The Burden of Government Debt

There has been an awful lot of discussion in recent months about whether government debt is a burden for future generations. The discussion has gone something like this: those who believe government debt is a burden claim that it is a burden because future generations have to repay taxes for present spending, those who believe that it is not claim that every debt is also credit, and so because the next generation will inherit not only the debt but also the credit, that government debt is not in itself a burden to future generations, unless it is largely owed to foreign creditors.

It is relatively easy to calculate what the monetary burden of government debt is. Credit inheritance and debt inheritance are not distributed uniformly. The credit inheritance is assumed strictly by bondholders, and the debt inheritance is assumed strictly by taxpayers. Each individual has a different burden, equalling their tax outlays, minus their income from government spending (the net tax position).

For an entire nation, everyone’s individual position is summed together. In a closed economy where the only lenders are domestic, the intergenerational monetary burden is zero. But that is by no means the entire story.

First, debts to foreign lenders are a real monetary burden, because the interest payments constitute a real transfer of money out of the nation. Second, while there may be little or no debt burden for the nation as a whole, interest constitutes a transfer of wealth between citizens of the nation, specifically as a transfer payment from future taxpayers to creditors. This adds up, at current levels, to nearly half a trillion of transfer payments per year from taxpayers to creditors. So while the intergenerational burden may technically add up to zero for the nation, it will not for individuals. The real burden is huge transfers from those who pay the tax to those who receive the spending, and those who receive the interest. So who loses out?

Here are the figures for 2009 showing net tax position for each income quintile:

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

The negative 301 percent means that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives about $3 in transfer payments for every dollar earned.

What this data does not show are the reverse transfers via interest payments. There is no data (that I can find) on treasury interest payments received by income quintile, but assuming that the top quintile dominates income from interest (as they dominate ownership of financial assets, owning over 95% of all financial assets) this leaves the lower income quintiles benefiting from transfer payments, the top quintile benefiting from interest (as well as policies like bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, and quantitative easing, whose benefits overwhelmingly benefit the top quintile), and squeezing the taxpaying middle quintiles who receive neither the benefits of interest payments, nor significant welfare transfers.

To misquote George Orwell, when it comes to the national debt and who takes its burden, some pigs are definitely more equal than others.

Spending Problem? Paul Ryan is the Spending Problem

Paul Ryan talks like a small government conservative:

Too much government inevitably leads to bad government. When government grows too much and extends beyond its limits, it usually does things poorly.

And the WSJ is pumping up Ryan as an antidote to the growth of government:

Ryan represents the GOP’s new generation of reformers. More than any other politician, the House Budget Chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline.

But Ryan himself has been responsible for a lot of that government growth. He loyally voted for all the big government programs George W. Bush ensconced into law — Medicare Part D, often described as the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the PATRIOT Act and the NDAA; the TARP bailout of Wall Street; the bailout of General Motors. So long as it was debt-fuelled spending authorised by a Republican (and during the Bush years, there was an awful lot of debt-fuelled spending authorised by Republicans) Ryan was out voting for it. 

Ryan’s voting record establishes firmly that Ryan is as much for bailouts and the expansion of government as Obama. He talks like a small government conservative on the deficit, too, but dig into the details and he promises to balance the budget on the back of closing loopholes in the tax code that he refuses to specify, while completely ignoring the severe problem of excessive total debt that is keeping the economy depressed today.

Does Ryan have an explanation for his voting record? Why did he put party loyalty above loyalty to the principles he now claims to espouse? Or did he forget his small government principles during the Bush years? Did he only discover Ayn Rand in 2008?

Ryan was forced to try and explain. Here’s the exchange between Ryan and ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour.

AMANPOUR: Congressman Ryan, you actually voted for the Wall Street bailout, and indeed the auto bailout as well.RYAN: Right. The auto bailout in order to prevent TARP from going to the auto companies, because we already put $25 billion aside in an energy bill, which I disapproved of, to go to auto companies.

