DRI-257 for week of 9-14-14: McClatchy Series is a ‘Contract to Cheat’ Readers of the Truth

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

McClatchy Series is a ‘Contract to Cheat’ Readers of the Truth

A recurring theme in this space is the corrupt deterioration of journalism. This process began long before the rise of the Internet and ushered in the industry-wide decline in circulation that has now reached crisis stage. The decay is most evident in investigative journalism, which has abandoned factual research methods in favor of left-wing political advocacy.

The latest proof is supplied by the McClatchy chain’s three-part series entitled “Contract to Cheat,” which appeared in early September. McClatchy reporters spent a year reviewing transactions from construction projects commissioned by the federal government beginning in 2009 as part of the so-called “economic stimulus” program. According to the article appearing in the Kansas City Star, some of whose reporters contributed to the research, the stimulus was negated by dishonest behavior of contractors. This behavior consisted primarily of “misclassification” – the listing of workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The Allegations

Contractors supposedly engaged in misclassification of workers for economic reasons. First, the misclassification allowed the contractors to avoid paying payroll tax on wages paid to workers. Second, it allowed them to pay lower wages by evading minimum-wage standards for wages paid on federally contracted work. Third, it allowed them to avoid paying workers compensation benefits to workers who were mis-classified as independent contractors. Fourth, it allowed them to avoid an increase in their unemployment “experience rating” when the workers were eventually laid off following completion of the work. Fifth, it facilitated the avoidance of income tax on the wages paid.

In the early installments of the series, stress was placed on losses suffered by taxpayers from contractor cheating. Although the article was long on indignant rhetoric and short on specifics, readers could draw the conclusion that those losses were due to the reduced collection of rightful payroll taxes, the lower level of wages on which taxes were levied and the outright avoidance of tax on income that was never reported. In later installments, greater stress was placed on losses suffered by workers in the form of lower wages received than were due according to statute for work performed, loss of future Social Security benefits from unpaid payroll taxes, loss of unemployment and workers’ compensation and the psychological detriment of insecurity.

A banner proclamation of the series was the claim that contractor cheating thwarted and blunted the effects of federal-government stimulus spending. Despite the headline status of this claim, it was merely asserted and never supported by either logic or evidence. The only economist quoted in the series, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors’ Jared Bernstein, commented (briefly) only on the issue of misclassification and was silent on its interaction with the stimulus program.

In keeping with the contemporary modus operandi of investigative journalism, the series employed interviews, anecdotes and quotations from non-authoritative sources to achieve maximum emotive effect. Despite the reference to economic stimulus, economic theory and logic were nowhere employed or cited.

Needless to say, the lack of economics means that readers of the series were cheated of the truth. In effect, McClatchy operated under an implicit contract with the political Left. The outlines of that contract are clear to anybody with an elementary understanding of economic theory and logic.

John Keynes’ Body Lies A-Spinnin’ In His Grave

The first article in the series quotes President Obama’s grave declaration that the federal government was “the only entity with the resources to act” in the face of economic depression engulfing us in early 2009. This astonishing assertion, somehow swallowed at face value by a bewildered nation, is patently false. The federal government owns no resources other than the assets it commands. These consist mostly of large land holdings, mostly in the western U.S. It did not sell these lands to foreigners in order to finance the stimulus. So the President’s rationale for action was a lie.

The true rationale was the one cited by his economic advisors, who have consistently followed a Keynesian philosophy. John Maynard Keynes legitimized the practice of deficit spending by national governments as a corrective to recession and depression. He rationalized this by positing a chronic lack of effective demand, or spending, as the source of recession and unemployment. Government must increase the volume of total spending on output by increasing its own spending and inducing the private sector to spend more. It increases its own spending by spending more than it withdraws in tax receipts. It induces businesses to spend more by supplying more money (“liquidity”), lowering interest rates and inducing more investment spending. It induces consumers to spend more by reducing taxes, thus increasing their disposable incomes, whence their consumption spending derives. In addition, consumer spending will increase in response to government and investment spending increases due to the so-called “multiplier” effect of the resulting increases in income.

Obama administration economists – and their acolytes, such as Paul Krugman – have mouthed this party line with a straight face, despite the fact that it has been discredited for decades. Books have been written outlining its flaws. We might sum them up by saying that government must acquire the “resources” it commands, and this acquisition (more than) negates any stimulative effect that the spending itself generates. But the worship of spending itself remains sacred within the fraternity of Keynesian economists – which might better be termed a “coven.”

And that is why the McClatchy article is an eyebrow raiser. In so many words, the authors nonchalantly accuse cheating contractors of thwarting the stimulus. It is one thing to accuse them of breaking the law. That may or may not be true, but it is at least consistent with the allegations they make. But the McClatchy authors’ conclusion about the stimulus makes absolutely no sense even if we assume that their every allegation against contractors is the gospel truth.

First of all, consider the authors’ insistence that taxpayers were “cheated” by contractors. Even if we assume this to be true, that can’t have reduced the impact of the stimulus. Keynes himself advocated deficit spending; e.g., increasing government expenditures relative to tax receipts. One way to achieve that is by increasing government spending; another way is by reducing tax receipts. Every elementary macroeconomics textbook published from the 1940s to the 1980s acknowledged this. Contractor cheating, to the extent that it did occur, increased the impact of the stimulus. This applies equally to payroll-tax evasion by employers and income-tax evasion by workers. Indeed, we have been hearing for six years how important it supposedly is to get more income in the hands of those low-income workers who are ostensibly more avid to spend. Well, the series details how the cheating process did just that, by allowing them to evade taxes. That may have been illegal, but there is no doubt whatsoever that it was stimulative according to the dictates of Keynesian economics.

