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Time for U.S. government yard sale

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says it's not the right time to raise taxes or cut spending
  • He says U.S. government has another way to cut debt -- sell off assets
  • He says there's no need for government to run TVA and Hoover Dam
  • Frum: Selling assets will ultimately generate new tax revenue

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A special assistant to President George W. Bush in 2001-02, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and is the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- Some say that the United States is incurring too much debt, more than $1 trillion in the past fiscal year.

Others say that the worst recession since World War II is no time to cut spending or raise taxes.

They're both right.

Happily, there is a third way to slow the growth of debt without curtailing federal economic stimulus: sell assets.

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Imagine a family that has lost a job at the same time as its children are in college. The family could yank the children from college to save money. But if it owned a second home, it would make more sense to liquidate that before stinting on the children's education.

And the United States sure owns a lot of second homes.

There's the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example: Created during the Depression to help develop the impoverished Southeast, TVA today owns and operates 29 hydroelectric dams and six nuclear reactors, along with coal plants, wind farms and other power sources. In fiscal year 2009, the authority reported operating revenues of $11.3 billion and operating expenses of $9.3 billion.

There are public lands: The United States is the largest landowner in much of the Far West.

And there are assets easier to quantify:

-- More than half a trillion in securities: student loans, federally backed mortgage securities, etc. It might be hard to find a buyer for them right now, but as the economy recovers, they could be liquidated rapidly.

-- More than a quarter trillion in gold.

-- A quarter trillion in TARP assets.

-- $35 billion of oil in the strategic petroleum reserve.

-- Non-TVA public dams such as Hoover and Bonneville.

When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher privatized British public assets during the transition to a more competitive free-enterprise economy, she was sometimes accused of "selling the family silver to pay the bills."

Experience showed, however, that the family had allowed the silver to become tarnished. Once transferred to private hands, these assets rapidly became much more useful and valuable than they had ever been as government monopolies.

Better still: once in private hands, these increasingly valuable assets could be taxed. As state-owned enterprises, they had consumed government subsidies; as privatized businesses, they contributed government revenues.

Especially in the realm of power generation, it's hard to see the case for continuing to subsidize electricity for users in the Tennessee Valley.

No longer stricken by malaria, no longer impoverished, the people in the TVA region can afford to pay the full cost of their power just as much as Con Edison ratepayers.

If you are worried about the abuse of monopoly power, then regulate rates. But government does not need to own what it regulates. If anything, it usually regulates better what it does not own.

TVA privatization has been off the table ever since Barry Goldwater raised the idea back in 1964 and got politically hammered for it. But times have changed.

Privatization is not problem-free of course. But it's a superior alternative to tax increases that will cramp future growth or spending cuts that cast the most vulnerable to the winds during a harsh economic slump.

No one likes Wall Street these days. But it's time to get some investment bankers on the phone and ask them how to get the best possible price for what the United States has to sell.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.