High-stakes dealing on debt ceiling
President prepares to trade endgame for blame game
Tempers flared Wednesday at the high-level negotiating session, with Mr. Obama walking out of the meeting at one point, angrily warning House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “Don’t call my bluff. You know I’m going to take this to the American people.”
But apparently the president, who thinks he can tax his way out of this mess, is unaware that Americans are strongly behind Mr. Cantor and the Republicans on the issue of tax increases versus spending cuts.
A Gallup poll reported Thursday that when people are asked how Congress should deal with the mountain of deficits and debts that threaten to sandbag our economy, 50 percent prefer spending cuts to tax hikes.
The nationwide poll showed 20 percent saying the debts should be dealt with only through spending cuts, while another 30 percent opted for “mostly with spending cuts.”
Only 32 percent said the government should cut the deficits equally between tax hikes and spending cuts, with just 7 percent saying “mostly with tax increases.”
Neither side is giving an inch as we near the Aug. 2 deadline when the government will run out of sufficient capital to pay all of its bills.
The White House and most Republican leaders agree that failure to raise the debt limit will roil the financial markets and could plunge our fragile economy into yet another recession.
Even if an agreement is reach-ed in the negotiations, leading credit-rating agency Moody's warned midweek that our AAA status could still be downgraded. With the government’s public debt rapidly approaching $15 trillion, or more than our economy’s entire gross domestic product, our debts now exceed our total annual income.
A downgrade would mean not only that the Treasury would have to pay higher interest rates to borrow money, but it also would drive up interest rates for mortgages, car and business loans, and credit card users.
“President Obama wants a big deficit reduction deal - a long-term solution to the nation’s unbalanced finances. Yet, what the president and Republicans propose - even if both could accept much of what the other offers - would only delay the inevitable. Like Greece, America’s finances will grow worse and worse,” writes University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici.
The reasons: Dangerously excessive spending levels that even the largest economy in the world cannot afford to maintain and a 2 percent, snail’s-pace economic growth rate, combined with near-zero job creation and an ever-climbing unemployment rate that have flattened federal tax revenues.
Mr. Obama’s tax-raising proposals would worsen our fiscal situation. His plan to raise taxes on incomes more than $200,000 would hit tens of thousands of small businesses struggling to survive and wouldn’t make a dent in this year’s $1.6 trillion deficit. Slapping manufacturers and corporations - such as oil companies - with higher taxes would shrink domestic production, yield less revenue and worsen the budget.
Throw in Obamacare, which is driving up state Medicaid costs and private insurance premiums and raising business expenses that force job cuts, and that would result in less revenue to pay the government’s bills.
Until now, Republican leaders believed that just the threat of not raising the debt ceiling would force Mr. Obama to drop his insistence that higher taxes be a major part of any budget deal. But he knows that would anger his liberal political base, which is already showing signs of division and disapproval of his presidency. As of Wednesday, he was not budging from his tax posture.View Entire Story
Obama: ‘Big’ opportunity to calm economy
WASHINGTON — President BarackObama said Friday Congress has a “unique opportunity to do something big” and stabilize the U.S. economy for decades by cutting deficits even as it raises the national debt limit ahead of a critical Aug. 2 deadline. But, he declared, “We’re running out of time.”
Obama said he was ready to make tough decisions — such as on Medicare costs — and challenged Republicans to do the same. He attempted to turn the Republicans’ opposition to any tax increases back against them, warning starkly that failure to raise the debt ceiling would mean “effectively a tax increase for everybody” if the government defaults, sending up interest rates.
Still, Obama said that “it’s hard to do a big package” in deadlocked Washington, acknowledging Republicans are opposed to any new tax revenue as part of a deficit-cutting deal.
“If they show me a serious plan I’m ready to move,” he said.
The president spoke at the White House Friday after five days straight of meetings with congressional leaders failed to yield compromise, and amid increasingly urgent warnings from credit agencies and the financial sector about the risks of failing to raise the government’s borrowing limit.
