|We chose to steal from our children and grandchildren rather than control our spending.|
Spending Crisis – Part IV
Can Catastrophe Be Averted?
By: George Noga – May 19, 2019
This is the fourth and final post in our Spending Crisis series, available in its entirety at www.mllg.us. Our headline asks, “Can Catastrophe Be Averted?” The answer (spoiler alert) in one word is: no! If something cannot go on forever, it won’t; the spending cannot go on forever, so it won’t. America today is only 2-3 years from the point-of-no-return, from which no nation ever has escaped without grave harm.
The USA will blow past the point-of-no-return because there is no constituency for action and there won’t be until the crisis affects people’s daily lives. Politically, there is no incentive, and in fact there is a strong disincentive, to act absent a manifest crisis. When the crisis arrives, government initially will take only quarter-measures and it will be far too little, far too late. We simply have dug the spending, debt and deficit hole too deep; but instead of beginning to fill in the hole or even to stop digging, we blithely continue to dig the hole ever deeper, oblivious to the consequences.
The most likely initial government response to the crisis will be to hold short-term interest rates at or near zero – and perhaps even negative. If the interest rate is ultra low, the amount of debt theoretically is unlimited. However, although the Fed exerts strong control over short-term rates, they don’t have similar control over long-term rates. Alternatively, the Fed can simply buy an unlimited amount of debt in a massive quantitative easing process. Neither of these actions is without consequence and at some point everyone will know that the emperor has no clothes.
Comments from Reviewers
Three highly knowledgeable people, to whom I am grateful, reviewed this series. No one disputed the data or the analysis. Most were less pessimistic about the final outcome, although they didn’t present solutions; one wrote, “Things are never as good or as bad as they at first seem; the sky is not falling – it never does.” Another wrote, “As long as (people) continue to invest in our Treasury debt, the crisis will not happen. The point-of-no-return comes when no one will invest.” All the reviewers noted that, despite everything, we are better off than in the past and than most other countries.
One reviewer suggested we might be able to reduce the debt to acceptable levels, over many years, by a combination of inflation and weakening the dollar such that foreign holders of our debt absorb most of the pain. Officially, foreigners hold only 39% of the debt, but this reviewer believes the real number is higher as some foreigners mask their ownership. However, this reviewer acknowledges this tactic can only succeed if the US gets its budget into balance; otherwise, it doesn’t matter.
Two Dimensions to Crisis: Excess Debt and Balancing the Budget
There are two distinct dimensions to the spending crisis. First, we must purge the system of all excess debt to return the debt/GDP ratio to an acceptable level. Second, we must get our spending under control and balance our budget. Even if aliens from another galaxy showed up and miraculously repaid our national debt, we would be right back in the same position unless we got our budget into reasonable balance.
Timing: When Will the Crisis Begin?
The most frequent questions I get are about timing. The short answer is that there is no way to know. No bell goes off when the crisis begins; no bell went off in Japan or Greece; at first, the crisis may seem transitory. I can make a credible argument that the crisis already may have begun given the ultra low interest rates. In all of recorded history (since 3000 BCE) there never before have been zero or negative interest rates.
The best answer I can muster is the crisis will be in full bloom when the ratio is 125% to 150%. But it could happen much sooner; once markets see where things are headed, it isn’t necessary to wait until they get there. It also could happen much later. I recall Adam Smith’s admonition, “Be assured, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“. By that, Smith meant it requires much to completely ruin a nation, which can survive mistakes, stupidity and disastrous policies far longer than is assumed.
The spending crisis has many moving parts and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the data. Fundamentally however, it is simple. The US has spent and borrowed too much in relation to the size of its economy. It is rapidly approaching a hard and fast tipping point (90%) determined by the inexorable laws of mathematical compounding and from which no nation ever has escaped without great pain and a lost generation.
By the time the crisis is manifest, the budget gap will be over $1.5 trillion per year, or 30%, amidst punishing demographic forces. There is no realistic way to bridge that gap. Perhaps, catastrophe can be postponed or ameliorated with extreme financial repression – which in itself will put America in crisis; moreover, it won’t permanently solve the fundamental problem. Ultimately, all excess debt must be purged and the budget brought into some semblance of balance. There is no other way out!