What? Ryan later tried to clarify his remarks in an interview with the Daily Caller:

The president’s chief of staff made it extremely clear to me before the vote, which is either the auto companies get the money that was put in the Energy Department for them already — a bill that I voted against because I didn’t want to give them that money, which was only within the $25 billion, money that was already expended but not obligated — or the president was going to give them TARP, with no limit. That’s what they told me. That’s what the president’s chief of staff explained to me. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them to get TARP. We want to keep TARP on a leash. We don’t want to expand it. So give them that Energy Department money that at least puts them out of TARP, and is limited.’ Well, where are we now? What I feared would happen did happen. The bill failed, and now they’ve got $87 billion from TARP, money we’re not going to get back. And now TARP, as a precedent established by the Bush administration, whereby the Obama administration now has turned this thing into its latest slush fund. And so I voted for that to prevent precisely what has happened, which I feared would happen.

Ryan should take a leaf out of Mr T.’s book and quit his jibber-jabber. He voted for TARP, as well as the auto bailout, and he has no reasonable explanation beyond fierce loyalty.

Republicans had two choices — Ron Paul and Gary Johnson — who are both consistent fiscal conservatives with no record of supporting bailouts or expansions of government, and no record of supporting costly pre-emptive wars. The Republican Party rejected both candidates, and instead went with two defenders of bailouts, two expanders of government, two believers in pre-emptive war and a large, powerful security state. That decision says an awful lot about the Republican Party.

People who want to see government play a smaller role in the economy and society should look elsewhere; outside of rhetoric both of the two major tickets have a track record of increasing the size and scope of government, increasing debt levels and bailing out favoured corporations.

The National Attack Authorization Act?

We all know that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed by President Obama on New Year’s Eve contained a now-struck-down provision to authorise the indefinite detention of American citizens on US soil.

But did you know that the NDAA also paves the way for war with Iran?

From Dennis Kucinich:

Section (6) rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Section (7) urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and opposition to any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to Iranian enrichment.

This language represents a significant shift in U.S. policy and would guarantee that talks with Iran, currently scheduled for May 23, would fail. Current U.S. policy is that Iran cannot acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, H. Res. 568 draws the “redline” for military action at Iran achieving a nuclear weapons “capability,” a nebulous and undefined term that could include a civilian nuclear program. Indeed, it is likely that a negotiated deal to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and to prevent war would provide for Iranian enrichment for peaceful purposes under the framework of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty with strict safeguards and inspections. This language makes such a negotiated solution impossible.

At the same time, the language lowers the threshold for attacking Iran. Countries with nuclear weapons “capability” could include many other countries like Japan or Brazil. It is an unrealistic threshold.

The Former Chief of Staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated that this resolution “reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war.”

The notion of a “nuclear weapons capability” seems like a dangerously low standard. Let us not forget that Mossad, the CIA and the IAEA agree that Iran does not have a bomb, is not building one and has no plans to build one.

But the bill clearly spells out its intent:

SEC. 1222. UNITED STATES MILITARY PREPAREDNESS IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

Section 2 (A) pre-positioning sufficient supplies of aircraft, munitions, fuel, and other materials for both air- and sea-based missions at key forward locations in the Middle East and Indian Ocean;

(B) maintaining sufficient naval assets in the region necessary to signal United States resolve and to bolster United States capabilities to launch a sustained sea and air campaign against a range of Iranian nuclear and military targets, to protect seaborne shipping, and to deny Iranian retaliation against United States interests in the region;

(D) conducting naval fleet exercises similar to the United States Fifth Fleet’s major exercise in the region in March 2007 to demonstrate ability to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and to counter the use of anti-ship missiles and swarming high-speed boats.

As Kucinich notes:

This is an authorization for the use of military force against Iran. It ignores the warnings of both current and former U.S. top military brass who have spoken in opposition to the use of military force against Iran, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. A February 2012 poll demonstrated that less than 20% of the Israeli public supports an Israeli strike on Iran if approved by the United States. Congress must avoid the same mistakes it made in the Iraq war and reject any language that can be construed as authorizing war against Iran.

It seems like the framers of the bill are exceptionally keen on striking Iran as quickly as possible. Maybe they are receiving lots of money from defence contractors?

Unsurprisingly, the biggest Congressional recipient of donations from defence contractors was Howard “Buck” McKeon, the chairman of the armed services committee who also happens to be the sponsor of the NDAA:

The fact that Ron Paul is the number two recipient is a sign that not all defence contractors are keen to hit Iran. But some are.

