The Washington Post

Fiscal cliff: Get out the fog machines

Student of government though I may be, I’m struggling to maintain interest in the fiscal cliff, precisely when tensions are supposedly boiling over and the long knives are coming out and our dueling metaphors are stumbling over one another.

Note to aspiring writers: Most metaphors need to be taken out back and beaten with the flat side of a shovel.

Rarely have we seen a story so big, so fraught, that over the course of days and weeks actually lost audience rather than gained it. This doesn’t feel as epic as the budget negotiations a year and a half ago. Where are the protests? Whatever happened to those Tea Party people in the silly hats? Why is there so much silence, even from usually dyspeptic and insensible Republican freshmen in the House?

One possible answer that I keep pondering is that there are many people who secretly love the cliff as a kind of temporary scratch of a long-term itch. For example, it imposes brutal spending cuts via sequestration. The Tea Party people want a smaller government, so they can’t possibly be against that. The Republicans may want to go over the cliff so that they can start negotiating with a new vote on the debt-ceiling looming. The cliff also sunsets the  Bush tax cuts, and thus no deal gives Democrats one of the things they want (higher marginal rates on the very affluent). The point is, people don’t seem to fear the cliff the way they feared slamming into the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, when Republicans seemed willing to let the U.S. default on its bills. “Default” is a word that gets people’s attention. “Sequestration” isn’t. 


As for the upcoming increases in taxes, most of us actually don’t know what we pay in marginal taxes. I’m very aware of the mortgage interest deduction as noted many times in this space because of the Ta-da! moment when I used to enter that bad boy into my Turbo Tax and see my tax bill take a dive. But for the most part I am clueless about taxes. I’m not sure what my marginal tax rate is. I have an accountant now, and I pay him to know such esoteric facts. 

And I bet many of us don’t even know what our retirement age is under current law. Am I eligible for Social Security [full benefits] when I turn 65? I honestly don’t know.

Let me check.

Crap!! I can’t retire until I’m 67!!!

The things you learn when you blog.

Here’s what it says:

‘Full retirement age (also called “normal retirement age”) had been 65 for many years. However, beginning with people born in 1938 or later, that age gradually increases until it reaches 67 for people born after 1959.’ [My italics.]

Timing. Timing. Life is about timing. As any historian can tell you, I was born in 1960 during the closing days of the Eisenhower Administration. Reagan and O’Neill passed that law in 1983 pushing back the retirement age and raising Social Security taxes and fiddling with the system in various ways (see Reagan and Newt Gingrich in photo laughing at my loserness as they raise my retirement age).

Guess what: Hardly anyone cared about the tax hikes and delayed retirement in Social Security, in part because they didn’t really know it was happening, or didn’t fully register it. (I knew about the tax increases and was quite steamed about it because back then FICA was eating up my paycheck and I needed, as a young man, extra money for all the clubbing and whatnot.)

That’s the blueprint for a deal: Do stuff that people can’t understand or don’t really notice. Keep it boring! This is the ultimate reason the fiscal cliff story has turned into a relative snoozer by budget-showdown standards. The negotiations are in secret because no one wants any drama. Gridlock is planned and scheduled. There’s a script that must be followed and it requires that the audience be lulled into a stupor. Then the leaders will announce an inscrutable deal at some late hour on a Friday night after Christmas and before the new year — essentially the darkest, foggiest, dullest, slowest, sleepiest moment of the entire year, when not even the insomniac bloggers will be paying attention. The fog machines will be cranked to the max. And it’ll be almost like nothing ever happened.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · December 11, 2012

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