Check the national debt clock: Our federal debt is $13.3 trillion, next year’s budget is $1 trillion in the red, and we have unfunded commitments for Social Security, health care and other programs as far as the eye can see.
Is the United States already insolvent? Yes, according to a recent Bloomberg column by Boston University economics professor Laurence J. Kotlikoff. After comparing the government’s obligations with its expected future revenues, he concludes: “Let’s get real. The U.S. is bankrupt.”
But Kotlikoff’s analysis does not go far enough. He looks at all the government’s obligations, but he does not consider the value of all the federal government’s assets. We could sell off federal property to raise money to repay creditors or to support our spending, at least for awhile.
In other words, it will soon be time for some creative financing.
The Treasury has more than 147 million ounces of gold at Fort Knox, Ky. It just sits there, costing us money to store it. That gold is worth more than $176 billion at current prices. I remember when $176 billion was a lot of money. Now, it would plug the hole in next year’s budget for only about two months. Of course, dumping 147 million ounces on the market abruptly would depress the price of gold, so we would likely get even less for it. (Central bankers have an agreement among themselves to limit gold sales for exactly this reason.)
Okay, selling our gold isn’t going to get us very far. We have some other really good stuff in the attic. It’s hard to predict what the White House might bring at auction. We could sell it and then lease it back for any president who wants to occupy it. Or we could just pocket the money and elect rich people who can afford their own digs in the District of Columbia.
How much is the Statue of Liberty worth? What about the Washington Monument? Or the Capitol?
In a piece in Time magazine, Douglas A. McIntyre suggested that selling the timberland of Yellowstone National Park could bring in over $4 billion, but that doesn’t factor in what an eccentric billionaire might give to own Old Faithful.
In 1962, the British government got nearly $2.5 million when it sold the London Bridge, which was in disrepair, to American oil magnate Robert McCulloch. (He moved it to Arizona.) Our famous bridges, like the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge, are not federally owned as far as I know. Still, perhaps we could sell the Bay Bridge that links San Francisco with Oakland. Like London Bridge, the Bay Bridge has a tendency to fall down.
If selling any of our national crown jewels seems unthinkable, the federal government owns plenty of other land that we could more easily part with. A 2004 congressional study found that the federal government owned 28.8 percent of all the land in the country, a total of more than 653 million acres, most of it national forest and federal grazing land. The total includes nearly 85 percent of Nevada. We could sell some of that land We could sell Nevada. We could throw in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and make it a package deal.
While we are on the subject of selling sparsely settled states, the Russians have expressed interest in reversing the Alaska Purchase. One call to Messrs. Putin and Medvedev might be all it takes. We should insist, however, that they also take any adult Alaskan named Palin or Johnston who has ever appeared on national television.
In the nation’s urban centers, we really ought to look at maximizing value for the numerous old forts and other military installations that serve little purpose in the modern defense structure, but which sit on valuable real estate. We can no longer afford sweetheart deals like the $1 sale of much of Governor’s Island to the people of New York in 2003, and the similar conversion of the San Francisco Presidio to a public park.
Only 800 yards from the southern tip of Manhattan, Governor’s Island has 172 mostly wooded acres that, in private hands, would be a developer’s dream. But after serving as a U.S. military base for almost two centuries, it is now open to the public and serves as a playground for urban dwellers. Recently it hosted a “Commandos vs. Zombies” capture the flag game. There is a miniature golf course with holes that are also works of art.
This is all very nice, but we just can’t afford it. Before its one-dollar sale, the island was valued at $500 million. It would not have been hard to find a buyer eager to put up luxury apartments instead of a quirky miniature golf course.
On the other hand, there are some federal assets that we should give away just to avoid an endless stream of future losses. Amtrak jumps to mind. A study last year found that, in 2008, U.S. taxpayers kicked in about $32 in subsidies toward the cost of the typical Amtrak trip. Even in the Northeast, where passenger volume is highest, Amtrak lost almost $5 for each passenger who traveled on its Northeast Regional trains. The train between San Antonio and Los Angeles lost $462 per passenger.
Our leaders have not been talking about asset sales because, so far, foreign lenders have been willing to hand us vast sums of money at ridiculously low rates. And they have been willing to roll over that debt again and again. But eventually the rest of the world is going to realize that Uncle Sam is in debt way over his head, and the lending party is going to stop.
Other countries have already started putting assets on the market. European governments sold €13 billion worth of property (about $17 billion at today’s rates) in 2006, according to a report by CB Richard Ellis. The United Kingdom has announced plans to sell around £35 billion (about $53 billion) of assets over the next 10 years. Russia recently said it plans to raise around $30 billion by selling minority stakes in 11 state-run firms.
Our turn is coming. Take another look at that national debt clock. See how much it has increased in just the time it took to read this column? We may not be bankrupt yet, but we’re well on our way to being broke.