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Lawmakers Need to Stop Manufacturing a Crisis and Hash Out a Debt Plan

Does the circus surrounding the debt ceiling debate in Washington suggest that America's greatness is at stake?

Hardly! Ours is a short but rich history of scoundrels and heroes, of great failure and great success. It would take a lot more than a debt crisis to fundamentally change who we are. 

But make no mistake: A debt crisis is bad news across the board, with repercussions ranging from closed national parks at the height of summer vacation season to a market crash and government shutdown that could plunge us back into recession and double-digit unemployment.

At the heart of the debate is the question of sweeping deficit reduction. Conditioning the debt-ceiling vote on deficit reduction is the national equivalent of going clubbing with a handgun tucked in the waistband of your sweatpants (with apologies to former wide receiver Plaxico Burress). You might shoot yourself in the foot, but it's all about the image you cast and the friends you want to impress.

Which is to say we are about to doom millions of middle-class Americans to several more years of underemployment -- not because we have to, but because factions of both political parties have decided the risks of defaulting on our debt are less important than appealing to key voting blocs in the next election.

The president and his advisers, in an effort to woo centrist voters, have eagerly embraced plans to significantly reduce the federal deficit over the next decade. They are so eager to achieve this that they are willing to make unprecedented cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits that will surely hurt working and middle-income families the hardest.

Republicans, appealing to conservative voters, have held to one simple line: no new tax revenue. It doesn't matter if we raise the revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes or taxing wealthy earners -- the one group to benefit handsomely from the last decade of economic growth. Lower the deficit by cutting spending only or the economy gets it.

One point lost in all this is the far more important deficit we face right now: the deficit of jobs. We need another 11.1 million jobs to get the country back to full employment. The longer it takes to close that gap, the harder it is to cut the fiscal deficit. Weaker labor markets cost an economy in a number of ways. You can't create new goods and services, increase profits or generate more tax revenue if millions of Americans can't find enough work.

Weaker labor markets will also stifle wage growth for those Americans fortunate enough to still have a job, denying the economy the only sustainable source of rising consumer demand. Closing the jobs deficit should be the No. 1 political priority right now, not reducing the federal deficit.

The problems we face are not insurmountable. The federal deficit is close to 9 percent of gross domestic product; as the economy improves, the size of the deficit will shrink. A careful combination of spending cuts and tax increases once the economy has found a more solid footing will be required to achieve additional deficit reduction.

But here's a key point: that plan does not need to be hashed out by August 2. Congress should raise the debt ceiling now. Deficit reduction policies should be debated and negotiated over the next several years -- not over the course of a week in an environment with great potential to damage the economy.

So what is at stake in this battle over the debt ceiling? It is not our greatness as a nation.

What is at stake is the future of millions of Americans who survived the Great Recession with a job. Will they now join the millions who weren't so lucky because politicians, in an effort to influence the next election, are manufacturing a crisis?

Mark Price is a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and blogs at http://www.thirdandstate.org/