Rally to Restore The Fourth

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I've been dismayed by the almost complete destruction of the Fourth Amendment over my lifetime. If you're not completely up on The Constitution, the full text of it reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In modern words, what it's trying to say is, "The government can't get at your information, take your stuff, or arrest you without a warrant; and those warrants must be issued based upon high probability that you committed a crime, as sworn by a witness; and that warrant has to explicitly describe what is to be searched or who is to be arrested."

While Democrats liked to complain about George W. Bush and The USA PATRIOT Act's trampling of the Fourth Amendment, in truth, it was a bipartisan exercise, over many years. Most of the court precedents that eroded the Fourth Amendment happened back in the '80s and '90s as part of the War On Drugs. The USA PATRIOT Act mostly didn't invent sweeping new powers - it simply gave the government the sweeping power to ignore the Constitution for (potential) terrorist acts, the same way it has been for (potential) drug violations. Those powers in turn were mostly signed into law by Bill Clinton.

Speaking as a non-partisan - or, well, a partisan who doesn't have a side in this argument - I've been deeply frustrated for years by the team-based nature of politics in this country. For many people, politics seem not to be about principle, but about "my team versus their team". As an ardent San Francisco Giants fan, I have to admit that hating the Dodgers is a lot of fun. I suspect I hate the Dodgers the way Democrats hate George W. Bush, or Republicans hate Barrack Obama. Thankfully, though, the main consequence of my hatred is that it leads me to chant "BEAT LA" during baseball games.

My Democrat friends roundly (and rightly!) denounced George W. Bush's trampling of the Fourth Amendment during the 2008 election cycle. When it became clear that Obama was going to win, I pled with them, explicitly, not to fall into "my guy vs. their guy" mentality after, and to hold Mr. Obama accountable on respecting our rights. Just because Your Guy is in the White House doesn't mean these issues are going to stop being important. Unfortunately, most of them have (thus far) fallen into "BEAT GOP" mentality and have not done so. I don't mean in any way to exempt my Republican friends from this criticism, either - many of the same people who felt that Mr. Bush deserved a new fifth bust on Mt. Rushmore now feel that Mr. Obama is but two steps from appointing himself dictator-for-life simply because he's continuing policies his predecessor began.

That's why, I'm planning on spending Independence Day up in San Francisco at my first political rally, ever. The Rally to Restore The Fourth is a non-partisan movement to call on the government to (at least) stop spying on the people. Maybe I'm being overly-optimistic, but my hope is that now George W. Bush's domestic spying program, which was continued by Barack Obama, has become public, maybe now we can get past the "my team versus your team" mentality and come together and all be outraged, together, at what the government is doing. Democrats can be angry Bush started it; Republicans can be angry Obama extended is, and maybe - just maybe - We The People can actually start reclaiming our right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers and effects.

My Experience Checking a Firearm at SEA

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I commented briefly on Twitter about my experiences with law enforcement in a recent trip through Seattle-Tacoma airport, checking a firearm. I had requests for information about what actually happened, and that would've been like 30 tweets, so I decided to write about it here, instead.

I was returning from a trip and went to check my Sig Sauer P228. If you've never checked a firearm, the specifics of it vary from airport to airport - there are no uniform standards on how it works. Variation is common (and often nonsensical), but as in dealing with any bureaucracy you quickly learn that arguing that the rules are pointless is...well, pointless and just shrug and nod.

Generally speaking in most airports (including SFO, the main airport I fly out of), you "declare" that you have a firearm to the checking agent. She then gives you a "declaration form" which you sign (basically saying "Hey I have a firearm in this luggage"). They then have an agent take you to a special TSA room - or in some cases, wait for the TSA to send someone over. Either way, a TSA agent will hand-inspect your bag, and present you with the locked case your firearm is in. You then unlock it for him, and he looks at it. In some airports, they then put the declaration inside the case (which is idiotic since they don't have the key and can't see it any more). In most, they put it right next to the case in your bag. The TSA agent then places the bag into the mainstream baggage handling process.

