DRI-161 for week of 11-30-14: The Enemy Within: The Move to Strangle Welfare-State Reform In Its Crib

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The Enemy Within: The Move to Strangle Welfare-State Reform In Its Crib

The resurgence of the Republican Party after the overwhelming victory of Barack Obama and the Democrats in the 2008 elections was led by the Tea Party. This grassroots political movement began as a popular uprising and only gradually acquired formal organizational trappings. As yet, its ideological roots are so thin and shallow that they provide no support for the movement.

This contrasts sharply with the conservative movement, in which the order of development was reversed. Ideology came first, with roots implanted firmly by opposition to the New Deal and a foreign policy led by Sen. Robert Taft. The intellectual foundation laid by William F. Buckley, Jr. in National Review Magazine educated a generation of young Republicans and paved the way for the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater’s landslide defeat nevertheless introduced Ronald Reagan to national politics. By the time Reagan became President in 1980, conservatism had become the dominant political paradigm.

Nowhere is a vacuum more abhorrent than in political ideology. Today’s victorious Republicans may purport to search for a mode of governance, but what they are really doing is belatedly deciding what they stand for. (The hapless domestic and foreign policies of the Obama administration gave them the luxury of winning the elections merely by signaling their lack of congruence with President Obama et al.) They enjoy a surfeit of advice from all quarters.

Nowhere is this advice more pointed than in its economic dimension.

 

Should Republicans “Take ‘Yes’ For an Answer?”

 

Although Buckley died in 2006, National Review still retains some of the intellectual momentum he generated. Its “Roving Correspondent,” Kevin Williamson, devoted a recent essay to an advisory for the Republican Party on post-victory strategy. Williamson sees the solid victory in the 2014 mid-term elections as “a chance to meet voters where they are.” To do that, Republicans need to “take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Exactly how should we interpret these glib formulations? Williamson insists that Republicans should not treat electoral good fortune as the opportunity to create change. Instead, the Party should reverse the normal order of precedence and cater to popular disposition – “meet the voters where they are” instead of persuading the voters of the desirability or necessity of change. Don’t continue the campaign, Williamson pleads. The votes have already been counted; just “take ‘yes’ for an answer” and get on with the business of crafting a governing compromise that everybody can live with.

So much for the revolutionary stance of the Tea Party; the EPA won’t have to test BostonHarbor for caffeine contamination.

The reader’s instinctive reaction to Williamson’s essay is to flip the magazine over and re-check the cover. Can this really be National Review, legendary incubator of conservative thought, renowned for taking no prisoners in the ideological wars? We have just suffered six years under the lash of a Democrat regime whose marching order was “elections have consequences.” Now the flagship of American conservatism is preaching a gospel of preemptive surrender?

Williamson’s mood is apparently the product of disillusionment. The birth of NR, he reminds his readers, was a reaction to Eisenhower Republicanism. Instead of rolling back the welfare state installed by Roosevelt and Truman, Ike accepted it – thereby setting the tone for Republican policy thereafter. The magazine fulminated, but to no avail. Goldwaterism produced Reagan… “a self-described New Deal Democrat,” pouts Williamson, “who famously proclaimed that he hadn’t left eh Democratic Party but the party had left him.”

Reagan revisionism is part of a new NR realpolitik, it seems. “At the end of the Reagan years, the Soviet Union was dead on its feet, the United States was a resurgent force in the world… and spending and deficits both were up, thanks to the White House’s inability or unwillingness to put a leash on Tip O’Neill and congressional Democrats. The public sector was larger and more arrogant, there were more rather than fewer bureaucrats and bureaucracies, and nobody had made so much as a head fake in the direction of reforming such New Deal legacies as Social Security or even Great Society boondoggles such as Medicaid.”

The author’s psychological defeatism apparently so overwhelmed him that he lost touch with reality. The Soviet Union is “dead on its feet” but the singular responsibility of President Ronald Reagan for this fact is unmentioned. (One cannot help wondering whether this is an oversight or a deliberate omission.) But Reagan is held liable for the actions of the Democrat Speaker of the House and Congressional Democrats! Has anybody blamed Barack Obama for not “putting a leash on House Republicans” to achieve more of his agenda? Has Williamson published his Canine Theory of Congressional Fiscal Restraint in a peer-reviewed journal of political science?

