Not A Fan Of Ceilings

June 25, 2011

in Economics,Politics

I am not a fan of ceilings. Well, at home is good. Maybe in most any building.

But that’s not the kind that we have as the subject today. We’re talking about the debt ceiling of the federal government. It’s possible one or two people may not be as familiar with this issue as they think.

For instance, we are the only country in the world with a debt ceiling. Another minor point is that a debt ceiling is unConstitutional. Now, are you ready for some football . . . er, uh, facts?

Yes, Virginia, the Congress of these United States, in their infinite wisdom, made us the only country in the world subject to such a nonsensical, unnecessary and useless stricture.

It isn’t merely a matter of embarrassment. It represents a potential threat to this country, and the world, that can only be guessed at. Why would they put us in so precarious position? Why would they so jeopardize us?

The debt ceiling took years to develop. It was intended to help the United States Treasury. The original intent was laudable. Its present misuse as a political weapon is despicable.

Until the time of WW I, ‘The Big One,” Congress would authorize each specific debt that was incurred. For a couple of decades, efforts were made to provide the Treasury an easier way of dealing with debts. Those efforts were formalized into a law in 1939 that provided for a debt ceiling. No good deed goes unpunished; particularly when the good deed doer has no idea what they are doing.

Most debt is incurred by action of the Congress. However, the executive branch can cause some debt. Even the courts can subject the government to debts, intentionally or not, as the result of some rulings.

However debt may be incurred, if it is legal, the Treasury must, by mandate of the Constitution, pay that debt. The Constitution makes no allowance for failure to pay any and all legal debts.

Additionally, while the above is stated quite explicitly, the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. In 1935 the Supreme Court very clearly ruled that Congress did not have the power to cause any legally incurred debt to go unpaid. There would, otherwise, be no way to promise the “full faith and allegiance of the United States” to any obligation.

Those great patriotic worshipers of the Constitution may tell the Treasury that they can’t pay any bills once the ceiling is breached. They need to actually read the Constitution. It would help if they would also read an occasional ruling that the Supreme Court hands down.

While the above is true and easy to understand, there is a political consideration. It is very unlikely that any Secretary of the Treasury would be willing to be seen as defying Congress. It’s a sure bet that Secretary Geithner and any of his predecessors and successors see, or saw, their only option being to bow to Congress and pretend they have the final word.

Hey. We have a president who used to be a professor of Constitutional Law. Surely he’s familiar with the original part of the Constitution. Surely he read all of way down to Section 4 of the 14th Amendment. But, even though he may know better, he has no more political room for maneuver than the Secretary of the Treasury.

We are stuck under the thumbs of the super patriots who don’t understand most of the Constitution and disagree with everything they do understand.

Now, we hear that there is a certain amount beyond which the Treasury will be barred from borrowing. We are told that once the cash on hand runs out the Treasury will be barred from paying any bills or other obligations. Were that it was that straightforward.

They say that our armed forces personnel, those on Social Security and many others cannot be paid . . . but guess who can. Did you say banks? You are either absolutely brilliant or at least have a realistic perception of the way our system works.

How do they justify that? Ask them. The IRS collection personnel will continue to be paid as you and I will still be required to come up with the wherewithal to keep those bankers bonuses flowing.

Okay, you say. What’s so bad about not raising the debt ceiling? The truth is, we don’t know. I can recall nothing even close to this happening before. We have no real analog for guidance. We must depend on educated guesses.

Some of the guesswork can provide a relatively high degree of confidence. We know the level of greed that guides the majority of players. We know the inane ideology they will use to rationalize their actions. We know that fear mongering will likely set new standards. Put them all together Dr. Frankenstein.

Usually, interest on the debt is one of the largest items in the annual budget. It continues to be while significantly diminished. You may have heard that interest rates are at historic lows. That has allowed us to borrow at very low cost for the past few years. It is obviously to our government’s, and taxpayers’, benefit to extend those low interest rates as long as we can.

That makes sense, you say. Won’t we? Many in and out of Congress are determined that we pay higher rates. How could they be so unconcerned for our country’s economic well-being? Some because they are ideologues. Some for putative political advantage. Some for both reasons.

It is difficult to understand the ‘thinking’ of some politicians. They are owned by the banks. The banks love the essentially free money they can borrow now. The banks have told their representatives not to shut down the government. They likely will obey their orders but for the sake of their ideology and their ever credulous constituencies they want to push it to the brink.

The banks, our creditors and other major financial entities relying on our “full faith and allegiance” will begin to get fidgety at some point before the actual deadline. The automatic, ideologically-based response will be to raise interest rates. Our government, we the taxpayers, will lose those low interest rates ahead of the final due date.

Here we have the true believers screaming that the debt is too large. They threaten massive cuts to every program that helps the middle class and sustains the poor. Though our taxes are the lowest in more than 60 years, they bemoan such an intolerable tax burden on the top 2% and are willing to increase the debt for their benefit.

Now comes the kicker. They are willing to cause the government’s interest rates to increase incurring additional debt in the hundreds of billions. Don’t forget to send these self-described debt haters a thank you note.