If you fail to declare your firearm in checked luggage you can face civil and criminal penalties. TSA says that "[l]oaded firearms (or unloaded firearms with accessible ammunition)" (which is the way I always travel with mine, unloaded with accessible ammunition) face a civil fine of "$3,000 - $7,500" plus "Criminal Referral". In other words, they arrest you, and let the DA decide whether he's going to charge you. I have no idea why the penalty for this is so extreme - are they worried the gun is going to jump out of the luggage and start shooting things? Literally they are threatening criminal prosecution simply for failing to fill out a form - even if your transport (locked and unloaded) is otherwise legal.

When I walked up to the Virgin America counter, there were two agents there. I told them I was flying with a firearm, and one immediately handed me a declaration card and told me that she needed me to sign it, and then to watch me put it in the locked case. I commented to her how stupid it was that I had to put it in the locked case that only I have the key to, since no one would be able to see it, but hey, rules, whatever. I did so. She then conferred with a male also behind the counter and they both agreed with each that was all there was to it, and put the bag on the conveyor with the rest of the luggage.

Note there was no hand-inspection by TSA. I wasn't actually worried by this. I've flown out of airports in the southeast where that is the policy, and never had a problem. Always seemed like a strange procedure to me, but, again, the logic is so often missing from these processes that I was mostly just happy I didn't have to stand around waiting for the TSA guy for twenty minutes the way I always do in SFO. I proceeded through security and was just finishing a slice of pizza at Sbarro when my phone rang, with a Seattle area code. It was a woman from Virgin America and she was wondering if I could come to gate A4 and find her and the very tall police officer she was with to discuss the firearm in my luggage?

Here's what seems to have happened:  At Seattle, the policy is the same as SFO - TSA is supposed to hand-inspect the luggage. The agents put it through the normal luggage stream; TSA xrayed it, and said "Hey this guy has a firearm in his luggage". They then opened my luggage, looking for the declaration form, which they could not find because the agent had me lock it in the case. Obviously, from their perspective, I had checked a firearm without declaring it, so they called the cops on me.

The officer was quite polite. I related my story to the Virgin America supervisor and him. The supervisor immediately assumed I was telling the truth and started to go on an internal manhunt to figure out who'd been manning the gate, all the while muttering about the fact that she had no new employees and everyone had been there for at least a year and darn well should know better. I talked to the officer for a bit, and he seemed to be pretty sympathetic to my story, but he made it pretty clear that if, when we opened the case, there was not a declaration form in it as I described, he was going to have to arrest me.

All three of us walked down into the bowels of the airport - going out on the tarmac to get in - to where TSA had my bag sitting open. I gave my key to the officer; he opened the locked case, and, of course, the declaration was there. TSA demanded my driver's license and phone number for their report. I considered not divulging it - I'd committed no crime and wasn't in a security line - but at the end of the day they already had my phone number (they'd called me) and Virgin has my contact info, so there seemed little profit in being intransigent at that point. We all walked back upstairs, the VA supervisor apologized and stalked off to find those responsible.

I'd say the bottom line is to be suspicious if you're told to put your declaration card in the locked case and not get hand-screened by TSA. I imagine that checking a firearm out of SEA via Virgin America will actually be quite smooth in the near future - TSA was absolutely not happy with Virgin either and I'm sure there is some remedial training in those agents' future.

Rape and Abortion

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Predictably, reaction to Todd Akin's "ill-conceived" (his own description) remark has immediately veered off into the weeds, away from the thing that was truly offensive. The absolutely unacceptable thing he said was not that abortion shouldn't be available in cases of rape - it's that he tried to draw a line between "legitimate" rape, and to imply that most cases of "rape" that result in pregnancy are not rape at all, really. He believes that a woman is physically incapable of getting pregnant if she don't secretly like the man who is having intercourse with her - something there's (obviously?) no evidence for. I'm not really clear if his argument is "these are all cases of morning-after regret" or "those sluts are secretly enjoying being raped" but regardless of which it is, it's a ridiculous, beyond-the-pale sort of statement that should disqualify him from public discourse, probably forever but certainly for a long time.

