Archive for July 10th, 2011

Debt Ceiling Maddness?

I’ve not been following the negotiations on raising the debt ceiling very closely.  Besides being on vacation and teaching two on line courses, I am simply assuming that they will find a way to raise the debt ceiling.  My thinking is similar to why I had little fear of nuclear war during the Cold War — the leaders are not so dumb and irrational as to do something that would guarantee a catastrophe.

Moreover the tidbits I have been hearing — that Boehner and Obama are developing a good working relationship, and that a deal is all but done (and if a big deal falls through the fall back is a small deal) — suggest that they are on course to making a deal and raising the debt ceiling in time to avoid default.   But what if I’m wrong?

The worst case scenario is US default and a global unloading of US treasury bonds and currency.   The dollar’s value would collapse and the resulting chaos would spiral into a deep global depression, making the last three years seem like a minor pre-catastrophe bump.      This could be remembered as an irrational self-inflicted wound that would mark the end of US economic and political dominance in global affairs.  But would that really happen?   There are a number of scenarios.

The 14th amendment solution:  Section four of the 14th amendment reads in part: ” The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”   One could interpret that to mean that the US cannot default, and the President could unilaterally raise the debt ceiling.   The Republicans have had a hostile response to this possibility, noting even that it could be an impeachable offense, threatening to go to court if President Obama tried it.   That might avoid economic collapse, but would cause a constitutional crisis with unforeseen political ramifications going into 2012.   Even if President Obama were to do that and it were upheld by the Supreme Court, the result would be a loss of power to Congress and even more power in the Executive branch.   This isn’t likely to happen, but would be extremely interesting to watch if it did!

Prioritization:   The Executive branch could also avoid default by paying interest on current debt and then prioritize the rest of the spending based on what the Treasury department deems most important.   If military spending and important programs like social security continue to get funded, there would be little money left to run the rest of the government.  This would mean something akin to a government shutdown — though theoretically the Executive branch could prioritize in a way that would punish Republicans.   This may be the most likely course of action in the cause of not raising the debt ceiling, with the prioritization both real and political — designed to maximize pressure on the Republicans.

Short term default:  Republicans and Democrats could play a game of chicken, each thinking they can wait to the last minute to get the best deal.   They may even think a symbolic one or two day “default” will cause minimal damage.  That would be a very dangerous game.  First, if there isn’t a clear deal in sight by late July, interest rates will start raising on speculation, and once that happens even a timely agreement might not stop an unraveling of the dollar.  That’s why most people think the sooner this is passed, the better.   Moreover, such thinking could be a path to a longer term crisis, should each side push the envelop and believe they can’t back down without gaining something significant.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to taxes.   Most Republican insiders are willing to see tax rates on the wealthiest go up slightly, especially for a short term, and the closing of loopholes also gains support.  However, the Republican base sees any tax increase as a defeat, claiming it will harm the economy.   (Reality check:  spending cuts do more harm to the economy than tax increases since in each case money is taken out of circulation, but government spending is mostly domestic while tax savings go towards consuming foreign made goods or paying down private debt).   The Democrats understand spending cuts are necessary, and deep down recognize that entitlement reform is the only way to get long term traction in reducing debt.

A “grand compromise” would see Democrats make concessions on entitlements, perhaps raising the social security retirement age, while Republicans would accept tax increases on the wealthy.   Each would risk the ire of their base, but they could claim they did what is best for the US.   It appears Boehner and Obama were heading towards such a deal, but the Republican base reacted vehemently against the idea of any tax cuts.   Boehner then retreated on the idea of signing off on tax increases, meaning that the Democrats now offer a smaller array of spending cuts, with entitlements fully protected.  The bases of each party will be satisfied, both sides hope, even though the deal will be smaller and less profound than either side claimed to want.

The Republicans will risk having it said that Obama just made symbolic cuts and they should have been willing to refuse to raise the debt ceiling to force deeper concessions.  Democrats will complain that tax cuts should have been part of the deal, and that Obama was too willing to give in to the Republicans just to get a deal.  “He’s not confrontational enough,” they’ll complain.   After all, leading Republicans know the danger of not raising the debt ceiling, ultimately they would have likely backed down.   Still, such a compromise would be the best way to make sure irrationality doesn’t become policy and we risk economic meltdown.

