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Feds get a dose of kitchen-table economics

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Associated Press
July 16, 2011
— The debt crisis has brought the government to the "kitchen table" to do something that hard-pressed families do routinely, which is tear their hair out over how to pay the bills.

Pawn the family jewelry? Emptying gold reserves at Fort Knox and other repositories could raise a very handy $400 billion.


Sell the property that has been in the family for generations? Yosemite National Park would fetch a pretty penny.


At least so far, such last-gasp ideas are not in serious play at Washington's kitchen table. But as the Aug. 2 deadline approaches for raising the country's borrowing limit, you can bet someone in the government is thinking about them. Economists are.


"The consequences of America defaulting on its debt are so unthinkable, catastrophic and costly that we should consider anything," said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at the Martin Smith College of Business at California State University. "Sell gold, sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, do ANYTHING to avoid a default."


In short, the nation is like a family that's overextended and close to wits' end.


To carry on without going deeper in debt, this family would have to cut its monthly bills by 70 percent or get a huge pay increase at work, enough to raise their income by nearly two-thirds. Now.


Then they could scrape by without borrowing more, at least for a little while.


So calculates the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in describing the only way the government could move ahead without taking on more debt. An end to discretionary spending, a 70 percent cut in mandatory spending or an enormous boost in tax revenue would suffice, but only for this year, it says. Then it gets even worse.


Nothing like that will happen.


The government is almost certain to raise its debt limit and carry on borrowing something like 40 cents out of every dollar it spends.


The question is whether it will do so in time to avoid late interest payments and economic turmoil, and what size spending cuts, tax increases or both will become part of the deal.


Nothing is stopping Congress from voting to raise the debt limit today. The holdup is over how to reduce future budget shortfalls, which both parties say must be done.


Republicans want a huge cut in government spending. President Barack Obama wants smaller, but still substantial cuts, plus more money coming in from taxes, which Republicans oppose.


To get around this, an idea has picked up steam to let the head of the household increase the debt limit on his own, under certain conditions, and take the heat off the fractious family to agree on all the spending cuts and revenue increases now.


The government bought some time in the middle of May, when it stopped making payments to federal employee retirement funds, the equivalent of halting contributions to your 401(k). The government will make up the lost retirement investments later, plus interest, keeping the funds whole.


But there are no such bookkeeping maneuvers left, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says, "no way to give Congress more time."


Some big payments are coming due, including $23 billion for Social Security checks on Aug. 2, $87 billion the next day to redeem maturing Treasury securities and more than $30 billion in interest payments on existing Treasury securities on Aug. 15.


Those payouts are in addition to roughly $5 billion to $10 billion the government pays daily to defense contractors, Medicare providers, federal employees and others, all part of the business of running the government.


With red flags flying from credit-rating agencies, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and the corporate sector, the pressure is intensifying for Washington to break the impasse not just by the deadline but before. That would discourage investors from fleeing from the market in a predefault panic and preserve the nation's top-of-the-line credit rating.


In 1979, when Congress dragged its feet in raising the debt limit and the government ran into technical glitches processing its debt, the U.S. was late making interest payments on about $120 million of bills.


It amounted to a piddling sum compared with what may be coming, causing only a brief delay and no concern by creditors that they wouldn't get paid. Yet the mini-default permanently raised interest rates by more than half a percentage point, says the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.


That's like making your mortgage payments on time for years, seeing one monthly check get hung up in the mail for a few days, and getting hit in response with a higher rate for the life of the loan.


Some Republicans have argued that the government can do the same thing a family does when faced with more bills than it can pay in a single month. It can set priorities and make only the critical payments, such as the utility bills to keep the lights on and the water flowing, and let other payments wait. In this scenario, interest payments are the most critical.


Obama disputes that approach.


"A family, if they get over-extended and their credit card is too high, they don't just stop paying their bills," he said. "What they do is, they say, how do we start cutting our monthly costs?


"We don't stop sending our kids to college, we don't stop fixing the boiler or the roof that's leaking. We do things in a sensible, responsible way."


Still, setting aside some bills has not been ruled out.


Obama held out the possibility that the government won't be able to send retirees their Social Security checks in time. Republicans called such remarks a scare tactic to get them to cave to his proposals.


But should those checks get delayed, it's a sure bet both parties would be scared.


Messing with Social Security is not just like a family disrespecting its elders. It's like stiffing your bookie. In political terms, it can get you broken legs.


In some important ways, the federal budget is not recognizable to a real family. It's from another planet, esoteric, full of accounting tricks, funny money, and obligations that citizens don't have.


Families don't have the option of just voting to raise their credit card limit, for one thing.


But that, in essence, is what the government needs to do, and fast, to avoid defaulting on its debt payments, sending markets into a probable tailspin and making all sorts of dire predictions come true.


Even in Washington, math is math.



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