Of course, that is almost immediately not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is whether Mitt Romney supports abortion being an option in the case of rape. Which, he has now come out to tell us, of course he supports abortion being an option in that case.

The problem is that this position from him is completely incoherent. It's utterly unethical on his own terms. It shows (yet again) how completely his "principles" are merely whatever has to be said in order to survive the crisis of the moment.

To understand why this is incoherent, we need to understand why he's opposed to abortion to begin with. His website states that "Mitt believes that life begins at conception". In and of itself it's a banal statement - the cells that join to conceive are, in fact, alive, and when they become an embryo they are neither more nor less alive than before. However, most people who say "life begins at conception" mean "I believe the point at which the set of cells inside a pregnant woman is morally equivalent to, say, a three-year-old, is at the moment those cells combine to become an embryo". That, in other words, causing that embryo to die is, in fact, just as murderous an act as shooting a three-year-old kid in the head. I am pro-choice because I reject this view - I don't believe a bundle of cells that has the potential to turn into a human being is a human being. I do think there's some point where it becomes a human being, and then should be protected from killing by the law - but such a time to me is very clearly after 20 weeks of pregnancy (and quite possibly further along than that).

Thus, the moral vacuousness of Romney's stance. He believes that killing embryos is just as bad as killing children. Except if the embryo was created by an act of rape. Then it's OK to murder. One wonders if he thinks it's morally permissible to kill children (or even adults) if they were conceived in a rape? If not, why not? When (and why) would he draw the line? I suspect he'd draw the line about where I would for all cases of abortion - which just shows, again, the nicest thing you could say about his moral philosophy is that it's incoherent.

Making Predictions, Especially about The Future

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With the Supreme Court decision on ACA coming out tomorrow, I thought I'd take the time to make my prediction about what'll happen. I believe my view is not shared by most commentators. I think the following will happen:

  1. The Individual Mandate will be overturned
  2. The requirement that insurance companies take all comers will stand
The court may or may not invalidate other parts of the law, I make no predictions, there.

The reason I believe this is that I think the members of the court recognize that the Individual Mandate is just a bridge too far from a Commerce Clause perspective; Congress does not have the power to legislate what individual people do to this level, under the Constitution. However, I don't think the Court wants to simply ball up and throw away the whole law, if not just for political reasons. Thus, they can strike down the thing they hate and have the fig leaf of deference to Congress on the rest of it.

Of course, that will leave the worst possible policy outcome - we will have a major insurance crisis in a few years if I'm correct.

Further Thoughts on the Lack of Greek Panic

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In my previous entry, I wondered about why there wasn't a banking panic going on in Greek.  However, my conclusion is rather unsatisfactory - essentially that there isn't a panic because your average Greek isn't panicking, yet.

Upon further reflection, I believe I know why the average Greek isn't panicking - and interestingly enough, it's the exactly same reason he should be panicking.

We got where we are today because the average Greek voted out the two parties that were cutting government spending in an attempt to keep Greece in the Euro.  Much like the average American voter (who wants to cut spending, increase services, cut taxes and balance the budget) the average Greek wants things that are mutually incompatible:  To increase government spending, balance the budget, and remain in the Euro.  He probably also wants to cut taxes, too, but I haven't read that, specifically.

Consequently, it's expected that a majority of Greeks will vote for SYRIZA, "The Coalition of the Radical Left", which is saying, "we can spend more money and stay in the Euro".  I believe the plan for this is to loudly point out to the rest of Europe that, if the rest of Europe stops giving Greece money, Greece will simply default on all the previous loans they've gotten, and anyway, it'll hurt the rest of Europe if the Euro is seen as unstable, so the Euro needs Greece more than Greece needs the Euro.  All of which may be true, but is unlikely to make the rest of Europe sympathetic with Greece. Helping out your brother-in-law who lost his job is one thing; it's quite another when he starts making threats to break your china if you tell him he has to start looking for a job.

The reason the average Greek is going to vote for SYRIZA is because he thinks it means Greece won't leave the Euro.  If Greece won't leave the Euro, why should he be worried about his money deposited in Greek banks in Euros?  If he thought SYRIZA's election put Greece at risk of leaving the Euro - he'd vote for another party. If he did that...there would be much less need to panic about Euros in Greek banks.

