January 21, 2011

Governemnt is not a Business, and it should not be allowed to claim bankruptcy

After the American Century

In the US there is suddenly talk of lettering state governments declare themselves insolvent, and go through some form of bankruptcy. This is a very bad idea, and not just, as several people immediately pointed out, because such talk will immediately raise fears on the bond market. States will start to pay a premium in interest to get anyone to buy their bonds, as the New York Times has noted. Such bonds have long been thought to be the epitome of what is safe to invest in. Not much profit, but not much danger either. Take away the security of state bonds, and the markets are going to become restless.

But that is not my main argument against this idea. The chief problem is that allowing states to declare bankruptcy allows them to become irresponsible. It allows legislators to start things they cannot finish. It invites them to pass bills, to make promises, to offer pensions to state employees, that are not funded through sufficient taxation. This is the modern form of Greek democracy, and it has been tried already in Greece, and found wanting.

The American people are among the richest per capita on earth. If they do not have enough money in their state budgets, it is because they have resisted paying taxes sufficient to meet their obligations. California is the most obvious example, as its population voted to cap taxation at an unreasonably low level. Their tax revolt in the late 1970s was irresponsible then, it was irresponsible since, and it remains so.

If the Republican Party were really a party of fiscal responsibility, it would oppose this idea with every ounce of its collective energy. Instead, it seems to be part of the problem. Members of both parties are exploring this idea. If it comes to fruition, the United States will have taken a step toward self-destruction. The US will be correctly judged a more dangerous place to invest money. State employees will live with the threat that their pensions may never be paid out. And all citizens will find that the cost of government rises, in the form of higher borrowing rates, while the money available to provide services correspondingly falls.

This may be the worst idea to come along since the courts decided that corporations were "persons." Government is not a business that can periodically fail. It is the foundation of society. It is a contract between the citizens that cannot be broken, not a corporation that can be reconstructed by and for bankers. Talk of letting government fail financially cannot be separated from a more general failure of trust between the citizens. Government is about mutual obligation. It is not an investment that one pulls out of.

Americans have lived with a stable system so long that they have no historical experience of the disasters that come with fiscal irresponsibility. Undermine the state government, and you undermine the dollar itself. I am not talking about the dollar losing a few percentage points against the Euro. I am talking about the Japanese and the Chinese deciding not to buy dollar debt anymore, because it is too risky. For a taste of what that might mean, look at Greece, right now, with the difference that the EU has come along to bail out Greece. But no economy is big enough to bail out the United States.