Administration officials and private economists say that if the U.S. fails to raise its borrowing limit and begins to stop paying its bills as a result, the fragile U.S. economy could be cast into a crisis that would reverberate around the globe. Democratic and Republican congressional leaders agree on the need to avert that outcome, but that hasn’t been enough to get Republicans to agree to the tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy sought by Obama — or to convince Obama and Democrats to sign onto the steep entitlement cuts without new revenue that Republicans favor.
The president spoke at his third news conference in two weeks on an issue that is increasingly consuming Washington and his presidency.
The president said he was ready to make tough decisions such as restructuring Medicare so that very wealthy recipients would have to pay slightly more. He said he had stressed to Republicans that anything they looked at should not affect current beneficiaries, and he said providers such as drug companies could be targeted for cuts.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in the House emerged from closed-door meetings to reiterate their hardened stances. Republicans announced plans to call a vote next week on a balanced budget constitutional amendment that would force the government to balance its books.
Obama dismissed the idea, saying, “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do that. What we need to do is do our jobs.”
Failure to reach compromise has focused attention on a fallback plan under discussion by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That plan would give Obama greater authority to raise the debt ceiling while setting procedures in motion that could lead to federal spending cuts.
Obama insisted the public was on his side in wanting a “balanced approach” that would mix spending cuts and the tax increases opposed by Republicans.
“The American people are sold,” he said. “The problem is that members of Congress are dug in ideologically.”
He renewed his pitch for a major package of some $4 trillion, about three-quarters of which would be spending cuts along with about $1 trillion in new revenue.
“We have a chance to stabilize America’s finances for a decade or 15 years or 20 years if we’re willing to seize the moment,” the president said, adding later that everyone must be “willing to compromise.”View Entire Story
Lower the Debt Ceiling
[An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by the author, is available for download.]
Currently, the big show in Washington, DC, centers around raising the debt ceiling. Congress began setting this ceiling in 1917 so that the Treasury could independently issue debt. The debt ceiling is like the limit on your credit card, except the federal government sets the limit on itself. When President Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971, the national debt was $400 billion. The increase in the national debt last year alone was four times the entire debt in 1971.
Both Democrats and Republicans tell us that not raising the debt ceiling would have a negative — even catastrophic — effect on the American and world economies. They are in agreement on this. The only matter of debate is what concessions are necessary in order to establish a bipartisan majority to pass a bill raising the ceiling. Democrats seem to want larger cuts and tax increases, while Republicans want smaller cuts with no tax increases. The multitrillion-dollar cuts that they are discussing only occur over a ten-year time frame and do not balance the budget, so no one except Ron Paul is really discussing the kinds of budget cutting that would actually help the economy.
What we really need to do is to lower the debt ceiling. If Congress passed legislation that systematically reduced the debt ceiling over time, the economy could be rebuilt on a solid foundation. Entrepreneurs in the productive sectors would realize that an ever-increasing proportion of resources (land, labor, and capital) would be at their disposal, while companies that capitalized on the federal budget would have an ever-declining share of such resources.
Congress would have to cut the pay and benefits of its employees (FDR cut them by 25 percent in the depths of the Great Depression) as well as the number of such employees. Real wage rates would decline, allowing entrepreneurs to hire more employees to produce consumer-valued goods.
Congress would have to cut back on its far-flung regulatory operations, which are in fact one of the biggest drags on the economy due to the burden and uncertainty that Obama and Congress have created in terms of healthcare, financial-market, and environmental regulations. A recent study by the Phoenix Center found that even a small reduction of 5 percent, or $2.8 billion, in the federal regulatory budget would result in about $75 billion in increased private-sector GDP each year and the addition of 1.2 million jobs annually. Eliminating the job of even a single regulator grows the American economy by $6.2 million and creates nearly 100 private-sector jobs annually.
