If you're like me, you might wonder how it is that pirates capable of hijacking a huge cargo ship could be permitted to operate in the first place. And it turns out that the main reason why violent ocean criminals could operate with relative impunity around the Horn of Africa is that there was, at that time, no functional government in Somalia. (It remains to be seen whether the new central Somali government will be successful.)
Between 1991, when the central government collapsed and Somalia fell into civil war, and 2012, when a new central government took power, Somalia was an anarchist paradise. One might even call it a Republican paradise in some sense. It's not that there was no government in Somalia. But what government there was, was organized at the local level. There was no national law. Dispute resolution became a matter of local custom rather than objective standards. There was no protection of rights of any sort, other than that which might be protected through force, because there was no power behind the forces of justice.
And without anyone minding the store, piracy flourished, as it always flourishes in the absence of law, because piracy is about taking what a person can get, through whatever means, licit or illicit, regardless of the harm. Somali pirates had what all successful pirates need, a place to land, because no pirate ship can sail the seas forever. You need fuel and food and water and rest.
Here we are, two weeks into the shutdown of the federal government. If you're a federal employee, furloughed or not, you've seen the consequences of that shutdown--you're either doing the work of several people and not getting paid for it, or you're sitting home and not getting paid, either.
But the federal shutdown has wider-ranging consequences than that. For example, the Centers for Disease Control have furloughed 8,000 of their 12,000 workers, so the kind of monitoring we desperately need to detect and prevent outbreaks of disease has been compromised, if not eliminated outright. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is shut down, so toys and other products that enter this country are not being inspected for lead, flammability, choking hazard, and the like. Scientific researchers who study migratory birds, climate change in Antarctica, and other seasonally affected topics are going to lose a year of study data--and maybe destroy decades of research in the process.
These are but a few of the thousands of consequences. And it's about to get worse.
The federal government is shut down because Congress has not made appropriations to authorize the spending of money. There is an old law on the books, the Anti-Deficiency Act, that prohibits--under criminal penalties--the spending of government money without appropriations, except where necessary to prevent danger to life or property. So some operations continue, like TSA security screenings at airports, and the government's debts continue to be paid, and the government is able to spend money on those things because there is money in the Treasury to spend. The reason why there is money to spend is because taxes keep rolling in and because the Treasury can continue to borrow money to cover any deficit between tax revenues and expenditures.
And the reason why it hasn't been an utter catastrophe is because of hundreds of thousands of dedicated federal employees who believe in their mission and are serving their country in a way that ensures mission success and continuity over everything, even at great personal cost.
That's about to change.
On Thursday, the federal government will reach the debt limit, at which point the Treasury will be prohibited by law from borrowing any more money. At that point, the amount of money available to spend will be limited to daily tax revenues.
The problem with that is the order of priority. The Constitution requires that the federal government's debts be paid. There is no getting around that problem. There is enough money coming in from daily tax receipts to cover the "debt service"--the amount of money required to pay the interest on existing federal obligations as that interest comes due.
But there is more to dealing with debt than just paying the interest as it comes due. Every day, there are government obligations that mature--in other words, that must be paid off, principal included, if demanded by the debtholder. For example, in September, the federal government received about $230 billion in tax revenue and borrowed about $751 billion, but $748 billion of that was used to pay mature principal and interest obligations--just rolling over the debt to be paid later.
So it's not enough to have enough to pay the interest. We also have to have enough working room, without borrowing even one penny more, to pay off the principal we owe before it can be re-borrowed. That's an extraordinarily difficult task.
And there just isn't enough money to do that AND to spend on governmental operations.
Even where necessary to protect human life or property--to do things like monitoring climate change and disease outbreaks and food safety and toy safety.
And killing pirates on the open seas.
What we are looking at is the collapse of the federal government. Some of you might think that's a good thing, but you're kidding yourselves. Just look at what happened in Africa. It can happen here: an American Somalia, brought to you by the people who say the less federal government, the better. The GOP. And specifically the Tea Party radicals who run the GOP these days.
And people like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Ted Yoho, and failed half-term governor Sarah Palin, and dozens of other members of the GOP, are pushing for this to happen. "It won't be that bad," they say. "Trust us, Obama's just fear-mongering."
This is nothing less than the overthrow of the federal government. There were times when advocating for it would land a person in jail. Instead, these people get airtime on talk shows and the loving support of millions of misguided, ignorant, or malicious Americans who have no idea how important the continuity of the federal government is to their daily lives.
The Republicans have about a day and a half to come to their senses. I'm not holding my breath.
* * * * *
As I've said before, there are three solutions.
One, the Congress can extend or repeal the debt limit--an outright repeal would be preferable, in my view.
Two, the President can decide that the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supremacy Clause mean what they say and order the Treasury Secretary to sell bonds in excess of the statutory debt limit.
Three, the President can order the Treasury Secretary to mint one or more platinum coins, of face value far in excess of their melt value, and use the proceeds to pay the government's debt and operational obligations.
Of these, the first is the most preferable. The third is next, because it is statutorily authorized, completely and unquestionably constitutional, and sound from a monetary standpoint. But we are in an emergency situation, and quickly running out of better options, so the second option might have to be it.