One might have thought that winning the Cold War, taming hyperinflation and reviving moribund economic growth (also left unmentioned by Williamson) constituted sufficient labor unto a Presidential tenure. Various authors, ranging from Paul Craig Roberts to David Stockman, have chronicled the internecine warfare attending the Reagan administration’s efforts to cut the federal budget. Apparently Williamson has forgotten, if he ever knew, that Reagan enjoyed the reputation of a ferocious budget-cutter while in office. This dovetailed with his famous declaration that “government isn’t the solution – it’s the problem.” If, three decades after the fact, Reagan’s efforts seem puny, this may be because we hold him responsible for failing to effect a counterrevolution to match the permanency of FDR’s New Deal. One would think, though, that the only President since FDR to actually reduce the size of the Federal Register deserved better at Williamson’s hands.

Obviously, Williamson paints a false portrait of the Reagan years to justify the counsel of despair he gives today. “We did not undo the New Deal in the 1980s. We are not going to undo the New Deal before 2017 either… the fact remains that the American people are not as conservative as conservatives would like them to be, nor are they always conservative in the way conservatives would like them to be.” It seems that there is a “disconnect between the numbers of Americans who describe themselves as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ and the policy preferences those Americans express.” Americans think of themselves as conservative but favor liberal policies. So, Williamson concludes, the only sensible thing to do is humor them.

“Americans …are, by and large, conservative in the same sense that Ronald Reagan was, not in the sense that Robert Taft was, or… Barry Goldwater was. They intuit that the federal government is overly large and intrusive, they resent the slackers and idlers who exploit that situation, and they worry that our long-term finances are upside down, but they do not wish to repeal the New Deal.”

“Example: A majority of voters believe that something must be done to rectify Social Security’s finances, and a plurality of voters believe that a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases should be adopted to achieve that… [but] strong majorities … of 56 percent… oppose Social Security benefit cuts and Social Security tax increases, according to Gallup. No doubt many of these voters think of themselves as conservatives… it is likely that the great majority of self-described conservatives would support continuing current Social Security policies indefinitely – if they believed it fiscally possible. The current Left-Right divide on Social Security is not a question of what we ought to do, but of what we can do.” Williamson cites Robert Taft’s eventual concession on Social Security as an example of the Right bending its principles to his form of pragmatism. After all, “populist measures are, to the surprise of nobody except scholars of political science, popular, hence the support among a majority of registered Republicans for raising the minimum wage.”

Instead of fighting among themselves on principle, Williamson contends, Republicans should be scanning the polls to find out where their base stands – and adjusting their stance accordingly. They should be meeting the voters where the voters are rather than persuading voters to see the light of sweet reason. They should take “yes” for an answer when they hear it from the networks on election night.

Rebutting Williamson’s “Populism”

 

No full-blooded Tea Party member will swallow Kevin Williamson’s argument, despite the author’s insistence that he is really enunciating their position. They didn’t overcome the twin obstacles of the Democrat Party and the Republican establishment only to be lectured on their extremism in the pages of National Review, for crying out loud. But we must go beyond visceral rejection of Williamson’s moral and psychological defeatism. Straightforward analysis indicts it.

Since the venue is National Review, it is fitting to recall Bill Buckley’s distinction between politics and economics: “The politician says: ‘What do you want? The economist says: What do you want the most?'” For many decades, voters have been offered big government as if it were a consumer product with zero price. That is the context in which to contemplate the poll responses that Williamson treats as commandments graven in stone. In the beginning, there was the word. And conservatives believed the word. But when the world around them changed and God neither smote the unbeliever nor struck down the evil Antichrist, conservatives eventually shrugged and went with the flow. After a while they began singing the same hymns to Baal as the liberals. They couldn’t very well go to jail for non-participation in the Social Security system and they discovered that the government checks always cashed – so why not go along? It was the only way they could get their money out.

In due course, conservatives found out along with the rest of society that they had been lied to and flimflammed by the pay-as-you-go status of Social Security. It was not a system of insurance, after all; the word “social” in the terms “social insurance” and “Social Security” should be taken to mean “not,” just as it does in terms like “social justice,” “social democracy” and “social responsibility.” By then, though, everybody was so thoroughly habituated to the system that it would have required something close to a revolution to change it. Something like what the colonists originally did when they revolted against the British and dumped tea in Boston harbor, for example.