There is no contradiction here in saying simultaneously that behavior is illegal and economically desirable. The series “accuses” contractors of committing these illegal acts in order to lower their bids and beat out competitors for the government contracts. Again, this may be illegal, but it is exactly how the competitive market process works when prices are allowed to fluctuate in accordance with supply and demand and not artificially fixed by government. For years, economists have been complaining that artificially high wages mandated by government laws such as the Davis-Bacon Act were harming workers and consumers by restricting employment, incomes and output. Here is concrete proof – contractors and workers were willing and able to complete government contracts for lower wages than mandated by government. This means that there was money left over to spend on other bridges, dams and “shovel-ready” projects that would stimulate the economy. The so-called harm of the lower wages paid to the “cheating” workers was really a benefit in real economic terms because it allowed more goods and services to be produced using the same total stimulus money. That is exactly how free markets react to economic depression; lower wages stimulate more employment, production and real income. The authors unwittingly hint at this solution when they quote a worker defending his decision to work at a sub-minimum wage: “I was just happy to be working at all.” If producing more stuff with the same amount of money is supposed to be economically harmful, then we are living in Alice’s Wonderland, not reality. Even Keynesians know that more goods are preferable to fewer.

We know realize that the McClatchy series is an affront to general economic theory, not just the left-wing Keynesian theory. Every government mandate cited by the McClatchy authors – payroll taxes, income-tax withholding and the rest – contributes to the “wedge” driven between what the employer pays and what the employee receives. Traditionally, the left wing maintains that this tax burden is worth every penny because the services it finances are so valuable to workers. Paradoxically, the Left also maintains that the burden is trivial to employers and doesn’t discourage much work effort, despite the huge value it creates.

But now the McClatchy authors – apparently without even realizing it – provide empirical evidence that completely refutes the longstanding left-wing position on taxation and work effort. Employers and workers are so anxious to evade this tax burden that they actually break the law. This fully vindicates the longtime supply-side view that lower taxes will call forth more production and work effort. And then the McClatchy authors blithely assert that this is bad for the economy because…because…well, they don’t give a reason other than because it is against the law. Of course it’s against the law; the government has made economically beneficial competition unlawful.

When the Left violates the precepts of Keynes and free-market economics, you know it’s gone off the deep end.

And That’s Not All, Folks

Does this world-class stupidity exhaust the stock of errors committed in the McClatchy series? No. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the economic literacy of metropolitan newspaper staff. The second article in the series is occupied primarily with excoriating contractors, regulators, and politicians for failure to anticipate or correct the misclassification of workers.

Why doesn’t the IRS cross-check data to discover the tax evasion? Workers are assigned fake Social Security numbers. Why can’t workers be interviewed to uncover the falsehoods? They are given phone names and addresses. Everybody agrees that misclassification has been commonplace for many years. And everywhere the investigators went they encountered nonchalance, lethargy and lassitude rather than rage, disbelief and energetic action. Outrageous! Whoever heard of such a thing? Why, anybody would think that we are really governed by a massive, inefficient, insensitive bureaucracy. In fact, the authors quote one observer’s assessment that “you’ve got all these agencies, and this is their fiefdom. They don’t care what the other [agencies’] regulations are.”

Confronted with this massive regulatory ineptitude, what would an alert, inquisitive reporter say? The first thing that would occur to him or her would be this: If the stimulus program really depended for its effectiveness on the efficient operation of this apparatus, then the stimulus program was manifestly unwise and doomed to failure from the outset. (We are not even requiring our alert reporter to be economically knowledgeable, just minimally intelligent.)

The authors go to considerable trouble to document the ambiguity of the “independent contractor” definition, stressing that there is “no one definition” of the distinction between employee and contractor. But assuming this is true, why is it surprising that the law is so difficult to enforce? If so much supposedly rides on accurately classifying workers and the authors themselves find it difficult to explain how to do it, why are contractors villains for failing to accomplish it? Is it really contractors who are cheating us here? Or is it the government, by setting up this arbitrary distinction for its own convenience and then angrily making criminals out of ordinary people for failing to do what it is unable or unwilling to do?

The Tipoff 

The jaundiced view of McClatchy and its motives derives from decades-long experience with newspapers and reporters. It can be verified by consulting the ostensible triumphs of investigative journalism over the last 25 years, which are notable for their lack of factual accuracy and left-wing advocacy. It is on prominent display in the McClatchy series. The tipoff to the authors’ bias is their attitude toward the workers employed by the “cheating contractors.”

The contractors themselves are the villains, the cheaters of the titular “Contract to Cheat.” They are greedy, insensitive, opportunistic scofflaws. Every principal in the contracting process evinced the same attitude when interviewed by the authors. “What? Who? Me? I didn’t know…I didn’t realize…Nobody told me…It wasn’t my job…wasn’t my place.” But these protestations are treated with disdain when made by contractors, who the authors tacitly assume to be lying snakes.

What about the workers? Well, the closest thing to an assessment of blame levied on workers is the authors’ bland acknowledgment that workers “responsible for the reporting of their income to the IRS.”

No spit, Spurlock. According to law, and derelictions committed by employers don’t relieve workers of their legal responsibility. It is just as plausible to posit that employers acted in response to pressure from workers as it is to assume that employers cooked up a scheme to defraud the government.

But the authors treat workers as both dumb and innocent. That is, they tacitly assume that. If (say) a Republican legislator were to characterize America’s workers as too dumb to be responsible for their actions or too dumb to understand a simple employment relationship, he would be castigated and forced to resign. But that is the implicit position of the McClatchy authors. Illegality was rampant, nobody did their due diligence, the system failed completely and workers – well, workers were innocent bystanders who just stumbled into things by accident and did what they were told and never meant to hurt anybody or break any laws and – perdoname, senor; no hablo Ingles. (Yes, immigrants appear in the series as the obligatory exploited, downtrodden mass – acted upon, but not acting in their own behalf.)

