The tantrum thrown by extremists in the Republican Party about the Affordable Care Act and the debt ceiling is over -- for now -- but the shutdown's cost to the U.S. economy ($24 billion, according to Standard & Poor's) and the blight on the democratic principle of majority rule are unmistakable.
But what, really, was the tantrum all about?
One of the best answers comes from University of Oregon economics professor Mark Thoma, who recently wrote for The Fiscal Times that the "political dispute over the debt is, plainly and simply, about the size and role of government. In particular, it's an attempt by Republicans to use undue fear about the debt to scale back or eliminate spending on social insurance programs such as Medicare, Social Security, Obamacare, food stamps and unemployment compensation."
To be sure, there's no problem with having a discussion of the proper size and role of government.
But the extremists aren't willing to have such a rational discussion. What they're willing to do instead is hold the nation's economy hostage to extract policy concessions steeped in mythical free-market ideology. The extremists blasted health care reform as an attack on the free market and as an example that government regulation doesn't work.
Are they aware that the Affordable Care Act is, in fact, a market-based solution to millions of Americans going without health insurance? Mitt Romney enacted it in Massachusetts. The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, rolled it out in the early 1990s as an alternative to a single-payer model.
But acknowledging such facts is tantamount to living in reality. In an article he wrote a year ago for The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quoted from a book — "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" — by Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. The GOP, Mann and Ornstein wrote, "has become an insurgent outlier … scornful of compromise (and) unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science. …"
The situation is made all the more bizarre when you consider conventional facts about the economy, such as the critical part government plays in it: interest rates, courts to enforce business contracts, infrastructure and schools that speed and educate entrepreneurs. You see it playing out on a local level, with the city of Vancouver, for example, adopting a pro-business stance with certain government incentives.
As Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, has noted, "governments don't 'intrude' on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren't 'free' of rules; the rules define them."
So, what matters when we discuss the proper role and size of government is how we answer some tough questions, including: Just how cozy should government and business be? What kind of rules should we have? Who gets to decide them? Who benefits?
The hostage-takers refuse to weigh such questions in a democratic or intellectually honest manner. They just want what they want, no matter how reckless it is. Still, as yet another likely debt ceiling crisis looms only a few months away, one hopes the significant public opposition to their methods brings them to their senses.
Suffice it to say, I'm not holding my breath.