Saturday, July 16, 2011

the debt ceiling

Andrea  Pozzo--The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius
Don't worry--this won't be a blog post devoted to delving deeply into the financial realm. But after watching many nights of political news revolving around the looming crisis of not increasing the debt ceiling, I am still a little baffled about what the debt ceiling actually is. I know that the general idea is that we don't want as a nation to default on our creditors and that raising the debt ceiling is the way to avoid that, but how exactly do we do it, I do not know.
Let's see if anyone can shed a little simple light on this.


Okay, yes, there is a very simple answer. Before 1917, Congress had to pass a new law every time they borrowed money. But when the United States became involved in World War I, they needed a more efficient method to raise funds. The debt ceiling was, and is, simply the amount that the Treasury Department has the leeway to borrow, by issuing bonds, bills and notes without going back to Congress constantly to ask permission.

Many think that the debt ceiling is an outmoded financial tool because it isn't really able to control spending in the way it once did. Much of our debt is not  up for discussion, coming from the growing costs of mandated programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As one former policy advisor to President Reagan put it, in  our current situation, "it makes no sense to treat the debt ceiling as an independent variable."

Some argue that we still need it, though. According to Professor Krishnakumar of St. John's University, it represents the last vestige of Congressional control or accountability over the national debt, and it encourages Congress to "consider the interest of the general public and future generations, rather than those of special interests, and thus acts as an important institutional check on party and interest group politics."

But whatever it's utility, no one is saying it's a good idea to default. So roll up your shirt sleeves, duly elected officials, and hammer out a deal. I mean, it's the kind of thing we sent you to Washington  to

What's the image, you ask? Why, that's a hedgehog ceiling lamp. See, it's a high ceiling, and I'm thinking maybe we could all use a little light.

Editing this to add a few links that are by people who actually know what they are talking about on this, or at least know a whole lot more than I do.

CBS News

Fret Ceiling--Slate magazine

Abolish the Debt Ceiling!--Slate Magazine


  1. I am laughing my way up to the ceiling, as in the song & plot element of "I Love to Laugh" in the film Mary Poppins! Truly, thank you for shedding hedgehog light on the term "debt ceiling."

  2. Thanks, Seana, This was interesting to me. -Janet

  3. Kathleen, I put in the hedgehog ceiling lamp espeically for you.

    Janet, I'm glad you found it useful.

  4. Oh, and by the way, as to the whole hedgehog stat phenomenon, it does look like there has been a spike. I don't really get into checking stats, mainly because it would be too discoraging, so I don't know if I'm reading these correctly, but if I am there are indeed many people who live for the word hedgehog.

  5. Yes, yes, they do. I don't want to say, "I told you so!" Thank you. I knew the hedgehog ceiling lamp was for me, and I want you to know I put the debt ceiling in a poem today for you!

  6. Of course, it could be that everyone is just fascinated to learn what I might have to say about the debt ceiling...

    Okay, not too likely.

    Is the debt ceiling poem going to be on view anywhere?

  7. I haven't digested the post yet, but the headline and the first illustration make a wonderful combination.

    "Ceilings. Nothing more than ceilings ... "

  8. Thanks, Peter. It was a felicitous find.

  9. Serendipitous, too?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  10. Well, not entirely, since I was actually looking for a painted ceiling to use.

  11. My favourite ceilings would have to be the "Trompe l'Oeil" effects that make clever metaphors for fiscal matters the world over.


  12. Yes, the technique creates a great effect, doesn't it?

    Since the debt ceiling has apparently been raised 74 times since 1962, it's definitely an illusion of some sort. Although apparently the opposite sort than that usually obtained by trompe l'oeil.

  13. An encouraging detail is that Pozzo covered the costs of his ceiling by publishing "Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum".

    A golden age for the arts. Nowadays writers get shunted round the planet on book signing gigs and have to give workshops to keep their work afloat.

  14. Well, at least it's travel. My sense is that a lot of midlist authors don't even go on tour anymore.

    Although 'blog tours' are popular...