Free Markets, Free People

fiscal policy

US average marginal effective tax rate about 40%?

So tell me again why the government can’t seem to get along with what it already gets?

Taking into account all taxes on earnings and consumer spending—including federal, state and local income taxes, Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, excise taxes, and state and local sales taxes—Edward Prescott has shown (especially in the Quarterly Review of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2004) that the U.S. average marginal effective tax rate is around 40%. This means that if the average worker earns $100 from additional output, he will be able to consume only an additional $60.

And yet the prevailing political attitude seems to be that of France’s “leadership”, i.e. government, has first claim on all your earnings and if you protest you’re “greedy”.

Who’s greedy?

Speaking of France, California seems bound to duplicate its latest tax scheme:

Consider California, which just enacted higher rates of income and sales tax. The top California income-tax rate will be 13.3%, and the top sales-tax rate in some areas may rise as high as 10%. Combine these state taxes with a top combined federal rate of 44%, plus federal excise taxes, and the combined marginal tax rate for the highest California earners is likely to be around 60%—as high as in France, Germany and Italy.

Yet they wonder why people are fleeing the state.

Impact and implications?

Higher labor-income and consumption taxes also have consequences for entrepreneurship and risk-taking. A key factor driving U.S. economic growth has been the remarkable impact of entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, Fred Smith of FedEx and others who took substantial risk to implement new ideas, directly and indirectly creating new economic sectors and millions of new jobs.

Entrepreneurship is much lower in Europe, suggesting that high tax rates and poorly designed regulation discourage new business creation. The Economist reports that between 1976 and 2007 only one continental European startup, Norway’s Renewable Energy Corporation, achieved a level of success comparable to that of Microsoft, Apple and other U.S. giants making the Financial Times Index of the world’s 500 largest companies.

Yet we continue to try to recreate Europe’s debacle here.

The economy now faces two serious risks: the risk of higher marginal tax rates that will depress the number of hours of work, and the risk of continuing policies such as Dodd-Frank, bailouts, and subsidies to specific industries and technologies that depress productivity growth by protecting inefficient producers and restricting the flow of resources to the most productive users.

If these two risks are realized, the U.S. will face a much more serious problem than a 2013 recession. It will face a permanent and growing decline in relative living standards.

These risks loom as the level of U.S. economic activity gradually moves closer to that of the 1930s, when for a decade during the Great Depression output per working-age person declined by nearly 25% relative to trend. The last two quarters of GDP growth—1.3% and 2.7%—have been below trend, which means the U.S. economy is continuing to sink relative to its historical trend.

But your political and financial lords and masters know best, don’t they?  Just ask them.  They continue down this road despite the fact the destination is in plain sight in Europe and it isn’t pretty.

Occam’s Razor states “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Said another way, the simplest explanation is usually the most likely explanation. In this case the simplest explanation is incompetence.  But is it really incompetence?  With the European example staring them right in the face it’s hard to believe anyone is that incompetent.  The conclusion to their policies have already been proven to be a disaster.

So one has to being to consider other possibilities when those who are pushing the policies seem oblivious to the obvious.

You have to begin to wonder if it is a problem of hubris.  I.e. “the only reason it hasn’t worked before is we weren’t in charge”.  We’ve seen that in any number of instances throughout history where discredited or obviously illogical ideological ideas were tried and they again failed.

Or you have to consider the words “by design”.  But then you’re stuck with trying to come up with a valid reason “why”.  Recreating Europe’s debacle, or Japans’s or, for heaven sake, our’s in the ’30s would seem to be something smart politicians would attempt to avoid.

But here we are.

Economic growth requires new ideas and new businesses, which in turn require a large group of talented young workers who are willing to take on the considerable risk of starting a business. This requires undoing the impediments that stand in the way of creating new economic activity—and increasing the after-tax returns to succeeding.

And yet, we see a government bent on erecting even more impediments via increased taxation, costly new laws and onerous regulation.

