Many say that the situation in Greece is a harbinger of what is coming to the United States. They are right. But first it will come to states like New York, California and Michigan, which are stretched way beyond their means and deeply in debt.
Until now, the problems in these states have been papered over by federal aid. Essentially, Washington has relieved these states (and the local governments they fund) of their constitutional obligations to balance their budgets by giving them welfare checks in the nick of time. Barack Obama now seeks to pass $50 billion in additional welfare to the states.
But, since these federal funds are not necessarily recurring -- and the jobs and obligations they fund are -- they simply enlarge each year's deficit hole and enable the states to go more deeply into the red.
As these deficits mount -- particularly if a newly elected Republican House and/or Senate refuse to fund them -- bondholders will get more and more nervous. Eventually, they will realize that the less solvent states are bankrupt and will refuse to buy their debt. Eyes in Sacramento, Lansing and Albany will turn helplessly to Washington to guarantee their debt, just as Athens turns to Berlin.
Republicans, if they control either or both Houses, should stand firm and insist that these states sink or swim on their own. America's taxpayers will not take kindly to having to bail out other states -- or even their own -- to pay for years of reckless spending. Americans will swarm to the GOP and will hail its stand.
There is currently no legal procedure for a state government to go bankrupt. Congress, especially if it is Republican in 2011, should pass a mechanism that permits states to discharge in bankruptcy their collective bargaining agreements and contracts with their municipal unions. Of course, this procedure would have to let school boards and local governments do likewise.
Obama will veto this bill, and a stalemate will ensue.
On the left will stand Obama, the unions and the Democrats demanding bailouts for the states and, truly, an end to our federal system of government. Once Washington guarantees state debt and spending, there will be no more state governance, only national rule.
On the right will stand a Republican Congress refusing to do so unless the states declare bankruptcy and cleanse themselves of the union agreements that got them into trouble in the first place. The GOP will point out that state funding is leaking as surely as the Deepwater Horizon oil well and polluting our nation's balance sheet as badly in the process.
Something will give in this national game of chicken. If it is the states and Obama that blink first, we will free our local governments of the grip of municipal unions, their rigid work rules and their unaffordable pensions. If the Republicans blink first, they will forfeit their right to represent the American people, having backed down from the challenge of our times.
This Armageddon looms in 2011, presenting us with either an opportunity to reform our government in fundamental ways or to set in stone our path to an Athens-esque meltdown.