We have met the enemy and it’s us

UnknownRecently I got one of those virally forwarded e-mail blasts, flaying Washington politicians and demanding an array of draconian punishments for them, stopping just short, perhaps, of tumbrils.

But who elected these miscreants?

It doesn’t take a political science genius to understand politicians’ behavior. There’s but a single explanatory factor: winning elections. That means following voter wishes.

So why doesn’t the fiscal cliff deal tackle spending? Don’t voters want that? Oh, yes, absolutely they do, just so long as you don’t cut Social Security or Medicare or education or farm programs or defense or, well, anything, except of course for foreign aid. (On which the average American thinks we should spend no more than 10%. In fact it’s less than 1%.)

thRepublicans, especially Tea Partiers, really really want spending cuts. But just ask exactly what to cut, besides Big Bird (0.014% of the budget). And just whisper a suggestion and you get the campaign ads with granny shoved over a cliff. Of course Republicans don’t want to hand Democrats this nuclear weapon. What they’d like is for Democrats to disarm by joining them in the spending cuts. But any Democrat doing that would get the granny-over-the-cliff ad himself in his own next primary.

We imagined that Republicans would make a deal with President Obama, agreeing to higher taxes for the rich in exchange for spending cuts. How foolishly naïve. We forgot the nuclear weapon. We forgot that whereas soaking the rich is popular, cutting spending risks granny-over-the-cliff ads and political annihilation. So what we got was soak-the-rich and nothing on spending.

Why did Republicans agree? In the end, instead of trading off soak-the-rich taxes for spending cuts, they were forced to swallow the tax hikes merely in exchange for avoiding even bigger tax hikes.

The New York Times editorially labeled this a big payoff for Republicans, rewarding their “intransigence”! The Times fulminated that the rich aren’t being soaked enough – while saying hardly a word about spending – nor noting that under this deal, deficits will continue to balloon – or that no conceivable level of taxes on the rich could close that gap.

Devotees of this blog may recall how accurately I foresaw this outcome. The Democrats did get their Great White Whale, with Bush’s tax cuts terminated for high incomes. And the argument over spending can seemingly continue. I say “seemingly” because for all the sturm-und-drang, nothing serious will be done about spending because Republicans have now squandered their biggest bargaining chip. Any further blackmail they might attempt would be seen as just that, blackmail, politically suicidal.

I hope President Obama enjoys his whale meat. He might have exercised responsible leadership. He might have forced Democrats to accept the need for spending action, as a trade-off for the tax increases they craved. This fiscal cliff moment was actually a grand opportunity for him to achieve something meaningful – just like Simpson-Bowles – the opportunity he missed earlier. But instead of seizing the moment, the President chose the easy, expedient thing, to pocket the cheap “victory.”

History will write that Obama’s eight years mark the time when America might have saved itself, but didn’t. We may have survived this th-1recent little cliff, but we’re running straight down the track toward a far bigger one, of economic ruin, with clearly now no hand on the throttle.

And if you want to find the real culprit to blame, dear voter, look in the mirror.

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8 Responses to “We have met the enemy and it’s us”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    I always enjoy you thoughtful, literate comments. I’d be glad to give up part of my social security check to help out and think the biggest waste is military (but that’s jobs!). Frank, where do you suggest we trim?

  2. bruce Says:

    even just stopping the increases is to big an exercise. Gregg, what would you say to a ten percent cut for everything, with the stipulation that all the restrictions and requirements in procurement and funding be waved.

  3. Lee Says:

    The media is trying to sell advertising, so maybe fiscal matters are not as sensational as they are made out to be.

    Wikipedia shows US government spending as 38.9% of GDP, which is smaller than Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Finland, Austria, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, and others.

    Wikipedia shows US government debt at 105.7% of GDP, which is smaller than Japan, Singapore, and others, and is only slightly larger than that of Belgium, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and others.

    Are all these countries going over the fiscal cliff with us? Sure, reasonable people can argue that our previous way — by which I mean the Clinton years or pre-Reagan — is better than what these other countries are doing, but I am thinking that the “cliff” metaphor is a bit extreme.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Gregg — Yes, the military is very over-bloated. But I have repeatedly said that what we really need to cut is welfare for the affluent.
    Bruce — A meat-axe “10% on everything” approach might SOUND fair, but surely we are smart enough to exercise discrimination between worthwhile spending and boondoggles. Or not.
    Lee — Other nations like those you mention have more or less gotten their deficits under control so their debt is not metastasizing as ours is. The markets simply will not allow other countries to borrow on the scale the U.S. does. If our debt were frozen at current levels, yes, we’d be fine. But borrowing a trillion a year indefinitely is not sustainable. See next post, soon to come!

  5. Lee Says:

    I am misunderstanding your logic — If our spending isn’t too unreasonable and our taxes aren’t too unreasonable then it stands to reason that our deficit, which is their difference, is not too unreasonable. Right?

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Wrong. Our spending is NOT “too unreasonable.” Not if it’s a trillion more than we can tax. And certainly not if the trajectory is upward. How many trillions do you think China will lend us at near zero interest???

  7. bruce Says:

    10 % isn’t so much if you remove a burdensome task at the same time. Name a feature of the government that couldn’t do with less, maybe a less extravagant office, maybe fewer people doing fewer tasks since regulations required to, log, declare, record, justify, mollify, require…could be dropped such that a hammer would’t cost the armed services quite so much. Or a doctor could take cash and not have to involve some bureaucrat.
    Even if you feel the DoE does some good, explain how all the paperwork and stipulations help educate.
    I know it sounds tough, but things don’t have to be as they are to be just as good.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    The bulk of the problem is not pencil-pushers in Washington; it’s the flood of benefit checks and Medicare reimbursements the government sends out. “Waste, fraud, and abuse” you say? Sure, there is always that. But whenever you hear a politician mouth the words “waste, fraud, and abuse,” you know he is not a serious person on the spending issue. In order to get a handle on the problem, people are going to have to receive less from government. Nobody wants to hear that, but it’s the hard reality.

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