This seems to suggest that panic won't happen in Greece until well after the elections. The question is, to what extent is a SYRIZA election going to finally give the rest of Europe the backbone to say "Enough is enough"? In the past, they've been remarkably good about kicking the can down the road - it's possible to imagine them saying "well, we'll let you slide on your targets for six months out of respect for democracy", and just keep allowing this thing to not reach a resolution. It seems Greece isn't going to voluntarily leave the Euro - they're going to have to be kicked out, and we're still some time from that happening.


What's Going on in Greece?

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I predicted the end of the Euro back in November, a bit prematurely. However, as the worm continues to turn in Greece, it is becoming more and more obvious that (at least) Greece will leave the Euro. The messy details of what happens are rather terrifying, when you think about how Greece, tactically, is going to have to redenominate all of the Euros on deposit into Drachmas.

If I lived in Greece, I've thought for a while that I'd've taken my Euros out of the bank, completely, and tried to place them somewhere else.  At least in a bank in another Eurozone country - but if you believe Greece is about to leave the Euro, you also believe the Euro is about to decline in value, so as long as you're moving it, why not to a US bank?

But, as much as there have been stories in the past week about a "Greek Bank Run" on the order of a million or so Euros a day, there have been absolutely no stories about panics - crowds standing outside banks demanding their money and not getting it.

This has puzzled me, but I think I have thought it out. The money leaving Greece right now are the people who are paying attention, and relatively savvy.  They're just doing electronic transfers - ordering the banks to make changes to entries on a spreadsheet, in essence.  The banks could conceivably do this until their assets are zero, and it would be relatively orderly.

The problem is that at some point the average citizen - Iōséph Retsina - is going to realize that, next week, his Euros are going to turn into Drachmas, probably.  And, if that's going to happen, he needs to get to the bank with a sack, right now, and withdraw everything. When everyone has that same realization at the same time, then there will be a panic.

What happens then will be interesting.  They may still not have a government to take care of this problem.  What they'll need to do at that point is close the banks, freeze withdrawals and shift to the Drachma, immediately.  Will the "technocratic" caretaker government be able to accomplish that?

Cutting Our Way to Balance

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Now, we'll begin to look at where we spend all that money. Below, please find two pie charts, blending a bunch of lower-level categories, and showing how the Federal outlays breakdown. On the left, you'll see the 2011 budget; on the right, the "Alternative" projection from the CBO, which assumes mainly that stuff like the "doc fix" continue to get passed every year, and that the Bush tax cuts never actually expire.

The first thing to note is that, if you hover over the segments, you'll find the percentage of GDP (not the budget) that each expenditure is. Remember that our goal should be for those expenditures to total to 19%, or less - yet in the 2021 budget, it's nearly 26%.

Next, let's think about the process of cutting spending, especially in light of how things went over the summer. After tremendous histrionics, Congress has sort-of agreed (through the failure of the "Super Committee") to cut 0.186% of GDP from the budget, annually.

This year, we'd need to cut a total of 5.1% to hit our target of 19%. These came 50/50 from the category of "Other" and "Defense". The reason they did is because the other categories are essentially uncuttable. I am also skeptical those cuts will actually happen.
However, this year is a bit odd, and it's not worth a lot of effort to try to make our plans based on it. In a decade, the picture looks a lot different, for a number of reasons:
 
  1. Defense drops a lot as we (hopefully) stop fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya)
  2. Social Security and Healthcare increases. Frankly, I think OMB's estimate on this is optimistic - they're forced to work in a world where Obamacare's projected savings actually happen. Unfortunately, I don't have a good basis for changing it, so I'm leaving it as-is.
  3. Interest payments on the debt are now a noticeable item (4.4% of GDP). In fact, because of this, we now only really have 14.6% of GDP to spend on things that actually do things. This number may be optimistically small, but we'll leave it there for the moment.
Shooting for the 2021 budget then, let's imagine we take all the stuff everyone in Washington loves to argue about. Funding for the Energy Department; Education; Health and Human Services - heck, let's toss a bunch of Veteran's benefits, and EITC, and Unemployment, and everything out the window. Let's cut the "Discretionary" budget to zero. What's the rest add up to?