McClatchy is an organ of the left wing. Union workers and low-income workers are a leading constituent class of the Democrat Party. They must be absolved of blame. That accounts for the wildly unbalanced portrait of the principal parties in “Contract to Cheat.” Of course, this stance is totally at variance with responsible journalism. And that is further proof that responsible journalism is virtually extinct in America today.

The Truth

The McClatchy series is indeed notable. It has uncovered useful and pertinent information. But the authors of the series have spun the information into a bizarre, distorted pattern that reflects their political (dis)orientation. Their economic illiteracy has produced a laughably inaccurate interpretation of their information, wrong no matter whose economic theory of stimulus one adopts. Their blindness to economic logic allows them to confuse illegality with inefficiency. Their left-wing bias demands that they ignore the obvious implications of the bureaucratic ineptitude and inefficiency they expose. And their pro-labor stance requires that they wash workers clean of all sin. In fact, rigid big government has strapped everybody into a regulatory straitjacket that offers a Hobson’s choice: obey the law and everybody loses or violate it and everybody gains. In that environment, everybody is a lawbreaker but the government is the morally guilty party.

There was indeed a “Contract to Cheat.” But the McClatchy authors were the contractors, bound by their political affiliation to their advocacy position, and their readers were the ones cheated of the truth.

DRI-267 for week of 10-27-13: ObamaCare and the Point of No Return

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

ObamaCare and the Point of No Return

The rollout of ObamaCare – long-awaited by its friends, long-dreaded by its foes – took place last week. In this case, the term “rollout” is apropos, since the program is not exactly up on its feet. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 marked the debut of HealthCare.gov, the ObamaCare website, where prospective customers of the program’s health-insurance exchanges go to apply for coverage. By comparison, Facebook’s IPO was a rip-roaring success.

A diary of highlights seems like the best way to do justice to this fiasco. We are indebted to the Heritage Foundation for the chronology and many of the specific details that follow.

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013: This is ribbon-cutting day for the website, through which ObamaCare’s state health-insurance exchangesexpect to do most of their business. One of the most fundamental reforms sought by free-market economists is the geographic market integration of health care in the U.S. Historically, each state has its own state laws and regulatory apparatus governing insurance. This hamstrings competition. It requires companies to deal with 50 different bureaucracies in order to compete nationally and limits consumers solely to companies offering policies in their state. But ObamaCare is dedicated to the proposition that health care of, by and for government shall not perish from the earth, so it not only perpetuates but complicates this setup by interposing the artificial creation of a health-care exchange for each state, operating under a federal aegis.

Only 36 of those state exchanges open for business on time today, however. Last-minute rehearsals have warned of impending chaos, and frantic responses have produced lateness. Sure enough, as the day wears on 47 states eventually report applicant complaints of “frequent error messages.” Despite massive volume on the ObamaCare site, there is almost no evidence of actual completed applications.

Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013: The Los Angeles Times revises yesterday’s report of 5 million “hits” on HealthCare.gov from applicants in California downward just a wee bit, to 645,000. But there is still no definitive word on actual completed applications, leading some observers to wonder whether there are any.

Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013: The scarcity of actual purchasers of health insurance on the ObamaCare exchanges leads a Washington Post reporter to compare them in print to unicorns.  More serious, though, are the growing reports of thousands of policy cancellations suffered by Americans across the nation. The culprit is ObamaCare itself; victims’ current coverage doesn’t meet new ObamaCare guidelines on matters such as openness to pre-existing conditions. Ordinarily, a significant pre-existing health condition would preclude coverage or rate a high premium. In other words, writing policies that ignore pre-existing conditions is not insurance in the true, classical sense; insurance substitutes cost for risk and the former must be an increasing function of the latter in order for the process to make any sense. ObamaCare is not really about insurance, despite its protestations to the contrary.

Friday, Oct. 25, 2013: CNBC estimates that only 1% of website applicants can proceed fully to completion and obtain a policy online because the system cannot generate sufficient valid information to process the others. A few states – notably Kentucky – have reported thousands of successful policies issued, but the vast bulk of these now appear to be Medicaid enrollees rather than health-insurance policyholders. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces that its website will be offline for repairs and upgrading.

Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013: In an interview with Fox News, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew refuses to cite a figure for completed applications on the HealthCare.gov website. Among those few that have successfully braved the process, premiums seem dramatically higher than those previously paid. One example was a current policyholder whose monthly premium of $228 ballooned to $1,208 on the new ObamaCare health-care exchange policy.

Monday, Oct.28, 2013: Dissatisfaction with the process of website enrollment is now so general that application via filling out paper forms has become the method of choice. It is highly ironic that well into the 21st century, a political administration touting its technological progressivity has fallen back on the tools of the 19th century to advance its signature legislative achievement.

Official Reaction

This diary of the reception to ObamaCare conveys the impression of a public that is more than sullen in its initial reaction to the program – it is downright mutinous. It was hardly surprising, then, that President Obama chose to respond to public complaints by holding a press conference in the White House Rose Garden a few days after rollout.

Mr. Obama’s attitude can best be described as “What’s the problem?” His tone combined the unique Obama blend of hauteur and familiarity. The Affordable Care Act, he insisted, was “not just a website.” If people were having trouble accessing the website or completing the application process or making contact with an insurance company to discuss an actual plan – why, then, they could just call the government on the phone and “talk to somebody directly and they can walk you through the application process.” (How many of the President’s listeners hearkened back at this point to their previous soul-satisfying experiences on the phone with, let’s say, the IRS?) This would take about 25 minutes for an individual, Mr. Obama assured his viewers, and about 45 minutes for a family. He gave out a 1-800 number for his viewers to call. Reviews of the President’s performance noted his striking resemblance to infomercial pitchmen.

