Playing With Doomsday

Michael New might be right that some institutional constraints could be useful, but Doomsday trigger mechanisms seem like an awfully bad idea to me. We’re replicating and escalating the game of chicken, and that is a less than ideal procedure. Of course, it can be argued that we are in a crisis and have little choice but to force ourselves into dramatic battles with dangerous consequences. Better sooner than later, and better an artificial solution than no solution at all. In light of the debt crisis, there’s a case for that kind of institutionalized brinksmanship. The debt ceiling itself is a reasonable mechanism. Going into debt ought to be a conscious decision. But tricky Doomsday triggers push an already risky game into still riskier territory.

A better solution would be to come to a national decision on what and what not to sacrifice by way of democratic elections. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The education process is just beginning. The public barely understood the dimensions of the debt crisis only a short time ago. Now, with Europe as an object lesson, the message is getting through. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee the country will escape its divided condition. That means continued deadlock and danger. Still, I doubt Doomsday triggers will solve our problems.

Right now, Democrats are hoping to use the Doomsday defense cut trigger to accuse Republicans of sacrificing the nation’s defense to protect big business and the rich from taxes. Republicans are accusing Democrats of putting our defense at risk by setting up Doomsday defense triggers in the first place.

With triggers in the background, it’s sometime tough to tell when we’re seeing mere posturing for negotiation effect. When Defense Secretary Panetta warns that the cuts could do damage to our military, is he expressing a real concern, trying to force Republicans to knuckle under to taxes and spending, or both? Some Republicans are expressing deep misgivings at the prospects of sweeping cuts, while others downplay the risks and say “Let’s solve this by electing a Republican president.” The GOP may gain more by showing that they can live with the triggered cuts–in the sense of using them to go to the public for redress–than by giving in to new taxes to stop them. But, of course, that just lands us in the Doomsday we were supposed to want to avoid. Triggers may sharpen awareness of the choices we face, but they also muddle debate and encourage too-clever-by-half posturing and mistrust.

This piece, which outlines the range of responses to the defense cut trigger issue, suggests that the debt deal is going to inject defense into the 2012 campaign to a greater degree than we might otherwise have expected. This post from Alana Goodman comments on a poll that finds voters unhappy with the idea of the triggered cuts. Debating all this in 2012 is a good idea.

But pulling the defense cut trigger would be a terrible scenario. It’s a very real prospect, however. NR’s editor’s say we now have little choice but to assume that the super-committee will fail and the cuts will go through. To the extent that such a failure would make defense a larger issue in the election, it will likely work in favor of Republicans. But that can and will be argued.

In any case, I hope part of the argument will include the question of whether it makes sense to set up Doomsday triggers at all. I can’t deny that coming right up to the brink does wonders to concentrate the mind. Arguably, we need that right now. On the other hand, like Michael Walsh said, gimmicks won’t solve our problems in the end. Only elections have a chance of doing that. Playing with Doomsday triggers is an invitation too….

I know the answer: we’re facing financial Doomsday anyway. I don’t want to resolve this argument right now, only start it.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz graduated from Haverford College and holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University. He did his field work in India and taught at Harvard and the University ...

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