A US government shutdown could crash the recovery

Red alert.

Relax: the Russians are not about to invade! Washington, however, is staring at collapse: in mid-October, the Treasury has announced that it will be down to its last $30bn which, believe it or not, will only pay for half-a-day’s Federal expenditure. Yes, it’s that time of year again, when Washington stares at its Fiscal Cliff, as Congress must vote through the budget and the increased Total Federal Debt Limit.

This used to be an automatic agreement, but now it’s become a partisan issue between the Republican and Democrat parties. The problem is that the man in the White House is a Democrat president and the men of the Tea Party Republicans don’t like this at all. In particular they don’t like Obamacare, the President’s flagship policy, which begins enrolling the uninsured next Tuesday, as the rich will have to pay far higher taxes to pay for this universal healthcare for all, but especially for the poor.

So the Republicans argue that if the president wanted to bring in this hugely costly measure at a time of global economic recession and banking crisis, he should have cut other expenditures to pay for it. The president saw it differently: he was looking at higher taxes. Last year they struck a deal, which finally ended up with the Republican $80bn sequestration, or expenditure cuts, which hit the military procurement budget hard.

This year, however, the hard men of the Republicans are in no mood to compromise. They perceive a lame duck president, who has just lost a one-armed wrestling match with Vlad the Bad Putin over Syria. They perceive a chance to kill off Obama, Obamacare and the Democrats all in one go. They can see Hillary in the wings getting ready to stand, and the thought of Bill "I didn’t inhale!" back in their White House is just too much for them. This, they perceive, is their last chance but one to prevent the loss of four elections in a row – a calamity for the ageing, predominantly white GOP.

Who will blink first this time? If no one blinks, the US Federal government is bust and out of business. Washington will close and go into shut-down mode by lunchtime. It cannot pay its debts and cannot incur any more debts it cannot pay. The vote on all this is on Sunday, and it looks like a total impasse as we head for the weekend, with a 21-hour filibuster taking up all of last Wednesday.

What happens in a shut-down, the last of which was in 1996? Schools are shut, pensions aren’t paid and thousands of suppliers have to wait for their money. More seriously, the chances are that one of the many expenditures to be cut will be interest on Treasury Bills, which could wreak global market havoc, send interest rates sharply up and kill off the recovery, and even trigger the next banking crisis and a global depression. This is nasty, and could get serious, fast.

Stephen Hill writes for Spear's Magazine

This piece first appeared here.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt