DRI-312 for week of 9-29-13: Suppose They Gave a Government Shutdown and Nobody Cared?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Suppose They Gave a Government Shutdown and Nobody Cared?

Midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 is the deadline for the shutdown of the federal government. That is the start of the new federal fiscal year. The U.S. Constitution specifies that Congress must authorize spending by the executive branch. Strange as it seems to a country by now inured to executive and regulatory high-handedness, the government cannot legally initiate operations by writing checks on its own hook. Fiscal delinquency, delay and deceit have long been the hallmarks of Congressional action, so it seems only fitting that Congress has failed to agree on the spending authorizations for departments that would get the federal government up and running in the New Year. And this year’s calendar offers a special treat, since the Oct. 17 deadline for default looms on the horizon as the next bureaucratic drop-dead date for civilization as we know it.

Amid the breathless media countdown to Armageddon, a sober pause for introspection is in order. How big an emergency is the federal-government shutdown, really? What underlying significance does a government shutdown have? How did we reach this position? Has the underlying economic significance of our situation been correctly conveyed by commentators and news media?

OMG! The Federal Government is About to Shut Down! Oh, Wait, Time for Vacation…

The attitude of Congressional representatives toward the prospect of government shutdown might best be compared to that of college students facing final exams. The exam schedule is announced at the beginning of the semester; indeed, it is printed in the course catalog distributed at registration. The course syllabus carefully explains the importance of the final to the student’s grade. The student knows the format of the exam, its location and exact time of day.

So, having had nearly four months to prepare and all the advance warning anybody could ask for, students are well versed, confident and unruffled in the waning days of the semester, right? On the night before the exam, they spend a short time reviewing basic ideas before retiring to get a good night’s sleep, to arise refreshed and eager to meet their task on final-exam day, don’t they? And they pass the exam with flying colors?

No, students generally seek out any excuse to avoid studying the material – and excuses emerge in profusion. As time passes and the semester ages, the knowledge of their approaching fate weighs on students’ minds, producing a buildup of anxiety and kinetic energy in their bodies. This demands an outlet, and late semester is a popular time for beer busts and other recreational modes of escape. The waning days before the final exam are spent in frantic efforts to complete course work and accomplish several months’ worth of study in a few days. The culmination of this crash program arrives on execution eve, when the students cram as many isolated facts as possible into their brain cells, relying on short-term memory to pinch-hit for solid comprehension. The surprising success rate of this modus operandi is owed less to its inherent effectiveness than to the grade inflation that has overwhelmed higher education in recent decades.

Anybody who expected their Congressional representative to behave in a more mature, sensible fashion than a college underclassman has been bitterly disillusioned by experience. Consider this latest example of budget brinkmanship.

The end of the fiscal year is not a national secret. Congress has known all year it was coming. The issues dividing the two major parties were well-known from the first day; ObamaCare has been a dinosaur-sized-bone of contention since its proposal and passage in 2010 and shocking reaffirmation by the Supreme Court in 2011. There was ample time to resolve differences or remove the legislation as a political roadblock to process.

As the year wound down, it became increasingly clear that opponents were eyeball to eyeball, each waiting for the others to blink. Now it was August, with only two months left in which to stave out a shutdown. When the going get tough, the tough… go on vacation – which was exactly what Congress did, for five weeks.

For the last week, leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Republican Ted Cruz have suddenly come alive with frantic last-ditch efforts. Each side has crafted and passed proposals (in the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican House) that the other side has torpedoed. At this writing, we are down to the last-minute cramming… but it should not escape notice that Sen. Reid was not too appalled by the prospect of shutdown to leave town the weekend after superintending the defeat of Rep. Cruz’s proposal in the Senate.

A few of the more cynical commentators have observed that we have been down this road before without careening off the highway and down a mountainside into oblivion. One set of talking points refers to this as our third experience with actual shutdown, but this is far from true. In fact, the federal government has survived 19 previous shutdowns – 17 since 1977 alone, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most have lasted a few days; the most recent (and famous) one in 1996 lasted for 21 days. So much for the artificially contrived atmosphere of urgency surrounding this one, which has been another production of political theater brought to you by your national news media.

