FEAR AND LOATHING IN AMERICA
The Bogus Shutdown/Debt Crisis
by Jim Greenfield 10/24/13
“The crisis isn’t failing to raise the debt ceiling; the crisis is the debt.” Peter Schiff
“The majority is almost always wrong.” Henrik Ibsen
I’ve been studying public policy and politics for 50 years. Never have I seen such an onslaught of misinformation, disinformation, confusion, and sheer ignorance as the coverage of the recent government shutdown/debt ceiling debacle. If the public is confused, which, according to opinion polls, the public surely is, it is because a cabal of journalists, pundits, and politicians have done everything possible to make them confused. I’m not shocked by demagoguery by politicians, nor by bias in the media. What was unusual was the extraordinary amplification by the media of manipulative messages of particular politicians to create public hysteria, that was so beneficial to one political faction while so damaging to the other.
It’s human nature to panic over imaginary threats, while remaining oblivious to real threats. Remember the existential danger believed to be posed to civilization in 1999 by Y2K? Remember Y2K? Imaginary threat. Or, on the other hand, the real threat posed by Hitler in the 1930’s as he was building the greatest war machine in history and, other than Winston Churchill, nobody noticed.
Myth #1. Who was to “blame” for the government “shutdown?”
Throughout the shutdown fiasco, the media obsessed on the question who was to “blame,” and conveniently provided a simple answer: the Republicans. But the question contains two false premises. First, the assumption that shutting the government is a negative for which someone ought to be blamed. Second, the factually incorrect premise that the government was shut down. The government was not shut down; it continued to function throughout this manufactured crisis. Soldiers continued fighting. The IRS continued collecting taxes. The NSA continued spying and gathering data on us all. The government continued giving out money with abandon to everyone to whom the government routinely gives out money with abandon.
A few functions of government were shut down, functions handpicked by the Obama administration to inflict the maximum pain on the maximum number of people, a slight perversion of the old utilitarian maxim about pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number. Obama’s shut-down targets were optically selected to get the most bang for the shut-down buck – the Washington Monument, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon, to name a few. Shutting down the Grand Canyon required a really big canopy.
“Essential” government personnel continued to work. “Non-essential” personnel were given paid holidays. Astonishingly, some furloughed government workers managed to “double-dip” by wangling unemployment benefits on top of the pay they received retroactively for not working. Not a bad deal.
The Obama administration coldly decided that the people in charge of keeping parks and monuments open were non-essential, but the people in charge of closing them were essential. Threatening the citizenry with arrest to keep the parks closed is rotten work, but somebody has to do it. This strategy was manifestly chosen in order, with the complicity of the mainstream media, to convey the compelling message that Republicans are dirty, rotten, scoundrels. Never mind that the House Republicans had passed several bills to fund not only the parks and monuments, but all other government functions except Obamacare. It was the Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, who blocked this legislation. These inconvenient facts were not permitted to interfere with the Democratic party/media narrative that it was right wing Republican extremists (i.e those who, like the majority of Americans, oppose Obamacare) who had shut down the government.
This false reporting exacerbated ambivalence and confusion in public attitudes toward government. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 64% of Americans say big government is the biggest threat to the country. If the public is worried about big government, why were they also worried by a reduction in peripheral government functions? These conflicting attitudes are self-contradictory. If the public doesn’t like big government, why wasn’t the debate about who gets the credit for shutting down the government instead of who gets the blame? Why did the public see the modest shutdown in non-essential functions as a crisis? Answer: because the media told them it was a crisis. And if it was the Democrats who refused to vote on measures to keep the government open, why did the public think it was Republicans? Answer: because the media told them it was Republicans.
Myth #2. The government shutdown harmed Americans and caused severe damage to the economy.
President Obama said that the shutdown and threat of national default had inflicted “completely unnecessary damage on our economy.” It’s an article of faith among liberal governmentalists that reducing government spending damages the economy. In one sense, they are correct, but only because of the peculiar way gross domestic product (gdp) is measured. In accord with the dictates of Keynesian ideology, the official definition is: GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports −imports). In other words, the definition of gdp includes government spending. Hence, any reduction in government spending, by definition, reduces gdp. This is putting the rabbit in the hat. Any government can create the illusion of economic growth by simply printing money and spending it, and many, including Barack Obama, have done just that. In the short run, such “stimulative” policies appear to increase gdp. In the long run they are disastrous because they conflate growing government bureaucracy with real economic expansion. Real wealth is created by the private sector making stuff, not by government bureaucrats handing out cash to favored constituents. The historical record shows that reduced government activity is a long term economic boon.