18.8% of GDP. That's right, if we cut Defense spending from its current 4.7% of GDP to 2%; and eliminate everything else (and raise taxes 25%, but that's for tomorrow), we just barely get the Federal budget in balance.

In other words, all of the arguing in Washington can't possibly address the problem. And, I reiterate, we're imagining we've had a substantial tax raise, too - if you want to keep taxes where they are, you need to cut this thing even more.

What haven't we looked at? "Social Security and Healthcare". They're 12.4% of GDP in 2021. We're spending 4.4% of GDP on Interest, and that's basically non-negotiable. That means 85% of our sustainable spending that we can do anything about is going into this bucket. It breaks out like this:

As you can see, it's mostly Social Security and Medicare - both programs for the elderly. The way our elections work, it's basically impossible to cut these - there will always be enough voters who will swing on this issue that they'll be able to kick out anyone who tries. There's maybe 1% of GDP you could get in there by repealing Obamacare. Remember, if you're opposed to it - you expect it to cost a lot of money. The CBO, officially, doesn't, so it's scoring the cost in 2021 as being very small. If you think Obamacare is going to be very expensive, then you need to adjust these numbers up, accordingly (which means you need more cuts from elsewhere to bring it into balance).

As long as the parties have split power in Washington - as long one party doesn't have the Presidency; 2/3 of the Senate, and 1/2 + 1 of The House - no progress will be made on significant cuts. That much has been obvious for a while now. What's no so obvious is that, even if one party or the other took over, it is still not going to solve things. The Republicans, for all their talk, are not going to take on Social Security reform at the level of cuts that will be needed - it would be political suicide. The Democrats would prefer to concentrate on tax hikes; but, even if they accepted the need for spending cuts, they would be even less likely than the Republicans to take on the entitlement monster.

What's the bottom line? Making enough cuts to bring the budget into balance is going to be political suicide. As we've seen from other countries, politicians don't commit political suicide. The only way the budget will get significantly cut is when we lose the easy alternative of "just borrow more money."

Tomorrow, we'll discuss what the alternatives are for raising taxes instead of cutting things.  Sneak preview: not good.

Government Spending as a Percent of GDP

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Much of the past seventy years in the United States has seen a debate about "how big" government should be.  Should we have a small government that intrudes little on our lives ("that government is best which governs least"), or should it provide a broad safety net to smooth out the shocks and problems of life?

While I have a philosophical opinion on which of these extremes I'd prefer, it isn't particularly relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves.  Both Democrats and Republicans have done nothing but expand the scope of government for scores of years.  One thing that has not been well-analyzed by either side is the theoretical limit of the size of the government.  While Republicans have tended to chant doom-and-gloom about the growth of government, it has tended to be in vague "someday this is going to cause a problem" terms.

One thing that is becoming very clear is that we are nearing the limit of how big government can get (again, leaving aside any question of how big it should) - and we have probably already exceeded it.  My personal opinion is that a much smaller government than this would mean higher growth and greater net human happiness; but such a thing is so far from the political reality that it seems unlikely to be worth much time analyzing.

What are the limits to government growth?

In the United States, from 1950 - 2010, Federal tax receipts have never exceeded 21% of GDP.  As the economy grows and shrinks, revenues grow and shrink with them.  There seems to be a natural governor on the economy and taxes - as taxes exceed that rate, people become better (and more motivated) at tax evasion; or earn less; or do less; or some combination of those items.  Over the long haul, the average rate has been more like 18% - and it's never exceeded 19% for any length of time.

We therefore can set a theoretical sustained maximum size for income of 19% of GDP.  In 2011, that's about $2.8T.  Again, I'll reiterate - I think it would be better for us to take less money from our citizens.  However, we are talking here about the real world, and the natural constraints on how big the Federal government possibly can get.