Charles Murray, one of the titans of our time, recently said, “The American experiment in self-government is essentially over“. I fear he is correct, as America in 2019 panders to people’s fears and prejudices, while it ignores existential threats. The spending crisis, which will cost America a lost generation, was eminently foreseeable and preventable. It is at root a moral crisis because we lacked the will to act.
We chose to take from our children and grandchildren rather than to control our own spending. To make matters even worse, the money we stole was not put to good use. Instead of borrowing to save our nation from calamity (as in World War II), we stole the money from future generations to finance a perpetual New Year’s Eve party.
Note: Email us with questions or comments. We may publish a follow up post in a few weeks with reader questions. We also are open to publishing other viewpoints; if you are interested, email us for guidelines. We will continue to publish regular updates about the spending crisis.
Next up: MLLG’s Complete Principles of American Politics
|Possible solutions: grow, cut, tax, inflate, repress, restructure, repudiate, seize, MMT|
Spending Crisis – Part III
Possible Solutions to Spending Crisis
By: George Noga – May 12, 2019
This is the third of four posts in our Spending Crisis series, which is available in its entirety at www.mllg.us. There are many theoretical ways a spending crisis could be averted; we could grow, cut, tax, inflate, repress, restructure, repudiate, seize, or MMT our way out. More likely, we will employ a combination of these measures.
Grow: There once was a time, as recently as 5-10 years ago, where growth was a possibility: no longer. There is no way the economy can grow at a faster rate than the debt, which currently is growing by 5.25% and increasing to 8.00% by 2025.
Cut (Spending): FY 2019-2020 spending will be about $4.7 trillion with a deficit of $1.1 trillion. To balance the budget requires spending cuts of 23.4% but, by the time an impending crisis gets Congress’s attention, cuts of 30% will be necessary. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions and defense would have to be savaged to such an extent as to sow the seeds of civil unrest. Moreover, the cuts would have to remain in effect for 15 straight years just to get back to today’s 78% debt ratio.
Tax: Balancing the budget will require a 36% tax increase. Even if possible, it would be self defeating, as sky-high taxes would lead to economic stagnation. Note: tax hikes are a higher percentage than spending cuts due to starting from a lower base.
Inflate: Inflation is the cruelest tax of all and devastates everyone’s plans, hopes and dreams. Just to cut the debt in half requires 10 years of 7.5% inflation provided the deficit is not increasing during that same time. Realistically, it would require 20% inflation for ten or more consecutive years just to maintain the status quo.
Repress: Repression is government action that insidiously transfers wealth from the private to the public sector to facilitate financing massive public debt. It includes: (1) low or negative interest rates; (2) war on cash; (3) currency/capital controls; and (4) bail-ins. We already have repression; it will get much worse as the crisis approaches. See our post of November 11, 2018, devoted entirely to financial repression.
Restructure: Debt restructure likely will be part of the government crisis response. It takes many forms including: (1) lengthening maturities; (2) requiring roll-over; (3) imposing haircuts; (4) lowering interest rates; and (5) conversion to other securities.
Repudiate: Nations that have repudiated are unable to borrow again for decades. Any repudiation would be perpetually tied up in courts and would decimate the savings of ordinary Americans who own government debt, directly or indirectly, in money market accounts, pensions and annuities. A direct repudiation is unlikely.
Seize: When crisis hits, there will be $25 trillion of IRA, 401(k) and pension assets; government could seize some or all such assets in exchange for government pensions. In recent years, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ireland and France have, through one artifice or another, seized money from pension assets. Government, like Willie Sutton, will go where the money is and that place is pensions.
Modern Monetary Theory: MMT has been around for a while but recently has been embraced by the democratic socialist crowd as a justification for unlimited spending. MMT asserts that a sovereign government that issues debt in its own currency, has flexible exchange rates and controls its central bank can spend without limit or constraint. With MMT, the state simply creates unlimited amounts of money.
Combination of Most of the Above
Just to stabilize (not to fix) the ratio requires $1.25 to $1.50 trillion per year from the above sources for up to 15 years. In the early stages of the crisis, a panicky government will: (1) enact VAT and/or carbon taxes; (2) make modest spending cuts; (3) increase repression; and (4) tweak Social Security and entitlements. It will be too little, too late; at most, it could slow the progression of the crisis for a few years.
