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House Republicans block compromise

By Masao Suzuki

Another step toward first U.S. debt crisis in history

San José, CA – Today, Oct. 15, right-wing Republicans in the House of Representatives stopped the House Republican leadership from trying to pass a compromise measure to re-open the federal government and raise its debt ceiling. This marks another step towards the first U.S. debt crisis in history.

On Oct. 17, the federal government will not be able to borrow more money to pay its bills. The federal government will only be able to pay out what it collects in taxes, plus about $30 billion in cash that it has on hand. In the two weeks after that, the federal government will run short of money to pay all its bills, with the most likely date being Nov. 1, when $55 billion in Social Security benefits, Medicare payments, and military pay, benefits and retirement benefits are due.

From now through mid-November, the federal government will have to postpone payment on about $100 billion in payments if the debt ceiling is not raised. This comes to almost 8% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the standard measure of the size of the economy based on production of goods and services) on an annual basis, enough to throw the economy in a recession even worse than the one following the financial crisis in 2008.

Background to the crisis

The looming debt crisis has several roots. The first are the budget deficits of the federal government, where it spends more than it collects in taxes, so it has to borrow the difference by selling bonds. The federal government budget deficit ballooned to about $1.4 trillion (or $1400 billion), equal to 10% of GDP, in 2009 because the deep recession lowered tax revenues and the federal government increased spending to bail out Wall Street and stimulate the economy. Since then, a combination of higher tax revenues, spending cuts and economic growth have reduced the deficit to almost $600 billion, or about 4% of GDP in 2012, a decline of 60% in relation to the size of the economy.

The total amount of bonds that the U.S. government sells to pay for the budget deficit is the public debt, which is now $16.75 trillion ($16,750 billion). The federal government has a self-imposed limit on the public debt of $16.7 trillion, which means that the government can no longer borrow more money. The reported debt is slightly higher than the limit because the federal government has been shifting money around to avoid running out of cash for the last five months.

While there have been disputes over the debt ceiling in the past, they have been largely partisan affairs that did not come close to forcing the government to actually delay payment. But the recent rise of Tea Party Republicans means that the Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, are controlled by right wingers who are more than willing to shut down the government and even force the government not to pay its bills in order to achieve their goal of ending Obama’s health care reform known as Obamacare.

What drives the Tea Party

Many Republican members of congress were denying the possibility of a partial shutdown of the federal government right up to the point that the government shut down. Their behavior is similar to their stance on climate change – just deny that it is happening so one doesn’t have to do anything.

Digging a little deeper, one sees that the government agencies that were most affected by the shutdown, such as the Department of Education, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Labor, are the programs most hated by the right wing.

There is also an extreme free-market logic among Tea Party Republicans that the government is bad for business and the economy and that a shutdown of the government will be good for business.

What is likely to happen

The world isn’t going to end on Oct. 17 if the debt ceiling is not raised. But the economic effects are already being felt, as the uncertainty of repayment of bonds after that date is causing the prices of bonds coming due soon to fall, which leads to higher interest rates. The interest rate on the shortest term U.S. bonds (called bills), which come due in 30 days, has now tripled and is higher than the interest rates on 60-day bills, which come due later.

While Democrats and the Obama administration are warning of the danger of default, which is what happens when the federal government does not repay its bonds or interest payment, it is hard to see how the government won’t give Wall Street what it wants. But there is chance that some bank or financial institution will find itself in a squeeze if the federal government doesn’t pay on time, triggering another financial crisis.

What is more likely is that the sudden drop in federal government spending will trigger a new recession. This could quickly feed upon itself in what economists call the ‘multiplier effect,’ where the individuals, businesses and institutions that aren’t being paid by the federal government then cut back their own purchases and payments, putting the economy into a downward spiral.

What a debt crisis would mean

If the House Republicans do manage to block any agreement to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, the self-inflicted crisis will mark another step in the decline of the U.S. as a world power. Ever since World War II, the U.S. government has been both a protector of Wall Street and big business and the head of worldwide empire of pro-U.S. governments that protect U.S. financial and business interests, backed by the U.S. military.

From an economic point of view, the end in 1971 of the post-World War II system of fixed exchange rates centered on the U.S. dollar, called Bretton Woods, was an early sign of the decline of the U.S. relative to the rising nations of Europe and Japan. This was followed by the OPEC oil boycott in 1973, and then the U.S. military defeat in Vietnam in 1975, showing the rise of the Third World.

Today the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and coming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan shows that the U.S., despite using hundreds of thousands of troops and spending trillions of dollars, is no longer to set up stable, pro-U.S. governments that can defend U.S. business interests. With the looming debt crisis, more and more governments around the world are losing faith in the economic power of the U.S. and the safety of U.S. government bonds. Foreign governments and investors now own more than $5.5 trillion of U.S. government bonds, and any sell-off in the bond market triggered by a debt crisis would quickly spread a financial crisis around the world.

But even if a financial crisis is avoided, a deep recession in the U.S. will also spread around the world. Europe’s economy is still in a depression with the euro-zone crisis and many economies in the Third World are slowing down already. Another worldwide recession, following so closely on the 2008-2009 so-called Great Depression, could again shake the very foundations of the world capitalist economy.

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