When Williamson implies that conservatives are entirely comfortable with Social Security today, he is being disingenuous. (That either means “lacking in candor” or “naïve;” he is either lying to us or he is plain stupid.) In fact, conservatives (and just about everybody else) below the age of 50 no longer expect even to receive Social Security benefits – they expect the system to go bankrupt long before they collect. They are not comfortable with the system but resigned to it; there is a world of difference between the two. And considering that Williamson himself just published an article on “Generation Vexed” and its growing dissatisfaction with the Obama regime in the previous issue of NR, he cannot claim indifference to their electoral attitudes in this context.

But this attitude of resignation is wildly optimistic compared to the fiscal reality facing America and the rest of Western industrial society today. The welfare state is collapsing around our ears. Central bankers are in extremis; they are reduced to printing money to finance operations. The Eurozone staggers from crisis to crisis. Japan is now working on its third “lost decade.” Demography is a disaster; birth rates will not bail us out. Worse – they are falling like leaden raindrops, reducing the number of workers paying in per welfare-benefit recipient. The crisis is not in the far-off future but today – if the U.S. had to finance upcoming deficits at normal rates of interest rather than the “zero interest rates” of the last five years, the interest charges alone would eat up most of the federal budget. And the entitlement programs that Williamson views as sacred are now eating up most of that budget.

Williamson acts as if Social Security finance were a Starbucks menu. He treats longstanding conservative doctrine on Social Security as if it were excerpted from fundamentalist Scripture out of Inherit the Wind. But he is no Clarence Drummond; Social Security is exactly the Ponzi scheme that conservatives have always fulminated against. In fact, it is worse, because the Day of Judgment is arriving even sooner than prophesied.

True, it isn’t just Social Security – it’s also Medicare and Medicaid and the welfare system. (Welfare reform didn’t come close to reforming the whole system, just one of the six components of it.) The point is that we have passed the elective stage and have now entered the stage of imminent collapse. In that stage, monetary chaos and an uncertain fate for democracy await.

And what is Williamson’s reaction? When Americans protest, “I can be overdrawn; I still have checks,” Williamson nods, “Right you are.” But we’re not just overdrawn – we’re completely bankrupt.

Under these conditions, what are our choices? Suppose we remain in Obamaville. That will result in collapse. Suppose we go Williamson’s route, a route of picking and choosing a few pieces of low-hanging fruitful reform. That will also result in collapse.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling voters the truth and opting for revolutionary reform. If they reject us, we will be hung for offering a full-bodied sheep – limited government, free markets and freedom – rather than a bleating lamb of meekly pandering populism.

Popunomics

 

Williamson isn’t just selectively bad on economics – he has renounced economic logic entirely in favor of populist emotion. Take the minimum wage – Williamson’s shining example of popular Populism. The minimum wage is one of three or four most heavily researched measures in economics, having attracted empirical studies consistently since the late 1940s. Until the notorious Card-Krueger study in 1993, these found that the minimum wage adversely affected employment of low-skilled labor. These findings jibed with a priori theory, which predicted that a minimum wage would produce a surplus of labor (unemployment), increase the scope for discrimination by buyers of labor against sellers of labor, reduce the quality of labor and/or jobs, encourage businesses to offer fewer benefits and more part-time jobs and encourage businesses to substitute machinery and high-skilled labor for low-skilled labor. All these effects have been observed in conjunction with the minimum wage since its imposition. Card and Krueger offered no rebuttal to the eloquent testimony of the research record and were notably silent on the theory underpinning their own research result, which purported to find an increase in comparative employment in one state after an increase in the minimum wage. Both the validity of their data and the econometric soundness of their results were later challenged.

Having carefully chosen one of the most economically untenable of all Populist positions on which to “meet voters where they are,” Williamson next ups the ante. From the debased coin of the minimum wage, he turns to the fool’s gold of restrictionist anti-immigrationism. The late Richard Nadler painstakingly showed – and in NR to boot, in 2009’s “Great Immigration Shoot-Out” – that restrictionists were big and consistent electoral losers in Republican primaries and general elections. But Williamson is back at the same old stand, hawking “stronger border controls… mandatory use of E-verify… and like measures” because “voters are solidly on the conservatives’ side on this issue.”

Oh really? Just in time – net immigration has been roughly zero for the last few years. Market forces, not government quotas, control international migration; the quotas merely serve to criminalize violators. Immigration benefits America

on net balance, regardless of its legal dimension. Along with free trade and opposition to the minimum wage, place support of free international migration among the issues upon which economists strongly agree.