In the advanced stages of the crisis anything is possible including: (1) massive tax increases; (2) hyperinflation; (3) severe financial repression including negative interest and currency/capital controls; (4) debt restructure; and (5) reliance on MMT to create unlimited amounts of money. When the crisis reaches the desperation stage, I would not rule out government seizure of most or all IRA, 401(k) and pension assets.
Our final post in this series (next week) addresses the ultimate question of whether or not a spending crisis catastrophe can be averted. Don’t miss it.
|Official government data are frightening – despite being wildly optimistic.|
Spending Crisis – Part II
Analyzing the Data
By: George Noga – May 5, 2019
This is the second of four posts on the spending crisis. The entire series is available on our website: www.mllg.us. Parts III and IV will be distributed on May 12 and 19 respectively. We begin with some data. The current public debt to GDP ratio is 78% and is increasing rapidly. GDP has been growing at 2.5% (with no recessions); we assume it continues to grow at 2.5% in the future, but at a net rate of 2.0% after taking into account the inevitable periodic recessions. The debt is now growing at 5.25%; we assume it grows at 6% until 2025, 8% to 2028 and 10% thereafter – again net of recessions. This assumption is consistent with projected deficits and demographics. These are conservative assumptions and actual results are likely to be worse.
Based on the assumptions supra, the US will exceed a 90% ratio in 2022 and a 100% ratio in 2025. After 2025 it gets really ugly, with the ratio approaching 150% by 2030. Social Security is now devouring its reserves, Medicare exceeds its funding in a few years and interest on the debt skyrockets. Deficits will average $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. The deficit easily will exceed $2 trillion during the next recession and it would not be shocking for it to be as high as $2.5 trillion, or even $3.0 trillion.
The really bad news is that the above data (mostly from government sources) are wildly optimistic. For example, CBO projected in 2018 that the deficit would not go above $1 trillion until 2022, but now is expected to exceed that in FY 2019-2020. CBO is touted as being non-political, but it really isn’t; it is required to follow the rules established by Congress. Hence, CBO is severely constrained and its data are neither objective nor accurate. MLLG’s data have proven to be far more accurate.
Caution: Don’t get hung up on the source of the numbers or the specific timing. There is no significant difference whether you use CBO, MLLG or other data; they all lead to the same ultimate outcome, only the timing differs slightly.
Significance of a 90% Public Debt to GDP Ratio
The 90% ratio is not arbitrarily plucked from the ether. Governments have been borrowing money for 600 years and there is no example of recovery from a 90% ratio without social and economic upheaval, usually accompanied by a lost generation until excess debt is purged. The 90% ratio is valid because beyond 90% the mathematics of interest and compounding results in an economic death spiral. Note: The World Bank asserts the tipping point is reached at 77%, which the US already has exceeded.
The crisis doesn’t begin on cue when the debt ratio hits 90%; that just represents the point-of-no-return. The crisis may not begin until years later when the ratio reaches 125%, or even higher. The 90% ratio is analogous to Titanic hitting the iceberg. The ship remained afloat for quite some time after the iceberg encounter and no crisis was immediately evident to passengers. Nonetheless, the moment Titanic hit the iceberg its fate was irreversible as is a nation’s fate once its debt exceeds 90% of its GDP.
The Mathematics of a 100% Public Debt to GDP Ratio
When GDP and the debt are equal, i.e. the ratio is 100%, it is much easier to grasp the mathematics of the death spiral. At a 100% ratio, the economy (GDP) must grow as fast as the debt to prevent a meltdown. Herein we assume that GDP grows at a sustained 2% rate net of recessions and in 2025 debt grows at 8%. The differential between the growth of the economy and the debt is then 6% per year; debt grows $2.0 trillion while GDP grows $400 billion. The annual addition to the debt now is up to $2.0 trillion and increasing; soon thereafter, the debt reaches critical mass.
Clearly, our debt is growing at a much faster rate than our means to discharge it. This is readily apparent to creditors who are likely to demand much higher interest rates. If interest on the debt simply reverted to its historic level of a composite 6%, it would amount to $1.5 trillion a year in 2025, equal to about 25% of the budget. Long before America reaches that point, the spending crisis will be in full bloom.
