Deal on the debt

Democratic and Republican leaders came to an agreement on raising the debt limit, looking to forestall the government from going into default on Tuesday.  But first both sides have to sell the agreement to their Congressmen and to their base.   Basically, the Republicans gave in to the Democrats’ desire for a two year provision, while Democrats gave in to the Republican’s desire for spending cuts without tax increases.  Here are some more details from the Associated Press story:

Details apparently included in the agreement provide that the federal debt limit would rise in two stages by at least $2.2 trillion, enough to tide the Treasury over until after the 2012 elections.

Big cuts in government spending would be phased in over a decade. Thousands of programs – the Park Service, Labor Department and housing among them – could be trimmed to levels last seen years ago.

No Social Security or Medicare benefits would be cut, but the programs could be scoured for other savings. Taxes would be unlikely to rise.

Without legislation in place by Tuesday, the Treasury will not be able to pay all its bills, raising the threat of a default that administration officials say could inflict catastrophic damage on the economy.

If approved, though, a compromise would presumably preserve America’s sterling credit rating, reassure investors in financial markets across the globe and possibly reverse the losses that spread across Wall Street in recent days as the threat of a default grew.

Officials familiar with the negotiations said that McConnell had been in frequent contact with Vice President Joe Biden, who has played an influential role across months of negotiations.

In the first stage under the agreement, the nation’s debt limit would rise immediately by nearly $1 trillion and spending would be cut by a slightly larger amount over a decade.

That would be followed by creation of the new congressional committee that would have until the end of November to recommend $1.8 trillion or more in deficit cuts, targeting benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, or overhauling the tax code. Those deficit cuts would allow a second increase in the debt limit.

If the committee failed to reach its $1.8 trillion target, or Congress failed to approve its recommendations by the end of 2011, lawmakers would then have to vote on a proposed constitutional balanced-budget amendment.

If that failed to pass, automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion would automatically take effect, and the debt limit would rise by an identical amount.

Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps would be exempt from the automatic cuts, but payments to doctors, nursing homes and other Medicare providers could be trimmed, as could subsidies to insurance companies that offer an alternative to government-run Medicare.

via News from The Associated Press.

Both tea party Republicans and leftist Democrats are howling, for different reasons.    Do you think this deal should be approved?   Who do you think got the better of the negotiations?

The trillion dollar coin

The weirdest idea for solving the debt crisis comes from Ezra Klein of the Washington Post:

Obama could always just solve the crisis with a pair of magical platinum coins. Sure, that sounds preposterous, but Yale’s Jack Balkin argues that this is actually a perfectly legal strategy. Here’s the logic: Under law, there’s a limit to how much paper money the United States can circulate at any one time, and there are rules that limit how many gold, silver and copper coins the Treasury can mint. But the Treasury is explicitly allowed to mint however many platinum coins it wants and can assign them whatever value it pleases.

So the Mint makes a pair of trillion-dollar platinum coins. The president orders the coins to be deposited at the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve moves this money into Treasury’s accounts. And just like that, Treasury suddenly has an extra $2 trillion to pay off its obligations in the near term without issuing new debt. If the Fed was worried about all that newly created money being pumped into circulation, it could always counteract the inflationary effects by selling off the $2 trillion in securities it owns from quantitative easing (thereby taking an equivalent amount of money back out of the economy). Problem solved. Right?

Well, sort of. The interesting thing about the platinum option, as it turns out, is that it actually seems to be on a firmer legal footing than the 14th Amendment approach. The law very clearly states that the Treasury Secretary can mint these platinum coins. He could even adorn them with the face of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) if he fancied. The trouble, of course, is the politics. Does Obama stage a press conference where he holds up the two large coins and announces what he’s doing? It’d be hard to see how he could do that with a straight face. (When I tried calling various market observers to get a sense of how Wall Street might react, responses ranged from “I don’t really want to talk about this” to actual laughter.)

via Can a giant platinum coin save our credit? – Ezra Klein – The Washington Post.

