Denial is not a river in Egypt, but it does water the root of America’s economic trouble

Please read this column.  Loren Steffy, the excellent business columnist at Houston’s Leading Information Source, makes a point that he and others have been making for a long time, but he does it today in such a clear and simple and straightforward manner that this truth must now be self-evident after any honest appraisal of the economic facts as they are recognized here in the reality-based community.

We know that increasing spending faster than revenue is unsustainable.  We know that fixing our problems will require both cutting spending significantly and increasing revenue.

We just don’t want to do it.

We haven’t even wanted to think about it for generations.  We elected representatives who promised programs that benefitted us; incumbents campaigned on a record of “bringing home the bacon” and we rewarded them with re-election; we treated the federal treasury as an ATM machine with no limits on withdrawals; and any candidates who spoke honestly of a need to raise revenue to meet government obligations were thrashed.  When the rising tide of the tech revolution lifted all boats and left the government with an actual surplus, we thought we were crapping platinum.  Our aversion to reality was so strong that rather than raise taxes to pay for two simultaneous wars we chose to trust that all would be well since we were on the side of the angels.

All those expenditures through all those years, without enough real money in the bank to pay the bill, added up: more than $14.5 trillion and counting.  As Steffy says, it doesn’t matter now whether President Obama lacks leadership or Congress lacks backbone or Standard & Poor’s bears some of the blame for the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession that led to the bailouts which contributed to the debt:

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that S&P’s analysis rings painfully true.  We can blame whomever we want, but it’s a couple of decades past time to do something about it.

The leaders of the House and Senate are announcing their selections for the deficit reduction committee called for in the debt ceiling deal; that’s where the work has to start, now.  Let’s please pull our heads out of ___ _____ (you fill in the blanks) and find a solution to our problem.

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Upon further review, we’ve determined that the deal isn’t really much of a deal

Well, everything turned out just swell after all the drama over the debt ceiling debate, didn’t it?  I mean, so long as you don’t mind that:

–the sorry spectacle of the political fight led one rating agency to drop America’s debt rating a notch below AAA anyway: it doesn’t doubt that the U.S. can pay its debts, but feels the political stalemate raised questions about the government’s willingness to pay its debts, and so lowered the rating as a warning to investors;

–the deal doesn’t actually reduce the nation’s debt, it just lowers the rate at which it is rising; and

–taking the nation’s financial health hostage in a political negotiation was shown to be an effective tactic, so we can expect to see it used again in the future.

Among the lessons learned:

–the deal assumes the elimination of the so-called Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012, meaning Republicans gave up the very thing they fought so hard for a year ago.

Plucking flaccid compromise from obstinacy should not be mistaken for victory, just as the smell emanating from Washington after this deal shouldn’t be mistaken for success.

82% of Americans are unhappy (disgusted?) with the performance of Congress on the debt issue, nearly half are unhappy with the president’s handling of the situation, and 40% view the Tea Party unfavorably.

More than four out of five people surveyed said that the recent debt-ceiling debate was more about gaining political advantage than about doing what is best for the country. Nearly three-quarters said that the debate had harmed the image of the United States in the world.

–the political system in Washington, D.C. is becoming more and more unproductive, and may not be able to help us with anything.

The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed. It has been astonishing to watch Obama’s sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there’s no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.

More real fun is going to come later in the year when a new federal fiscal commission tries to come up with a plan to solve the federal government’s money problems.  If it’s anything like the most recent such commissions, it will find that cutting the budget just can’t produce enough savings to right the ship and it will also look for equitable ways to increase revenue.  It could start by checking this week’s local paper: Ezra Klein outlines a plan for Democrats to boost revenue by negotiating like Republicans, and Charles Krauthammer offers a very rational outline for reforming and simplifying taxes so our representatives in Washington could have a fresh starting point on the coming negotiations on tax rates and entitlement reforms…and they are coming.

A tour de farce plays on!

Step by step, inch by inch, the passionless play proceeds: the House speaker proposes a new combination budget-cutting and debt ceiling-raising plan, then stands back when independent analysis shows it won’t generate the savings he promised, before the Congressional Budget Office gives good grades to the Senate majority leader’s plan (which saves little more than the speaker’s proposal).  Democrats are offering more than anyone would have expected, while some Republicans are revolting against their leadership for even thinking about going along with them, for not demanding more and more.  Who will be standing when the music stops next?

While I still expect that sanity will prevail and an agreement will be reached to prevent a crisis, nobody in Washington is doing anything about anything else and we look like a bunch of doofuses to the rest of the world as our nation moves closer to default.  So what, you ask—what the hell happens to you and me if they don’t raise the debt ceiling?

Q: Won’t refusing to raise the debt limit cut the deficit?

A. No.

Q: Do you mean that Congress can pass a budget that requires borrowing, and then argue later about whether to approve that borrowing?

A. That’s right.

Q. So, what happens to government spending if the debt limit is not raised? Will the United States default?

A. The United States will not have enough money to pay all of its bills… The possibilities range from “prioritizing” some payments and paying them first to paying bills in the order in which they were received.

The Bipartisan Policy Center analysis notes that if the government were to choose to pay the interest on its debt, Social Security benefits, Medicaid and Medicare payments, defense contractors and unemployment benefits, it could not have enough left to pay for the salaries of federal workers and members of the military, Pell grants for college, highway construction or tax refunds, among other things.

It doesn’t stop there: a default means some combination of government bondholders don’t get paid, government contractors and vendors don’t get paid, government employees don’t get paid, government benefits recipients don’t get paid, and people who don’t get paid have less money to spend so the economy slows down; government creditors demand higher interest rates on future loans and that leads to higher interest rates for we consumers on credit cards and mortgages; cities and states don’t get federal program payments and their own cash flow problems become worse.  Just the threat of default is starting to make the markets nervous.

Our country’s government spends way more than it takes in, and that needs to be corrected.  But as hard as it seems right now to make the choices that will lead to a stronger economy in the long term—and this isn’t going to be all fixed in your first six months in Washington, Mr. and Mrs. first-term Congressmember—it will only be harder if all the problems caused by a default are dumped on top of the ones we already face.  And even if there’s no default, the political playacting that both parties are consumed with right now may make financial markets skittish enough about the future that the credit rating of our country’s debt might be lowered anyway, leading to higher interest rates, etc., etc.

I’ve said this before: first, Congress needs to live up to its responsibility to prevent this totally preventable problem of potential default, then it and the administration can turn full focus on the screwed up federal budget mess that threatens our long-term financial health and security.  By the way, there’s a special tactical unit now on its way to the Capitol to help with that.

Places, please, for the big finish!