House Speaker John A. Boehner kicked off the 112th Congress by saying Americans are ready for an adult conversation on spending and deficits.
Two years later, that broader conversation has yet to happen, either in the country or in the halls of Congress, where lawmakers were poised Monday to once again nibble at the deficit but shy away from fundamental reforms…
“Instead of having a president who runs around saying we’re going to stick it to rich people, what we really need are honest people to go around the country and say to people, ‘If you are working class or you are retired, the government is stealing from you,’” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor. “Why do prices go up? Because we run a deficit up here giving you free stuff, we print up money to pay for it, and that steals value from what you have.”
The “fiscal cliff” is a massive failure of presidential leadership. The tedious and technical negotiations are but a subplot in a larger drama. Government can no longer fulfill all the promises it has made to various constituencies. Some promises will be reduced or disavowed. Which ones? Why? Only the president can pose these questions in a way that starts a national conversation over the choices to be made, but doing so requires the president to tell people things they don’t want to hear. That’s his job: to help Americans face unavoidable, if unpleasant, realities. Barack Obama has refused to play this role…
Until Obama conspicuously and consistently acknowledges these realities in straightforward and unmistakable language — something he hasn’t done and shows no signs of doing — he cannot be said to be dealing honestly with the budget or with the American people. The main reason that we keep having these destructive and inconclusive budget confrontations is not simply that many Republicans have been intransigent on taxes. The larger cause is that Obama refuses to concede that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are driving future spending and deficits. So when Republicans make concessions on taxes (as they have), they get little in return. Naturally, this poisons the negotiating climate…
Unfortunately, much of the media have accepted the Obama narrative that it’s only Republican rigidity that frustrates negotiations and leads to deadlock. This means, of course, that there’s even less incentive for Obama and congressional Democrats to engage in genuine bargaining.
[W]e have crossed the Rubicon of political reality. The president holds a cheerleading session to ridicule Congress, not one plan offered makes even the smallest dent in our economic disaster, cynical political ploys by Harry Reid torpedo possible agreements — all these petty politicians fiddle while America burns. And then, we’re supposed to believe that a last-second deal responsibly solves the problem from a bunch of bickerers who had months (years, really) to tackle the issue?
Our crisis is political, not economic. Politics is ultimately a moral exercise, no matter what it deals with. Leaders are stewards of our social patrimony. What we see in Washington today is not gridlock. It is collapse. It is the final triumph of political theater over political reality, of ignorance over reasoned governing, of self-interest over principle. A $12 trillion economy and 230-plus-year history can survive a great deal of abuse and neglect. But history proves no state is immune from the self-inflicted idiocy of its leaders or people. Just how long we will survive in this state is now a proposition fully engaged. It is the great social experiment of the 21st century.
None of the deals proposed to save us from falling off the mythical cliff would make even a tiny dent in our on-going trillion dollar deficits, which is what this exercise was supposed to be all about. The final battle has now been postponed until February or March, when we hit the debt ceiling.
Republicans hope to get spending cuts from the president in return for agreeing to an increase in the debt ceiling, and the president plans to force Republicans to accept tax increases so that in the absence of spending cuts the ceiling will not be pierced. All of which means a continuation of the uncertainty that has become part of the new normal, which has big business sitting on its piles of cash, and small businesses wondering whether they dare take on new employees. The private sector will have to overcome substantial political headwinds to produce a meaningful growth rate in 2013.
Of course, in the end the enemy is us: We elect and reelect the vast majority of those who are presiding over this policy mess. It is as if the Jets decide to keep the current coaching staff and player roster after their woeful performance this season; as if Wizards fans find ways to express overwhelming satisfaction with the current cast of characters that represent them at the Verizon Center; as if we come to agree with many Europeans who regard Jimmy Carter as the most distinguished former president, and demand his return to political life.
Ultimately, we should blame the American voters. The average Medicare couple pays $109,000 into the program and gets $343,000 in benefits out, according to the Urban Institute. This is $234,000 in free money. Many voters have decided they like spending a lot on themselves and pushing costs onto their children and grandchildren. They have decided they like borrowing up to $1 trillion a year for tax credits, disability payments, defense contracts and the rest. They have found that the original Keynesian rationale for these deficits provides a perfect cover for permanent deficit-living. They have made it clear that they will destroy any politician who tries to stop them from cost-shifting in this way.
Most members of Congress are responding efficiently to the popular will. A large number of reactionary Democrats reject any measure to touch Medicare or other entitlement programs. A large number of impotent Republicans talk about reducing the debt, but are incapable of forging a deal that balances tax increases with spending cuts.
The events of the past few weeks demonstrate that these political pressures overwhelm the few realists looking for a more ambitious bargain. The country either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the burdens we are placing on our children. No coalition of leaders has successfully confronted the voters, and made them heedful of the ruin they are bringing upon the nation.
You can blame the spineless politicians all you like, and I will happily blame them right along with you. But the fact is, this giant pile of irresponsible debt is what this increasingly soulless and immoral country wants. The longer we do this, the more we are wrecking our children’s futures. And tra la la, nobody seems to care. We’re going to “get the millionaires who are doing pretty well to do a little more,” to use the Huckster in Chief’s well worn phrase, and meanwhile the do-nothings who contribute zero to our society get to keep sucking on the socialist teat. And this is what we want, as a country. This is what we voted for…
Our children’s futures are wasting away in front of our eyes, and nobody gives a damn, as long as we can keep injecting those sweet, sweet government benefits into our bloodstream. Just close your eyes and feel the calm wash over you, and try not to think about the small child gasping for air at your feet.
Ahhhh. Doesn’t it feel good, folks?