Editors Note: The Big Story at the end of this year (2012), other than the Mayan Apocalypse of December 21, is the Fiscal Cliff of December 31. If we go over, we will want to blame the politicians, but we should probably look in the mirror instead.

The Fiscal Cliffhanger — Getting Our Just Desserts

“We want lots of things, and.
we don’t want to pay for them.”

Jon Meacham  


Occasionally, people get what they deserve. Sometimes, a whole country does. That time could be coming.

Unless Congress suddenly develops a willingness to compromise and, more importantly, grows enough spine to ask the American people to sacrifice for future generations, we’re going over the fiscal cliff, with all its predicted catastrophes. What are the chances our legislators will suddenly start behaving like patriots, rather than partisans? Don’t bet the mortgage payment on it.

Republicans balk in horror at asking the wealthy (who effectively own the GOP) to pay a even little more. Evidently, they feel raising millionaires’ tax rates by three or four percentage points is a hardship to which the upper classes shouldn’t be subjected. Better to make the old and the destitute take benefits cuts than agree to comparable revenue increases from the rich, or the near-rich.

The Obama Administration isn’t looking to return to the punitive tax rates of the 1950s (when the country managed to boom anyway). Instead, Democrats are trying to reinstate the rates of the 1990s (and only for the top earners), when the economy also boomed. Many people now look at the Clinton years as a golden era, before the recession of 2008 destroyed the economy, but Republicans see it as socialism.

Meanwhile, many Democrats have refused to even consider raising the age of eligibility for social security or Medicare by a couple years. Although rising life expectancies are straining the system, there’s little enthusiasm for inconveniencing prospective retirees, even if that could mean preserving benefits for future generations.

Naturally, raising the cap on what wealthy earners pay into the system is an unpopular idea for Republicans, as is instituting means testing. Nothing riles conservatives more than annoying the wealthy. Realistically, the GOP’s raison d’etre is widening the gulf between the rich and everyone else. Hence, they constantly campaign to eliminate the estate tax (which they’ve renamed the “death tax”), regardless of how much this might add to the deficit.

No one is asking America’s upper class to give up its wealth, merely to pay a slightly higher percentage in taxes when it comes time to leave it to the next generation of plutocrats. But Republicans don’t want to see their rich benefactors give up any of it. And the roughly half the country that supports the GOP (most of whom will never have enough money to be affected by changes in estate tax rates) supports the idea that the well-off aren’t yet well-off enough, despite the burgeoning gap between rich and poor.

Stereotypes of politicians, such as the idea the GOP cares only for the rich, develop for a reason. The same is true of the notion that Democrats never met a government spending program they didn’t like. Hence, Republicans are reluctant to raise taxes based on promises from the Left that they’ll cut spending, because history has shown they won’t. Both sides are likely to reach an impasse on entitlement reforms, because neither side trusts the other’s motives.

In the discretionary portion of the budget, the largest item is defense. Although we spend nearly as much on our military as the rest of the world combined, the Republican platform in the last election included increases, and the Democrats will be hard-pressed to reduce defense spending in a country that prides itself on being the world’s policeman. However, the fiscal cliff’s sequestration could fix this problem.

In 1980, the Greatest Generation had toiled its way out of the Great Depression and won World War II, then fought the Cold War, all the while keeping deficits under control. Starting with the Reagan Administration, Baby Boomer profligacy has put the solvent country our parents’ generation bequeathed us into what is now realistically bankruptcy. We’ve selfishly learned the peculiar lesson that our revenue need not come close to meeting our expenses, because deficits didn’t matter, and future generations can pay them off for us.

Now the chickens have come home to roost, and we’re debating whether an 88-year-old World War II veteran who survived the Depression should be denied his insulin to finance tax cuts that will enable a hedge fund manager in Greenwich to upgrade his Gulfstream IV to a Gulfstream V. If we had any sense of shame, we’d be ashamed.

We blame our politicians for being sleazy, dishonest and cowardly, and Congress’ approval rating is about the same as herpes. But our representatives didn’t magically appear in Washington in some beer hall putsch or palace coup. We put them there, so we’ve gotten nothing less than we deserve. They’ve pandered to our self-interest, and we’ve rewarded them for it. They “represent” us in every sense of that word. And as the success of incumbent candidates attests, we keep on re-electing them.

Maybe we should go off the fiscal cliff. We certainly deserve it. We should demand something better, and if we do go over, then we should replace every last one of the bums in Congress in 2014, but that will never happen. As we head over the abyss, we’ll have to confess that we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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