We can borrow money to increase what the government can spend.  If our borrowing is in line with GDP growth, in fact, it might be essentially infinitely sustainable.  3% seems like a reasonable guess as to a long-term GDP growth rate.  It might be a little bit on the conservative side (if things go at all well, we'll grow faster), but when we're thinking about borrowing against future earnings it seems reasonable to be conservative about them.

Taking 2011 as an example year, if we take expected GDP of $14.7T, and we figure it'll grow 3% (which I frankly find unlikely in these particular circumstances, but we're building a model, here), we'd expect to add $441B to the economy next year and have a total GDP next year of $15.14.  So, if we borrowed 19% of that this year, we could add another...$80 billion to the Federal expenditures for 2011 in a fairly sustainable fashion.  It's not a lot of money, but it could help smooth things out a bit.

We also can borrow unsustainably.  There is a limit to how much we can do.  How much of a limit?  Frankly, no one knows.  Clearly it's more than 70% of GDP, since we're there and we're still borrowing money just fine.  Japan is currently at nearly 200% - but they have a uniquely stable economy, and, as recent credit ratings downgrades have shown, the markets will not have infinite patience with them.

A reasonable limit for us to imagine for ourselves - given the market's horror at the continuing political strife in Washington - is 120% of GDP.  Maybe the real number is lower; maybe it's higher, but that gives us a good, reasonable target for the point at which interest rates begin to rise.

Putting all this together, for a long-term sustainable US government, the Feds need to spend no more than $2.8T/yr, but they can borrow up to a total of $17.6T total on top of that to spend more.  As of November, 2011, total debt outstanding is $10T, so we have another $7.6T of headroom. Of course, we're not currently taxing at 19% of GDP - we're only going to bring in something like $2.2T, this year in reality.  We're going to spend $3.8T, meaning we'll need to borrow approximately $1.6T, so we'll only have $6T left on our account, this time next year.  We'll (hopefully) increase that by about 3% per year, too, but we're running out of funds to borrow at an alarming rate.  A trivial model would show this running out in a little under four years; the more complex model actually gives us ten, assuming some GDP growth and some short-term cuts in spending as we finish up TARP and pull out of the Middle East.

It is theoretically simple to chart a path through this that isn't terrible for the country.  If we slowly lower expenditures, while slowly raising taxes, we could get the two to cross at $2.8T/year.  That would require a roughly 25% cut in expenditures, coupled with a roughly 25% increase in taxes, all relative to the economy that would be growing at the same time (thus making it easier).

Phased in over a decade - even two, as the initial reductions would buy us more time - this could be done with a relatively small disruption to the economy. However, the lesson we learned from Europe is that the incentives are not there for the politicians to do either of these things.  

In summary - the biggest government the US can sustain indefinitely is about 19% of GDP, which was $2.8T in 2011.  To do that, we'll also need to increase taxes from $2.2T (15% of GDP) to $2.8T (19% of GDP).  If you desire lower taxes, expenditures need to be lowered further, as well.  If you desire more spending, you're going to be long-term stuck, because we haven't yet been able to raise more than 19% of GDP over the long haul.

Finally, we have about $7.6T left on our "credit account" before the bank (probably) starts refusing to lend us more.

Tomorrow, we'll look at ways we could improve this situation by cutting spending - and why, regardless of who is in power, this isn't going to happen.

The End of the Euro

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It has been clear to me for many months (since at least June) that the Euro as we know it is at an end.  Some people are now optimistic that it will "only" result in a northern-Europe Euro zone, but I believe even that is highly unlikely as "bond vigilantes" descend to pick the carcass clean.

While this (relatively) slow-motion train wreck has already been well-described in the media, it's instructive for us to view as a preview to our own future.

A traditional (if imperfect) measure of a country's debt-related economic health is the debt:GDP ratio.  In other words, the total debt outstanding compared to the total value created by that economy in a given year.  It's easy to imagine a similar number for people - your total outstanding (unsecured) debt to your annual income.