Sean Hannity was so inspired by the President’s call to action that he resolved to heed it. He called the toll-free number on-air during his AM-radio show. He spoke with a call-center employee who admitted that “we’re having a lot of glitches in the system.” She read the script that she had been given to use in dealing with disgruntled callers. Hannity thanked her and complimented her on her courtesy and honesty. She was fired the next day. Hannity declared he would compensate her for one year’s lost salary and vowed to set up a fund for callers who wanted to contribute in her behalf.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was next up on the firing line. Cabinet officials were touring eight cities and selected regional sites to promote the program and at Sebelius’s first stop at a community center in Austin, TX, she held a press conference to respond to public outrage with the glitches in the program.

On October 26, 2013, the Fox News website sported the headline: “Sebelius Suggests Republicans to Blame for ObamaCare Website Woes.” Had the Republican Party chosen the IT contractor responsible for setting up HealthCare.gov‘s website?

No. “Sebelius suggest[ed] that Republican efforts to delay and defund the law contributed to HealthCare.gov‘s glitch-ridden debut.” Really. How? Sebelius “conceded that there wasn’t enough testing done on the website, but added that her department had little flexibility to postpone the launch against the backdrop of Washington’s unforgiving politics. ‘In an ideal world, there would have been a lot more testing, but we did not have the luxury of that. And the law said the go-time was Oct. 1. And frankly, a political atmosphere where the majority party, at least in the House, was determined to stop this any way they possibly could…was not an ideal atmosphere.”

It takes the listener a minute or so to catch breath in the face of such effrontery. The Obama Administration had three years in which to prepare for launch of the program. True, there were numerous changes to the law and to administrative procedures, but these were all made by the administration itself for policy reasons. The Democrat Party, not the Republican Party, is the majority party. The Republican Party – no, make that the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party – proposed a debt-limit settlement in which the individual mandate for insurance-policy ownership would be delayed. It was rejected by the Obama Administration. Ms. Sebelius is blaming the Republican Party for the fact that Democrats were rushed when the Republicans in fact offered the Democrats a delay that the Democrats refused.

Were Ms. Sebelius a high-level executive in charge of rolling out a new product, her performance to date would result in her dismissal. But when queried about the possibility of stepping down, she responded “The majority of people calling for me to resign, I would say, are people I don’t work for and who did not want this program to work in the first place.” Parsing this statement yields some very uncomfortable conclusions. Ms. Sebelius’s employer is not President Obama or his administration; it is the American people. Anybody calling for her resignation is also an American. But clearly she does not see it that way. Obviously, the people calling for her resignation are Republicans. And she does not see herself as working for Republicans. The question is: Who is she working for?

Two possibilities stand out. Possibility number one is that she is working for the Democrat Party. In other words, she sees the executive branch as a spoils system belonging to the political party in power. Her allegiance is owed to the source of her employment; namely, her party. Possibility number two is that she sees her allegiance as owed to President Obama, her nominal boss. This might be referred to as the corporatist (as opposed to corporate) view of government, in which government plays the role of corporation and there are no shareholders.

Neither one of these possible conceptions is compatible with republican democracy, in which ultimate authority resides with the voters. In this case, the voters are expressing vocal dissatisfaction and Ms. Sebelius is telling them to take a hike. In a free-market corporation, Ms. Sebelius would be the one unfolding her walking papers and map.

Whose Back is Against the Wall?

It is tempting to conclude that ObamaCare is the Waterloo that the right wing has been predicting and planning for President Obama ever since Election Day, 2008. And this does have a certain superficial plausibility. ObamaCare is this Administration’s signature policy achievement – indeed, practically its only one. There is no doubt that the Administration looks bad, even by the relaxed standards of performance it set during the last five years.

Unfortunately, this view of President Obama with his back against the wall, despairing and fearful, contemplating resignation or impeachment, simply won’t survive close scrutiny. It is shattered by a sober review of Barack Obama’s past utterances on the subject of health care.

As a dedicated man of the Left, Barack Obama’s progressive vision of health care in America follows one guiding star: the single-payer system. That single payer is the federal government. Barack Obama and the progressive Left are irrevocably wedded to the concept of government ownership and control of health care, a la Great Britain’s National Health Care system. In speeches and interviews going back to the beginning of his career, Obama has pledged allegiance to this flag and to the collective for which it stands, one organic unity under government, indivisible, with totalitarianism and social justice for all.

The fact that ObamaCare is now collapsing around our ears may be temporarily uncomfortable for the Obama Administration, but it is in no way incompatible with this overarching goal. Just the opposite, in fact. In order to get from where we are now to a health-care system completely owned and operated by the federal government, our private system of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies must be either subjugated, occupied or destroyed, respectively. That process has now started in earnest.

Oh, the Administration would rather that private medicine went gentle into that good night. It would have preferred killing private health insurance via euthanasia rather than brutal murder, for example. But the end is what matters, not the means.

Certainly the Administration would have preferred to maintain its hypnotic grip on the loyalty of the mainstream news media. Instead, the members of the broadcast corps are reacting to ObamaCare’s meltdown as they did upon first learning that they were not the product of immaculate conception. But this is merely a temporary dislocation, not a permanent loss. What will the news media do when the uproar dies down – change party affiliation?

For anybody still unconvinced about the long-run direction events will take, the Wednesday, October 30, 2013 lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal is the clincher.

“Americans are Losing Their Coverage by Political Design”

“For all of the Affordable Care Act’s technical problems,” the editors observe, “at least one part is working on schedule. The law is systematically dismantling the private insurance market, as its architects intended from the start.”