Isn’t it about time we demanded to know “why?”  More importantly, maybe we should ask whose side they’re on.

~McQ

Taxes, Spending, and the Fate of the Republic

The direction the country is taking bothers me. Increasingly, I see little hope for a bright prosperous future. Frankly, things cannot continue going in the direction they’re heading without a disastrous result.

Mark Steyn wrote earlier this week:

Generally speaking, functioning societies make good-faith efforts to raise what they spend, subject to fluctuations in economic fortune: Government spending in Australia is 33.1 percent of GDP, and tax revenues are 27.1 percent. Likewise, government spending in Norway is 46.4 percent, and revenues are 41 percent – a shortfall but in the ballpark. Government spending in the United States is 42.2 percent, but revenues are 24 percent – the widest spending/taxing gulf in any major economy.

This is unsupportable, by any measure, and should be seen to be so by anyone with common sense, irrespective of political party, but apparently is not. And it’s important to recognize that the reason revenues are at a historically high 24% of GDP—the historical average is around 18%—is that GDP growth for the last 4 years has been atrociously bad, and well below the 3% historical trend rate of growth.

In a rational world, we would make a decision to settle on a continuum somewhere between cutting government spending to 24% of GDP, and raising taxes to 42.2% of GDP, which would necessarily imply massive tax increases on the middle and, yes, even the lower class.

At the moment, however, it is impossible to cut spending to 24% of GDP. Not just politically impossible, though that appears to be true also, but I mean impossible impossible. The reason it is impossible is that 24% of current GDP will not cover the cost of mandatory entitlement spending and service on the national debt. More than 62% of government spending is mandatory spending on essentially social security and Medicare. Another 6% is interest on the national debt, and it’s only that low because 1) the Fed has been buying massive amounts of US treasury bonds, and 2) interest rates are historically low.

In other words, 68% of the federal budget is taken up by entitlements and debt service, alone. We could eliminate the entirety of the rest of the federal government and, at current rates of taxation, would still run a deficit.

At the current rate of spending, we can expect to add over $12 trillion dollars in debt over the next decade. To combat this, the president has requested an additional 1.6 trillion in new revenue, which he expects to gain by increasing tax rates on only the upper class. Even assuming, arguendo, that such a taxation plan would actually result in that much additional revenue—which it likely would not—we would still add an additional $10 trillion in debt.

And that, of course, assumes interest rates would not rise from their current low levels. A rise to the historical rates of interest would increase debt service costs from $250 billion per year to $650 billion per year, or approximately 15% of the budget.

Neither Congress nor the President are proposing a serious plan to balance the budget, which would require a politically impossible mix of massive budget/entitlement cuts, and/or massive tax increases on the middle and lower classes.

Absent such a plan, we will inevitably default on our debt, or hyperinflate our way out of it, both of which are merely two sides of the same coin. In either case, the dollar will lose its status as the world’s reserve currency, and the life savings of every single person in the country—except, perhaps, those embodied in some classes of hard asset—will be rendered worthless. There will be massive unemployment, and a high possibility of civil strife. Imported goods will essentially be unobtainable, and I’m not just talking about BMWs and Land Rovers, but everyday things we never even think about, like fresh fruit from Chile in the winter, or clothes from Singapore and Taiwan at any time.

The least damaging course of action would be a massive reduction in government spending. A more damaging course would be a massive increase in taxation. The most damaging course would be to do nothing but nibble at the edges of spending and taxation until we default, either formally, or de facto through hyperinflation. So far, we are set on the third course.