The conventional wisdom is that a country whose total debt is less than 100% of its annual GDP is still in basically decent financial shape.  The further you get above that line, the more nervous investors (and ratings agencies) get.  There's no hard-and-fast rule of when there's a problem.  A stable country with a very high ratio (Japan has nearly 200%!) can be considered a fairly safe investment, while a less-sober country (*cough*Italy*cough*) can be in trouble with one as small as 120%.  Also important are rates of change of debt; growth of GDP; signaling by central banks; and many other factors.

Two key principles in these sorts of situations are:

  1. Perception is reality.  As long as people expect you to succeed, you can run very high debts.  The problem is, as soon as they begin to suspect that you'll fail, interest rates rise on the money you have to raise.  Even if you're no longer running up new debts, the old bonds mature and have to be paid off.  If you owe, say, $2.2T in debt, and have a balanced budget (are borrowing no more to keep your spending going), and your average interest rate is 3%, you're spending $66B in interest payments.  However, as those bonds mature, you have to pay them off, probably to the tune of at least hundreds of billions per year.  That money has to come from somewhere, so you have to "roll over" that debt.  If investors become worried that you're in financial difficulty, you'll have to pay higher interest rates on the new bonds.  If that goes to (say) 7%, you're now spending $154B in interest a year - and you're no longer in primary balance on your budget, and need to borrow even more to pay the interest on the new debt. Of course, that new borrowing will also be at a higher rate...
  2. This will be completely fine right up until the moment it isn't.  This stuff doesn't slowly get worse over a decade; it's fine and no one can see a problem, and then all of the sudden (in historical terms) it's a five-alarm fire and it's all over.
It's time to pull the fire alarm.

The Euro Zone is a bunch of mostly-autonomous governments who have decided to have a central bank and a common currency.  However, they each are individually able to borrow money.  Which, a number of them have done with great enthusiasm.  In theory, there were supposed to be limits on how much each country could borrow, but the reality has been that those limits have no real teeth, and they've been routinely flouted.

As Buffet said, "It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked".  As the global economy faltered, the sharks began to circle.  Europe is now made up of a "core" - France and Germany and some other northern European countries whose debt is no more than about 80% of their GDP; and a "periphery" of southern countries that have ratios of 90%, 100%, 120%.

Six months ago the view was that the "periphery" was made up mostly of small countries, economically - Portugal, Greece, Spain, those sorts of places.  Clearly, if things got too bad, France and Germany would simply step in, pay the overage on their debts, and everything would be basically OK.  Sure, those countries would have to cut their budgets substantially as a term of it, and that would be unpleasant for them, but, it's not a global crisis.

Then, two things happened.  The first is that Germany made it absolutely clear that they weren't interested in being on the hook for an infinite amount of other people's loans.  They were, in other words, not interested in borrowing money to pay off other countries' debts, so those countries could have higher standards of living while Germany had higher taxes.  On the face of it, that seems like a reasonable position, but it is likely to cause Germany long-term harm as the Eurozone falls apart.  The second is that, suddenly (and perhaps in consequence of this), it turned out that one of the countries in real trouble was Italy.  Italy has the 8th largest economy in the world; and the 3rd largest in Europe.  Germany probably couldn't bail Italy out if it wanted to.  As a number of commentators have noted, it's "too big to fail, and too big to bail."

It has been quite amusing to read the European editorialists who pronounce "The European Central Bank [ECB] simply must do..." and then go on to lay out a list of actions that the ECB has already very explicitly said it is not going to take, because it would require German support that doesn't exist.

Now.  It's important to freeze the frame, here - in mid-October, 2011.  This crisis is, in principle, easy to fix.  Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc. simply need to trim their budgets, and/or raise taxes.  If they can bring their government spending into line, with a bit of a surplus to pay down the debt, they'll be able to send a credible signal to the bond market that they're getting their houses in order, and they're still good investment risks.  Simultaneously, Germany, France and the rest of the (relatively) solvent Eurozone simply have to say, "We are confident that our southern neighbors will put their houses in order.  So confident that we'll happily guarantee any bond they issue."

