Would a Default Be Geithner's Fault?

Let me ruin the suspense for you: the U.S. is not going to default. Despite all the delightfully indulgent speculation about what could happen, what's possible, and who might do what, there's simply no way the U.S. government will allow itself to miss an interest payment on its debt. Nonetheless, there are some interesting questions that have been raised when it comes to placing blame for the mess the U.S. currently finds itself in. In particular -- if the U.S. were to default, whose fault would it be? Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner would be to blame. This statement is both trivially true and woefully misleading.

Sen. Toomey explains what he means in a Real Clear Politics op-ed:

Moreover, as the Congressional Research Service has noted, the Treasury secretary himself has the discretion to decide which bills to pay first in the event that a cash flow shortage occurs. Thus, it is he who would have to consciously, and needlessly, choose to default on our debt if the debt ceiling is not promptly raised upon reaching it. It takes a lot of chutzpah to preemptively blame congressional Republicans for a default only he could cause.

So first, Toomey's statement that a default would be Geithner's fault is true, by definition. But in this sense it's meaningless. It's like blaming a gun for killing someone and ignoring who pulled the trigger. The mere mechanism of default is what's being explained here, not the causes that would have led to the actual event.

If there is a shortfall in cash for the government to allocate over all of its expenses, is it really fair to blame Geithner for failing to pay the debt in full? Think about it this way. Imagine if you had a personal assistant who managed all of your bills. One month, you spend way more money than you make. As a result, that money manager fails to pay one of your bills in full -- there simply isn't enough money to pay them all. Is it his fault that you missed the payment? Of course not: it's your fault because you spent more money than you made. He's just the guy you hire to pay your bills.

As Toomey says, technically, Geithner could decide not to pay some other obligation like Social Security or military salaries instead of defaulting on U.S. debt payments. In fact, he probably would choose to prioritize debt payments if the situation really came to that. Geithner knows as well as anyone how big of a disaster it would be for the U.S. to default. He wouldn't let it happen, even if he does threaten that it could.

If he decides to allocate payments in such a way that the U.S. instead defaults, however, it would not be his fault that the U.S. missed a debt payment. The real cause would be insufficient funds to cover all of the nation's obligations. You can then choose for yourself who is really at fault. Is it Congress for failing to raise the debt ceiling? Is it current and past policymakers for stubbornly cutting taxes while increasing spending?

There are plenty of people and parties to blame for the U.S.'s ugly fiscal state. Just like Treasury Secretary Geithner could decide to ignore other U.S. obligations and continue to pay debt, Congress and the President could act to raise the debt ceiling, raise taxes, or cut those obligations. There are a number of ways the nation could avoid default, so there are a number of people who could prevent it -- and those same people would all be part of the cause if a default occurs.