Lift the ceiling or sink America

Republican threats not to raise the US debt limit are monumentally insane and could have extreme and unprecedented consequences in financial markets around the world. And it's not just Democrats who think so.

Bruce Bartlett is a historian whose rsum includes stints as a domestic policy advisor during the Reagan administration and a Treasury official under George H W Bush. He is also the author of the 2006 blockbuster Impostor: How George W Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. For years, Bartlett has been passionately calling attention to Republican fiscal irresponsibility, and now that the fight over whether to raise the debt ceiling – and prevent the US government from defaulting on its debts – is promising to be one of 2011's major political dramas, Salon decided he was the perfect person to bring some clarity to a confusing issue. He spoke with Salon by phone on Wednesday morning.

Let's start with something simple. What is the debt ceiling?

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