Playhouse mansions

As the real estate market for adults is in shambles, the market for playhouses is booming.  Some of them cost as much as a real house:

APART from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.

Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 4 ½-foot door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 170-square-foot playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from five to eight feet tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.

The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned. This is Texas, after all.

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.

Some people might consider it “obnoxious” for a child to have a playhouse that costs more and has more amenities than some real houses, she conceded. But she sees it as an extension of the family home. “My daughter loves it,” she said. “And it’s certainly a conversation piece.”

Even in a troubled economy, it seems, some parents of means are willing to spend significant (if not eye-popping) sums on playhouses for their children that also function as a kind of backyard installation art.

There are a number of companies and independent craftsmen that make high-end playhouses, which can cost as much as $200,000, and come in a variety of styles, including replicas of real houses, like the Schillers’, and more-fantastical creations like pirate ships, treetop hideouts and fairy tale cottages. And many of these manufacturers report that despite the economic downturn, they are as busy as ever.

Barbara Butler, an artist and playhouse builder in San Francisco, said her sales are up 40 percent this year, and she has twice as many future commissions lined up as she did this time last year. Not only that, but the average price of the structures she is being hired to build has more than doubled, from $26,000 to $54,000.

“Childhood is a precious and finite thing,” Ms. Butler said. “And a special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better.”

via Playhouses – Child’s Play, Grown-Up Cash –

An interesting example of over-the-top parenting.   How does this manifest itself among us less affluent family-values types?

The two debt-reduction plans

So House Majority Leader John Boehner has a debt reduction plan on the table.  It is competing with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan.  (Notice how both sides are cutting President Obama out of the discussion.)  Both plans cut spending by $1.2 trillion.  Neither plan involves a tax increase.  In fact, the two plans are extremely similar.  Philip Klein gives us a useful comparison:


– Both plans claim to reduce discretionary spending by $1.2 trillion.

–Both plans create a joint, bipartisan, Congressional committee to find future savings.

– Neither plan includes specific entitlement reform.

–Neither plan includes specific tax increases.


– Reid’s plan wants to raise the debt ceiling all in one chunk (and boosts the claimed deficit reduction number by relying on savings from the expected wind down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but Boehner it raised in two parts.

– While both plans endorse a joint committee, the Boehner plan makes the second debt limit increase contingent on Congress passing $1.8 trillion in additional deficit-reduction based on its recommendations.

– Boehner plan would ensure a vote in both chambers on a Balanced Budget Amendment.

– Boehner proposes caps to future spending.

Possibilities for compromise:

– It would be easy for Reid to allow a vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment.

– The differences over whether the debt limit increase should be short-term or last through the 2012 election is not an ideological-based disagreement, so it seems either side could give way on that one.

– Depending on the level of the spending cap, there may be some compromise there.

via Boehner and Reid plans aren’t that different: a comparison | Philip Klein | Beltway Confidential | Washington Examiner.

And yet, for all of the similarities, both sides are still at each other’s throats. Not only that, Boehner’s own party is in revolt against his plan.   I’m not sure why.  Surely the Republicans are getting what they want, over a trillion dollars in cuts and no new taxes.  The main issue now is political:   Reid is proposing a two year package, tiding things over until after the 2012 elections, while Boehner wants to go through all of this again in a year.

Meanwhile, the country faces default and probably worldwide economic collapse if the debt ceiling isn’t raised by August 2.

Under President Clinton, the ascendant Republicans  in Congress shut down the government, sparking a popular backlash that re-elected the unpopular president.  I suspect the same thing will happen again:  Today’s ascendant Republicans, giddy with having taken the House of Representatives, will show themselves willing to shut down the economy, sparking a popular backlash that will re-elect President Obama.

The 19th Century Depression

Canadian historian Francois Furstenberg reminds us of the economic depression that America had to struggle through in the 19th century:

Much like our time, the Gilded Age was an era of economic booms and busts. None was greater than the financial crisis that began in September 1873 with the collapse of Jay Cooke & Co., the nation’s premier investment bank. Like many other firms, Cooke & Co. overextended itself by offering risky loans based on overvalued real estate.