Is There a Point to the Shutdown? If So, What is It?

It should be obvious that the hype surrounding the shutdown is phony. Even if we make allowances for the timing coincidence of the fiscal-year dividing line and debt-ceiling deadline, the attention paid to the shutdown is out of all proportion to its real effects on American well-being. But even though the shutdown may be relatively innocuous in its effects, that does not make it a good idea. What does it accomplish – ostensibly or actually?

It goes without saying that detractors of the Tea Party and the Republican Congressional leadership foresee nothing good coming of the shutdown. Since these are the people who got America into the mess that now plagues it – or stood by while that happened – we can disregard their opinions.

If there is an overriding goal of those who drove the events leading to the shutdown, it is opposition to ObamaCare. This opposition has taken the form of attempts to “defund” it; that is, to deny the Obama Administration the money necessary to implement the program. Were this successful, the program would remain on the books de jure as law, but would be repealed de facto by the lack of funds to run it. The most direct means taken to achieve this end is by passing a spending authorization bill containing a rider that defunds the Affordable Care Act. The problem with this measure is that the President will never sign this bill; ObamaCare is the signature legislation of his presidency.

Plan B of the defunders has been to replace that defunding rider with one that delays implementation of ObamaCare provisions for individual citizens by one year. This is directly analogous to the delay instituted by the Obama administration itself for businesses; in effect, it simply gives private individuals the same one-year reprieve given to employers by the President himself. This measure not only has the virtue of symmetry but also of fairness and logistical convenience. It is not clear why the bill should be delayed for businesses and not for everybody else. The state exchanges that would enable individuals to acquire health insurance are not up and running anyway in several states, so this would give the system more time to iron out the kinks. And this delay is entirely legal, being instituted by the Congress and submitted for Presidential signature; the business delay was a flagrantly illegal action imposed by Presidential fiat.

But President Obama is not about to agree to this compromise measure, either. He knows that the longer ObamaCare is postponed, the longer opposition will have to build and the longer its defects will have to become manifest. Once in place, a national system this massive and bureaucratic will be almost impossible to dislodge if only due to the inertia that will set in. The President only delayed applying its business provisions out of direst necessity; everybody was so unprepared that imposition would have led to complete fiasco. So Obama wants to get half of ObamaCare going while the going is good – or at least feasible.

Republic Speaker of the House John Boehner is already confronted by panic in the ranks. Republican representatives have hardly faced the first unfriendly fire from the news media – accusing them of irresponsibly jeopardizing the welfare of the nation for their own petty political purposes – before bolting for cover. Boehner’s queries as he gives them the flat of his sword are: What is this all about if not standing on principle against the President’s program? If we can’t work for the repeal of a terrible law as soundly unpopular as ObamaCare, when will we ever oppose the President? If now isn’t the time to stand firm against policies that are spending the country into the ground and destroying the heritage of our children, when will a better time come around? Over 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan asked: If not now, when? Well, we didn’t do it then. If we don’t reform the budget now, when?

And those are indeed the relevant questions. Most Republicans oppose ObamaCare, all right; they have enough political courage to stand up against a law when the polls proclaim it heavily unpopular. But ObamaCare is merely the tip of the spending iceberg; the entitlement programs lie jutting beneath the surface waiting to scuttle the most unsinkable of reformers. There is no sign of Republicans boarding icebreakers, kissing wives and children goodbye and signing on for the duration of the voyage to clear the sea lanes of entitlements.

And Now for Some Opinion Completely Different

Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal is a commentator not noted for his sunny optimism. Nevertheless, his take on the federal-budget stalemate is decidedly more upbeat than others commonly bruited. “What if, 10 years ago, Greece had made itself a laughingstock, sacrificed its credibility, brought shame on itself – all phrases used against Washington this week – by shutting down its government because certain legislators saw ideological and electoral rewards to be gained from making a fuss over unsustainable spending? Greek TV hosts would have shouted ‘Athens is broken!'”

