Bob Franken




Do you know the difference between company and labor negotiations at Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, and the Republican-Democrat debt ceiling battle? Among other things, it’s leverage. Fourteen hundred cereal workers are on strike at Kellogg’s after a year-long impasse at the bargaining table between management and a local chapter of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. What’s the worst that can happen? The kiddies could be deprived of Frosted Flakes.
But what’s the worst that can happen if the debt limit negotiations ultimately break down in Washington? How about calamity — or you pick the word for economic catastrophe for billions of people. It would be a version of Mutually Assured Destruction, so MAD that it’s the ultimate leverage because no one wants to go there. But drama queen or drama king politicians (pardon the redundancies) get their thrills dipping their toes in the abyss of the fiscal apocalypse to prove that they are macho or macha grandstanders who are not about to be pushed around until they are forced to back away, like they did when they moved away for a couple months from the apocalypse.
That’s what would happen if Congress won’t ultimately approve an increase or suspension of the debt limit, the borrowing authority for the United States of America to take out more loans. We’ve never defaulted on them before, and our national debt stands at this second at about $29 trillion … a ton of money.
A trillion dollars stacked end to end would be more than the distance from Earth to the sun, meaning that our debt would make the trip 29 times. Talk about climate change! Which, by the way, shows why I hate it so much when the TV anchor uses some similar comparison for an illustration.

Since we’ve never welched on our sovereign debt, we would make history if we did — and we’d make lots of history. We’d accumulate more mortgage defaults since at least the Great Depression. (If you stacked the number of foreclosures end to end, you’d … oh, never mind.) Anything you’d want to buy would be scarce, because factories would close. Commerce would grind to a halt.
You don’t mess with the debt ceiling. But everyone tries to play pretend, and investors always get sucked in when they do. But at the last moment a relatively sensible politician (pardon the oxymoron) comes in to save the day. But sometimes they utterly forget what they were sent to Washington to do, and they become so unable to make a deal that they can’t.
Then, as the world goes kablooie and we seriously lower our standard of living, us pundits would have plenty to talk about. That is, if the networks hadn’t gone bankrupt.
Some people won’t even have cereal to fill our bowls with, which is another of my shameless segues, in case you hadn’t noticed. If you stacked all my shameless segues to their max, they’d reach at least to Battle Creek, where the striking cereal workers are pounding the pavement. Management is already making noises about moving factories to Mexico. So, the Frosted Flake eaters don’t have to sweat it, and the dentists won’t either, because the toddlers can get hooked on sugar, and teeth will continue to decay.
Meanwhile, after a while, the strikers can get a preview taste of the financial deprivation we’ll all feel if the members of Congress drop the ball and one of these days don’t pass another extension of the debt ceiling. And you thought there wasn’t any connection.
If that’s really a dumb way to run things, maybe we can come up with another way. Like paying down the debt before it gets so big it consumes the universe.

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