“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed- and hence clamorous to be led to safety- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
The ongoing debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff” is a perfect example of the unhelpful symbiosis between the nation’s political class and the media. Both thrive on drama and the potential of calamity as a means to further their objectives.
While H.L. Mencken is long gone, his observations of politics are as relevant today as they were in his time. Our latest hobgoblin is now presented as a precipitous deadline that is rapidly approaching and that threatens to send our economy back into recession.
Or does it?
It’s true that several things will occur if Congress and the Obama administration fail to reach an agreement on spending cuts and tax increases by Dec. 31. But while the impact of those things will be significant eventually, they will not be sudden.
That’s not the case, of course, with an actual cliff, where the effects are immediate and usually dire.
But there’s probably more to the story than an imprecise analogy. Exaggerating the effects of a failure to reach agreement by Dec. 31, gives maximum advantage to those whose position is weakened if the deadline is passed without a deal. At least a few Democrats have begun to understand this reality, which is why a growing number are resisting the rush to make a deal at all costs.
It turns out that the political field aligns much more in favor of Democrats— and a more balanced solution— if the New Year arrives without an agreement.
Starting in January, a number of tax reductions expire and significant automatic spending cuts take effect. Democrats and Republicans are in full agreement that both outcomes are unwanted and unhelpful to the economy (Yes, that’s right, even Republicans are Keynesians when push comes to shove). That means that both sides will have an incentive to work out a solution.
For Republicans, the New Year brings new possibilities for compromise. As it stands today, virtually any Republican voting in favor of a deal that includes a tax increase of any kind will be in violation of their no-tax pledge made to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax jihadist who enforces his pledge with the same cruel efficiency and understanding of Torquemada. GOP legislators who have crossed Norquist have routinely found themselves ousted by primary challengers funded in large part by Norquist and aligned organizations.
But as of midnight on Dec. 31, a slew of tax cuts, mostly from the Bush era, expire, essentially raising taxes without legislators having to vote for it. Beginning Jan. 1, work can begin on a new round of tax cuts, most likely without the huge breaks for the wealthy contained in the Bush tax cuts. Republicans could vote for such bills— which would effectively raise taxes on the wealthy— without violating Norquist’s pledge.
As for the spending cuts, Republicans are horrified at the prospect of trimming the Pentagon, while Democrats are equally upset over the potential of funding reductions for education, infrastructure, and programs like Medicare and Social Security. Seems like there’s an agreement to be made there as well. Backfill some of the military cuts in exchange for the same on domestic spending and entitlements.
While Republicans had a vested interest in sowing dysfunction during earlier standoffs with the Obama administration, those political calculations are no longer relevant with the president’s re-election on Nov. 6. Obama can’t run for re-election, so intentionally harming the economy, as Republicans did in 2011, offers little payback. As the recent election showed, voters held Republicans at least as responsible for the feeble recovery as the president. More reckless endangerment of the U.S. economy will only further discredit the GOP, and could threaten their already-reduced hold on the House of Representatives.
While the media and some politicians seem intent on sowing fear of “the cliff,” going into next year without a deal won’t be as dire as advertised. While the tax increases could add $2,000 to the average family’s tax bill, those increases would only take effect in the event that no deal is reached at all— which is almost impossible to imagine.
Whatever tax agreement is finally achieved, would likely be retroactive to the beginning of the year, so if paychecks saw a bigger bite for a month or two, we’d get it all back in the end.
So the next time you hear another commentator droning on about the “fiscal cliff,” don’t worry quite so much. There’s no cliff waiting for us all on Jan. 1. At worst, expect a mild hangover from the celebrating the night before.