Instead, as Jenkins knows only too well, Greece went sleepily on its corrupt, lazy, insouciant way, only to collapse in a heap nearly a decade later. Meanwhile, Americans today “all shake a fist at Washington, denouncing its irresponsibility because politicians are ‘playing politics’ with the debt ceiling and government shutdown.” But “then again, politics is how we govern ourselves. It’s better than despotism not because each moment is a model of stately order and reason, because America is a diverse, fractious society. The only way it works is by the endless grinding out of political compromises amid shrieking and making threats and turning blue.”

Jenkins anticipates the typical facile rejoinder. “The usual suspects at this point will be stamping their feet and insisting the U.S. isn’t Greece, as if this is an insight. No country can borrow and spend infinite amounts of money, and no political system is immune to the incentive to keep trying anyway. Herein lies the real point that applies as much to Washington as to Athens.”

“It would be nice if today’s fight were genuinely about the future. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what the ObamaCare fight is about. By trying to stop a brand new entitlement before it gets started, in a country already palpably and indisputably committed to more entitlement spending than it wants to pay for, those radical House Republicans aren’t trying to chop current spending amid a sluggish recovery (however much one begins to doubt that pump-priming from Washington is the solution the economy needs). Those terrible House Republicans aren’t trying to force colleagues to commit painful votes to take away established goodies from established voting blocs – votes that neither Republicans nor Democrats have the slightest yearning to cast.”

“Those disgraceful House Republicans have made the fight exactly about the long term. Where’s the grudging approval from our Keynesian friends who constantly say immediate spending must be protected and reform saved for the long term?” Again, Jenkins knows full well that Keynesian economics is no longer a putatively consistent set of theoretical propositions; it is now a policy admonition in search of a theory and for sale to any political sponsor willing to fork over lucrative, visible jobs to Keynesian economists.

“Not only will there by more such shutdowns,” Jenkins predicts. “What passes for progress each time will be tiny – until it’s not. The 2011 sequester, which caused critics to engage in choruses of disapproval and the S&P to downgrade U.S. debt, set us on a path to today’s modestly smaller current deficits. This week’s peculiar fight may be resolved by a near-meaningless repeal of ObamaCare’s self-defeating medical-device tax – a teensy if desirable adjustment, having no bearing on the deficit tsunami that begins when the baby boomers start demanding their benefits.”

Jenkins’s peroration combines elements of Churchill and Pericles. “We are at the beginning of the beginning. Yet the birth pangs of entitlement reform that will one day inspire the world (as we did with tax reform in ’80s) may be what we’re witnessing.” Hence the title of the column: “Behind the Noise, Entitlement Reform.”

Too Little, Too Late

Holman Jenkins’s vision is seductive, but unconvincing. Its visceral appeal lies in its pragmatism and its familiarity. Pragmatism is the great American virtue. We have grown up learning to accept and adapt to incremental change. Surely the changes necessary to cope with the downsizing of the welfare state will be just one more set of adjustments – painful but bearable. How many times have we heard Cassandras prophesy doom? How many times has it appeared? This is apparently the comforting set of rationalizations that insulates us from the truth of our situation.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that a long series of small changes will be both timely and sufficient to our purpose. Not only has the Obama Administration’s fiscal policies shifted the velocity of fiscal decline to warp speed, but its monetary policies have changed our major problem from financial crisis to monetary collapse. Financial crisis is something that both individual countries and world systems recover from. Monetary collapse can lead to the destruction of a nation’s economy and the end of the civil order. We not only have to change our ways, we must reverse course by 180 degrees. And do it quickly.

It seems that Jenkins envisions entitlement reform from the austere perspective of an actuary contemplating the future of a program like Social Security. Tut-tut, the actuary admonishes, this program will be bankrupt in another 20 years or so. Well, in 20 years, a solid plurality of Wall Street Journal readers will be dead or near death. Quite a few will be financially independent of the program. Most of the rest view 20 years hence as imperceptibly distant – ample time to recover from the financial improvidence of youth.

