Flirting With Default

As the August 2 deadline approaches, Congress continues to fight over whether and under what conditions to raise the federal debt ceiling. Both Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s have warned that they might reduce the nation’s credit rating—with potentially catastrophic effects—unless progress is made. Nearly all the major political players agree that not raising the ceiling—making the government unable to meet all its financial obligations—would be, as Treasury Secretary Geithner says, “unthinkably damaging to the economy.”


So why even flirt with disaster? Ostensibly, it’s because if we don’t act to cut spending now our growing national debt will become unmanageable. That’s nonsense. As large as our debt is, we are not broke. In fact, as I wrote last week, our supposedly unmanageable deficits would mostly disappear if we simply let the Bush tax cuts expire. The country could begin to pay off its debts if we let tax rates return to something like the level they were under the Clinton administration, rates which would still be a moderate level compared to other advanced economies. The fact is that we have a budget crisis only because we refuse to pay more in taxes. In other words, it’s not that we can’t afford to pay for things like Medicare, public education, or the national defense. It’s that we don’t really want to pay for them.

In fact, Republicans are using the idea that we are facing an imminent debt crisis to win political concessions in Congress and position themselves for the 2012 election. Their latest tactic is to push a balanced budget amendment—which would make negotiations like this harder in the future—designed to fail but to embarrass Democrats in the process. And, as Paul Krugman points out, while Republicans insist that the growing debt is a national crisis, they nevertheless refuse to consider raising taxes to solve that crisis—even though federal tax rates in the U.S. are about as low as they have been since the 1940s. In fact, with the economy still slow, it wouldn’t be a good time either to raise taxes or cut spending—a fiscal contraction is the last thing the economy needs. But the point is that for all their overheated talk about a national crisis Republicans don’t care much about the deficit. As Krugman says, “It has always been nothing but a club with which to beat down opposition to an ideological goal, namely the dissolution of the welfare state.”

Photo credit: Pete Souza

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less