The trouble with the Fiscal Cliff

December 20, 2012

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts) I hear The Beast lives underneath.

Remember the Fiscal Cliff?

For anyone else who forgot about it altogether, the Fiscal Cliff is an irate metaphor that will come rampaging through the nation in a few days, instituting painful cuts to all the things we like and possibly even triggering a double-dip recession.

Congress is familiar with it. They are taking immediate, decisive action. On Wednesday night, for instance, a group of senators watched a special screening of “Lincoln.”

It is good to know that they have the nation’s interests first and foremost. Having seen Lincoln, they will go dashing out with the desire to pass important resolutions and grow facial hair in unexpected patterns, both of which are what the nation needs right now.

Will Rogers said that a lame duck session of Congress was like firing someone, then keeping him around long enough to destroy the business. He may have had a point.

After talking to President Obama, John Boehner withdrew to propose something called “Plan B.” The suggestion that they “take Boehner’s Plan B” momentarily terrified the nation and his caucus until they realized he was not talking about what they thought he was talking about. 

Now Congress is trying the time-honored strategy of waiting to make sure the Mayan Apocalypse does not come along as scheduled and preempt any budget resolution. It would be a shame to waste your Thursday voting to resolve this budget problem when the Mayans were going to wipe out all capital gains at a single blow anyway.

But compared to what the rest of the country has been doing, Congress looks surprisingly productive. Consider the results of a poll we just took

“How do we solve the Fiscal Cliff?” the poll asked Americans.

“Duh,” we said, by an overwhelming 65 percent. “Combination of both increases in taxes and cuts in federal spending.”

“Well, what kind of cuts would you like?” the poll said.

“Er,” we said. We had been prepared for the first question. “Good ones,” we suggested. “Wise, prudent cuts. Even difficult cuts. Cuts that Congress must be willing to make. Hard, sensible choices.”

“You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, do you? What about Medic-”

“Not Medicare!” we shouted. “Not Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security.”

Seriously. We’re mostly in favor of raising taxes on income over $250,000 (so say 74% of those polled) or capping deductions (54%). But beyond that?

I am not sure what the people who answer these polls think is the problem. As best as I can understand it, we have this grand vision of a giant Lever of Prosperity located somewhere in the White House or the halls of Congress that Stubborn Republicans and a Shilly-Shallying President are contumaciously refusing to push. We imagine government employees wearing giant name tags that say “My Position Is Redundant.” They are there to lead tours of Wasteful Spending, a carefully marked line item in the budget. It is a mystery to us why no one has cut any of these Costly, Foolish Projects, given the massive support for doing so. They are so clearly labeled.

“Cut government spending,” everyone always says, when asked how to solve the deficit problem. “The wasteful kind.”

Maybe all this talk about metaphorically starving the beast has convinced us that there is an actual beast somewhere that requires feeding. It lives, Rancor-like, somewhere deep in the bowels of the White House, and it occasionally emerges to devour jobs or crush free enterprise. It creates immense waste. Why we have not starved it yet is a great puzzle.

But the instant you suggest cutting a tangible something, especially something that touches us in particular, we realize how important it is and how much we need it. We are in favor of stern cuts and sacrifices, as long as they are made by others.All government spending is wasteful until it happens to touch you. You very seldom hear people complaining that they have been given more money than they wanted. 

No changes to Medicaid. No raising the Medicare benefits age. No capping the rate of increase of Social Security. Other than that, though, make Serious and Difficult Cuts, and we’ll all bear the burden, except the part of the burden that falls on us.

We have made it pretty tough on Congress to come up with a resolution we would like. In theory, it’s easy. In theory, we are all in favor of tough cuts and balanced measures, just as, in theory, we eat well, get up early and go for brisk jogs in unpleasant weather. That is why, in theory, we do not need to lose ten pounds.

Theory is a pleasant land where our laundry is done and our homes are clean and we discipline our children correctly, and we have never fallen asleep in front of the television, gently drooling onto our iPhones. In practice, of course, things are different. Solutions that work in theory always get beaten up and have their lunches taken from them when they arrive in practice.  

Hard Compromises are popular in theory. In practice — well, I’d be watching “Lincoln” too. 

Related: Can you do better?

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | December 20, 2012