The incentives to get this right are enormous.  Unfortunately, they are not directed at the correct people:  Politicians. The core countries' electorates have made it clear that, damn the consequences, they are not spending their hard-earned dollars bailing out the profligate periphery.   The peripheries' electorates, meanwhile, have made it clear that, damn the consequences, they are not giving up their early retirements and extensive social safety nets just because those snooty northern Europeans say so.  "Who do those Germans think they are, trying to rule all of Europe from Berlin?" 

Politicians respond to those incentives until it is absolutely impossible not to.  For the periphery, that means when it becomes impossible to borrow new money, and it becomes necessary to finally do something.  The "something", however, will be to leave the Euro and go to their own currency so that they may print it with abandon and buy another couple of years.  That will then be the death knell for the Euro, however, as it will cause a domino run of bank runs as progressively "stronger" economies see mobile capital take flight to safer quarters.

My prediction for Europe?  Some periphery government will be unable to raise new money to roll over debt - which could be very soon indeed, perhaps before the end of the year and probably before the end of January - and will need to leave the Eurozone.  When it does so, it will destroy the Euro, completely - there will be no northern Euro, because the bond vigilantes will eventually set their sights on France.  Perception is reality, and that perceived vulnerability will become an actual one, and the currency union will shatter.

The effects here will be larger than most expect, because their banks are here and our banks are there.  Both of them will suddenly find all their Euro holdings to be of unknown risk (i.e., "junk"), and will be unable to meet reserve requirements.  There will be a bloodbath as these assets are unloaded.

All of those banks will need to park all of those assets, somewhere.

The only logical choice us US Treasuries.
 
In the long run, that is a disaster for us.

Messes, Foreign and Domestic

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When I first began to read about politics, in the late 1980s, I read a number of books that had been written in the late 1970s and early 1980s that were extremely pessimistic.  In a nutshell, they argued that we were running unsustainable deficits, and that eventually the government was going to was going to have to face the music that unsustainable spending was...well, unsustainable.

As my personal economic situation improved along with the country's, in the mid-90s, I began to feel more optimistic. Conservative pundits had been preaching doom for fifteen years, and yet things continued to improve - despite the compelling gut-level logic, as the Dow soared past 10k, the evidence seemed to indicate that things weren't so bad, after all.

Since then, most of my thinking about the deficit has revolved around a few core concepts:

  1. It's not that big a deal because the economy is growing; if we're borrowing about as fast as the economy grows, that's not really a practical issue.
  2. It's not that big a deal because the demographic time bomb that is Social Security isn't going to really explode (i.e., become insolvent) until ~2037.  In the year 2000, that was nearly 40 years off - and we'd had previous deadlines we'd managed to move by tweaking things.  In 1960, who could've begun to predict the economy in 2000?  Clearly there's no sense worrying too much about something so far away.  However, given that 2035 is when I would personally be eligible for Social Security, I did resolve not to base my retirement plans on its availability.
A few things have happened to change this thinking:

  1. The economy stopped growing.  For the first time in fifty years, from 2007 - 2010, GDP growth has been essentially flat, and it's looking like 2011 isn't going to be much of an improvement.  This graph is instructive.
  2. The slowed economy has caused a lot more people to enter forced retirement early.  Additionally the payroll tax holiday of 2010 reduced how much was being paid in.  That has significantly pulled in when Social Security begins to draw from the treasury instead of paying into it - from ~2037 ten years ago to...gulp...now.
  3. The Federal government is spending a lot more money now than they were ten years ago.  In 2000, we spent $1.8T, from an economy making $10T (GDP).  In 2010, we spent $3.5T from an economy making $14.7T.  We went from spending 18% of our GDP to spending 24%.
We are not yet completely doomed.  Right now we're adding about 1/15th of GDP to our standing debt every year.  There is some reason to be mildly optimistic this will drop a bit in the next few years (as we wind up wars and neglect to deploy new TARPs), but our long-term commitments have only gone up in the past few years.

In the midst of this, though, there is a crisis in Europe.  Europe will not survive this crisis in anywhere near its current form - and what happens there has both lessons for us, and direct effects upon us.

I intend this to be the first of a many-part series on what's going on in the world, and what the next decade will look like. The next piece will give my views on the short-term future for Europe, and perhaps something of what that will mean for us.