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Next on May 12th – Part III: Possible solutions to the spending crisis.
|At root, the spending crisis is moral rather than economic.|
Spending Crisis – Part I
Introduction and Background
By: George Noga – April 28, 2019
This is the first post in our series about the spending crisis. It is a spending crisis and not a debt or deficit crisis because it is the spending that drives both the debt and deficits. It is a moral rather than an economic crisis because preventing the crisis requires only summoning the national will to control spending. It is about who we are as a people, what kind of country we bequeath to our children and our national security and survival. I have marshalled all the facts, logic and wordsmithery I possess to explain this crisis in an objective and non-political manner.
Our series is in four parts. Part II, Analyzing the Data, will be distributed May 5, Part III, Possible Solutions, on May 12, and Part IV, Can Catastrophe Be Averted?, on May 19. The full series is now on our website www.mllg.us. The series was reviewed in advance by three experts with diverse viewpoints. I carefully considered all their feedback, incorporated much of it and offered to publish any dissenting opinions.
In addition to my MBA, CPA background, I have studied economics for 50 years. I devoted much of one summer in Montana to constructing a quantitative model of the US economy, including the deficit, which has proven to be highly accurate. I have been writing about the crisis of spending, debt and deficits for over a decade.
US GDP now is $21.0 trillion; the public debt is $16.3 trillion, while the total debt is $22.2 trillion. This results in a public debt to GDP ratio of 77.6% and a total debt to GDP ratio of 105.7%. The $5.9 trillion difference between the total debt and the public debt consists of intragovernmental debt, which mostly is money owed to Social Security and, to a lesser extent, to FHA and other agencies. For example, when Treasury spent the Social Security surplus, it issued special non-negotiable bonds.
Throughout this series we use the public debt ratio and not the total debt ratio because intragovernmental debt is notional, with interest accrued and not paid in cash. It is analogous to writing yourself an IOU. Most who cite the higher total debt ratio do so out of ignorance or as a scare tactic. However, there are some credible sources who believe total debt is more relevant than public debt. If they are right, our debt ratio is 105.7% and not 77.6% and America is much worse off than described in this series.
There are some who minimize the seriousness of the current ratio because it was higher (115%) in the aftermath of WWII (the only time prior to 2009 it was above 50%) and America easily recovered. However, the WWII deficit saved America from totalitarianism and was transitory. Afterward, war expenses ceased, Social Security ran surpluses, Medicare didn’t exist and demographics were favorable. Now, the deficit is structural; Social Security, Medicare and pensions run huge deficits and demographics are bleak. We are in the tenth year of an economic expansion and growth is 3%; yet, the FY 2019-2020 deficit will be $1.1 trillion and increasing each year thereafter.
It must be noted that many states, counties and cities also are in serious debt trouble and will, at some point, require federal government bailouts. Private debt is hovering at an all-time high. The world debt to GWP (Gross World Product) ratio currently is 84% and spiraling upward. Global debt (public and private) is $230 trillion and is over 300% of GWP. Although these issues are beyond the scope of this spending crisis series, they deserve at least some recognition.
We close with some examples that seem to defy expectations. Japan’s debt ratio is 250%, but dedicated pension assets lower the effective ratio to 110%. The NIKKEI index is down 46% from 1989 and economic growth is 1% amidst chronic deflation. Greece’s ratio hit 180%; it avoided default due to its small size and bailout by the EU. It’s economy contracted, pensions were halved and there was social and political upheaval. Italy, with a 130% ratio, is following in Greece’s tracks. Even though they avoided default, Japan, Greece and Italy did not escape the consequences of massive debt; they all have suffered lost generations and their crises are far from resolved.
Next on May 5th is Part II of our series about the spending crisis.
|Recent developments have sealed America’s fate; it is only a matter of time until some event (perhaps minor) triggers a crisis – forever changing the United States.|
Gotterdammerung for America
By: George Noga – February 25, 2018
Gotterdammerung is the final opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It means twilight of the gods and is marked by a catastrophic and violent societal collapse. It was the final performance of the Berlin Philharmonic on April 12, 1945. It is an apt choice for the above headline because, for the first time ever, I believe America has crossed the point of no return on its way to gotterdammerung. The climax of the crisis is years away but we have crossed the Rubicon and jacta alea est – the die is cast.