We are set on a path to completely destroy the currency and economic life of the Republic, and we will inevitably do so without massive tax increases, massive spending cuts, or some mixture of the two.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, the Fiscal Cliff negotiations—by which I mean "farce"—continue. Personally, I’m a charter member of the Let It Burn club. The Democrats have set up a narrative in which, no matter what happens, Republicans will get the blame. And yet, 18 months ago, what we’re now calling the Fiscal Cliff was unilaterally hailed as a wise, bipartisan, and far-seeing compromise that would set the country on the road to financial rectitude. And quite frankly, the president is giving every indication that he wants to go over the Fiscal Cliff, and that he can weather the political and economic fallout from it.

OK. Then let’s test that theory.

This is not a risk-free strategy. As Ace of Spades points out:

The Walk Away/Let It Burn option is growing on people. One cautionary note, though: This will provoke a serious constitutional crisis and may undo the Republic. So a soft Let it Burn could turn into a genuine collapse of the Republic.

Obama is a tyrant. If Republicans do not lift the debt ceiling, it is perfectly obvious what he will do, as he’s argued for it before: Like Putin, he will begin unilaterally asserting power he doesn’t have.

And what will be the recourse? Court, I suppose. Impeachment, sure, but Democrats will block conviction. So whether or not the President can suddenly assert sweeping power over the purse — sweeping aside the last real check on his power granted to the House of Representatives — will depend on the vote of Justice Go Along to Get Along Roberts.

President Obama has already asked for it. It’s that one exception I mentioned before: He is asking for unilateral power to raise the debt ceiling and no president should ever have that power.

Our constitution is clear that the money bills must originate in the house. Equally clear is the principle of Congressional supremacy, in that Congress may pass laws even over a presidential veto.  The debt ceiling is clearly a Congressional, not a presidential prerogative.

Congress, of course, has already amended the Constitution’s strictures in practice. For instance, the Senate takes House bills, say, for building a dam, and strips the original language, then loads it up with budgetary items. The House accepts them in conference. Additionally, we have operated without a federal budget—though one is required annually by law—since 2009. This is a…constitutional novelty.

But giving unilateral budgetary power to the president goes far beyond novelty. In my view, granting this power to any president will mark the end of the Republic, just as surely as the creation of the First Triumvirate marked the death knell of the Roman Republic.

The American people elected President Obama. It is only right that they should reap the full measure of the consequences of that decision. Ace is right. Going over the Fiscal Cliff may undo the Republic. But if that is true, then I’m entirely unconvinced that the Republic should be saved.

~
Dale Franks
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The tyranny of numbers (Updated)

Let me see if I can quantify the current and future budget situation.  It’s actually quite simple, and doesn’t require knowledge of anything other than elementary mathematics. The most recent analysis of the Federal government’s unfunded liabilities, to include the national debt, debt financing, Social Security, and Medicare, showed total unfunded liabilities of $61.6 trillion. I’ve seen substantially higher numbers in other analyses—up to $75 trillion, depending on how you score it—but let’s take this fairly conservative one.  What are the practical implications of this number?

Let’s see what we’d have to do to pay all that back in 30 years. I picked that length of time because a) it covers the entire span of Baby Boomer retirements, and b) it equals the longest maturity of any Federal debt instrument,  the 30-Year Note.

Let’s look at the rounded numbers, derived from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. In fiscal 2010, GDP was $14.63 trillion.  Of that $2.165 trillion was collected in Federal revenue, or 14.8% of GDP. $61.6 trillion, paid over 30 years, will require equal installments of $2.05 trillion every year.

Now we’ll make some assumptions.  Let’s assume that we get 2% growth this year, and that for the next 29 years, we get an average of 3% growth in both GDP and in tax revenues collected. We also have to assume that the US Government doesn’t run a deficit, or add and more to the national debt between now and 2041. And let’s even assume that the current 14.8% of GDP we’re currently collecting in revenues doesn’t rise to the the historical 17.8% average, and that we can fund the government on just revenues of 14.8% of GDP.

Finally, let’s remember that most revenue that has ever been collected in all of American history, as a percentage of GDP, was 20.6% in 1999, after a substantial economic boom. Prior to that was 1945’s 20.4%.

