Why Congress should vote no on raising the debt ceiling
By Christopher Whalen
The opinions expressed are his own.
“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”
–Karl Marx – Friedrich Engels
The Communist Manifesto
There is a specter haunting the industrial nations, too — the specter of debt default and deflation. All of the powers of the post-WWII regime of neo-Keynesian economic management have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Fed Chairman Bernanke, European Central Bank Head Jean-Claude Trichet, Democrats in the American Congress and the German centrist tendency under Angela Merkel.
All of these champions of the status quo ante are, ironically enough, serving as agents for the bond holders of the largest US and EU banks, the clients of PIMCO, Black Rock and even my friend David Kotok at Cumberland Advisors. These agents of the global creditor class are betting on the likes of Bernanke, Trichet and Merkel to collect their debts for them like so many China gunboats — and thereby plunge hundreds of millions of people into penury for decades to come.
It is no small irony that the interests of the banks and bond holders in the US are being protected by a Democrat from Chicago named Barack Obama. Far from being a leftist, Obama is a global technocrat who turned out to be the most perfectly compliant stooge for the interests of the large banks and institutional investors. With Timothy Geithner at Treasury and former JPMorgan banker William Daley at the White House, the only decision Obama needs to make every day is what shirt to wear.
On Capitol Hill, however, the long slumbering Republicans are starting to discover the political power of fiscal sobriety. In the negotiations with the White House over the budget for fiscal 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) managed to win some significant concessions from the White House on spending issues — even if entitlements and military spending were off the table this time around. The next and more important fight comes over the question of raising the US debt ceiling. Once again, President Obama is not even in the game.
Secretary Geithner and his boss, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon, have made clear their distaste for a fight over extending the debt ceiling, in part because a debt default by the US would end the pretense of “too big to fail.” If Washington is willing to contemplate a default by the US Treasury, who cares about the fortress balance sheet of JP Morgan and other US zombie banks? But for a number of reasons, democratically elected governments from Lisbon to Dublin to Washington need to begin the process of financial restructuring whether the banks like it or not. And all of the political servants of the banksters are doing their best to avoid debt write downs.
In Ireland, for example, the new government of Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny is in a struggle with Trichet and his vile contemporaries at the ECB. The Euro central bank is essentially trying to keep together an under-funded bailout of the continent’s corporate and bank debts at the expense of public taxpayers. So muted is the political discourse in Western Europe that people are barely protesting — at least not yet. But offering Ireland the choice of default or decades of deflation and unemployment to repay its foreign obligations at par is untenable and risks comparisons with the German war reparations after WWI.
The Kenny government should reject the self-serving advice of the German-dominated ECB as well as the technocrats inside Ireland’s finance ministry, and tell Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy to try harder. Specifically, if the ECB and the core nations of the EU are not willing to offer Ireland more generous terms to bail out the private debts of EU banks, then the Kenny government should take the example of the people of Iceland and tell the technocrats in Brussels an emphatic “no” to bailing in the Irish bank debt at public expense.
Frankly, if you weigh the trade off between the immediate cash flow benefit to Ireland of walking away from its foreign debt and being cut off from the global capital markets, as Trichet has threatened to Kenny, a default seems the obvious choice. And with Portugal and other “peripheral” states of the EU tottering, the Kenny government has more leverage than it knows. Putting a gun to the head of Trichet right about now and daring him to blink might prove a very satisfying experience for any Irish officials with the guts to play the hand God has dealt to them.
In Washington as well, some Republicans are starting to appreciate that saying no to more debt and devaluation a la the Paul Krugman school of economic mismanagement is good politics. It is wrong to call Krugman and his ilk “Keynesians.” Lord Keynes was neither an apologist for debt or inflation, nor was he a free trader. He valued strong national industry and financial markets that were only supplemented by global capital and trade flows. What would Keynes tell Ireland today?
For the same reasons that the Kenny government needs to impose haircuts on Ireland’s creditors, the US Congress needs to vote no on the debt ceiling increase as part of a larger shift in thinking on debt and spending in Congress. Just as the people of Iceland have done the right thing by saying no to repaying corporate debts of UK and Dutch banks (all of which are now nationalized naturally), Americans need to take a page from the history books and begin the actual process of default on all manner of debt and entitlements obligations.
The only way we can force our citizens and also our trading partners to talk about the economic issues that are driving America’s growing mountain of debt is to stop adding to the pile. The role of the dollar as the primary means of exchange for global commerce and finance are the twin evils at the heart of the US fiscal disease. The role of the dollar as the world’s “reserve currency” is likewise a terrible millstone around the necks of American workers.
Saying “no” on raising the debt ceiling is the way for deficit hawks in Congress in both parties to seize the fiscal agenda and start a long overdue conversation about America’s place in the world. As I wrote in my book, Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream, this discussion must include an end to the dollar as the primary global means of exchange. When the dollar ceases to be the global currency, then the Fed can no longer monetize deficits with impunity as today.
One way of forcing this adjustment process is to start imposing losses on holders of dollar debt. Painful as it will be, helping the world to readjust the level of debt in the industrial nations back to realistic levels and rebalance the global currency markets into a peer-to-peer framework is a necessary process if America is ever to achieve a sustainable economic model. The only question is when and where will emerge the political leadership to do the right thing and begin to actively restructure debts.
Barack Obama has already failed that test of leadership by studiously avoiding any response to the US real estate meltdown, but new leaders in many heavily indebted nations will face the same issues — chronic levels of debt that will only grow heavier as and when global interest rates rise. If the ECB manages to bully Prime Minister Kenny in Ireland, do they really expect a more malleable regime after the next election?
The looming threat of debt is why we should expect to see a majority of Republicans and perhaps more than a few Democrats in Congress seek to block any increase in the US debt ceiling unless the measure includes a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution.
My view is that Congress should vote down any debt ceiling measure unless President Obama agrees to sign the balanced budget amendment. Even if Secretary Geithner has to run the US government on cash, like the good people of Iceland and Ireland today, it will be a good thing for America’s political debate to default — at least for a few weeks. Then people will know that the once unthinkable is very possible.