Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wilentz on the 14th Amendment

The eminent Sean Wilentz of Princeton wrote an op-ed in defense of presidential power to pay U.S. debts under the 14th Amendment. It's hard to quibble with his interpretation of historical events and the intent of Section 4 about the "validity" of the public debt. But his description of the 1860s controversy over paying debts in "depreciated paper money, or 'greenbacks'" was striking in light of the history of financial crises and defaults recently popularized by Reinhart and Rogoff. I think they would say that the U.S. has indeed "defaulted" on debts by repaying in inflation-debased currency, probably most notably by going off the gold standard during the Great Depression. One would have to agree that simply not paying debts is a lot more like unconstitutionally "questioning" them than inflating them away, but it seems there is some leeway in interpretation.