Cooke’s collapse launched the first economic crisis of the Industrial Age. For 65 straight months, the U.S. economy shrank — the longest such stretch in U.S. history. America’s industrial base ground to a near halt: By 1876, half of the nation’s railroads had declared bankruptcy, almost half of the country’s iron furnaces were shut and coal production collapsed. Until the 1930s, it would be known as the Great Depression.

In the face of economic calamity and skyrocketing unemployment, the government did, well, nothing. No federal unemployment insurance eased families’ suffering and kept a floor on demand. No central bank existed to fight deflation. Large-scale government stimulus was a thing of the distant future.

As demand collapsed, businesses slashed payrolls and reduced wages, and a ruinous period of deflation began. By 1879, wholesale prices had declined 30 percent. The consequences were catastrophic for the nation’s many debtors and set off a vicious economic cycle. When economic growth eventually began, progress was slow, with periodic crises plaguing the economy through the end of the century.

Neither political party offered genuine solutions. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, political parties during the Gilded Age “divided over spoils, not issues,” and neither Democrats nor Republicans were inclined to challenge their corporate masters. . . .

With laissez-faire ideas dominant and the political system in stasis, economic decline persisted. The collapse in tax revenue only strengthened calls for fiscal retrenchment. Government at all levels cut spending. Congress returned the country to the gold standard for the first time since the Civil War: “hard money” policies that favored Eastern financiers over indebted farmers and workers.

With neither major party responding to the crisis, new insurgent movements arose: antimonopoly coalitions, reform parties and labor candidates all began to attract support.

via What history teaches us about the welfare state – The Washington Post.

Prof. Furstenberg goes on to cite the violent strikes of the growing labor movement and the prospect of social unrest–similar to what was happening in Europe that would spark the Marxist revolutions–that, according to him, encouraged even capitalists by the time of FDR to support social reforms and a welfare state, so as to promote social stability.  He then warns us about cutting the social safety net as we try to deal with today’s economic problems.

Since among my readers are experts in just about everything, I ask you, is Prof. Furstenberg’s account correct, or is it a leftist reading of a  history that is open to other interpretations?  Are there things we can learn from what happened in the Gilded Age?

HT:  Frank Sonnek

Spelling and the internet

The BBC reports that Great Britain’s online economy is harmed by bad spelling:

An online entrepreneur says that poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for internet businesses.

Charles Duncombe says an analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half.

Mr Duncombe says when recruiting staff he has been “shocked at the poor quality of written English”.

He says the big problem for online firms isn’t technology but finding staff who can spell.

The concerns were echoed by the CBI whose head of education and skills warned that too many employers were having to invest in remedial literacy lessons for their staff.

Mr Duncombe, who runs travel, mobile phones and clothing websites, says that poor spelling is a serious problem for the online economy.

Charles Duncombe says poor spelling is costing the economy millions

“Often these cutting-edge companies depend upon old-fashioned skills,” says Mr Duncombe.

And he says that the struggle to recruit enough staff who can spell means that this sector of the economy is not as efficient as it might be.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics published last month showed internet sales in the UK running at £527m per week.

“I know that industry bemoaning the education system is nothing new but it is becoming more and more of a problem with more companies going online.

“This is because when you sell or communicate on the internet 99% of the time it is done by the written word.”

Mr Duncombe says that it is possible to identify the specific impact of a spelling mistake on sales.

He says he measured the revenue per visitor to the website and found that the revenue was twice as high after an error was corrected.

“If you project this across the whole of internet retail then millions of pounds worth of business is probably being lost each week due to simple spelling mistakes,” says Mr Duncombe, director of the Just Say Please group.

Spelling is important to the credibility of a website, he says. When there are underlying concerns about fraud and safety, then getting the basics right is essential.

via BBC News – Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales.

This reminds us that information technology still communicates most of that information by language and therefore the classic skills of writing and reading well are still necessary.

Are there other cues that make you not trust an internet site?