Wait a minute – Williamson has gone from supporting brain-dead economics because it is generally popular (the minimum wage) to supporting it because it is popular with NR’s constituency. Just as Buckley had to rescue the Right from the anti-Semitism of the American Mercury and the conspiratorial John Birch Society, we are now faced with the task of rehabilitating the right wing from the crank nativism and restrictionism that has asserted squatter’s rights at National Review. Calling Williamson’s version of expedience Populism gives ideology a bad name. The 19th-century Populism of Pitchfork Ben Tillman, et al, featured cheap money and fashionably bad economics but it was more consistent than Williamson’s proposal.

Borrowing the argot of the digital generation, Williamson is expounding not Populism but rather PLR – the “path of least resistance.” Put your finger to the wind and sense what we can get the voters to sign off on. See how many fundamental principles and how much government money we’ll have to sacrifice to win the next election. Williamson purports to be lecturing us on why Republicans fail – because they are too ideologically scrupulous, insisting on free markets, free trade, open borders, flexible prices, deregulation. But the encroachment of big government and the welfare state proceeded mostly unabated throughout the 20th century despite periods of Republican ascendancy. How could this have happened? Because Republicans were really heeding Williamson’s doctrine all along; PLR ruled, not ideological constancy. Goldwater never led the Republican Party, even when he won the nomination. Reagan was detested by the Party establishment and his philosophy was ditched the minute Air Force One lifted off the runway to return him to California. PLR was always the de facto rule of thumb – and forefinger, ring finger and all other digits. How else could a Party ostensibly supporting limited government have countenanced the transition to unlimited government?

Williamson treats the rise of the Tea Party as America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution. Whew! We must cease all this senseless bloodletting and wild-eyed revolutionary fervor; return to our senses and settle for what we can get rather than striving for Utopia. Back to normalcy, back to pragmatism and compromise and half-a-loaf … well, maybe a quarter-loaf… or even a slice… hell, maybe even a few crumbs, just so its bread.

It is fitting that Keynesian economics has come home to roost in this time of Quantitative Easing and central-banking hegemony and liquidity everywhere with not a loan to drink. “In the long run, we are all dead” was Keynes’ most famous quip. Well, we can’t live in the short run forever. The procession of short runs eventually produces a long run. And the long run is here.

It’s time to pay up. The voters have given Republicans a gift – the chance to tell the truth and turn the ship around before we reach the falls. PLR is no longer sufficient. It’s time – no, it’s long past time to start doing all the things that Williamson says Republicans can’t do and mustn’t do.

The Anti-Economics Party of the Party of Sound Economics?

 

“The American public is in many ways conservative, but in many ways it is not, and its conservatism often is not the conservatism of Milton Friedman or Phil Gramm but that of somebody who fears the national debt and dreads bureaucracy but rather likes his Social Security check.” The Republican Party’s glory days of the post-World War II period came during the Great Moderation ushered in by the Reagan Presidency, beginning in late 1980 and continuing into the present millennium. This success and victory in the Cold War were the only departures from PLR. This period of prosperity was driven by an economic policy whose positive features were disinflation, sound money, low taxes and low inflation. This is a combination that Keynesian economics finds contradictory and now repudiates utterly. Williamson repudiates it, too, hence his explicit rejection of Milton Friedman and Phil Gramm as exponents of conservatism. (Once again, his use of Friedman, a libertarian rather than a conservative, is disingenuous.) He is still living in the past, the days when we could have our conservatism and our Social Security checks, too. Sorry, we have bigger problems now than how to buy votes from our own voter base to win the next election.

For years, Republicans have been able to win occasional elections the easy way, by adopting PLR. Those days are over. From now on, the Republicans will have to earn their money as a party of limited government by actually practicing the principles they profess. That is the bad news. But the good news is that they cannot lose by doing this. The very economics that Kevin Williamson looks down on tells us that.

Economics defines “cost” as the alternative foregone. If telling the truth will cause you to lose the election, you may well decide to lie; the cost of truth-telling will seem too high. But if winning the election and losing the election are reduced to equivalence by the consequences of economic collapse, then telling the truth suddenly becomes costly no longer. Now avoiding collapse becomes the only matter of consequence and the election outcome fades into insignificance.

Ironically, that is not only sound economics; it is also supremely pragmatic.

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

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[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.