The government will be tapped out on Oct 17, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Unless, that is, Congress takes:

… immediate action to raise the federal debt limit, which stands at $16.7 trillion.

Mr. Lew went on, as Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post reports, to do a little sermonizing.

“The United States should never have to choose, for example, whether to pay Social Security to seniors, pay benefits to our veterans, or make payments to state and local jurisdictions and health care providers under Medicare and Medicaid. There is no way of knowing the damage any prioritization plan would have on our economy and financial markets. It would represent an irresponsible retreat from a core American value: We are a nation that honors all of its commitments.”

One's instinct is to agree with all this lofty stuff. But also to ask a question.

We know the artificial limit on the nation's debt is whatever Congress says it is. And that sentiments like Mr. Lew's shift with the political winds. Before he became president, Barrack Obama was employing the same sort of rhetorical notes to justify his opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

But if the political number is arbitrary, then what about the real number? Is there such a thing? Is it possible to know what it is? Will there be recognizable signs that we are coming up against it? When that happens can Congress do something about it?

Can Congress do anything about it?

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