But the real crisis on our trip planner is not actuarial. Social Security affects it long before it actually becomes insolvent because its unfunded status will be factored into the calculations of bond traders, credit-rating agencies and interest-rate setters. We may or may not be at Jenkins’s “beginning of the beginning,” but we are certainly not standing in the starting blocks in terms of debt. Government at every level is in hock up to its hairline. The private sector has been making a valiant effort to deleverage – and for its pains has caught hell from Keynesian economists who lecture us about the evils of saving in the middle of a recession. (Just prior to the Great Recession, the same people were decrying our “consumption binge” and running public-service ads begging us to save more.) American banks have trillions loitering in excess reserves, just spoiling for the chance to torch the value of the dollar at home and abroad. Foreign holders of dollars and dollar-denominated assets are dying for a convenient chance to unload them. Business forecasters need binoculars to view the upside potential of U.S. interest rates. And when interest rates skyrocket, interest payments on the federal debt will crowd out practically everything else on the docket, making the budget wars of today look like Sunday-school theology debates. The endpoint of this process is monetary collapse, when the U.S. dollar is abandoned as a medium of exchange, unit of account and store of value.

Oh, and just in case the foregoing doesn’t fill you with a sense of dread, there’s the little matter of international “currency war” to ponder. During the Great Depression, many nations used monetary expansion to deliberately trash the value of their own currencies. Their aim was to make their goods look cheap to foreigners, thereby hiking their number and value of their exports and increasing employment in their export industries. Since their depreciated domestic currency would also buy fewer imports, this would supposedly encourage the citizenry to buy fewer goods from abroad, thereby increasing domestic employment in import-competing industries. This game plan is well-known to economic historians as the “beggar thy neighbor” strategy. Its inherent flaw is that it can work if, and only if, only one nation employs it. When all or most nations do it simultaneously, the effects cancel each other out in the currency market and the only result is that international trade evaporates – which is roughly what did happen during the Depression. Since international trade is a good thing which makes practically everybody better off, its virtual elimination was a disaster for everybody. And guess what? The rest of the world, watching Ben Bernanke and the Fed at work creating money like there’s no tomorrow, may well suspect the U.S. of trying just this tactic. Whether they’re right or wrong is beside the point, since it is their belief that will determine whether they retaliate by starting a trade war that mimics the devastation of the 1930s.

It is barely possible that Congress might embark on a program of haphazard, gradual deficit reduction a la Jenkins. But a thoroughgoing reform of the process is not in the cards. Thus, the danger is not a collapse caused by a government shutdown. The danger is a collapse caused by the failure to shut the government down. It is government at all levels that has turned itself into a machine for spending citizens’ money to benefit employees without providing substantial benefits to the citizens. Since there is virtually no competition for government services, there is little or no way to gauge whether any government good or service is worth what we have to pay to get it. So government just keeps rolling along, like Old Man River, carrying us all along with the flow.

The mass delusion afflicting America is cognitive dissonance. Most of us agree with Jenkins that no government can increase spending indefinitely. Yet we do not admit that this requires our government to actually cut spending for the purposes that (we believe) benefit us – or, at least, we do not admit this necessity in our lifetime. The same people who normally consider government to be intrusive, inept and unproductive magically reverse their position 180 degrees and assume that government is efficient and productive when pursuing their pet project, benefitting them and saving the world from their latest hobgoblin. This is the politico-economic equivalent of William Saroyan’s lament that everybody had to die but he had always assumed that an exception would be made in his case.

The dissonance is actually three-sided. We fail to recognize not only its quantitative dimension but also its qualitative side – government’s utter failure to solve problems and produce things of value. Thus, the real entrenched constituency for big government is not its ostensible beneficiaries – the poor, downtrodden, minorities and such. It is the bureaucrats and their minions, who collect paychecks but whose real net contribution to the social product is negative.

Until this dissonance is dispelled, it is idle to blame politicians for acting true to form.

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