Still, even though the bill hints very strongly toward it, it doesn’t mean that it is going to happen. Congressmen might be hungry for a war but the military — already overstretched — isn’t. Admiral Fallon was reportedly the force that kept Bush from hitting Iran, and it would not be surprising to see the Pentagon put up fierce opposition to a future war with Iran. It would be a long, expensive war, with the potential of massive negative side-effects, like dragging in other regional powers, disrupting global trade, and squeezing the US economy by spiking the oil price.

Judge Katherine Forrest is a Modern American Hero

Sometimes, the greatest deeds are done by those who are just doing their jobs, like Judge Katherine Forrest who last week struck down the indefinite detention provision (§1021) of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

It would be all too easy in this age of ever-encroaching authoritarianism in America for a judge ruling on a matter like this to just go with the government line and throw water over the plaintiffs. After all, telling truth to power has consequences. Forrest was appointed by Obama, but after this ruling one wonders whether she is about to meet a career dead-end. Power — especially narcissistic power — does not like being told uncomfortable truths.

Everything about this case is shameful; it should be obvious to anyone who can read the Constitution that indefinite detention without trial (just like assassination without trial — something else that Obama and his goons have no problem practicing and defending) is hideously and cruelly unconstitutional. It defecates upon both the words and the spirit of the document.

It is directly and completely in contravention to the Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

It is shameful that this law was proposed, it is shameful that any legislator would vote for it, and it is shameful that the President would sign it into law, albeit with a flimsy signing-statement claiming that he would not use the indefinite detention provision against American citizens.

More shameful still is the fact that when this challenge was brought that the Obama administration tried to dismiss it on a technicality — they tried to make the case that because none of the plaintiffs were to be indefinitely detained that they could not challenge the law. Judge Forrest’s investigation of this claim was revealing. Naomi Wolf notes:

Forrest asked repeatedly, in a variety of different ways, for the government attorneys to give her some assurance that the wording of section 1021 could not be used to arrest and detain people like the plaintiffs. Finally she asked for assurance that it could not be used to sweep up a hypothetical peaceful best-selling nonfiction writer who had written a hypothetical book criticizing US foreign policy, along lines that the Taliban might agree with. Again and again the two lawyers said directly that they could not, or would not, give her those assurances. In other words, this back-and-forth confirmed what people such as Glenn Greenwald, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the ACLU and others have been shouting about since January: the section was knowingly written in order to give the president these powers; and his lawyers were sent into that courtroom precisely to defeat the effort to challenge them. Forrest concluded: “At the hearing on this motion, the government was unwilling or unable to state that these plaintiffs would not be subject to indefinite detention under [section] 1021. Plaintiffs are therefore at risk of detention, of losing their liberty, potentially for many years.

Very simply, it is now obvious that the NDAA was written not to deal with terrorists or potential terrorists. After all, if the government has evidence that an individual or group is planning to commit a terrorist attack then they do not need an indefinite detention provision; all they need is to arrest such individuals and prove beyond reasonable doubt before a jury of their peers that a crime has been committed. That is how justice works — if the evidence exists you can bring a successful prosecution. After all if they do not have the evidence to prove that a group or individual was planning to commit an act of terrorism then they have no business arresting them or charging them with any offense. Suspects — lest we forget — are innocent until proven guilty.

These new powers have nothing to do with combatting terrorism. If the government has no evidence that can stand up in a court of law it has no business detaining anyone. No, this new power grab has an entirely different target — like the plaintiffs in this case: writers, investigative journalists, bloggers, philosophers, dissidents, human rights activists, libertarians, free-thinkers, tax protestors, critics of fractional-reserve banking, whistleblowers — people like Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Jennifer Bolen, and Birgitta Jonsdottir. People like Congressman Justin Amash and Congressman Adam Smith who tried to amend indefinite detention out of the bill. People like me — and to some degree, if you are reading this, people like you. 

The fact that the Obama administration could not give assurances about those who simply criticise U.S. foreign policy indicates very strongly that this power grab is about shutting-up and frightening critics of the U.S. government and the Obama administration.

But — for now —  §1021 of the NDAA, that implement of fascism, has been struck down and thrown out as “facially unconstitutional” as well as having a “chilling impact on First Amendment rights”.

We should be thankful for this brave judge’s actions, and for the plaintiffs’ actions in standing up to tyranny, and vigilant against future incursions.