Why all of the concern by the banks, China, the Saudis, the Brits and all of the other major players? Because the US Dollar is the currency of the realm. Everyone puts their “full faith and allegiance” into the Dollar. Everything in international trade is denoted in the Dollar. There is the stability required for the financial world to function because there is a common coin.

So, just replace it with the Euro. You may not have heard that several members of the European Community are experiencing even greater financial discomfort than are we. Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Portugal and others. This is putting heavy stress on the stronger national banks of the Community. There is not inconsiderable talk of some members leaving the Euro. Some even talk of abolishing it.

That doesn’t sound to me like a promising alternative. What about gold? Give me a moment. Let me stifle my paroxysm of giggling.

The Washington Monument measures 55 feet on each side at its base. It stands 555 feet high. All of the gold ever gathered by mankind in its entire history would equal about one-third of the volume of the Washington Monument. That doesn’t seem to be all that much. Use that as the basis for finances of the entire world? And that doesn’t even take into consideration how much would be needed for the egos of both the rich and poor in Rolexes and teeth.

Allow me to translate that for sports fans. The playing field for football is 300 feet long and 160 feet wide. This, of course, doesn’t include the end zones. All of the gold gathered in the history of mankind would stack up on that playing field a bit less than 11½ feet high, barely higher than the crossbars on the goalposts.

People usually fail to take into consideration how advantageous it is to have our currency accepted as the de facto world standard. When OPEC quotes prices in Dollars we have both a slight real and a psychological advantage. We are, to a degree, insulted from most of the zigs and zags of currency values. In many cases, the cost and convenience of currency exchange works to our advantage as tourists or direct buyers from other countries.

If the world holds our credit worthiness or solvency in question, the pedestal of world superpower will start to crumble at an alarming rate. Our national strength has always been intimately yoked to, indeed based on, our perceived economic dominance.

It is impossible to quantify the potential damage from shutting down the government, to us and everyone else. The loss of the standard will mean economic turmoil around the world until a new system can be developed. The present system developed in the aftermath of WW II and was possible because the rest of the world was prostrate. I don’t recommend revisiting those conditions.

The politicians, most of them, are presently playing games with this issue for some expected political advantage. It’s time to realize that it isn’t a game and hope some adults come to the fore.




Mitch July 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

This info is the cat’s pjamaas!

Ed June 27, 2011 at 12:37 pm

If (I’m not questioning that they did) in 1935 the Supreme Court very clearly ruled that Congress did not have the power to cause any legally incurred debt to go unpaid, how could Congress pass a law in 1939 doing just that? Why hasn’t anyone raised the question as to the constitutionality of that law before now?

Anyway, I agree with you that there is no reason to have a debt ceiling at all. It’s like you telling your wife that you have passed a debt ceiling for your family and no bills will be paid if that limit is exceeded. Number 1, welcome to sleeping on the couch. Number 2, you still have to pay whatever bills you and she run up or get a lousy credit rating and higher interest rates. Same goes for the U.S. of A.

I share your opinion of politicians in general, but why hasn’t somebody taken this up as a cause?

Crawford June 27, 2011 at 4:13 pm

The reason no one has taken it up is because some people in Congress have found a political weapon to wield whenever they want. No member of the executive branch ever wants to be seen as an enemy of Congress. Even those members not a player in a fight will stand up for their colleagues’ special status and perks. It’s not exactly the same but no group of congressmen will seriously challenge automatic pay raises. It’s a bizarre world. It doesn’t matter that the law is not constitutional. The membership of Congress was more cordial back in 1939 than today but generally no more intelligent. That may sound cute but I am absolutely serious. Even the occasional intelligent one must play by the rules and spend most of each day raising contributions. That is the real benefit from term limits; to allow them to spend time on business and to get people in office who have concerns larger than their egos.

The case before the Supreme Court was Perry v. United States. Even without that ruling, the Constitution speaks for itself. The Court used Section 4 of the 14th Amendment. That primarily dealt with debts not to be honored, such as for loss of the value of slaves upon their gaining freedom and any debt of the Confederacy or any debt incurred in the cause of fighting the Union. The English and French loaned the South considerable amounts. They were unable to recover that.

One person did make his opinion known. He has perfect conservative credentials. Bruce Bartlett is an economist with whom I disagree on many things, such as supply side economics. He served on Ron Paul’s staff, then Jack Kemp’s. He played a major role in writing the Kemp-Roth bill. He served Reagan in various roles, including executive director of the Joint Economic Committee. He served in the Treasury under the first Bush and was a loud opponent of the policies of the second. Alone he didn’t represent a serious threat to congressional prerogatives. Notice that none of the people he worked for and advised took up the challenge.

The primary concern of everyone in office is either to stay in office or get a bigger one. Leadership in this country has not been based on courage for quite some time. Your domestic example should be comprehensible to all married men but it can be expanded. These politicians are to Congress as we are to our wives. In our sane moments, we have no desire to pull out the bedding for the couch.

Marnie July 10, 2011 at 6:38 am

Hey, subtle must be your middle name. Great post!

Lucy July 10, 2011 at 12:17 am

Never would have thunk I would find this so idnspiensalbe.

Crawford July 10, 2011 at 1:13 am

I thought I was the only one who thought that to be the case. Many thanks.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: