05/17/2011 11:51 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

Debt-Limit Chicken

By now millions of people know that the federal government reached its debt-limit earlier this week. That means that if Congress doesn't soon increase the debt ceiling, the United States Government could default on its debt, which means that the federal government would not be able to pay its bills. If federal payments were, indeed, frozen, according to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, it "would likely push us into a double dip recession." Such a default, according to Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and highly placed officials in the financial services industry, would damage the world economy for many years to come.

Republicans in Congress have a different view. For many of them, default on the federal debt is no big deal. As for now, Secretary Geithner is employing a variety of measures to stave off default, but those efforts will work only until August 1. Even so, this talk of doom and gloom hasn't impressed Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) who said the following in the Wall Street Journal: "When you say the drop-dead day is going to be August, I question that." There are money managers like Stanley Druckenmiller, who runs Duquesne Capital, who agree with Rep. Rooney. He says that a default on the debt would not be economically horrific.

Even though the possibility of a federal government default is an issue with potentially serious -- even catastrophic -- consequences, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate seem to be playing politics with the debt ceiling. They say they want to use the debt-limit issue as "leverage" to get what they want. Put into the language of the playground, they are saying: "we won't agree to raise the debt ceiling, unless you do what we want," which is to slash billions of dollars from the federal budget, an action that would undermine Medicare and Medicaid, damage Social Security and potentially compromise the military. To put even more salt into this economic wound, they propose these draconian cuts without calling for any increases in revenue. Put another way, Republicans in the House and Senate are saying to President Obama: "If you don't do what we want, we are willing to risk economic ruin.

If you think about it, the Republicans in the House and Senate are playing chicken -- with the quality of all of our lives. They are willing to bring us into default, which is tantamount to economic failure, to achieve their radical ends -- shrinking the government and bringing about drastic income redistribution.

As disturbing as it is, this kind of deep game playing is nothing new. In his classic book of anthropology, Naven, published more than 65 years ago, Gregory Bateson, one of the great minds of the 20th century, analyzed such brinkmanship among the Iatmul people of New Guinea. In so doing, he isolated two kinds of political interaction: complementary and symmetrical. In complementary interaction one party aggressively pursues its goals in expectation that the other party will compromise or submit -- as in the relation of noble to serf. In symmetrical interaction, you respond to aggression with aggression, as in two rivals vying for dominance. Bateson found that in New Guinea rivals liked to play chicken, increasing social and political tension to an unbearable point at which the parties backed off and cooled down. In time, the mutually aggressive behavior would begin yet again only to reach yet another break-off point and a period of cooling down.

Even though they control only the House of Representatives, the Republicans in Congress have been adept at playing an aggressive game of chicken. In the complementary system they perceive, they expect President Obama, a reasonable man, to compromise -- to give them much, if not all of what they want. They are willing to play with fire and bet our fragile house-of-cards economy on his willingness to agree to their demands. In a complementary system, though, the aggressive actor doesn't expect the "submissive" party to suddenly take charge of the situation. When such change occurs, a reset button is pushed and perceptions shift. The formally "aggressive" ones are no longer so sure of themselves. The formerly "submissive" ones walk their paths with increased confidence and determination.

So if President Obama begins to interact with Congressional Republicans in a way that undermines their expectations of him, if he approaches them with the steely determination and resolve he exhibited in directing the commando operation against Osama bin Laden, he will have the opportunity to push that reset button, cool our irrational political rhetoric and shape a system of political interaction that solves rather than creates serious problems. It's a gutsy call, but he's made gutsy calls before.