I was not this apocalyptic when I wrote the February 11 and 18 posts. The February 11 post identified the three root causes of the fiscal crisis as health care, Social Security (pensions) and interest on the debt. Because of recent developments, these root causes plus defense now will suck up the entire federal budget (and then some) by 2020 – much earlier than I believed scant weeks ago.
The February 18 post showed the public debt/GDP ratio surpassing 90% within 5 years. No nation has escaped from a ratio that high without societal upheaval and a lost generation. Subsequent to that post, things have gotten worse. Congress’ budget deal increased spending $150 billion/year and permanently raised the baseline for all future spending. Add another $200 billion for infrastructure plus billions more for higher interest on the debt and there are trillion dollar (and bigger) deficits forever. The US now will reach the critical 90% ratio much earlier than I believed on February 11th.
We were lucky until recently. The 2013 budget sequester restrained spending; we are in the ninth year of an economic expansion; and interest rates have been at historic lows. These factors delayed our fiscal death march to Gomorrah. Meanwhile, the demographic time bomb keeps ticking as health care and pensions spiral out of control. Now, the sequester is busted, interest rates are exploding and a recession is due soon.
There is no way out of this fiscal rathole. Slashing spending requires cuts of 25% and must include health care and pensions – sowing the clouds of civil unrest. Raising taxes also requires a 25% increase and kills economic growth leading to stagnation and lives of quiet desperation. Other possibilities such as runaway inflation and repudiation of the debt also would rent the country’s fabric. All possible solutions are nihilistic.
Most politicians, however venal, are not stupid. They fully understand everything in this post. They do not attempt to halt America’s entropy because they know voters will not support drastic action unless there is an existential crisis. Speaker Ryan wanted to tackle entitlements but he would be demagogued to death merely for trying. Nothing will happen until it is far too late and then it will be only quarter-measures.
Charles Murray, one of the titans of our time, recently said: “the American experiment in self-government is essentially over“. Hamilton said it well: “The only path to a subversion of our country is by flattering the prejudices of the people and exciting their passions, jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion and bring about civil discord.” That describes America today, dithering over identity politics and playing to peoples’ fears and prejudices, while ignoring existential threats.
With profound regret, I now must concur with Charles Murray. I fear our beloved republic of 230 years has passed the point of no return; I hope and pray I’m wrong.
Next in 3 days: Special Posting on the Parkland school shooting
By: George Noga – May 8, 2016
There are numerous and mind-numbing statistical methods for calculating income inequality. The Census Bureau alone reports the Gini coefficient, Theil index and MLD (mean logarithmic deviation). Many of these statistics do indeed show more inequality now than in past decades; however, peeking inside the numbers is revealing. Note: Most data herein are from US Census Bureau and BLS reports published in 2013-2014.
By every measure extant, inequality rose more under Clinton than Reagan – Theil at double and MLD at triple the rate. The same is true with Obama’s first six years vs Bush 43. The Gini coefficient rose triple the rate under Obama; MLD rose 37% more; and Theil is up sharply while it fell under Bush 43. It is not a giant leap to deduce that most of the putative increase in income inequality results from progressive policies.
Despite all the esoteric statistics, we really know very little about income inequality because all the data are – to use a highly technical term – crapola! Every study is fatally flawed by inconsistencies and limitations affecting source data; the major flaws are:
Does our tax system result in inequality? In one word, no. The US has one of the most progressive tax regimens in the world. Even Social Security and Medicare are somewhat progressive when taking (as should be done) the benefits into account. Moreover, increasing marginal tax rates on the wealthy would not result in their paying more in taxes – a principle well documented and even codified in Hauser’s Law.
No discussion of income inequality would be complete without genuflecting to the so-called gender gap. However, economic analysis shows that the gap between incomes of men and women completely disappears when properly adjusting for level of education, type of degree, experience, hours worked and level of danger.
The Census Bureau also reports data on spending by income quintile. The lowest quintile spends $2 for every $1 of reported income. Some of this comes from the underground economy – which logically is the province mostly of that cohort. If we were to gauge inequality based on actual spending rather than on fatally flawed measures of income, the effect would be a signal decrease in inequality in America.