In order to pay off this year’s share of the $61.6 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the government will have to collect $4.261 trillion in revenues.  With an estimated 2011 GDP of $14.922 trillion, that comes to 28.6% of GDP. If we assume government revenues rise to the historical average, the we’ll need the government to take 31.6% of GDP in tax revenues. Happily, because we’re assuming a 3% rise in GDP and revenues for every year over the next 30 years, that percentage will decline slightly every year, until, in 2041, we’ll only need to collect 20.5% of GDP in tax revenues to pay off the last installment, assuming, again, 14.8% of GDP covers the operation of government.  If we go back to the 17.8% figure, then we’ll have to collect 23.5% of GDP in revenues.

Either way, for the next 30 years, we need to collect substantially higher tax revenues than we have collected at any time in the nation’s history, and we have to do it every year for 30 years.

Quite frankly, I doubt that this is even physically possible, much less politically possible. Quite apart from anything else, I have no confidence whatsoever that we will even have 3% GDP growth under a regime where more than one-quarter of national income is given to the government for the next decade.

If you want to see the year-by-year numbers, my Excel worksheet is here.

~
Dale Franks
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UPDATE: A commenter points out that http://www.usdebtclock.org/ shows a total unfunded liability of $114 trillion. I believe that figure goes out to the year 2087, however. But, those calculations wouldn’t look that much different for individual years. We’d just have to support unsustainable taxes for 70 years instead of 30. Not that it matters, ‘cause we won’t do it anyway.

BTW, keep in mind that these numbers are just a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation to wrap our heads around the basic scope of the problem, not a precise model of government expenditures and revenues for the next 30 years. I wasn’t really interested in doing 20 hours of math for a 15-paragraph blog post, after all.

Observations: The QandO Podcast for 22 May 11

In this podcast, Bruce and Dale discuss the president’s middle east speech, Obamacare waivers, and fiscal policy.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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Big tent, little tent, both parties contend with tough changes

I‘m headed to CPAC this week. Just thought it would be a good idea – there’s going to be quite a libertarian contingent there. Doug Mataconis from Outside the Beltway, Jason Pye from United Liberty (and an occasional contributor to QandO), as well as members of CATO.

There’s a reason I think it is important to go and that’s to see what is in store on the conservative side of things for the promise of smaller government and less spending. I’d like to join other libertarians in influencing that move toward both smaller (and less intrusive) government and much less spending.

But I’m certainly not going to line up very well with the social conservatives. Such is life – my bet is we can find common ground on the fiscal and governmental side of things. And, if you’re familiar with the neo-libertarian strategy, it is to try to work within the existing system to influence and change those things we can by pushing for change that enhances basic liberty. Call it a bit of putting my money where my mouth is.

That’s also what I characterize as "the pragmatic approach". The system we have is what we have – I can stand outside and throw rocks at it, or I can work inside and try to change it. And no, working inside certainly doesn’t mean I "accept" the system as the end product or am "validating" it by working within it. I’m simply pointing out that the most effective way, in my opinion, of changing things is to work with those of a like mind and create a synergy that finally makes that change. I see CPAC as a valuable forum for such action. Lots of those who are actually involved at a national level in doing such things will be there (Rep. Paul Ryan, for instance, and Sen. Rand Paul).

It’s also an opportunity to network with a lot of bloggers I’ve known peripherally- mostly through email – for years (and some I’ve met and know personally as well).

All that to say there’s a bit of a debate going on about CPAC and who should or shouldn’t be attending. I’ll let you fill yourself in here. And here.

All that said I don’t feel "unwelcome". This is a struggle that goes on in every party. Don’t believe me? Check out the Democrats – especially in the South. They’re going through some major problems as many Democrats at a state level are switching parties in the wake of the November drubbing. The complaint? The Democratic party (national) has become too liberal and doesn’t reflect the values of the more conservative among them. Zell Miller, who made it clear he felt that way, was apparently only in the vanguard of the movement away from liberal Democrats. And those Blue Dogs left in Congress, now that they’re not needed by the majority, have all but been cut off from the Congressional Democratic leadership. They’re simply too conservative for the Pelosi crowd.