It took a little foresight to see this back when the law was up for passage. The original legislation included a passage insisting that it should not “be construed to require than an individual terminate coverage that existed as of March 23, 2010.” This “Preservation of Right to Maintain Existing Coverage” was the fig leaf shielding President Obama’s now-infamous declaration that “if you like your existing policy, you can keep it.” Yeah, right.

Beginning in June, 2010, HHS started generating new regulations that chipped away at this “promise.” Every change in policy, no matter how minor, became an excuse for terminating existing coverage at renewal time. This explains the fact that some 2 million Americans have received cancellation notices from their current insurers. Of course, the Obama Administration has adopted the unified stance that these cancellations are the “fault” of the insurance companies – which is a little like blaming your broken back on your neighbor because he jumped out of the way when you fell off your roof instead of standing under you to cushion your fall. Stray callers to AM radio can be heard maintaining that at least half of these cancellations will be reinstated with new policies at lower cost in the ObamaCare exchanges. If only those hot-headed Tea Partiers would stop dumping boxes of tea and behaving like pirates! Alas, a Rube Goldberg imitation of a market cannot replace the genuine article – with apologies to Mr. Goldberg, whose roundabout contraptions actually worked.

ObamaCare creates 10 types of legally defined medical benefits. They include general categories like hospitalization and prescription drugs. No policy that fails to meet the exact standards defined within the law can survive the ObamaCare review. It is widely estimated that about 80% of all individual plans, which cover 7% of the U.S. population under age 65, will fall victim to the ObamaCare scythe.

The law is replete with Orwellian rhetoric of progressive liberalism. HHS defines its purpose as the “offer [of] a small number of meaningful choices.” Uh…what about allowing individuals to gauge the tradeoff between price and quality of care that best suits their own preferences, incomes and particular medical circumstances? No, that would have “allowed extremely wide variation across plans in the benefits offered “and thus “would not have assured consumers that they would have coverage for basic benefits.” This is doublespeak for “we are restricting your range of choice for your own good, dummy.”

Liberals typically respond with a mixture of outrage and indignation when exposed as totalitarians. It is certainly true that they are not eradicating freedom of choice merely for the pure fun of it. They must create a fictitious product called “insurance” to serve a comparatively small population of people who cannot be served by true insurance – people with pre-existing conditions that make them uninsurable or ratable at very high premiums or coverage exclusions. The exorbitant costs of serving this market through government require that the tail wag the dog – that the large number of young, healthy people pay ridiculously high premiums for a product they don’t want or need in order to balance the books on this absurd enterprise. (Formerly, governments simply borrowed the money to pay for such pay-as-you-go boondoggles, but the financial price tag on this modus operandi is now threatening to bring down European welfare states around the ears of their citizens – so this expedient is no longer viable.) In order to justify enrolling everybody and his brother-in-law in coverage, government has to standardize coverage by including just about every conceivable benefit and excluding practically nothing. After all, we’re forcing people to sign up so we can’t very well turn around and deny them coverage for something the way a real, live insurance company would, can we?

It is well known that the bulk of all medical costs arise from treating the elderly. In a rational system, this would be no problem because people would save for their own old age and generate the real resources necessary to fund it. But the wrong turn in our system began in World War II, when the tax-free status of employer-provided health benefits encouraged the substitution of job-related health insurance for the wage increases that were proscribed by wartime government wage and price controls. The gradual dominance of third-party payment for health care meant that demand went through the roof, dragging health-care prices upward with it.

Now Generation X finds itself stuck with the mother of all tabs by the President whom it elected. The Gen X’ers are paying Social Security taxes to support their feckless parents and grandparents, who sat still for a Ponzi scheme and now want their children to make good. To add injury to injury, the kids are also stuck with gigantic prices for involuntary “insurance” they don’t want and can’t afford to support their elders, the uninsurables – and the incredibly costly government machinery to administer it all.

It’s just as the old-time leftist revolutionaries used to say: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Across the nation, we have heard the sound of eggs cracking for the last week.

The Point of No Return

The “point of no return” is a familiar principle in international aviation. It is the point beyond which is it closer to the final destination than to the point of origination, or the point beyond which it makes no sense to turn back. This is particularly applicable to trans-oceanic travel, where engine trouble or some other unexpected problem might make the fastest possible landing necessary.

In our case, the Obama Administration has kept this concept firmly in mind. By embroiling as many Americans as deeply as possible in the tentacles of government, President Obama intends to create a state of affairs in which – no matter how bad the current operation of ObamaCare may be – it will seem preferable to most Americans to go forward to a completely government-run system rather than “turn back the clock” to a free-market system.

A free-market system works because competition works. On the supply side of the market, eliminating state regulation of insurance would enable companies to expand across state borders and compete with each other. But this involves relying upon companies to serve consumers. And companies are the entities that just got through issuing all those cancellation notices. For millions of Americans today, the only disciplinary mechanism affecting companies is something called “government regulation” that forces them to do “the right thing” by bludgeoning them into submission. That is what regulatory agencies are doing right now – beating up on Wall Street firms and banks for causing the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession. The fact that this never seems to prevent the next crisis doesn’t seem to penetrate the public consciousness, for the only antidote for the failure of government regulation is more and stronger government regulation.

On the demand side of a free market, consumers scrutinize the products and services available at alternative prices and choose the ones they prefer the most. But consumers are not used to buying their own health care and vaguely feel that the idea is both dishonest and unfair. “Health care should be a right, not a privilege,” is the rallying cry of the left wing – as if proclaiming this state of affairs is tantamount to executing it. No such thing as a guaranteed right to goods and services can exist, since giving one person a political right to goods is the same thing as denying the right to others. In the financial sense, somebody must pay for the goods provided. In the real sense, virtually all goods are produced using resources that have alternative uses, so producing more of some goods always means producing fewer other goods.

