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Debt Talks: Getting Locked In And Driving Out

How is negotiating a federal spending plan like getting out of a crowded parking lot?
How is negotiating a federal spending plan like getting out of a crowded parking lot?

I was trying to keep track of the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling this weekend, and all of a sudden, it reminded me of an incident I had in a parking garage near my house last year.

It was late spring or summer, and it was hot. I had the kids with me, and we were finished doing whatever it was we were doing, and we were ready to go home. We jumped into the car and tried to head out. But we could not.

A lot of other people were trying to leave at the same time. We were parked on the third of seven levels. And no one would let us into the exit lane. When I tried inching the car forward, they'd close ranks. I tried to make eye contact with several of the drivers. They looked away, some with a smug, triumphant look. Others just pretended they didn't see us.

As the other cars were backing up behind me, honking and waving, I made what I think is the universal gesture of resignation: shrugging, palms up. Still nothing.

Finally, a lady who was stuck behind me walked up to see what was going on. When I told her, we decided to walk up to some of the cars together.

We said, "Look, you have to let us out. Take turns. That's how it works. You know, turns?"

An older guy drew himself up and shouted at us in a self-righteous voice, "Wait your turn!" He then shut his window with a harrumph.

Wait your turn? Wait until every car that just happened to be parked on a higher floor above us exits? Really? Who made up that rule?

My new friend and I just looked at each other, like, "What just happened? Have these people all lost their minds at once?"

And just in case your mind goes there —it was not a racial thing. The obstructionists were both black and white and whoever else lives around here. It was not a gender thing. They were both men and women. Some had kids in the car like I did. Some didn't. And they were all ages.

The closest explanation I could come up with is that some kind of collective jerkiness had taken hold of all of them on that floor, and they all decided they were right and everybody else was wrong, and nobody was going to get out of that garage before they did.

I bet you can see where I'm going with this.

How does it happen that in the same country where citizens cried together on 9-11 a decade ago, who dropped everything they were doing or worked double shifts to comfort and aid survivors of Hurricane Katrina more than five years ago, couldn't get it together to agree on a spending plan before bringing the economy to the brink of disaster?

Yes, I know natural disasters are different. People figure it's no one's fault so we have to help.

Being attacked is different. A common enemy brings people together.

But what I wonder is ... what is it that makes us behave the other way, and put our common decency and respect for others aside? What is it that causes people to just knowthat the whatever it is that theywant in the moment must take precedence over everything and everybody else?

I am sure somebody is going to write a book about what's been going on in Washington these last few weeks and months. Maybe it'll be one of those Bob Woodward books where he tells you what all people were thinking when they were alone. I hope all the key players will participate. I hope they will all be honest so we can understand what it is that made them think that whatever it is they want — that the people who voted for them or gave them campaign money — have any legitimacy in these discussions that affect all of us.

Back to the garage: my new friend and I conferred with the other drivers who were stuck with us. We got back in our cars. We summoned our inner jerks and started leaning on our horns. All of us.

Finally, some young guy waved me in, so I waved my friend in. And on every floor after that, we waved at least one car in each. I don't know that we changed anything, but at least we got out of that garage.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.