports the fertility of wild birds, which are taken (received as profit) by hunters, who then must give back an offering to the priests, who can give again to the forest … And exchange flows are seen by Ranapiri as also resembling “in negative” the giving of a magical spell by the priest to the apprentice, who incurs a cost of using the spell, being required to use it on a relative for it to gain its power, ultimately leading to the death by witchcraft of the priest. Although the fear and belief in magic and witchcraft may have been real, this latter comparison is also a quite profound allegory–inverting Maori values concerning exchange circuits of things in networks and exchange circuits of ritual offerings among the priests, the forest, and hunters–in the interdependence we require to survive and flourish, and the balance and certainty yielded by accepting our mortality as part of this process of giving away and eventually accepting what comes back to you.

Basically, what Sahlins concludes is that Ranapiri uses the examples of “material yield” (that is, profits gained throughout the network when multiple actors use capital and then exchange valuable portions of such profits in a continuous circle) and “spiritual yield” (that is, the giving fertility of the forest) as mutually explanatory. I do not think that Sahlins fully appreciated the importance of his insight into Maori wisdom, which is really about the productivity of exchange cycles through networks of actors. In particular, Ranapiri’s further comparison of people exchanging gifts with sorcerers and victims negatively exchanging life suggests an underlying value on equilibrium in the Maori traditional cultural system. This is further evoked by the illustration above right, showing a young Maori girl offering food to an old man of her grandparents’ generation. The man is a priest who has handled the dead, and thus, he is considered tapu and cannot touch food with his hands until a period of purification has passed. We see here a ritual specialist of the older generation paying the cost–essentially providing a public good–of handling the corpse of a community member who can no longer produce and exchange, and thus can no longer contribute to the productivity of society and nature. And the girl sustains the old man, whose investment in handling the dead generously stabilizes society, making it possible for her to grow up and thrive. The traditional Maori world, then, embraced the productive value of exchange cycles through networks of people and their things, but it saw this as a way to maintain balance in society … and between society and nature.

It is particularly ironic that American cultural fears about lack of control over the future (something notably shared in this country by both Tea Party Republicans and the populist left) are most often mythologically and ritually tackled by hurling claims–as if they were magical spells–about American exceptionalism and an impossible belief in perpetual economic growth, thus directly contributing to the very uncertainty at the heart of our fears. We would do well to consider the Maori example of what might be called ethical capitalism, in which profits not only sustain us and allow us to flourish, but also allow us to show our gratitude to those in our exchange network who had helped us profit, offering them further capital so that they might one day give to us again. This requires our thinking very carefully about the difference between sustaining and flourishing, on the one hand, and consuming and satisfying, on the other.


Hamilton, W. D. (1970). Selfish and Spiteful Behaviour in an Evolutionary Model. Nature, 228(5277), 1218–1220. doi:10.1038/2281218a0

Mauss, M. (2002 [1925]). The Gift (Essai Sur Le Don). (W. D. Halls, Trans.). Routledge.

Sahlins, M. (2004 [1972]). Stone Age Economics. Routledge.