This is not what the “health-care-should-be-a-right-not-a-privilege” proclaimers are talking about. Their idea is that we will give everybody more of this one thing – health care – and have everything else remain the same as it is now. That is a fantasy. But this fantasy is the prevailing mental state throughout much of the nation. One widely quoted comment by a bitterly disappointed victim of policy cancellation is revealing: “I was all for ObamaCare until I found out I was going to have to pay for it.” On right-wing talk radio, this remark is considered proof of public disillusion with President Obama. But note: The victim did not say: “I was all for ObamaCare until I found out what I was going to have to pay for it.” The distinction is vital. Today, a free lunch is considered only fitting and proper in health care. And the only free lunch to be had is the pseudo-free lunch offered by a government-run, single-payer system.

As it stands now, few if any Americans can recall what it was like to pay for their own health care. Few have experienced a true free market in medicine and health care. Thus, they will be taking the word of economists on faith that it would be preferable to a government-run system like the one in Great Britain. It is a tribute to the power of ideas that a commentator like Rush Limbaugh can make repeated references to individuals paying for their own care without generating a commercially fatal outpouring of outrage from his audience.

Grim as this depiction may seem, it accurately describes the dilemma we face.

DRI-266 for week of 10-13-13: Don’t Raise the Debt Limit

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

[The following was completed one day before the debt-limit deal between Congressional leaders was announced on Wednesday, October 16, 2013.]

Don’t Raise the Debt Limit

The political melodrama now unspooling in Washington, D.C. is unique because it is playing on split screen. Our point of focus is the government shutdown – or rather, the partial shutdown, since somehow we just can’t seem to get the federal government shut down no matter how hard we try. Somebody can always find an excuse to fire up the machinery of government, cut checks, get them signed and sent out for some ostensibly vital purpose.

Meanwhile, up in the corner of our field of vision, always distracting our attention even though not occupying it fully, there is the debt-limit crisis. October 17 is the deadline for Congressional approval on raising the limit on the total volume of federal-government debt, thereby clearing the way for Treasury borrowing to finance expenditures in excess of revenue collections. The party line has it that failure to increase the debt limit by that date will put the U.S. government in “default” of its financial obligations to holders of its debt. The implication is that we have to borrow more money to pay the interest on the money we have already borrowed.

And what happens if we default on our debt? Well, opinions vary. They vary from “financial disaster” to “the end of life on earth.” According to Warren Buffet, the threat of default “should be like nuclear bombs… it should never be used.” Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs declares gravely that default would be “magnitudes worse” than the current shutdown in its effects. Perhaps sensing a need for escalation, former Treasury official and current BUP Paribas SA executive Tim Bitsberger ups the ante by stating that default “…blows Lehman out of the water” in its potential effects, implying that the 2008 financial crisis would be dwarfed in comparison.

Alternative to Default: Sales of Federal-Government Assets

If we’re not to default, what are we to do? En masse, the Democrat Party wants to simply raise the debt limit enough to get by the current fiscal year. That is what Congress has been doing for decades. That is what has enabled the culture of tax-and-borrow-and-spend – a culture that has made Washington, D.C. and environs the most prosperous, recession-proof habitation in the nation. Gradually, the Republican Party has evolved into a go-along-to-get-along enabler to this culture. They have tolerated vocal dissenters among their ranks because that provides convenient cover for the tacit collusion of the majority with the Democrats.

The recent emergence of the Tea Party and current mutiny led by Sen. Rand Paul and Congressman Ted Cruz has discomfited veteran Republicans almost as much as it has their opposition. But the mood of the general public – on both the political right and the left – is so dissatisfied with the status quo that the pols are bent on preserving that they are reluctantly contemplating the need for some sort of change. At the moment, though, the problem is getting past the immediate crisis.

That is now the motif of the governing process: a calendar dotted by scheduled crises and spotted by unscheduled ones. Its momentum is best characterized as a stagger from one crisis point to the next.

On the one hand, the Establishment – consisting of most of Congress and the entire Executive branch, plus all the bureaucrats, rank and file employees, lobbyists, contractors and news media – maintains that the only option is to raise the debt limit. They say this because the increase is the only option that would keep their world intact – at least for awhile. The alternatives would shake its foundations or topple them.

The general public is largely unaware of any third option beyond increasing the debt-limit and default. That is by design. The Establishment views any option averse to the current spending culture the way a vampire views the dawn.

Yet there is such a third option. It sticks out a mile. It is the option customarily exercised by private businesses overburdened with debt.

The federal government owns a huge portfolio of assets, both liquid and non-liquid. Its total value can only be estimated, but it is only modestly less than the estimated value of privately owned U.S. assets. The most cogent approach to the immediate – debt-limit – crisis is to begin selling off those assets to fund government operations. Government assets are more than ample to support annual operations, particularly due to the sequester’s success in temporarily reducing the deficit for this fiscal year.

Every year, some private companies work their way out of trouble this way. The key is acknowledging the company is in trouble, then taking steps to dig it out of its hole, rather than doing business as usual and hoping for miracles. Today, the federal government (along with many state governments) is in trouble. Like many corporate conglomerates, it is bloated and over-extended. It needs to stick to its core businesses and sell off its conglomerate holdings to those who can preserve them and make them pay off.

Over the course of this fiscal year, branches and agencies of the federal government can concentrate on raising revenue by selling liquid and non-liquid holdings. Meanwhile, Congress can tackle the job of cutting spending – a task too time-consuming to consummate prior to October 17.

And speaking of October 17 – the date itself has very little meaning once it becomes known that the government is selling assets and revenue is assured. Creditors – even bondholders – are more than willing to wait for a payment they know is coming, as opposed to a situation when everybody knows that incoming revenue is insufficient and somebody will inevitably get stiffed. That is why the option of asset sales is a viable way of rejecting a debt-limit increase.

