Raising the Roof

alice-in-wonderland-clipart-2Well, we have a government again. But since the debates over money and politics are due to rev up before their jets have even cooled, let’s take a moment to look at one very messy metaphor.

I’m referring, of course, to the so-called raising of the debt ceiling.

Since George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, plenty of ink has been spilled over political speech. Most of the ink, today, is devoted to ways of manipulating the public into thinking black is white and day is night. Occasionally, though, you run across a phrase so genuinely misguided that finding new language is not only a shrewd move but the only fair and sane step to take. When it comes to debt ceiling, you want to ask, as George Lakoff did last year of fiscal cliff, “Why do some metaphors have far more staying power than others, even when they give a misleading picture of a crucial national issue?”

I don’t have Lakoff’s extended grasp of the ways metaphors work in our neural circuits, but I couldn’t help noticing how, in the recent brouhaha, President Obama had to re-explain the debt ceiling almost every time it was brought up. He had to point out that the debt ceiling had nothing to do with spending or deficit increases but was purely a move to pay bills already incurred. He had to point out that what the Treasury does is to issue debt, in the form of bonds, not to incur debt by going deeper into the hole than we already are. He had to come up with analogy after analogy to explain to his listeners that if you have hired, say, a plumber to fix your bathroom, you have to pay that plumber, which might mean taking out a loan from the bank, but if you don’t take out said loan, you are a deadbeat. Et cetera.

When there’s this much explanation going on merely to clarify a routine government operation, something is wrong with the shorthand we’re using. With raising the debt ceiling, it’s not hard to figure out what’s wrong. A ceiling is part of a house. To raise the ceiling is an expensive operation. It smacks of self-indulgence—the yeoman farmers of the 18th century lived with low ceilings, but the big spenders of the Gilded Age raised them up, wasting heat in the process. If you’ve got a lot of other household repairs to perform, for Heaven’s sake, you should postpone or cancel raising the ceiling. And at its most basic level, calling anything a ceiling makes it part of a householder’s vocabulary, associating the nation’s debt—whatever those politicians might claim—with one’s own household expenses.

What alternatives do we have? A Google Ngram of debt limit and debt ceiling reveals the former term peaking around 1913, four years prior to the Second Liberty Bond Act, which set limits on the aggregate amount of debt that could be accumulated through bonds and bills. Debt ceiling peaked around 1959-62 (at least, before the current outburst), coinciding with Marshall Robinson’s The National Debt Ceiling: An Experiment in Fiscal Policy. There don’t seem to be other terms that have caught on to describe this practice.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to frame a few alternatives to raise the debt ceiling. How about align debt and authorized expenditures? Clumsy, I know. How about procure increased investment? Buying a Treasury bond is, after all, as much of an investment for the purchaser as it is a debt for the government.

If we must resort to metaphor, can we get outside the house? Maybe extend the debt horizon. Or move the debt fence. Maybe water the debt forest. Come on, people, use your imaginations.

No matter what we come up with, those who believe that we should default on monies owed in order to chasten ourselves might prefer debt ceiling. But surely the only way in which the metaphor makes any sense is in the experience of Alice in Wonderland when she takes a bite of the “Eat Me!” cake and finds her head popping out of the house. If there’s no magic potion around to make her shrink immediately, clearly a new ceiling—and roof, and walls—have to be built before we can talk about what cakes to eat or avoid.

Better, I think, to set aside the household metaphor. (We might do the same, incidentally, with glass ceiling, the shattering of which tends to put one in mind of lethal shards.) Craft a phrase that actually captures what it is the Treasury does. Any ideas? Put on your thinking caps. Time’s running out. Only 10 weeks to go before we panic, again, over something whose name almost guarantees misunderstanding.

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