I don’t enjoy scary movies. Never have. I also don’t enjoy scary “amusement” park rides.* I know I’m kind of a fluke in our U.S. culture this way. I just find that there’s enough excitement, thrills, and fright in the real world if you just open your eyes.
An example of real world things to be scared of is the current
debate childish tantrum in Washington over increasing the debt limit. I’ll admit I haven’t taken it seriously until now. A couple months ago I called it Kabuki Theatre of the Absurd. The law itself, the debt “ceiling” law, is absurd. It is also redundant. Raising the debt ceiling should be a like sending a form letter. Routine. Perfunctory. The law should be simply done away with. If Congress doesn’t want to borrow more money then the time and place to make that point constitutionally is when the budget is adopted.
The Republicans and Tea Party types were unable to accomplish their goals of gutting Social Security, Medicare, and other programs when the budget bill was debated last March-April. They simply didn’t have the political support and they couldn’t agree on just who to cut. So instead of doing the constitutional thing and either win more elections and gain seats (they actually lost a special election in May because of their plans to cut Social Security), or waiting until the next budget for next year, they’re trying to accomplish their goals under a subterfuge. It’s not about the debt. It’s not about the deficit. If it were about debt, deficits, and “fiscal responsibility”, then closing tax loopholes for high-income folks like hedge fund managers and the commodity speculators that drive up oil prices would be an option. But the Republicans and Tea Partiers have expressly stated that even closing a tax loophole is unacceptable. Only spending cuts are acceptable. So the truth is it’s not about “fiscal responsibility”. It’s about eliminating government programs that people want as the New York Times explains today (possible paywall on link).
So back to the
debate tantrums being thrown in Washington. I still expect there to be a last-minute deal when powerful folks on Wall Street give the call to their friends in D.C. and tell ‘em to knock it off and do it. In the meantime, the Republicans, Tea Party types, and Obama administration are playing a game of chicken. Except that this is a bit different from movie versions of chicken. Jeff Frankels provides an excellent analysis. The problem is three-fold: it’s not movie fantasy – it’s real, the folks in the Republican car aren’t rational and are fighting among themselves, and when these cars go over the cliff there’s a good chance they take our entire economy with them. Quoting Jeff:
In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken. Both intend to jump out at the last moment. But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.
This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling. The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.
The game is not symmetric. The Republicans are the ones who are miscalculating. Evidently they are confident of prevailing: they rejected the President’s offer, even though he was willing to cut entitlement programs.
The situation is complicated because there are a number of different people crammed into the Republican car. There is one guy who is obsessed with the theory that, come August 3, the federal government could retain its top credit rating if it continued to service its debt by ceasing payment on its other bills. But this would mean failing to honor legal obligations that have already been incurred (paying suppliers for paper clips that have already been bought, paying soldiers their wages for last month’s service, sending social security recipients their checks, etc.). This is like observing that the cliff is not a 90 degree drop-off, but only 110 degrees. It doesn’t matter: the car would still go crashing into the ocean far below. The government’s credit would still be downgraded and global investors would still demand higher interest rates to hold US treasuries, probably on a long-term basis.
There are other guys (and gals) in the car who are even more delusional. They are dead set on a policy of immediately eliminating the budget deficit (e.g., those opposed to raising the debt ceiling no matter what, or those campaigning for a balanced budget amendment), and doing it primarily by cutting nondefense discretionary spending. This is literally impossible, arithmetically. But they honestly don’t know this. It is as if they were insisting that the car can fly. Sometimes it can be a good bargaining position to adopt a very extreme position. But if you are demanding that the car flies, you are not going to get your way no matter how determined you are.
It seems likely that the man in the driver’s seat – House Speaker John Boehner – does realize that his fellow passengers don’t have the facts quite right. But there is also a game of chicken going onwithin the Republican car. The crazies have said they will oppose in the next Republican primary election any congressman who votes to raise the debt ceiling or to raise tax revenues. (Yes, they think they would support someone who would eliminate the budget deficit primarily by cutting non-defense discretionary spending; but remember, this is arithmetically impossible.) The guy who is riding shot-gun in the car – the one who believes the car can fly — is trying to put his foot on top of Boehner’s on the accelerator pedal.
Yes, people who cannot do basic arithmetic are in charge here. And they’re throwing a childish tantrum because they can’t get their way. Only unlike a child who’s threatening to hurt themselves if they don’t get their way, these folks could potentially take us all down.
The facts are that nobody knows for sure what happens if Congressional Republicans don’t raise the debt ceiling by August 3. But it defies imagination to think it will be smooth sailing. It depends on how the Obama adminstration reacts. There might be ways around it. A couple of proposals exist. The government could dispute the constitutionality of the debt ceiling law or it could mint some super-large coins (such as billion-dollar coins) that would only be used as Marshall Auerbach has noted:
Or the President could, as we and others have suggested in the past), simply invoke the 14th amendment and refuse to enforce a statute that he believes violates the Constitution.
Professor Scott Fullwiler has suggested an even more creative way around the debt ceiling: Fullwiler notes that Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances, but that the US Constitution bestows upon the US Treasury the authority to mint coins (particularly platinum coins). Future deficit spending by the federal government could thereby continue to be carried out by minting coins and depositing them in the Treasury’s account at the Fed (for more details see here).
Curiously, the President won’t pursue any of these options.
These options would keep financial markets on an even keel but could provoke a constitutional and legal crisis as the Tea Party types would not doubt file endless lawsuits challenging it. But thinking about these options is largely academic since Obama shows no inclination to exercise these options or to explain why he doesn’t. Obama shares responsibility because he’s let the Tea Party types and Republicans take this charade this far.
Let’s consider a more likely intermediate case. As mentioned in another post, to immediately stop all new borrowing and instantly balance the budget, the government has to cut 40% of it’s spending right now. The federal government accounts for $3.8 trillion of spending in 2011. GDP is expected to be in the $15 trillion range. If the government cuts 40% of that $3.8 trillion instantly, that’s a $1.5 trillion cut in spending. Government spending is part of GDP (despite what far right-wing types believe). So an instant balancing of the budget on Aug 3 means a 10% cut in GDP. When the economy collapsed in 2008 it was only approximately a 5% drop in GDP. So the “intermediate” case of default is an instant recession twice as big as the “Great Recession” of 2008. Apparently the Republicans and Tea Party types loved 2008-09 and the bailouts so much they want to repeat it and double down.
Now what’s the worse case? Well add into the scenario a financial crisis to dwarf 2008. See US bonds are AAA rated because there’s no chance of default. If there’s a default, or even a slight increase in the possibility of a future default, then pension funds, banks, and central banks around the world no longer have safe, interest bearing assets. Chaos. Pension funds have to sell bonds. Bond prices drop. Interest rates rise. Banks lose capital as the bonds fall in value. Nobody knows which banks are worst off. A mess to make 2008 look simple. And guess what, we’ll be back to bank bailouts only with even more unemployment.
Why can’t we have grown-ups in Washington? These kinds of scary scenarios should be fictional and in the movies. It shouldn’t be national policy to deliberately default and crush the economy just to make some political policy victory that you couldn’t win straight up.
* racing cars in real life is different. ;-)