Anyway, this week should be interesting. CPAC is undergoing a bit of a controversy concerning the group GOProud being allowed at the table (it’s a gay Conservative group – well according to fiscal cons, social cons don’t buy that because of GOProud’s stance on gay marriage) and a new controversy which claims that the board of ACU, which puts on CPAC, has been infiltrated by Muslims.

And then there are the usual controversies.

*Sigh*

Like I say, should be interesting. As the old saying goes, may the dragon you find be well fed.

~McQ

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 05 Dec 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Budget Comission, and Washington’s refusal to even consider making any of the hard choices it represents.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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Observations: The Qando Podcast for 17 Oct 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Economy, and the government’s effect on it.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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The looming debt crisis

The other day Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, addressed a meeting of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. During his speech, he did something Fed chairmen don’t usually do. He spoke about US fiscal policy. His words don’t really relay anything most of us don’t really know, but it is the fact that he felt compelled to say them that make them newsworthy. After I read them, I felt his uneasiness and, like many Americans, his frustration that the political leadership doesn’t seem to understand the problem or its urgency.

A few excerpts from his speech:

[I]n the United States, governments at all levels are grappling not only with the near-term effects of economic weakness, but also with the longer-run pressures that will be generated by the need to provide health care and retirement security to an aging population. There is no way around it–meeting these challenges will require policymakers and the public to make some very difficult decisions and to accept some sacrifices. But history makes clear that countries that continually spend beyond their means suffer slower growth in incomes and living standards and are prone to greater economic and financial instability.

Whether you agree or not that government must address health care and “retirement security”, there’s not much to argue with in the highlighted last sentence. This is Econ 101 stuff. This is something Americans running their own households know almost instinctively. The problem – and frustration- is that Americans suppose this point must be just as obvious to their elected leaders, yet with the wild spending continues. While politicians talk about fiscal sanity and pass bills like PAYGO (that they then promptly ignore or make exceptions too), nothing is really being done about the looming economic and financial instability in the debt load brought on by excessive and persistent government spending.

Failing to address our unsustainable fiscal situation exposes our country to serious economic costs and risks. [...] In the longer term, a rising level of government debt relative to national income is likely to put upward pressure on interest rates and thus inhibit capital formation, productivity, and economic growth. Larger government deficits increase our reliance on foreign lenders, all else being equal, implying that the share of U.S. national income devoted to paying interest to foreign investors will increase over time. Income paid to foreign investors is not available for domestic consumption or investment. And an increasingly large cost of servicing a growing national debt means that the adjustments, when they come, could be sharp and disruptive. [...]

Again, almost everyone recognizes the truth of Bernanke’s words. If you run household, you know that if you amass huge credit card debt you are going to see an increasing amount of your income stream going to service that debt and less of it available for your use. That means less consumption because you are sending that money to a “foreign lender” – the credit card company. That in turn may translate into less of a house than you wanted, a smaller car or no college for the kids. If you run a business you know that increasing the amount of debt you carry and service means an increasing limit to your ability to expand, invest, hire new employees, improve benefits or give raises. At some point, your priorities take second place to the priority of paying back what you owe.

That’s where we’re headed as a country and more quickly than we might want to admit. Most would like to believe that this problem is understood and a high priority for our leaders. But that doesn’t seem to be the case and we see budget projections out 10 years that pile more and more debt on our already staggering economy.

The politicians continue to tell us it is necessary. They assure us that once the crisis passes they’ll address this problem in earnest. But will it then be too late? James Bacon Jr. addressed that recently in the Washington Examiner, discussing the “tipping point” in which the percentage of debt to the GDP hurts economic growth. According to a paper he cites by the World Bank, that assumed tipping point occurs when public debt equals around 77% of the country’s GDP.