If the small deal is made, the Democrats might benefit most politically.   That will make “taxes on the wealthy” a big 2012 issue, and the Democrats can probably make a reasonable case that this isn’t “class warfare” but asking those who have done very well to pay their share turning around our deficit.   Moreover, by not accepting entitlement reform, the Democrats can make that an issue in 2012.   That may mean they’ll make promises they can’t keep — I expect entitlement reform will come — but thats a concern for 2014 or  beyond.

Right now most of the country isn’t paying attention, and that gives the political junkies a louder voice.   Immigration reform had much more support than it appeared in 2007 when the GOP base turned out to kill it.   That is the danger — will the leaders refuse to lead, bringing our country into a needless economic crisis at a time we can ill afford more risk?    I can’t imagine that a deal won’t be reached, the stakes are too high and the insiders know it.  They just need to come up with the appropriate political theater to avoid a backlash from their respective constituencies.


On to New Hampshire!

Opting for comfort, we rented a tiny cabin at Eastern Slopes Campsites in Conway, New Hampshire

Sorry for disappearing for a week.   We were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and though the campground was Wifi, I found no time to blog.   For those who have not yet visited New Hampshire, it’s a worthwhile destination (even if you’re not running for President).    We spent seven nights in Eastern Slopes Campsites in a nice little cabin, which had the added attraction of giving the boys a chance to sleep in the loft.  I was a little afraid that Dana (5) might fall down the steep steps if he woke up in the middle of the night to pee, but though he did get a bump on the head falling off his bike, he handled the loft just fine.

It was small, but nice -- under the loft a kitchenette, bathroom and sink, then in the "main" area a bed and a nice front porch.

Of course, the cabin was only for sleeping, and occasionally resting between activities (though the kids loved both the store and the camp swimming pool and kept begging to spend more time there).    Perhaps the most fun was the zipline on Wild Cat Mountain.   The zipline is like taking a long slide — except you’re suspended by a wire and zoom down at about 45 MPH from a point part way up the mountain to the base.   It’s not as much of a rush as I’d hoped for, but still fun!   We also headed to the top of Wild Cat mountain on a gondola for some nice mountain hiking.

A top Wild Cat Mountain, we had a good "top of the world" hike!

For the kids we did Storyland and Whales Tales (the latter a water park).   Ryan at 8 is already growing out of Storyland.  It was OK, but not worth the $114 we plopped down.   Whales Tales ($128 for four) was.   We spent all day Friday at the water park, despite cool morning temperatures and a threat of rain.  That kept the crowds down and it was a blast going down the water slides, either just sliding or with a tube, depending on the ride.    The water was cold but once you got used to it, it was great.   I was also surprised to see a young Halle Berry working there (at least she looked like a 17 year old version of the star).

On top of the world at Mt. Cannon

Ryan and I hit every water ride, and it was great zooming down the long slides, or twisting along on the inner tubes.  Personally I like the nature stuff better than the expensive “family fun” stuff, but the variety of pools, rides, and activities at Whales Tale made it a fantastic day.  The rain stayed away too!

Don't slip and fall in the rapids -- Diana's baths near Conway have amazing falls and rapids, with swimmers and waders meandering up and down stream

We also went to the Plume Gorge, the Cannon Mt. tramway, Diana’s baths (a great rocky area with falls and rapids, stretching out for hundreds of yards, climbing the mountain), Echo Lake, the independence day parade in Lincoln NH, and an OK train ride on the Hobo rail.   The one disappointment was July 4th, when the Conway fireworks, scheduled for 9:45, didn’t start until 11:00.   With tired kids we gave up at 10:20, and let them do some sparklers back at the campsite.   Still, it was fun.

Family vacations in the early 21st century are interesting.   Everything costs money, it seems, and marketing/billboards are ubiquitous.   As much as I want to rebel against that marketing of family fun, I have to admit the water park was awesome, and the zip line was fun.  Still, I think the natural (and inexpensive — $3 state park daily fee) fun of Diana’s baths, Glen’s falls, and enjoying the beauty of the White Mountains is the real draw.    Lincoln’s parade on the 4th was typical New England — nothing fancy, just locals out showing their colors and throwing candy at the kids on the side of the road.

The perfect roasted marshmellow (if you like having them catch fire)

So it was a nice change of pace, even though I had to keep up with my on line classes while there (and given the times, it should be no surprise that Eastern Slopes Camp Sites have free wifi — I could connect and sit in the screen porch after the kids were in bed and read papers and comment on discussion board).   But now I have a weekend of catching up to do, and it’s back to reality!