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  • Reverend James Squire

The Ethics of the Debt Ceiling Controversy

Photo by Alice Pasqual

I taught my ethics students about lateral thinking which means thinking outside the box. I used a book, by Tom Wojak called Pumping Ions, which was used at Penn as a resource for guidelines and examples of how to do this kind of problem solving. You can actually learn how to do this important skill. Enterprises today are looking for people who can solve problems in ways that are not obvious. They are not interested in people retelling what they already know. They want thinkers. For example, the most profitable product in the MMM (3 M Company) are the post It notes that so many of us use today. They were discovered by a researcher who was looking for an adhesive that would stick but would be able to be pulled off a product. It went nowhere until this researcher who was in his church choir started to use this useless product as bookmarks for his hymnal, and the rest is history.

There were a great many debates that occurred in my ethics class as the content lends itself to that kind of format. Teenagers love to argue a point of view. The two rules for debate were that you could not use ad hominem arguments (attacking the person and not the issue) and only one person could speak at a time.

Before I got into substantive issues with the class such as cheating, I had to introduce them to the concept of “framing” so they could see when other people were using that approach to win an argument them. In essence, framing is constructing the argument on terms that is your expertise or gets to the heart of what you want to achieve. It is akin to framing a house with two by fours and then putting the outside skin on it such as various types of siding. Don’t buy into something/point of view that you don’t think has anything to do with the debate or what you want to talk about. It is sometimes referred to as “controlling the narrative.”

The biggest argument in front of the politicos in Washington is not raising the debt ceiling as proposed by the Republican led House. They won’t raise the debt ceiling to pay for our bills until Biden agrees with various cuts in programs.

The debt ceiling is like your credit card bill. You have already spent the money. You wouldn’t call the credit card company and say, “I am not going to pay that bill until you cut out various things that I already bought or will be bought in the future.” The response would be, “You are out of your mind. The money has been spent.” The credit card company would go on to say, “If you don’t want to spend that much, work out a budget for your next payment that you negotiate within your family. (Congress)


President Biden has already submitted his detailed budget. Speaker McCarthy has submitted his with fewer details. It is not clear what he would like to add or remove.

The debt Ceiling has never failed to be voted on in a positive fashion. Trump added 20% of the total debt to date. YOU DON’T NEGOTIATE OVER THE DEBT CEILING. YOU NEGOTIATE OVER A BUDGET WORKED OUT BY THE TWO PARTIES.

Let me indicate why the debt ceiling came into existence in 1917. Before then, there was no flexibility on how much the government could buy. This provided the needed flexibility that the government needed. To go back to the credit card metaphor, sometimes the government needed to spend more. Hence, the credit card limit had to be raised.

Framing is all about controlling the narrative. When the Maga Republicans first made the demand to negotiate raising the debt ceiling or they would not approve it unless their budget demands were met, Biden then said, “That is a non-starter! You have to pay your bills. Then we can talk about budgets. Oh, by the way, I don’t have a budget request from you to show how you want to spend the money. You have mine.”

It is a complex story how Biden allowed McCarthy to change the narrative and framing to a discussion of the House’s demands to change the debt ceiling. McCarthy didn’t show the full account of the Republicans’ budget because quite frankly most of their requests hurt the American people. He knew he would never get those demands in a budget negotiation in Congress.

But there is more about framing and changing the narrative. Once again money and power enter into the equation. Trump is the master at framing. However, he frames with lies, deflection, and “the ends justify the means.” DeSantis does the same by rewriting history to imply that our history is pristine and pure. He sees that narrative as something that has worked to create a divided nation on culture conflicts. His first book has been taken off the shelves as it is long on details to support his views but short on accurate historical context. He doesn’t want people to see his version of history.

For framing to work the two parties involved or two students involved must trust each other. That is basic and that is not present in the debt ceiling talks.

“Show me the money” takes on new meaning when the action or lack of action could bring our nation and world to financial ruin. Right now, McCarthy and Biden are using the Via Media Ethic searching for the lesser of two evils or expressed as wrong but necessary. Even that system involves more trust for framing means that unless you have trust, you may not really be arguing about something that can be solved. The debate on the debt ceiling is really not about the debt but about which party is going to be seen in the best light by the American people. There are elements in the Maga Republicans that would like to destroy our democracy so that there can be an authoritarian government led by the Trumpster. That is what January 6 was about.

I always listen to what Trump says for the opposite is really what we should be doing. He said, “Don’t give in to those Democrats. Don’t raise the ceiling.” The implied, but not spoken, is let our nation and the world fall apart. If I were possibly going to jail, that would help us to understand his unethical approach. Chaos for him means more possibilities. That has gotten him what he wanted in the past. We need to remember what it was like when he was President. In one word, it would be “chaos.”

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