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More Money

June 21st, 2012 - 7:54 am

Money, according to Paul Krugman, is the solution to the world’s problems. Writing in the New York Times Krugman expressed amazement in the inability of people to understand that government hasn’t spent enough of it.

It’s frustrating but not surprising that we’re still talking about fiscal policy in the frame of “Keynesians said the Obama stimulus would work, but the economy is still depressed”. It’s actually a trivial though telling point that this narrative requires fudging or outright lying about the point that prominent Keynesians warned in advance that the Obama stimulus was inadequate.

The obvious thing to do is for government to find ways to lay its hands on more of this vital item in order to spend it. Congress has proved obstructive in the the process to borrow more. Nancy Pelosi, who was once the Speaker of the House, has a wonderful idea to get around this. Why doesn’t the President just interpret the Constitution to mean that he can borrow any amount of money that he likes? Slate has the details:

At a lunch roundtable with columnists earlier today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged President Barack Obama to avoid a new debt-ceiling showdown by stating that a statutory borrowing limit is inconsistent with Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.”

Matthew Yglesias, who wrote the article, says the idea isn’t as harebrained as it sounds. It has a sound legal and intellectual basis. After all, Bill Clinton thinks it is a good idea.

Speaking last summer, former President Bill Clinton also endorsed this approach and anonymous members of Congress alleged that Pelosi privately supported it. Obama, however, has indicated that his administration’s lawyers are not persuaded the constitutional argument is correct. In my experience discussing this with constitutional scholars, the key point is less about the merits of the argument per se than it is about whether there’s anything the courts could or would do to prevent a president from acting unilaterally in this regard. Most people I’ve spoken to feel that this would be a classic nonjusticiable political question and no court would issue a restraining order enjoining the Treasury Department from issuing additional debt.

Bill Clinton’s recommendation should be reason enough. But if more were needed, it is worth noting that for once, Yglesias and I are in complete agreement. In an earlier post I argued that the administration’s definition of legal and constitutional is whatever you can get away with. If “there is simply no way anyone can make him follow the law” then the President can do what he wants, or as Yglesias puts it so much more elegantly,  “the key point is less about the merits of the argument per se than it is about whether there’s anything the courts could or would do to prevent a president from acting unilaterally in this regard”.

The unstated corollary to dictum  that one can do whatever one wants while in power however is the imperative to remain in power forever. For it will not quite do to yield authority one day to a political enemy who will be similarly unrestrained in his vengeance and desire to recoup.

The playwright Robert Bolt considered that issue when he wrote the script for St Thomas More in the film A Man for All Seasons. The situation was this: More was going to be framed by a perjurer, but he was in power. So why not use the power to do away with the perjurer?

“Although it is the law that eventually forces More’s execution, the play also makes several powerful statements in support of the rule of law. At one point More’s future son-in-law, Roper, urges him to arrest Richard Rich, whose perjury will eventually lead to More’s execution. More answers that Rich has broken no law, “And go he should if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law!” Roper is appalled at the idea of granting the Devil the benefit of law, but More is adamant.”

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

I have elsewhere described dilemma as the Jackie Chan Fighting in the Ming Vase Museum problem. In those scenarios, Jackie Chan has to simultaneously keep the priceless jars from falling even while energetically defeating dozens of kung-fu fighting assailants amongst them. In terms of politics, the analogous problem for the patriot is to preserve the Republic’s institutions before he preserves himself. It’s a hard task.

That’s probably a quaint notion in Pelosi’s eyes. And besides, Jackie Chan just retired from action movies this year. The Ming Vases are on their own. But still the idea that President Obama should just declare Congress redundant suffers precisely from the problem that Robert Bolt identified. If to keep Barack Obama re-elected and keep the executive in Democratic Party hands, Pelosi should borrow every dollar within hail and cut down every law on the books, what would she do when the last dollar was borrowed and squandered? Where would she hide, what would she spend?

Well, she can always blame George Bush.


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