The last thing Republicans should do is to raise the debt limit. This is an act of surrender to the spending culture, a can-kicking capitulation to the Establishment. It is not the failure to raise the debt limit that is irresponsible; it is the act of raising it that throws responsibility to the winds.

Estimates of the Federal Government’s Assets

At various times, estimates have been made of the federal government’s financial and tangible assets, both liquid and non-liquid. Despite the fact that they were often made when annual deficits were higher than the one projected for the coming fiscal year, the estimates invariably found that assets sales could easily support annual government operations.

Using mostly Treasury and Federal Reserve data from 2011, economist Robert Murphy identified federal government liquid assets of about $1.6 trillion. In June, 2011, the Treasury reported “international reserve assets” of $144.2 billion. They consisted of gold, securities, foreign-currency deposits of euros and yen, Special Drawing Rights [an international asset provided to governments by the International Monetary Fund] and IMF reserves. (The IMF assets were developed specifically to provide liquidity in emergencies like this one.) The official valuation is distorted, since the government’s 261.5 million troy ounces of gold was valued at a par value of $42.2 per ounce rather than its then-current market value of $1500 per ounce.

We can update Murphy’s numbers with some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Adjusting the numbers using a current gold price leaves non-gold assets of approximately $133 billion and a true valuation of roughly $337 billion in gold, yielding liquid assets of $470 billion+. Subsequently, gold has declined while the yen and euro have fluctuated in value. A current estimate of $450 billion would be conservative.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve held about 726 billion barrels of recoverable oil. At today’s price nearing $100 per barrel, that would be worth about $72 billion. But since the oil is actually buried in salt caverns, Murphy suggested a discount of 25% to reflect recovery costs and time. Tack on another $58 billion to our current liquid-asset total, then.

The federal government owns offshore oil deposits whose estimated recoverable reserves total some 59 billion barrels. Murphy estimated the royalty income in years 8-38 of recovery at about $14 billion per year. He discounted that income at 5% and came up with $164 billion, which is an estimate of what the government might receive from selling the rights to that revenue for a lump sum.

So far, we have come up with nearly $675 billion. Murphy also found some $786 billion in “credit-market instruments” in Federal Reserve documents. These include $138 billion in agency-backed and GSE-backed securities and $355 billion in student loans. This total is much larger now, since the Fed has been buying mortgage-backed securities in order to support their market prices. He also included $55 billion in corporate (TARP) equities, which have mostly since been sold back into private hands. If we assume the changes cancelled out, we can stick with Murphy’s original $786 billion.

That produces somewhat less than a trillion and a half, far above the anticipated $650 billion deficit. It is reasonable to assume that the mortgage-related securities would be sold slowly over the course of the year and the full holdings might not be depleted, so as not to depress mortgage prices unduly.

We have not yet even touched the federal government’s huge land holdings. The government owns most of the state of Nevada, for example, among its 650 million acres of land. A couple years ago, then-OMB head Peter Orszag estimated that there are some 14,000 “excess” structures and 55,000 un-utilized or under-utilized structures and buildings in the federal government’s portfolio. These could and should be sold. The government’s power-generation facilities and the electro-magnetic spectrum are other lucrative holdings that are ripe for sale and privatization.

If we were to construct a net worth statement for the federal government, the bottom line would probably astound most Americans. Financial analyst John Rutledge has occasionally attempted it and come up with government asset valuations of between $150 and $200 trillion. (He estimates the value of private U.S. assets at $230-$250 trillion.) Thus, the potential for solving our debt problem completely by selling assets is clear. Of course, this would involve various technical and logistical complications. It would unquestionably alter the fundamental character of the federal government as it exists today. But isn’t it about time to do just that?

Arguments Against Selling Federal-Government Assets

The foregoing is persuasive. But it is only natural to wonder what drawbacks might lurk under its surface. In 2010, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner responded to calls for asset sales by pooh-poohing the idea. Holding a “fire sale” of government assets would damage “financial markets and the economy and undermine confidence in the United States,” Geithner maintained.

Each of these contentions deserves some scrutiny. It is perfectly correct that when a company starts selling assets, it tells the world that it is in trouble and it runs the risks that this knowledge will have adverse effects. Among other things, the company may now have more trouble borrowing money and its stock price may well decline (assuming the stock trades publicly). But these are not fatal flaws, merely tradeoffs; they have to be weighed against the risks of inaction.

The drawbacks of straightforwardness do not tell nearly as heavily against a country as against a single company. A company can sometimes hide its financial condition from the public and the markets, but a country can’t. We aren’t fooling anybody by sitting on our gigantic stockpile of assets; our credit rating has already been downgraded and our debt and deficit problems are open secrets. Sooner or later, our interest rates are going to rise – the only question is how much debt is weighing us down when they do. The world will have a lot more confidence in a United States that has finally started whittling down its debt than one that has buried its head in the sand while continuing to spend itself silly. This assessment is not merely speculative; two days before the financial equivalent of “Mayan calendar” oblivion, a Wall Street Journal headline reads “Uneasy Investors Sell Billions in Treasurys.” Apparently confidence in the debt-limit-raising approach is not exactly unshakeable.

Geithner’s warning about “damage to the economy” presumably derives from the Keynesian concept that government sales of assets to the public drain money from the circular flow of income and expenditure, thereby reducing income and employment. As Murphy points out, this requires us to believe that people would rather end the year with $650 billion or so of IOUs than $650 billion worth of valuable assets formerly managed (often mismanaged) by the government. How could asset sales “damage the economy” as much as the status quo of wasteful spending and debt accumulation?

