Everyone agrees fiscal cliff is huge problem, does nothing

This year will be our last Christmas, because the military programs that fund Santa Claus will be automatically cut in January 2013. That’s when the $1.2 trillion sequester of forced reductions in “defense and non-defense spending”—a weird epithet we have all agreed to use—will kick in as a result of the budget super committee’s failure to do dick about anything. Those spending cuts will coincide with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts to create a sort of economic compression pose known as the Fiscal Cliff. Ben Bernanke coined that expression. It’s his big accomplishment from last year. Meanwhile, businesses have delayed hiring and investment until they see what economic conditions will look like in 2013. The Republican and Democratic parties have agreed on two things this year. One, they will not talk about gun control no matter how many insane people shoot however many sane people. Two, going over the Fiscal Cliff would be bad. As we speak, Congress is working on a third agreement: to do nothing about it.

The fiscal cliff is of our own making. It is a punishment we invented to keep ourselves from doing exactly what we are doing now. Last year at this time, Congress formed the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as the budget super committee. They were convened to as a result of the legislative branch’s failure to reach any sort of agreement on extending the debt limit—a staring contest that led to a federal credit downgrade. The solution adopted by Congress in 2011 was to extend the debt limit and insist that okay, this time somebody has to do something about the deficit or something bad will happen. That somebody was the super committee, and they formally gave up three months after they were consecrated. That bad thing was the fiscal cliff, and it’s coming along right on schedule.

Meanwhile, the legislative branch has taken a break from doing very little to do absolutely nothing. John Boehner has written an open letter suggesting that Congress return from its recess, replace the military half of the sequester with domestic cuts, and make the Bush tax cuts permanent. That’s what the Republican half of the super committee insisted on and didn’t get. Democrats are no more interested in compromise than they were a year ago, because they see an opportunity to finally make the GOP agree to raise the top marginal income tax rate. When the Bush tax cuts expire, congress can vote to reinstate them on all but the top bracket, thus averting the no-tax-increases-ever promise Republicans made to Grover Norquist. Of course, that will entail going over the cliff first. But everyone agrees that nothing will get done before then, because this is an election year.

Think about that statement for a moment. In a functional republican democracy, you would think that an election would put more pressure on elected officials to address looming problems. Congress presently enjoys some of the worst approval ratings in its history. Their nearly unanimous rejection by the American people coincides with two consecutive sessions in which they passed almost no significant legislation, minus the sequester plan. In synthesizing these two propositions—A) everyone hates us and B) we haven’t done anything—sensible lawmakers might conclude that C) we should do something.

But that is not how American politics works. Right now, American politics works in such a way that no one is doing anything about the deficit, because both raising spending and cutting the deficit are unpopular. That’s like not fixing the hole in your roof because you’re afraid of heights and you don’t like to work with contractors. Republicans refuse to raise taxes on anyone, especially millionaires. Democrats and economists believe that significant spending cuts will push us into a recession. All parties agree that the deficit is a huge problem and the Fiscal Cliff will be really bad, so they freeze. Confronted with several hard choices certain voters are known to dislike, they choose a result that all voters are known to dislike—but which offers the enticement of not happening until the future.

That’s the important thing: that nothing bad happen right now. In a person, such refusal to endure any unpleasantness now no matter what problems it may cause in the future is a character flaw. That flaw is so common that we had to create a republican system of government to address it. It’s the reason you need to put armed guards around the granary to prevent the townspeople from eating a whole winter’s food on the first cold weekend. It’s why you don’t put the national budget to a general vote. Now that the legislative branch has agreed to lower the deficit, never raise taxes and not cut spending—and to achieve these goals by doing nothing until we vote them all back into office—I’m wondering why we need a Congress at all. Maybe we should try finding some leaders.

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  1. Great stuff, Dan.

    Can we add that there is a terrible drought killing the Midwest right now? The storm that I see brewing is that this fall food is going to be more expensive, gas is going to be more expensive, which will weaken the economy, Congress will still have done nothing, jobs and confidence will both be down, and then we will ask people if they want to keep the black guy that’s been in charge or a handsome white guy that is big into God.

  2. Break it down D.Brooks, break it down!

    However, Obama’s fine. His election is all but secured. I say this because I feel it in my bones, and honestly, how is anyone going to outspend him? He raises funds from everyone, so it’s not like corporate interests (if it’s fair to treat them like a monolithic entity) are going to swing the election to Romney. As y’all may be aware, Citizens United v. FEC has certainly led to an increase in spending since 2010, but it hasn’t lead to a huge rush of corporate contributions. Most of the money is coming from wealthy individuals. Depending on your weltanshuang, this is either a reassuring or meaningless distinction.

    In addition to my bones, I just read this, so I feel a little more confident than usual. http://www.businessinsider.com/wall-street-analyst-wonders-if-the-election-is-basically-already-over-2012-8 Unless a wealthy donor can fund a super PAC ad in every Florida home to convince the elderly that Obama is going to cut entitlements (something congress does), he’s a shoe-in.

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