Under a reduced debt ceiling, the federal government would also have to sell off some of its resources. It has tens of thousands of buildings that are no longer in use and tens of thousands of buildings that are significantly underused — about 75,000 buildings in total. It also controls over 400 million acres of land, or over 20 percent of all land outside of Alaska, which is almost wholly owned by the government. There is also the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and many other assets that could be sold off to cover short-term budget shortfalls.
Of course, reducing the debt ceiling would force the government to stop borrowing so much money from credit markets. This would leave significantly more credit available for the private sector. The shortage of capital is one of the most often cited reasons for the failure of the economy to recover.
Lowering the debt ceiling would force federal-government budget cutting on a large scale, and this would free up resources (labor, land, and capital) and force a cutback in the federal government's regulatory apparatus. This would put Americans back to work producing consumer-valued goods.
Passing an increase in the debt ceiling merely perpetuates the myth that there is any ceiling or control or limit on the government's ability to waste resources in the short run and its willingness to pass the burden of this squander onto future generations.
A Short History of US Credit Defaults
On July 13th, the president of the United States angrily walked out of ongoing negotiations over the raising of the debt ceiling from its legislated maximum of $14.294 trillion dollars. This prompted a new round of speculation over whether the United States might default on its financial obligations. In these circumstances, it is useful to recall the previous instances in which this has occurred and the effects of those defaults. By studying the defaults of the past, we can gain insights into what future defaults might portend.
The Continental-Currency Default
The first default of the United States was on its first issuance of debt: the currency emitted by the Continental Congress of 1775. In June of 1775 the Continental Congress of the United States of America, located in Philadelphia, representing the 13 states of the union, issued bills of credit amounting to 2 million Spanish milled dollars to be paid four years hence in four annual installments.
The next month an additional 1 million was issued. A third issue of 3 million followed. The next year they issued an additional 13 million dollars of notes. These were the first of the "Continental dollars," which were used to fund the war of revolution against Great Britain. The issues continued until an estimated 241 million dollars were outstanding, not including British forgeries.
Congress had no power of taxation, so it made each of the several states responsible for redeeming a proportion of the notes according to population. The administration of these notes was delegated to a "Board of the Treasury" in 1776. To refuse the notes or receive them below par was punishable by having your ears cut off and other horrible penalties.
The notes progressively depreciated as the public began to realize that neither the states nor their Congress had the will or capacity to redeem them. In November of 1779, Congress announced a devaluation of 38.5 to 1 on the Continentals, which amounted to an admission of default. In this year refusal to accept the notes became widespread, and trade was reduced to barter — causing sporadic famines and other privations.
Eventually, Congress agreed to redeem the notes at 1,000 to 1. At a rate of 0.82 troy ounces to the Spanish milled dollar, if we take the current (July 2011) price of silver, $36 to the troy ounce, this first default resulted in a cumulative loss of approximately $7 billion dollars to the American public.
Benjamin Franklin characterized the loss as a tax. Memory of the suffering and economic disruption caused by this "tax" and similar bills of credit issued by the states influenced the contract clause of the Constitution, which was adopted in 1789:
No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.
The Default on Continental Domestic Loans
In addition to its currency issuance, the Continental Congress borrowed money both domestically and abroad. The domestic debt totaled approximately $11 million Spanish dollars. The interest on this debt was paid primarily by money received from France and Holland as part of separate borrowings. When this source of funding dried up, Congress defaulted on its domestic debt, starting on March 1, 1782. Partial satisfaction of these debts was made later by accepting the notes for payments of taxes and other indirect considerations.
In an act of 1790, Congress repudiated these loans entirely, but offered to convert them to new ones with less favorable terms, thereby memorializing the default in the form of a Federal law.
The Greenback Default of 1862
After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the United States made only limited issuance of debt and currency, leaving the problems of public finance largely to the states and private banks. (These entities defaulted on a regular basis up to the Panic of 1837, in which a crescendo of state defaults led to the invention of the term "repudiation of debts.")