On the other hand, every politician involved in writing, legislating and authorising this hideous unconstitutional law should be reminded of the words of the Declaration of Independence — it is the right of the people to alter or abolish any government that becomes destructive to liberty.

We’re All Nixonians Now

People have got to know whether their President is a crook

Richard M. Nixon

I often wonder who is worse: George W. Bush — the man who turned a projected trillion dollar surplus into the greatest deficits in world history, who bailed out the profligate Wall Street algos and arbitrageurs, who proceeded with two needless, pointless and absurdly costly military occupations (even though he had initially campaigned on the promise of a humble foreign policy), who ignored Michael Scheuer’s warnings about al-Qaeda previous to 9/11, who signed the Constitution-trashing PATRIOT Act  (etc etc ad infinitum) or his successor Barack Obama, the man who retained and expanded the PATRIOT Act powers under the NDAA (2011), who claimed the right to extrajudicially kill American citizens using predator drones, who expanded Bush’s expensive and pointless occupations (all the while having run on a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and reverse Bush’s civil liberties incursions), who proceeded with Paulson’s Wall Street bailouts, authorised the NSA to record all phone calls and internet activity, and continued the destructive War on Drugs (even though he had in the past been a drug user).

The answer, by the way, is Richard Nixon. For almost forty years after that man’s resignation, it is arguable that almost every single administration (with the possible exception of  Carter as well as Reagan’s first year in office) — but especially that of Bush and Obama — has been cut from his cloth. It was Richard Nixon who inaugurated the War on Drugs — that despicable policy that has empowered the drug gangs and obliterated much of Latin America. It was Richard Nixon who so brazenly corrupted the White House and tarnished the office of the Presidency through the Watergate wiretapping scandal.  It was Nixon’s administration that created the culture of government surveillance that led directly to the PATRIOT Act. It was Nixon who internationalised the fiat dollar, so trampling George Washington’s warnings about not entangling alliances, and of course setting the stage for the gradual destruction of American industry that continued apace under NAFTA and into the present day, where America runs the greatest trade deficits in human history. It was Richard Nixon who set the precedent of pointless, stupid, blowback-inducing militarism, by continuing and expanding the Vietnam war. It was Richard Nixon whose administration authorised the use of chemical weapons (or as George W. Bush might have put it, “weapons of mass destruction”) against the Vietcong.

Presidents since have followed — to a greater or lesser extent — in his mould. This is particularly acute this election cycle; you vote for Obama and you get Richard Nixon, or you vote for Romney and you get Richard Nixon. Nixon’s words: “we’re all Keynesians now” have a powerful resonance; not only has every administration since Nixon retained the petrodollar standard and spent like a drunken sailor in pursuit of Keynesian multipliers, but every President since has followed in the Nixonian tradition on civil liberties, on trade, on foreign policy. Henry Kissinger — the true architect of many Nixonian policies, and Obama’s only real competition for most bizarre Nobel Peace Prize recipient — has to some degree counselled each and every President since.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of Nixon’s actions. The demonetisation of  gold ended a 5,000 year long tradition. It was a moment of conjuring, a moment of trickery; that instead of producing the goods, and giving up her gold hoard to pay for her consumption habits (specifically, her consumption of foreign energy), America would give the finger to the world, and print money to pay her debts, while retaining her (substantial) gold hoard. The obvious result of this policy has been that America now prints more and more money, and produces less and less of her consumption. She has printed so much that $5 trillion floats around Asia, while the American industrial belt rusts. Industrial production in America is where it was ten years ago, yet America’s debt exposure has ballooned.

America has had not one but two Vietnams in the past ten years.

First, Afghanistan, in the pursuit of the elusive Osama bin Laden (or, “in the name of liberating women”, presumably via blowing their legs off in drone strikes), where young Western soldiers continue to die (for what?), even after bin Laden’s supposed death in a Pakistani compound last year.

Then, Iraq, presumably in the interests of preventing Saddam Hussein from using non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, or liberating more women by blowing their legs off (or as Tom Friedman  put it: “SUCK! ON! THIS!”).

Like Nixon’s Presidency, the Nixonian political system is highly fragile. Debt is fragility, because it enforces the inflexibility of repayment, and the Nixonian political system has created staggering debt, much of it now offshore. The Nixonian economic policy has gutted American industry, leaving America uncompetitive and dependent on foreign productivity and resources. The Nixonian foreign policy has created a world that is deeply antipathetic to America and American interests, which has meant that America has become less and less capable of achieving imperatives via diplomacy.

