Canceling the debt ceiling apocalypse

Before we begin, let it be said that the looming possibility of the U.S.'s default on its own debt is a not-insignificant issue. Let it also be said that the U.S. government may be unwilling to pay interest on its multi-trillion dollar publicly-held debt as of mid-October, and that this carries substantial risks. And, finally, let it be said that this is something we should most definitely avoid.

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The Bright Side of Falling Off the Fiscal Cliff

As 2012 sputters to a close, it wraps up with a yawning gap between widespread economic pessimism and the actual state of economic affairs. Though consumer sentiment rebounded in the fall, it fell in December, amid relentless coverage of the impending fiscal cliff. Holiday spending was muted. Businesses, meanwhile, cite the unresolved negotiations in Washington as evidence of continued uncertainty and many have put new spending, hiring, or investment on hold. The media counts the days (and on some cable news channels, the minutes and the seconds) till we descend the fiscal cliff, adding to the general agitation.

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2012 Economic Outlook: Why Things Are Better Than We Think

Years from now, when we look back at 2011, it may be remembered as one of the best worst years of the early 21st century. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an extended period where people were more negative, yet remarkably, in the United States at least, not much actually happened. A summer debt impasse looked dramatic but in the end was resolved, and markets went up and down wildly yet ended largely where they started or better. Judged by every major economic indicator, it was the most stable period in a long while, with every sign that 2012 will be better yet. There is only one not-so-small problem: almost no one believes it.

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Our Real Debt Problem

On Friday, I posted a piece on the U.S. debt and how we are creating a false crisis given current interest rates and our ability to manage that. Judging from the responses, you would have thought I was penning a piece in defense of eugenics. OK, the online world is not known for its sobriety, but the heated reaction to my post is typical of the current debate about debt.

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What Would the Founding Fathers Say About the National Debt? Don’t Default

One of America’s favorite pastimes is to play the “what would the Founding Fathers say” game. Just pick an issue du jour, and ask the question. Given that today’s world (Google, Twitter, television) is probably way beyond even the imagination of the 18th-century designers of the Constitution, the game usually says more about today’s partisan fights than about the Founders.

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Markets Plunge Because of Greece, China, and the U.S. (Or so they say.)

Another day, another market plunge. Yesterday was notably sharp, with all major indices declining more than 2% and getting worse as the day wore on. The story du jour – and it is an axiom of market declines that there must be a story that goes with it – was that the sell-off was triggered be a toxic combination of weak U.S. economic data, more concerns about Greece and whether it would default on its debts and bring down the Eurozone

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Debt: The Third Rail of Journalism

Last week, I published an essay in Time magazine about debt, arguing that our current preoccupation with the federal deficit and with debt in general is a dangerous distraction from the real issue (namely, our inability to invest and spend wisely to create the economy of the future). The problem isn’t debt per se - after all, the U.S. government took on much more debt during and after World War II, and few would argue that was bad policy or led to disaster. The problem is that we aren’t spending our debt productively; instead, we’re frittering it away on consumption, tax rebates, military budgets to pay for Cold War-era weapons systems, pork projects, or other forms of spending that will not yield returns in the future.

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Deficits and the Chinese Challenge

Consider what happened in 1946, when a cash-strapped Great Britain turned to the U.S. for a loan. For 30 years or more, the British had been consumed by the threat of a rising Germany. Two wars had been fought, millions of lives had been lost, and the British treasury was dramatically depleted in the process. Britain survived, but the costs were substantial.

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Don’t Demonize Debt

As Wall Street continues its slow-motion hari kari, tens of millions of people on the lower-end of the income spectrum are finding that their access to credit is becoming all but nonexistent. As banks set aside ever more cash to cover themselves against potential future losses, the credit spigot that flowed so promiscuously to riskier customers is now not flowing at all.

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Americans Don't Spend Beyond Their Means

It's become a mantra: American consumers have been living beyond their means, using their homes as piggy banks, borrowing promiscuously, and now the bill is coming due. Having nearly drowned in a sea of debt, U.S. consumers must now repair their personal finances, spend more prudently and recognize the wisdom of past generations: spend only what you earn and what you have.

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There’s Only One End of the World... and This Isn’t It

So here we are once again on the precipice, at least in terms of global stock markets and credit markets. Another bout of nail-biting panic is hardly unexpected, though it’s always surprising when otherwise sane people veer sharply into hysteria. It’s a good, albeit painful, reminder that the bonds of what we call civilization are always more tenuous than we would like to believe, that things like “value” and “worth” and “the economy” are ultimately the products of human beings simply agreeing on a set of rules. Stocks, bonds, gold, silver, none have any intrinsic value, nor do Gucci handbags, Deere lawnmowers, and GM trucks (in case anyone was wondering about that one). We act as if they do, because it gives us some sense of an orderly world, and because the alternative is just too unsettling to live with on a daily basis.

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Alive and Well Under a Mountain of Debt

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Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where two men push a wheelbarrow through a plague-afflicted village shouting: “Bring out your dead”? A family heaves a body on to the pile, whereupon it lifts his head and says: “But I’m not dead yet!” One man whacks him with a cudgel and says: “Now you are.” That is the perfect metaphor for the American consumer on the one hand and strategists, commentators and economists on the other.

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