There is at least some superficial cogency to Geithner’s concern about financial markets, since some of the liquid assets in the federal portfolio were purchased in the first place to prop up the asset’s price. Clearly, selling will have the opposite effect, especially in quantity. This is why sales of mortgage-backed securities would presumably be strung out over long time periods, although the anticipation of continued sales would have the effect of driving down prices in advance of sales anyway. But the real issue is the legitimacy of the price itself. In effect, Geithner is admitting that the so-called housing “recovery” is really an artifact of government contrivance and will evaporate without it. How long is this supposed to go on, anyway? Is the tail of the housing sector supposed to wag the general economic dog forever? Orderly asset sales would seem the indicated exit strategy for this misguided policy.

Democrat arguments against government-asset sales are a pretext. The sales would represent a turning point in over a century of big-government, “progressive” policy. According to progressive doctrine, government is supposed to accumulate power, control and authority – not cede it.

The ironic thing is that asset sales would leave the skeletal structure of big government intact. The entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicare – would be untouched. Most of the regulatory agencies would be unaffected; only those entrusted with caring for assets that were sold off would be downsized or eliminated. (A major benefit of selling assets would be that the overhead expense of minding them could be offloaded.) Yet this minor impact on the welfare state has little effect on the Democrats’ intractable opposition to the idea. The fact that government does a perfectly terrible job of managing assets is also completely beside the point. Democrat policies are inherently designed to exploit the many for the benefit of the few and this demands not only big government but continually expanding government. Anything that threatens that, threatens their livelihood.

Hole Card?

A recurring theme among reactions to the prospect of default is incredulity that Congressional negotiators (read: Republicans) would be so reckless as to tempt fate by flirting with the debt-limit date. How dare they run even the tiniest risk of default?

For several years, the Federal Reserve has already been doing the unthinkable, more or less in plain sight but without provoking the same sort of outrage from the business and financial community. It has been “monetizing the debt” by buying new issues of federal-government debt directly from the Treasury using newly created money for the purpose. That activity has been technically illegal throughout the Fed’s existence, but the Fed circumvents the intent of the Federal Reserve Act by acquiring new issues directly from the primary dealers who transact directly with the Treasury. This was an important part of the QE (quantitative expansion) policy, which was designed to keep the federal-funds rate (thus, short-term interest rates in general) as low as possible. If the rest of the world was becoming reluctant to take on more and more U.S. debt – why, then, the Fed would just have to step into the breach. After all, it’s not as if the federal government should actually have to cut spending, is it?

Of course, there was the little matter of all that money that the Fed created. Ordinarily, the money would have had a multiple effect on the total money stock. The Fed formerly did its bond buying in the secondary bond market for the express purpose of creating reserves for banks to use as a reserve base for pyramiding loans to businesses and households. (Students will recognize the term “money multiplier,” used to estimate the amount by which the money stock increases based on an initial injection of money.) When the money was spent, this effect produced economic effects extending beyond the initial recipients of the spending. The trillions of dollars the Fed has recently created (some of which has financed U.S. government debt) would be sufficient to kindle hyperinflation when fed through an ordinary market process. Throughout history, this kind of money-creation has been considered strictly “the policy of the desperado,” as F.A. Hayek called it. Allan Meltzer, whose multi-volume history of the Federal Reserve has cemented his reputation as perhaps the world’s leading monetary economist, admits that despite his personal liking for Ben Bernanke, “It’s pretty hard for me to argue that if you have a few trillion dollars of excess reserves in the banking system, you think you’re doing it for the good of the economy.” Once again, though, the Fed has escaped censure for its actions thus far.

Doubtless this general insouciance is explained by the results. The created money and/or its loan potential has mostly sat idle in bank excess reserves, because a law change allowed the Fed to pay interest on money held in excess reserves by its member banks. Meanwhile, the bonds themselves have been quietly added to the Fed’s portfolio, where they have been quietly drawing interest. The Federal Reserve has now become one of the world’s leading holders of U.S. debt.

This raises an interesting possibility. Even though the Federal Reserve is a bank and operates as such, earning profits and suffering losses on individual transactions, it is not an ordinary bank. One quaint feature of its operations as a “quasi-public” institution is that it remits interest earned on its holdings of federal-government bonds to the Treasury. (It does this in spite of the fact that the Federal Reserve System is composed of its member banks and the Fed presumably has a fiduciary responsibility to them.) Thus, when the Fed buys bonds from the Treasury and holds them, that means the Treasury is getting interest-free financing for its deficit expenditures with money the Fed creates.

This raises the possibility that the Obama Administration’s debt-limit hole card may be an arrangement with the Fed that it will buy up all new debt in the coming fiscal year – and maybe more besides. Remember, the Fed was widely expected to end its program of quantitative easing in September, but continued it unabated, confounding markets and the public. Its explanation for this was confused – even normally tame Fed-watchers criticized Bernanke for leaving markets in the lurch. Remember, also, what everybody is most worried about – that default on our debt will take away the U.S. government’s ability to borrow.

Preempting the bond market is not something the Fed would normally be happy to do. U.S. Treasury bonds are traditionally one of the world’s leading fixed-income assets. People line up to buy them. Frustrating this demand would be unprecedented. But recently the Fed has been buying most of the new Treasury debt anyway; Bloomberg estimated that in 2012, the Fed was starving the market for Treasurys by soaking up 90% of new issues. In any case, the prospect of a debt default might be considered a big enough emergency to justify such high-handed action. And the Administration would be willing to consider any alternative to spending cuts or asset sales, as explained above.

The Fed’s actions are so outré and its politicization so apparent that this kind of hidden agenda makes about as much sense as any other explanation for its actions. It isn’t as if Bernanke’s tenure thus far has been squeaky clean and free of any taint of political collusion. Quite the contrary.

And this theory doesn’t argue in favor of raising the debt-limit, either. Thus, the verdict on the debt limit is clear-cut: Don’t raise it.