Nuclear Strategists Know How Dangerous the Debt Fight Is

commentary

Nov 29, 2021

Composite image for the U.S. Capitol dome with clouds in the sky and U.S. currency superimposed on the sky, photo by Douglas Rissing/Getty Images

Photo by Douglas Rissing/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on The Atlantic on November 27, 2021.

Republicans and Democrats alike have characterized the debt-ceiling fight as a game of chicken, in which two drivers barrel toward each other and each hopes that the other swerves away first. Political pundits have described some strategies for resolving the conflict, such as changing the Senate's filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to raise the debt limit, as “nuclear options.” Language like this might seem to melodramatize the legislative process, but the comparisons are apt. Nuclear-war strategists have long understood how recklessness, or the appearance of recklessness, may help one side get the other to relent during a single game of chicken. But these strategists' work also offers a warning for Congress: The more times the game is played, the more treacherous it becomes, because when both sides become convinced that catastrophe will always be averted in the end, each behaves more rashly.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at theatlantic.com.


Edward Geist is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and the author of Armageddon Insurance: Civil Defense in the United States and Soviet Union, 1945–1991.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.