National Commentary

The Brinksmanship Of Mad Hatters


With the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office calling the outlook for the U.S. economy “daunting,” Washington is rapidly approaching an ideological paralysis promising to make things much worse.

Commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time magazine this week that the Republican Party has shifted from pragmatism to an ideological correctness mire that has nothing to do with reality. Unlike some, he doesn’t contend this problem exists for both parties, but only on the right.

Any intransigence on the left is rooted in a desperate effort to fend off the newly charged mindless excesses on the other side.

The “grass tops” formation of the Tea Party by a coalition of the wealthiest Americans was accomplished by an appeal to the basest prejudices in the general population, accompanying the election of an African-American president. The objective was not only to divide the American middle class against itself, but also to engage in the risky game of brinksmanship by pulling out all the stops to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social safety net programs.

“Brinksmanship” is the art of feigned (or real) madness. It was the game played on both sides of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union periodically went “down to the wire” with bellicose threats of tripwires to total thermonuclear war.

The key to winning was to convince the other side that you’re actually crazy enough to hit the button that will result in “mutual and assured destruction” of all humanity as we know it. Only then will one side or the other really back down.

The GOP and its wealth-hoarding masters have played milder games of “brinksmanship” before, such as in December when they compelled the Obama administration to cave in on an extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Because those tax cuts were extended for another two years, make no mistake that, with the added burden of continuing the endless wars begun by Bush, the nation continues to suffer under the policies set in motion by George W. Bush.

Despite majorities in both houses and the White House, Democrats were not able to terminate the Bush regime formula. Thus, the rich continue to get richer, and the middle class is mired in high unemployment, stagnant or declining incomes, and now, the prospect of losing government assistance for their old age.

The widening income disparity between the richest one percent of Americans and everyone else has reached downright alarming proportions, as the Washington Post documented with an extensive report last Sunday.

Since 1980, the nation’s richest one percent have seen its share of the nation’s wealth double, from 10 to 20 percent, while middle class wages, taking inflation into account, have been flat (overall wage growth is now at an annual rate of 1.8 percent, half the rate prior to the Great Recession).

Now, the game of “brinksmanship” is being readied for the early August national debt ceiling debate. Emulating the Mad Hatter of “Alice in Wonderland,” Tea Party radicals of the GOP are sounding more than sufficiently insane about opposing an extension of the debt limit that jittery Democrats are contemplating appeasement strategies such as major concessions on Social Security and Medicare.

They, too, in the final analysis are willing to kick their grandmothers to the curb if they don’t put the national economy first.

At best, a short-term band-aid agreement may be fashioned to extend the debt limit, but only to kick the can a little further down the road. The problem with the politics of brinksmanship, especially when it involves large numbers of players (Congress rather than only top-level national leaders), is that real madness begins to creep in, substituting for feigned madness, and sheer disaster can result.

The levels of inflation, alone, that would derive from a U.S. debt default would not only devastate the economy, exploding unemployment levels, but would translate into swift and irreversible real income losses for almost all Americans, maybe even for a few among the super rich.

Solutions exist, such as massive “revenue enhancements” from ending the wars and raising taxes on the super rich to pre-1980 levels (70 percent under Eisenhower and Nixon). Simple.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at