Destroying the Village in Order to Save It

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

I’ve been doing some thinking of late about the debt-ceiling crisis, and the subsequent credit downgrading by Standard and Poor’s of the U.S. long-term rating.  Here is part of the reason given for the downgrade:

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Aspersions have been widely cast, blaming everyone, from the Tea Party to the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  But I can’t get beyond the thought that a relatively small group of Republican legislators has hijacked the political process.  The intransigence of this group, whose tactics included a total lack of willingness to compromise, steered the politics and the economy of a country toward the cliff of default.  That the government managed to avoid defaulting on its debts, however, didn’t completely avert a crisis, namely, the AA+ rating downgrade and global reaction to it.

Now, whatever you may think about the Republican negotiating strategy, it was effective.  That is to say, Republicans met their stated goal (viz., reduce the deficit by cutting spending, but without raising taxes).  But meeting one’s goal isn’t always the point.  It’s possible to meet one’s goals and still fail in the process. Let’s take a “progressive” example—wiping out hunger (although, why this might be considered a progressive goal, rather than a human goal or a religious goal is an important question).  Suppose your stated goal is to wipe out hunger in your community.  On its face, this seems to be a worthy goal, if you can pull it off.  Who would argue?

Next, however, you must answer the question: “How do you wipe out hunger in your community?”  There are any number of ways you might approach the problem.  You might, for instance, force all of the grocery stores to take their goods and distribute them among all the people in the community for free—which, in the short term would allow you to say you accomplished your goal.  Hunger would abate . . . for a time.  People would have food.  But then what?  What happens next week?  Since the grocery stores can’t stay in business for long under that arrangement, where will the next round of food come from?  If you gut the system in place (faulty as it may be), you may be able to achieve your short-term goal, but you risk a pyrrhic victory.

During the bombing and shelling of Bén Tre, a provincial capital in Viet Nam, in 1968, an unnamed source is said to have remarked to Peter Arnett, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”  That quote was later reduced to “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” which itself became a placeholder for popular sentiment concerning the strategy the Viet Nam war.  This placeholder, or something very nearly like it, may yet come to be attached to the recent strategy employed by the Republicans in the budget-ceiling debate.  The stated Republican goal (viz., reduce the deficit by cutting spending, but without raising taxes), it seems to me, is undone by resorting to a short-term strategy (“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”) that hacks at the limb upon which the economy perches.  It is possible, in other words, to achieve your immediate economic goal in such a way that you imperil the economy altogether (think gooses and golden eggs).

However, the real question that vexes me is how it came to this.  Even if the motives of those Tea Party Republicans were sincere (which I hope is true), and that what they really believe is that the economy will ultimately founder if government doesn’t reign in its spending, when did it become acceptable to use any means necessary, up to and including tolerating “serious disruptions” to the economy in order to win?  I understand hard negotiations; but threatening to blow everything up unless you get your way is something four year-olds do.

I’m not offering any solutions.  I’m not sure what the President should (could) have done.  But a light has to be cast upon a strategy that offers short-term political victories at the cost of long-term economic and political stability.  The price of winning some battles is too high.

If you could find anybody still living who hails from Bén Tre, I bet they’d agree with me.