January 16, 2011

One hand is on the tightrope walker

Paul Krugman, Ace Economist of the New York Times, uses the FRED site for just a whole lotta his research into the vast detail of the American economy. It's maintained by the St. Louis office of the Federal Reserve Bank, and graphs such as those above (click on the graphs and they'll open in a separate window so you can see the whole thing) are available in pretty profusion. They're not too politicized, either, as far as I can tell, although a little of the Administration's propaganda bleeds over into its reporting. For one example, notice that little upward tick at the end of the graph of receipts (taxes, mainly) up above. The Treasury is sticking to that forecast of $2.4 trillion for Fiscal 2011, and I wish them well. Currently, through three months or 1/4th of the year, the total take is about $500 billion, so I'm not sure how that extrapolates to $2.4 trillion, but hey...We Are The Change We've Been Waiting For.

Down below you see the Federal Government's expenditures. No real legerdemain there, just the grim facts. The slope of that line is, I believe, called "going parabolic." It looks like FRED is trying to tell us we're going to spend in the neighborhood of $3.7 trillion this fiscal year. Thus, it would be nice if the more optimistic forecast of receipts is accurate, although the gap is still $1.3 trillion if it is, versus, say, $1.5 trillion if national income is like last year.

The Capitol Rodeo Clowns (a/k/a Congress) are currently up in arms about the "debt ceiling." You can take one look at these two pictures and realize this is a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing. When your books look like this, you have no choice - you have to keep borrowing. The federal government is in the ridiculous position of spending $3.7 trillion of which $1.5 trillion is borrowed, per year, and the national debt is growing at the rate of $2 trillion per year, or over 50% of its yearly budget.

A question to ask oneself is this: how does a nation manage to get itself into such a predicament? It's absurd, isn't it? Another question that comes to mind is this: do these two graphs suggest that Congress (a) should have extended the "Bush tax cuts" and (b) cut another $120 billion from income over the next year with the "FICA holiday" ? (I wonder how that rosy forecast of $2.4 trillion is affected by that second little detail, by the way.)

The U-6 unemployment measure is stuck at around 17%. The economy is not creating jobs. Tax receipts would be flat, except for Congress's self-inflicted wounds, which mean they will go down, not up, in Fiscal 2011. The cadres of the vaunted "Tea Party" revolution currently throwing their weight around have already ruled every last single item of the federal budget "off limits" to any meaningful reduction (most particularly, defense). The one currently, actually reliable way Congress has of raising money is by borrowing it, particularly since "Quantitative Easing II" allows the Federal Reserve to buy about half the issuance of the Treasury's new debt (on the open market, of course - wink, wink).

I'm trying to imagine how this could possibly end well. When the situation is this precarious, the slightest hiccup can spell disaster. An abandonment of the Treasury auctions by foreign buyers. A sudden spike in interest rates of T-bonds and bills (just a reversion to their historical mean in the 5-7% range would be ruinous). An idiotic Congress refusing to raise "the debt ceiling." Ben Bernanke, a tightrope walker high above Niagara Falls with his foot on a banana peel, has to have everything go right and not a single thing go wrong. How many things in human life proceed along such a sunny path?

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