The next post in this series on May 15th addresses the $15 minimum wage.
“Failure to grow America’s economy is a choice; decline is not inevitable.”
As trumpeted by the headline of this blog post, economic growth is a panacea; indeed, it is the only solution for every problem (real and perceived) that we face today and for the coming generation. It is apropos that Panacea is the Greek Goddess of healing because strong economic growth will heal everything; to wit:
Okay, so economic growth is the panacea; what must we do to achieve it? The answer is straightforward and attainable. If we do the following we will achieve vigorous, long-lasting economic growth.
“Don’t tax me; don’t tax thee; tax the man behind the tree.”
By: George Noga – June 10, 2013
Having blogged extensively about the crisis of spending, debt and deficits, I am constantly alert for new perspectives to present the crisis in terms easier to understand. I have discovered one compelling new way to do this and it is presented herein.
First however, the media have widely reported the decline in the projected federal deficit which normally would be welcome news. Please note I referred to the projected deficit; the actual deficit continues its inexorable march to oblivion. The decline is due to two factors: (1) higher tax collections in late 2012 in advance of the Obama tax increases; and (2) payments from Fannie Mae. Both are one-time phenomena. So you may wonder, won’t the tax increases permanently shrink the deficit? If you believe thusly, you have forgotten Hauser’s Law which teaches tax rates may rise or fall, but the overall percent of revenue to GDP remains unchanged.
The Special Mathematics of a 100% Debt/GDP Ratio
Now for the fresh perspective. As the Debt/GDP ratio approaches 100%, some simple but gripping mathematics come into play. First, a few numbers. GDP now is $16 trillion and the public debt is $12 trillion (75% ratio). At the end of Obama’s term GDP will be $17 trillion, assuming a perhaps optimistic 2.0% compound growth rate. The public debt also will be right at $17 trillion based on continued annual structural deficits of just under $1 trillion combined with the frightening demographics and high annual compound growth of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and ObamaCare. Please note I use public debt and not total debt; this is because we must pay interest only on the public portion – a key distinction to bear in mind as you read on.
When the interest-bearing public debt equals GDP, the math gets interesting. Historically, the average maturity of US government debt is 5 years, while the average interest rate is 6%. When public debt equals GDP in 2016-2017, we can make the following observations.
“When debt and GDP are the same, the economy must grow at a rate equal to the composite rate on the debt to prevent a death spiral.”
First, the economy must grow at the same rate as the overall interest rate on government debt to keep from exploding interest costs and the deficit. If interest rates revert to the historic average of 6% while GDP grows at 2%, this will, ceteris paribus, result in a 4% larger deficit. At $17 trillion, the annual debt service (interest) will be over $1 trillion with 4%, or $680 billion, resulting from the gap between GDP growth and interest rates. Note: Interest now consumes less than 1% of GDP because of historically low interest rates – which will not last.
Second, if (miracle of miracles) the interest rate becomes equal to GDP growth, the entire benefits of the expansion of the US economy are offset by and consumed by higher debt service. To put it straight: the US economy never can grow net of interest. One can only imagine the impact of this on unemployment and every other measure of economic well being.
“If both GDP growth and interest rates were at their historic averages, there would be a differential of -2.7% , adding $400 billion a year to the deficit.”
Third, again using historic data, if the US economy grew at its average post WWII rate of 3.3% (phat chance) and also experienced its average interest rate of 6%, that would result in a differential of -2.7%, i.e. debt service would explode by nearly $400 billion more each year compounded. Even if economic growth was high at say 3+%, interest rates would be higher given the concomitant strong economy. Thus, even under such sanguine conditions, debt service would grow much faster than the economy resulting in a debt death spiral.
I hope the above perspective helps readers better understand why countries whose Debt/GDP ratios blow past 90% of their economies rarely, if ever, recover. These United States of America are headed toward a 100% Debt/GDP ratio by the end of the current presidential term. The only alternatives are: (1) massive spending cuts on the order of 30% which will wreck the social contract; (2) Draconian tax increases which will tank the economy further; (3) runaway inflation; (4) repudiation of the debt; and (5) a lost generation much like Greece is experiencing today. In fact, we are likely to experience several of the aforementioned perils. Avoiding widespread civil unrest and maintaining the rule of law will be no small feat.