Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff: A Semiserious Summation

Those of you who follow the news have probably heard about the impending arrival of the so-called "Fiscal Cliff", a series of automatic budget adjustments scheduled to go into effect in January barring preventative action by Congress and the President. Economists predict that the consequences of the cliff could include a renewed recession, increased unemployment, and other potentially harmful short and medium-term economic effects, and as a result congressional leaders from both sides are putting aside their differences to resolve the issue in a typically expeditious and decisive fashion.

Pictured: Democracy
But what exactly is the fiscal cliff? To understand it properly, we have to go back a year to the last game of congressional chicken, the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. The debt-ceiling, and the raising thereof, is a parliamentary procedure by which the House of Representatives basically authorizes the Treasury to borrow money necessary to pay for budgetary items already approved  by Congress. In 2011 Republicans energized by a highly caffeinated Tea Party realized they could sabotage the normally-perfunctory process as a means of extracting concessions from Democrats. "Do as we say," they intoned, presumably while stroking cats and/or twirling mustaches, "or your precious country will find itself quite unable to pay for anything it has purchased!" It's roughly equivalent to two roommates who agree to alternate months paying the rent: It all works fine until suddenly one month the first roommate, immediately after mailing his check, threatens to empty his bank account before the check clears unless the other does the damned dishes for a change. Even if the result would be both getting evicted, the roommate reasons that it would be the other guy's fault because those dishes have been piling up for weeks and he's done like nothing about it.

So it all started when a major political party decided that blackmailing its own country was a responsible thing to do. Congress, naturally, leapt into action. It created the ultimate solution: the ad-hoc, bipartisan, almighty Supercommittee. The Supercommittee was to be a gathering of the best and brightest Congress could offer, who would work together and surely, finally, bring this bitter conflict to a close. Just in case they didn't--not that they wouldn't, because relax, man, they've got this--Congress instituted what is now called the Fiscal Cliff as a commitment device full of tax increases and spending cuts that Democrats and Republicans would find equally odious, which would only go into effect if they couldn't reach a deal. Unlikely, my friends. Unlikely.

Co-Chairs Sen. Kent, D-Metropolis and Sen.Wayne, R-Gotham
Well, wouldn't you know it, the Supercommittee somehow failed. Kind of badly, actually. Nobody really knows why, except that it was definitely the other side's fault. As a result members of Congress boldly decided to throw up their hands and wait until their side won the Presidential election, which would change everything. Now that time has come. America made its choice and both sides are...pretty much where they've always been. Each side wants the Fiscal Cliff resolved in ways that favor their respective parties middle-class Americans. Republicans, many of whom have signed a blood pact with this guy proclaiming their souls forfeit should they raise marginal rates on top earners, insist that Democrats make concessions on healthcare and other areas before they'll deal. Democrats, meanwhile, wish they could just get their way one time without out those stupid mean Republicans always ruining everything. I mean, remember that time Republicans wanted to have an invasion of Iraq and Democrats went along with it even though they kind of thought it was a bad idea, which it totally was, by the way, just like they said it would be, but they did it anyway because that's what friends do, and ever since then Republicans have been all like, "Sorry, my way or nothing"? I mean, they're just rude.

So now it's a showdown and the cliff looms. But honestly, it's nothing to panic about yet. The Fiscal Cliff is less this and more this. At first, like a leaky pipe, it will spray in our faces and annoy us without really hurting anything, and Congress can easily reverse course weeks or even months after it begins. But if left unattended it will burst and flood America's basement and ruin its collection of old cassette tapes in storage. Luckily for Congress, most of its members are wealthy enough to avoid serious personal consequences from a renewed recession, and thanks to redistricting very few are exposed to much risk from the electorate, just as the Founders intended. So while the Fiscal Cliff showdown is indeed a dangerous game, from Congressman or woman's perspective the risks are mostly for other people. Like, you know, us.

This is a way easier version of Russian Roulette.
What will happen in the end? I'm actually fairly sanguine about the whole mess. When it comes to politics my position is that things rarely turn out as bad as the doomsday prophets predict or as good as the Pollyannas imagine. As a historically-inclined thinker and a realist I cheerfully proclaim "poppycock!" to anyone who thinks of America as a timeless Platonic ideal from which we've somehow only recently fallen. "America used to be great!" some claim. "No it didn't" I respond. At least not in the way people like that think. If there's one tradition that has defined this great country from the very beginning, it's of muddling along and occasionally stumbling into something better. The Fiscal Cliff, however it is resolved and whatever its consequences, is probably bound to be just another act in our ongoing (infuriating and sometimes barely-functioning) experiment in democracy, which has lasted a few hundred years while providing ample material for amateur satirists like me. That's worth something, right?


  1. I find it highly unlikely that Superman is a Democrat and Batman a Republican.

    1. It's an ongoing topic of discussion:


    2. So what I'm getting from this is that Bruce Wayne is secretly Republican but maintains the billionaire playboy act to seem liberal? Hmmm...

  2. Our nation's cassette tape collection is in danger now too?! Is nothing sacred, Congress?

  3. I kinda hope we do go off the fiscal cliff for a few months, and that it is long enough for the chickens with their heads cut off to finish running and die, and everyone pays more taxes for a year and sees what cuts to the military and social programs really look like.
    Then, we might have a chance to start a debate about things as they really are, and not how MSNBC and FOX news would like us to believe they are.