Where are we?

According to International Monetary Fund calculations, the U.S. debt/GDP ratio in 2009 was 83.2%, above the tipping point, and will climb to 109.7% by 2015. […] That implies that the U.S. is experiencing a small growth penalty today: about one-tenth of a percentage point yearly. By mid-decade, however, the growth penalty could swell to 0.56% yearly — more than a half percentage point.

Unfortunately there’s no end to deficit spending in sight. Part of that is because politicians in this culture are not rewarded for doing tough and unpopular things. They’re usually turned out of office. And with the rise of career politicians who enjoy the trappings and perks of power and don’t want to give them up, most politicians are risk averse. Their preferred method of dealing with the “difficult decisions” and “sacrifices” Bernanke says need to be made is to kick the can down the road.

The point Bernanke is making is we can no longer afford to do that. Which brings me to the final excerpt from his speech:

Herbert Stein, a wise economist, once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." One way or the other, fiscal adjustments sufficient to stabilize the federal budget will certainly occur at some point. The only real question is whether these adjustments will take place through a careful and deliberative process that weighs priorities and gives people plenty of time to adjust to changes in government programs or tax policies, or whether the needed fiscal adjustments will be a rapid and painful response to a looming or actual fiscal crisis.

We have a choice right now – but either way, this is going to hurt. We can take charge and attempt a controlled crash landing to try and save as many as we can, or we can fly this problem until it naturally runs out of gas and deal with the consequences then. Unfortunately, it appears the latter choice is likely to be the only choice, given the current fiscal policy of this administration.

~McQ

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 12 Sep 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss Fidel Castro’s reported admission that Cuban economic system doesn’t work, and whether the upcoming election is a mandate for the Republicans, or something else entirely.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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The Kangaroo is Still Hopping

Bruce mentioned yesterday that the 5-year note auction drew thin demand, with a low bid-to-cover ratio, and a steep drop in indirect buyers.  This led to a jump in interest rates for both the Fives and the Tens also went up by 13 basis points.  meanwhile, investors began moving into corporate paper, instead of treasuries.

I also note that this week saw weaker than expected durable goods orders, atrocious new home sales, and initial unemployment claims still at 442k–which is better than it was last week, but not great.

The “recovery”, apparently is still on pretty shaky ground.

Meanwhile, the new health care reform law attempts to shift a bunch of spending via Medicaid to the states, who are not really in a position to cover those costs, as state tax revenues have sharply declined from 2007.

In short, with a weak economy, we are planning on adding what may be as much as $2 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years–deficits that are already at $1 trillion per year as far as the eye can see.  How neatly that coincides with the announcement that Social Security will run into the red this fiscal year, paying more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, six years earlier than previously expected.

So, we got that going for us.

The United States is supposed to be the richest country in the world.  But, on our present fiscal course, that cognomen will not attain in a very few years.  We simply will not have enough money to service the debt load we will be carrying.  In a very real sense, it doesn’t matter whether the Republicans can win in November and repeal the HCR law just passed.  Or Cap & Trade.  Or Medicare Part D.  Or whatever.

We are directly on course to having to run massive inflation by monetizing the debt, or to simply defaulting on it, both of which will result in massively high interest rates, and economic stagnation. With the added bonus of runaway inflation, for good measure.

That this will happen cannot be in serious doubt if we continue our present course. Our fiscal and monetary policies are self-evidently unsustainable.

I can only presume that the Democrats believe that, at the appropriate time, fairies will appear out of thin air to sprinkle magical pixie dust on the economy, and all will be well.  The current raft of policies they are proposing to enact will crush the economy.  We’ve seen it happen time and again in South America, and now even in the EU, in which the Greeks are headed for a default in the very near future.

What is coming out of Washington is not policy.  it is full-scale flight from reality.