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The statutory limit that the United States Congress places on the amount of debt that the Bureau of the Public Debt can have outstanding at any time. Every few years (and sometimes more than once in a single year), when the debt is about to hit the limit, the Congress raises the limit, with a few members taking the opportunity to say that "we should really do something about the debt".

It used to be the case that Congress would designate an increase in the debt ceiling as permanent or temporary. (There were also extensions, which didn't increase the ceiling, but pushed back the expiration date for a temporary increase.) Temporary ceiling increases can be considered in the same vein as a temporary tax increase, namely, as a fairy tale.

In 1971, the permanent debt ceiling was $400 billion. At the end of 1982, after 19 temporary increases, the permanent limit was still $400 billion dollars, while the debt was $1.197 trillion. Even politicians were starting to see that they couldn't explain that forever, and would have to fix that somehow -- so they discontinued the temporary/permanent distinction.


As of January 31, 2002, the debt ceiling was 5,865,892,000,000 dollars. As of this writing, it has been raised, but I don't have the current figure. (The debt at February 28, 2002 was 6,003,453,016,583 dollars.)

The debt ceiling, though the topic of great grandstanding (and very real potential economic consequence) is the most pompous of farces in American government (which is by the way the only government in the world to require regular votes in order to extend the amount by which it may go into debt). Consider this scenario: a large organisation of men, a club, designates some number of their members as rulemakers, a role which makes them keepers of the budget. The club gives another member a printing press and the authority to press out with it pieces of paper, which those in the group will treat as having value. And then, to a third member -- we'll call him the doler -- the club gives the duty to dole out some amount of those pieces of paper at certain times to certain people. This third member is given other powers and duties as well, chiefly making sure the club's rules are followed, occasionally barring the club from enacting at all rules he disagrees with (unless the rulemakers have a supermajority), and occasionally taking 'emergency' actions against unfriendly rival clubs -- though these actions inevitably turn out to be very expensive, requiring more pieces of paper to be printed and distributed to those doing the gruntwork in dealing with rival clubs, and to those supplying food and water and other materials in favour of that endeavour. But in truth, all expenses of the club are dwarfed by commitments that members of the club have made to provide regular payments upon which many members of the club who are no longer active depend for their sustenance.

Now, the club will from time to time pass their budget, which is essentially a set of instructions to the doler to pass out those pieces of paper, telling him how many pieces must be passed out to whom. But, at the same time, the club may enact that 'ceiling,' a different and incompatible set of instructions sent to the person who prints the pieces of paper, telling him how many pieces of paper he may print. In other words, the club's rulemakers can and will instruct the doler, "you must dole out one hundred pieces of paper." And, at the same time, the club's rulemakers will instruct the other person, "you must not print more than fifty pieces of paper."

Therein, it may plainly be seen, lies the farce. The exact same body telling the doler how much he must dole is at the same time restricting the printer in what he may print, always making the amount to printed less than the amount to be doled (until the doler is in a position to run out of those pieces of paper, at which point the rulemakers usually hurriedly issue to the printer additional authority to print). There is inevitably some oversimplification in this presentation, as the rulemakers are a body whose membership changes with shifting political winds, and future incarnations often chafe deeply at disfavored commitments made by those past. And, the doler has the one additional, if limited, power mentioned above, which allows him to refuse to sign the budgets' or even to refuse to sign the authorizations to print more pieces of paper. And, lastly, a proportion (though surprisingly small) of the pieces of paper being doled out are not newly printed, but were printed a long time ago, and are being confiscated in one way or another from those who have come to possess them, to be re-doled out to those whose to whom the commitments are fresher.

But the bottom line is that the entire process is an exercise in political Kabuki theatre, with club members purporting to prate about for one ideological notion or another using its very existence to point fingers and score points against club members of assertedly differing ideologies. Realistically, the whole inane notion ought to be done away with; when the club rulemakers get around to telling the doler how many pieces of paper he must dole, knowing how many the printer will need to print, they ought to either limit the doling to the amount they intend to see printed, or be presumed to have authorize the printing of the amount they have instructed to be doled. However deeply we may disagree with the amount decreed to be doled out, or its purpose of distribution, we ought not to make ourselves look like idiots in the process of doing the doling.

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