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Archive for February 6th, 2016

Whenever there’s a fight over raising the debt limit, the political establishment gets hysterical and makes apocalyptic claims about default and economic crisis.

For years, I’ve been arguing that this Chicken-Little rhetoric is absurd. And earlier this week I testified about this issue before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee.

By the way, when I first showed up, my placard identified me as Ms. Mitchell.

Since I work at a libertarian think tank, I reckon nobody would object if I wanted to change my identity. But since I’m the boring rather than adventurous kind of libertarian, I guess it’s good that I wound up being Dr. Mitchell.

More important, here’s some elaboration and background links to some of the information from my testimony.

America’s long-run fiscal problem isn’t debt. That’s just a symptom. The real challenge is a rising burden of government spending, largely because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Measured as a share of economic output, the tax burden already is above historical levels. Moreover, taxes are projected to rise even further, so there is zero plausible evidence for the notion that America’s future fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate tax revenue.

International bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD show America in worse long-run shape than Europe, but the U.S. is actually in a better position since a spending cap easily would prevent the compounding levels of debt that are driving the terrible long-run outlook in the United States.

It’s good to have debt limit fights today if such battles enhance the possibility of averting a future Greek-style economic calamity.

Arguments against using the debt limit as an action-forcing event usually are based on the bizarre claim that an inability to borrow more money would cause a default and wreck the “full faith and credit” of the United States. Nonsense. Treasury would be able to avoid default in the absence of a higher debt limit for the simple reason that tax receipts are far greater than what’s needed to pay interest on the debt.

This last point is worth some extra attention. I’ve been arguing for years that debt limit fights are harmless since there’s no risk of default. I even explained to the Senate Budget Committee a few years ago that it would be easy for the Treasury Department to “prioritize” payments to ensure that bondholders would never be adversely impacted.

The Obama Administration routinely denied that it was sufficiently competent to engage in “prioritization” and even enlisted the then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to dishonestly fan the flames of economic uncertainty.

Well, thanks to the good work of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, we now have a report outlining how the White House was prevaricating. Simply stated, of course there were and are contingency plans to prioritize in the event of a standoff on the debt limit.

By the way, I didn’t get the chance to mention it in my oral testimony, but my full written testimony addressed the silly assertion that any delay in a government payment is somehow a “default.”

I will close by noting the utterly disingenuous Administration tactic of trying to…make it seem as if delaying payments of things like crop subsidies and Medicaid reimbursements is somehow equivalent to default on interest payments.

One final point. Let’s imagine that we’re four years in the future and political events somehow have given us a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. Don’t be surprised if the political parties then reverse their positions and the GOPers argue for “clean” debt limits and make silly claims about default and Democrats argue the opposite.

That’s why I’m glad I’m at the Cato Institute. I can simply tell the truth without worrying about partisanship.

P.S. Here are some jokes about the debt limit, and you can find some additional humor on the topic here and here.

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