The $17 trillion and rising debt that we, as citizens of the USA have amassed is a mind boggling figure that is so large that most people can’t really relate to it. But the debt, along with the dysfunctional political system and the ideological divide we have today has nearly everyone worried about our future and what kind of country our kids and grand kids will have. I wish I had a buck for every time a heard phrases like: “We are saddling our grandkids with a debt that will make it hard for them to enjoy the lifestyle we enjoyed.” Well, spending is out of control, we are a divided nation, and there are some serious problems we need to deal with to reinvigorate our democracy and adapt to a fast changing world. But can I inject a bit of optimism here?
Rarely mentioned in the ongoing angst in the media is a simple, but overlooked fact - we have some assets! The average person has probably at some time sold some of the stuff that is cluttering up the house and garage. The garage is cleaner and easier to get around in. And a few bucks were put in the pocket. And this simple idea can work for the over sized garage that is our federal government.
According to Bob Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in their recent book “The Fourth Revolution, The Global Race to Reinvent the State” selling public assets and businesses could virtually eliminate the debt. Amtrak lurches from crisis to crisis despite having some lucrative routes and could be sold to a private company that would probably figure out how to make it profitable. The feds own 900,000 buildings, some that are in some very expensive real estate markets and around 45,000 are unused or underused. The Bureau of Land Management has jurisdiction of around 260 million acres of land, and while no one would advocate selling our national parks, much of this land is agricultural or unused land with shale deposits that could contribute an estimated $14.5 trillion dollars to the economy by 2050. The government also has their hands in numerous businesses.
Recently, President Obama suggested selling the Tennessee Valley Authority but was immediately confronted by Republican politicians objecting to the move. One can only imagine the Gipper looking down from the Shining City on a Hill and wondering what the heck is going on here. We should seriously study whether selling the TVA as well as some other government agencies to private entities. Let them do what businesses do, try to find efficiencies and run them profitably. With the regulatory apparatus we have today the public’s interest can be managed without the cost inefficiencies that inevitably come with government run operations. And the revenue from the sale of public assets could shrink, if not eliminate that huge debt.
We Americans have a lot of work to do to retool our democracy for the modern era. The entitlement programs aren’t sustainable, health costs continually grow, and globalization and technology are both causing dislocations and offering new opportunities. The challenges are large and our dysfunctional system is slowing our response to them. Selling assets could change our fiscal situation dramatically, but would only be a temporary fix if we only use our decreasing debt burden to justify more out of control spending. But I wouldn’t write off the kids’ future just yet. There are answers if we can only find the will and the leadership.