Remember also that just last year the Obamanistas made the same scare-tactic argument that the sequester budget cuts would cause untold damage to the economy. But the horrors Obama and his supporters gloomily prophesied would result from the sequester never materialized. The same arguments and scare-tactic forecasts were also made when the government was shut down in 1995, during a similar confrontation between the Republican-controlled House, and the Clinton Administration. In fact, the 1995 shutdown, and budget trimming measures that followed, produced four straight years of balanced budgets and an economic boom that lasted five years.
Myth #3. By refusing to raise the debt ceiling the Republicans would cause the U.S. government to default on its debt and create a world-wide financial crisis.
Let me break this down. The word “default” has been even more misused and abused than the word “literally,” which, in recent years, “educated” people in the media have been using to mean the exact opposite of what the word actually means. Recent example from Fox Business channel: “These policies will cause the economy to literally flush down the toilet!” For those who don’t know what the word “literally” means, let me put your mind at ease. It’s not possible for the economy to literally flush down the toilet because the toilet isn’t big enough for that to happen.
Innumerable Democratic party politicians, reporters, and media commentators repeated over and over and over again that if the Republicans didn’t vote to increase the debt ceiling, the United States government, for the first time in history, would “default” on its debt. This assertion is a prevarication and a lie! It’s the biggest and most frequently repeated lie since many of the same people were telling us in the last decade that George Bush’s tax cuts were only for the rich. Like the lie about the Bush tax cuts, the “default” lie was repeated so often that most Americans came to believe it.
This “crisis” was manufactured to create fear and dread in the populace for the purpose of driving a particular agenda. Even the President of the United States himself did his best to talk down the economy and spook financial markets. I’ve never before seen a President engage in such tactics, laying the foundation to blame Republicans for the ongoing failure of his economic policies.
So what are the facts that refute the “default” lie? The Democrats and the media conflated not raising the debt ceiling with defaulting on the debt. These are two completely different things. If Republicans had followed through on the threat to not raise the debt ceiling, would that have meant that the government would default, i.e. not pay interest on its debt? No. All it would have meant is that the government could not go even deeper into debt.
By way of analogy, suppose you are $200,000 in debt, and you want to get a loan to go even deeper into debt. The bank says your wife has to co-sign, but your wife, wisely, refuses to “raise your debt limit.” Does that mean you default on your existing debt? No. You can continue to make payments on your existing debt out of your income. In fact, by refusing to co-sign, your wife actually reduces the risk that you’ll default by restraining you from going deeper into debt.
Similarly, if the Republicans in Congress had stuck to their guns and refused to raise the debt ceiling, it would not have caused a default on U.S. government debt. To the contrary, it would have produced an instant balanced budget that would have prevented the President from leading the United States even deeper into debt.
But Democratic politicians, including the President, and many in the media, either through ignorance or malfeasance, told the public that if the Republicans didn’t vote to raise the debt ceiling the U.S. government would default on its debt. As shown by opinion polls, the public believed this patent nonsense. Those who made this argument are ignorant of the simple arithmetic. Here are the numbers. The United States government takes in approximately $3 trillion a year in tax revenues. It spends approximately $235 billion a year on interest on the national debt. In other words, only 1/12th of government revenue is spent paying interest on the debt. So even without raising the debt ceiling, there is virtually zero chance that the government would default on its debt.
Now it’s true that the government would have had to cut spending if the Republicans had refused to raise the debt ceiling. They would have had to cut about $700 billion from the $3.7 trillion budget, i.e. a reduction of about 19 percent.
Who would have decided which spending to cut? President Obama. Would President Obama have chosen to cut spending by defaulting on the debt of the United States? Unlikely. If he had made such a choice, it truly would have created a world-wide economic crisis. But not even Barack Obama would have done anything so reckless and destructive. And if he had, Alexander Hamilton would surely have risen from his grave, and demanded that the President pay the debts of the United States.
To extend the above analogy, suppose, after your wife refuses to increase your debt limit, you have to choose how to spend your limited income. If you choose going to fancy restaurants over paying your mortgage, you’ll default. If you choose to pay the mortgage, you have less money for restaurants, but this isn’t a default. Similarly, if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, the president has to choose what expenditures to cut. Only if he’s a total douche bag would he choose to default on the nation’s debt.
The real risk that the government might have defaulted can be handicapped by looking at prices on short term government bonds during the crisis. According to a report on NPR, the price of $1,000 treasury bonds that came due just after October 17, the deadline for raising the debt ceiling was discounted by only a few cents. This tiny discount demonstrates that bond investors, the most savvy financial experts, were not spooked by the political turmoil; they knew the government would never default on its debt.
Despite the best efforts of Obama and his loyal followers in the press, bond and stock investors never panicked during this fabricated crisis. Now on to the next crisis. Let’s see how the Democrats and media figure out a way to blame the looming Obamacare catastrophe on the Republicans. As long as it’s called “Obamacare” this could prove difficult. Maybe they should rename it “Cruzcare.”