Human Events Blog

Uncle Sam’s hoarded, wasted wealth

The federal government is racking up a trillion dollars in bills each year that it cannot pay.  It long ago passed the point where any private-sector business or individual would have been required to declare bankruptcy, if not face charges of mental incompetence to manage their own affairs.

But Washington is not really “poor.”  It is very rich in assets, which it could sell or lease to pay its bills, without raising anyone’s taxes.  Many of these assets would produce health economic activity in the hands of private investors, while Uncle Sam leaves them strewn carelessly across the landscape, like toys he refuses to put away after playing with them.

The Institute for Energy Research just released a new study that inventories these “vastly underutilized” federal assets:

Federal real property totals over 900,000 assets with a combined area of over 3 billion square feet and more than 41 million acres of land. Additionally, the federal government owns over 600 million acres of lands and minerals onshore, and owns or manages a total of approximately 755 million acres of onshore subsurface mineral estate.  Offshore, the federal government owns some 1.76 billion acres of lands and mineral estate, extending out 200 nautical miles from our shores.  The federal government’s total mineral estate holdings are therefore about 2.515 billion acres of lands.  Thus, the federal government’s mineral estate land holdings surpass the total surface land area of the nation of Canada.

In fiscal year 2009, federal agencies reported 45,190 underutilized buildings, an increase of 1,830 underutilized buildings from the previous fiscal year. In fiscal year 2009, these underutilized buildings accounted for $1.66 billion in annual operating costs, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO). The majority of federally owned and leased space is held by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Postal Service, and the General Services Administration (GSA). For example, the federal government’s landlord, the GSA, owns or leases 9,600 assets with more than 362 million square feet of workspace. According to the GSA, in a 2009 report, almost 40 percent of its assets were under performing. In October 2010, a congressional study evaluated the savings that could occur based on better administration of the government’s above ground assets that totaled over several hundred billion dollars.

How much is all this worth?

IER estimated the worth of the government’s oil and gas technically recoverable resources to the economy to be $128 trillion, about 8 times our national debt. Further, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that state and national coffers could generate almost $150 billion over a 10 year period from royalties, rents, and bonuses if these resources were immediately opened to oil and gas leasing. The CBO study estimates are considered to be conservative when compared to historical data and estimates by other analysts and do not consider the earnings from taxes paid by these industries. IER estimated the government’s coal resources in the lower 48 states to be worth $22.5 trillion for a total worth to the economy of fossil fuels on federal lands of $150.5 trillion, over 9 times our national debt. Most of the coal resources in Alaska are deemed to be federally owned and are estimated to be 60 percent higher than those in the entire lower 48 states but are not included in these estimates.

(Emphases mine.)  But instead, we allow the government to hoard these resources, through a combination of bureaucratic inertia, careless neglect, and ideology.  Instead, we are told that we must surrender more of our property to improve the federal balance sheet… and big-spending politicians barely pause to pay lip service to “deficit reduction” before eagerly running up the next stack of bills they will later expect us to pay off.  It’s long past time for the American people to haul Uncle Sam into bankruptcy court and make him start selling off some of these assets, rather than tolerating his latest demand for higher credit card limits and a bigger allowance.  Perhaps some enterprising Republican should introduce a bill requiring the federal government to sell off enough assets to pay down the national debt, or at least wipe out the federal deficit for the next ten years.

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