Thursday, June 17, 2010

Paterson Channels Polonius

Albany Skirmish

Over Borrowing

Day 78 without a state budget.

78 is the speed of some old records, in rpm, the atomic number of platinum, and the number of chromosomes in a dog's DNA (39 pairs). We have 23 pairs.

We have not written since last week about the state budget and the contortions now under way as the legislature and governor try to reach agreement. It is not clear how hard they are trying, but we believe they are making a serious effort to come to terms. Governor Paterson's threat to shut down state government alarms incumbents who do not want to be blamed for any of their constituent-contributors not receiving their paychecks.

In the last months, the courts have shot down the governor's planned furloughs and layoffs as part of the judiciary's ever-expanding sense of its own responsibilities (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). It was a Federal judge who ruled, in Donohue v. Paterson, that the governor could not impose a four-day work week, pursuant to the next to last prohibition of Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution. For those of you who may not recall the section, we reprint its relevant first paragraph:

"No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any title of Nobility."

In the past, Speaker Sheldon Silver has won many political battles by delaying a decision until the last minute, and then making a proposal which could not be refused. He is the most proficient politician in the Albany swamp, and his skills should not be underestimated. Some of his strength comes from the fact that he is responsive to his base (the Democratic Assembly caucus) and tries to protect his members, although a few of them are felons.

Silver is responsible for two major appointments made by the governor: Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the Court of Appeals. Both men are competent. Judge Lippman persuaded a bare majority of the Court of Appeals to sustain the appointment of LG Ravitch, a decision that may well have been in the public interest, although it would probably not have been the correct answer in a law school examination.

The decision certainly blindsided Attorney General Cuomo, who took the opposite position, but he has recovered nicely. He awaits the opportunity to choose Judges of the Court of Appeals himself, and will use his wits to avoid being boxed in by nominating committees which substantially limit his power of appointment by minimizing the number of papabili from whom he must choose.

The story today was that Governor Paterson said he would rule out borrowing, which is in direct contrast with the Ravitch plan, which calls for two years of borrowing, limited by the imposition of strict fiscal controls by a financial control board. If Paterson sticks to his guns, more layoffs will be required.

We expect some sort of flim-flammery to be proposed, which means borrowing billions from somewhere without calling it that. Raiding the pension funds is one possible scheme, vaguely justifiable because it is the swelling pension funds which got us into this trouble in the first place. Any more state borrowing, however, will further increase the interest on the public debt, which must be paid before one begins to provide for vital services like police, fire and education.

Paterson's problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that President Obama, Governor Schwarzenegger and many other public officials have the same difficulties. The national debt today is about thirteen trillion dollars, or $13,000,000,000,000. We left off the number of cents so as not to appear to exaggerate the number of zeroes (12).

The problem at all levels of government, in many countries around the world, is that public expenditures exceed revenues. This can lead to devaluation of the currency, which makes debt less burdensome, and at the same time destroys people's savings. New currency was issued in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (Pyongyang), and resulting public dissatisfaction led to the execution (by the regime) of two officials held responsible for the decision, and the demotion of others.

Living in a more gracious and gentle system, our economic blunderers go off to academia and think-tanks of like-minded souls. They are replaced by others whose views are just different enough to convey a sense of change. The first TARP program was enacted under President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former chairman of Goldman Sachs.

When Mr. Bush was asked why he had approved such a substantial bailout in view of his generally conservative economic views (but not practices, he was a mega-spender), he replied in effect that he did not want to go down in history as being President of the United States when the economy collapsed completely. The shade of Hoover was in his mind, and that was an image he urgently desired to avoid, and for the most part successfully did, although the subprime crisis and market collapse took place in 2008, and led to the defeat of the McCain-Pain ticket.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

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