In August of 1861, this balance between local and federal finance switched forever; the Civil War induced Congress to create a new currency, which became known as the "greenback" due to the green color of its ink. The original greenbacks were $60 million in demand notes in denominations of $5, $10, and $20. These were redeemable in specie at any time at a rate of 0.048375 troy ounces of gold per dollar. Less than five months later, in January of 1862, the US Treasury defaulted on these notes by failing to redeem them on demand.
After this failure, the Treasury made subsequent issues of greenbacks as "legal-tender" notes, which were not redeemable on demand, except through foreign exchange, and could not be used to pay customs duties. Depending on the fortunes of war, these notes traded for gold at a discount ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent. By the stratagem of monetizing this currency with bonds and paying only the interest on those bonds in gold acquired through customs fees, Lincoln's party financed the Civil War with no further defaults.
The Liberty Bond Default of 1934
The financing of the United States government stepped up to a whole new level upon its entry into the Great War, now known as World War I. The new enterprises of the government included merchant-fleet maintenance and operation, production of ammunition, feeding and equipping soldiers entirely at its own expense, and many other expensive things it had never done before or done only on a much smaller scale.
To finance these activities, Congress issued a series of debentures known as "Liberty Bonds" starting in 1917. The preliminary series were convertible into issues of later series at progressively more favorable terms until the debt was rolled into the fourth Liberty Bond, dated October 24, 1918, which was a $7 billion dollar, 20-year, 4.25 percent issue, payable in gold at a rate of $20.67 per troy ounce.
By the time Franklin Roosevelt entered office in 1933, the interest payments alone were draining the treasury of gold; and because the treasury had only $4.2 billion in gold it was obvious there would be no way to pay the principal when it became due in 1938, not to mention meet expenses and other debt obligations.
These other debt obligations were substantial. Ever since the 1890s the Treasury had been gold short and had financed this deficit by making new bond issues to attract gold for paying the interest of previous issues. The result was that by 1933 the total debt was $22 billion and the amount of gold needed to pay even the interest on it was soon going to be insufficient.
In this exigency, Roosevelt decided to default on the whole of the domestically held debt by refusing to redeem in gold to Americans and devaluing the dollar by 40 percent against foreign exchange. By taking these steps the Treasury was able to make a partial payment and maintain foreign exchange with the critical trade partners of the United States.
If we price gold at the present-day value of $1,550 per troy ounce, the total loss to investors by the devaluation was approximately $640 billion in 2011 dollars. The overall result of the default was to intensify the depression and trade reductions of the 1930s and to contribute to fomenting World War II.
The Momentary Default of 1979
The Treasury of the United States accidentally defaulted on a small number of bills during the 1979 debt-limit crisis. Due to administrative confusion, $120 million in bills coming due on April 26, May 3, and May 10 were not paid according to the stated terms. The Treasury eventually paid the face value of the bills, but nevertheless a class-action lawsuit, Claire G. Barton v. United States, was filed in the Federal court of the Central District of California over whether the treasury should pay additional interest for the delay.
The government decided to avoid any further publicity by giving the jilted investors what they wanted rather than ride the high horse of sovereign immunity. An economic study of the affair concluded that the net result was a tiny permanent increase in the interest rates of T-bills.
What Will Happen in August of 2011?
Many people are wondering about the possibility of a default by the Treasury on August 3, 2011, when, according to the Treasury's projections, it will no longer be able to meet all expenses without additional borrowing.
In this event, it is unlikely a default will occur. Historically, governments prioritize debt service above all other expenses. If the expansion of funds via debt becomes ipossible, the Treasury will cease paying other expenses first, starting with "nonessential" discretionary expenditures, and then it will move on to mandatory expenditures and entitlements as a last resort.
In extremis, what will happen is that all the losses will be foisted onto the Federal Reserve. The Fed holds something on the order of $1.6 trillion in debt issued by the Treasury of the United States. By having the Federal Reserve purchase blocks of Treasury debt and defaulting on these non-investor-held securities, the United States can postpone a default against real investors essentially forever.