Future historians may finger George W. Bush as the worst President in history, and the one who broke the American empire. But smarter scholars will pinpoint Nixon. True, the seeds of destruction were sown much earlier with the institution of permanent limited liability corporations. This allowed for the evolution of a permanent corporate aristocracy which eventually bought out the political echelon, and turned the Federal government into an instrument of crony capitalism, military Keynesianism and corporate welfare. Nixonianism has been the corporate aristocracy’s crowning achievement. And to some extent, this period of free lunch economics was a banquet, even for middle class Americans. The masses were kept fat and happy. But now the game is up — like Nixon’s Presidency — its days are numbered.

This Looks Like a Bubble

 

But they can’t even cleanly win Iraq or Afghanistan? Clearly, there is more to military success than spending alone. Not overcommitting would seem to be one aspect.

There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.

Sun Tzu

Yeah.

Further Reading:

The Uniting States of Eurasia
The Decline and Fall of the American Empire
The Changing World
Romneythink

The Great Treasury Dumping Game Continues

A few months ago I wrote:

A couple months ago, I hypothesises about the possibility foreign treasury dumping:

It is becoming clearer and clearer that America cannot and will not produce a coherent economic strategy. China seems to be beginning to offload not only its Treasury balance, but also its dollar pile.

Then I noted some of the prospective dangers:

Now we get the news that creditors are currently engaged in a huge Treasury liquidation.

A new post from Zero Hedge establishes that Russia is joining the Treasury-dumping party:

  • IMF’S LAGARDE SAYS EUROPE DEBT CRISIS `ESCALATING’
  • IMF’S LAGARDE: CRISIS REQUIRES ACTION BY COUNTRIES OUTSIDE EU

Well, we know the UK is now out, courtesy of idiotic statements such as this one by Christina Noyer. So who will step up? Why Russia it seems.

  • RUSSIA CONSIDERS PROVIDING UP TO $20B TO IMF, DVORKOVICH SAYS

Why’s that? Because like China (more on that in an upcoming post), Russia just dumped US bonds for the 12th straight month and instead both Russia and China are now focusing on making Europe their vassal state. So now we know where the money is coming from – sales of US debt of course!

Source: TIC

Is the US quietly becoming increasingly isolated in global affairs?

The question as to whether the US is becoming increasingly isolated is completely spurious; the United States isolated herself politically way back when in 1971 she took itself off the gold standard, and decided that she could get a free lunch at others’ expense from printing money.

The key thesis I have advanced seems to be hotting up:

What would a treasury crash look like? Most likely, it would be dictated by supply — the greater the supply of treasuries coming onto the market, the more there are for buyers to buy, the lower prices will be forced before new buyers come onto the market. Specifically, a treasury crash would most likely begin with a big seller dumping significant quantities of treasuries bonds onto the open market. I would expect such an event to be triggered bylower yields— most significant would be the 30-year, because it still has a high enough yield to retain purchasing power (i.e. a positive real rate). Operation Twist, of course, was designed to flatten the yield curve, which will probably push the 30-year closer to a negative real return.

A large sovereign treasury dumper (i.e. China with its $1+ trillion of treasury holdings) throwing a significant portion of these onto the open market would very quickly outpace the dogmatic institutional buyers, and force a small spike in rates (i.e. a drop in price). The small recent spike actually corresponds to this kind of activity. The difference between a small spike in yields and one large enough to make the (hugely dogmatic) market panic enough to cause a treasury crash is the pace and scope of liquidation.

Now, no sovereign seller in their right mind would fail to pace their liquidation just slowly enough to keep the market warm. After all, they want to get the most for their assets as they can, and panicking the market would mean a lower price.

But there are two (or three) foreseeable scenarios that would raise the pace to a level sufficient to panic the markets:

  1. China desperately needs to raise dollars to bail out its real estate market and paper over the cracks of its credit bubbles, and so goes into full-on liquidation mode.
  2. China retaliates to an increasingly-hostile American trade policy and — alongside other hostile foreign creditors (Russia in particular) — organise a mass bond liquidation to “teach America a lesson”
  3. Both of the above.