Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Metaphor of the Day - The Fiscal Cliff, Where Conservative PAC Money Went

You can't listen to any media lately without hearing 'Fiscal Cliff' repeated over and over.

Metaphors, if they are apt, can help us visualize the abstract.  When Winston Churchill called the border between the East and West in post-war Europe the Iron Curtain, he used a metaphor that vividly brought to life what was happening.  It was a metaphor that stuck.

But many metaphors don't capture the situation so cleanly.  Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was intended to portray the policy as a strong military mobilization to end poverty.  It came from people whose idea of war was World War II, who weren't considering Korea, and who still believed they were going to win in Vietnam.  Even more problematic was figuring out who "the enemy" in this war was.  Some began to think it was the poor people themselves.  There is a similar problem with the other main War metaphor - War on Drugs.  Drugs seem to be thriving, it's the drug users that have been the enemy.  But like war, it swallows up money.

And people can get in trouble when they mix metaphors as in this gem from Examiner:
"failure of the super committee to reach agreement also triggered the fiscal cliff"
I'll let you visualize that yourself.

So, the question is, how good a metaphor is The Fiscal Cliff?

It's a powerful visual image.  But does it accurately portray the situation?  What or who is going over the cliff?  The country?  The money?  The Democrats?  The Republicans?

Maybe it's what conservative PACs threw all their money over during the election.    

Going over a cliff isn't always fatal either.

Everyone seems to agree that our debt is too high. They disagree on how to fix it and on the timing of the solutions.   I would argue that very few of  us actually understand economics in general and the economic situation of the US and the world well enough to actually know.  Of course, that's where a good metaphor comes in - even if we don't understand, we can all picture a car driving toward a cliff.  So we all feel a certain amount of tension.  Is it the tension we feel watching a car in a movie?  Or is it the tension we would feel if we were in the car itself?

Let's look at a different metaphor for a second.  Conservatives regularly talk about 'running government like a business." I can talk a long time why you can't run government like a business, but let's focus on one aspect where the conservatives NEVER quite apply business principles to government:  Accounting.

In business accounting you list the company's debits AND CREDITS.  When they talk about government, they never consider all the assets.  And if we were to add up the government's assets - all the land, all the buildings, all the wealth in terms of art, historical objects, roads, bridges, airports, human capital, and on and on - it would show us comfortably in the black.

No, they only look at the debit column.  What would happen to Wall Street if all we saw in the annual reports were the companies' debts but not their assets?  Government money spent on education and infrastructure is an investment in future assets. Back to cliffs now.

How did we get to the edge of this cliff?

The Republicans, from my perspective, were playing chicken with the US economy.  Under Bush, they cut revenues by cutting taxes and added to expenses with two costly wars.  Additionally, they cut regulations setting up the banking crisis.  There's no question, Democrats helped them.  Those Democrats seemed to accept that Bush was president and should be allowed to try his policy.  Ultimately, the Republicans were the drivers who led our country to the cliff.  Once we went over that cliff at the end of the Bush administration and the Republicans handed the car keys over to Obama, they locked into a game metaphor - and winning was the only option.  Say a game of poker.  They were going to force Obama to fold by refusing to compromise on taxes and refuse anything he wanted.  If they blocked all his initiatives, they could make him look bad and win the election and then they could do what they wanted again.  McConnell even told us that their top priority was defeating President Obama. 

Except now we know the winning the election part didn't work.

Congress passed The Budget Control Act of 2011 as a way to force themselves to make necessary budget cuts.  It set up a joint committee to come up with ways to reign in the debt (another metaphor).  If the committee failed sequestration (automatic cuts) would kick in to reduce the gap between  Congress' cuts and the spending limit:

  •  These cuts would apply to mandatory and discretionary spending in the years 2013 to 2021 and be in an amount equal to the difference between $1.2 trillion and the amount of deficit reduction enacted from the joint committee. There would be some exemptions: reductions would apply to Medicare providers, but not to Social Security, Medicaid, civil and military employee pay, or veterans.[4][5] Medicare benefits would be limited to a 2% reduction.[7]
As originally envisioned, these caps would equally affect security and non-security programs. Security programs would include the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Nuclear Security Administration, some management functions of the intelligence community and international affairs from the U.S. State Department.[8] However, because the Joint Select Committee did not report any legislation to Congress, the act reset these caps[clarification needed] to defense (essentially the DOD) and non-defense categories.[9]    [from Wikipedia]
But the Super Committee did fail to agree and now the Budget Act Reductions plus the expiration of the Bush tax cuts are the Fiscal Cliff people are talking about.

Because they lost the election.  Rhe Republicans' bluff (no increase in taxes) has been called and they are left with the worst of both worlds - Bush tax cuts ending and what they believe are unacceptable cuts to the military.  (I really thought that the Fox News predictions of a big Romney win were cynical fodder to get the masses to want to join the winners by voting for Mitt, but it's appearing that they believed their own hype.)

So, now the House and Senate both appear to have gained a few more Democratic members and Obama's still in the White House.

One thing Republicans do understand is winning and losing and on this morning's post election interviews, Republicans weren't even spinning the results.  They were admitting they lost, that Obama won.  They respect winners, even winners they don't like.

They declared war on Obama's reelection and they lost. Unlike the economy, the election outcome is clear and concrete.  They didn't achieve their top priority.  As they examine why, is it possible they might figure out that the American public doesn't like the stalemate (a chess metaphor) in Congress?  It sure seems that Republicans have a lot more to lose by driving over this 'Fiscal Cliff' than the Democrats in terms of priorities.

I suspect, but I'm not sure, that we all stand to lose a lot.  But I don't understand all the details enough to know how much pain we'll suffer collectively, who will suffer more and who less, and whether the short term pain might lead to long term improvement.  Not letting the Budget Control Act go into effect would definitely be smoother.  Not letting all the Bush tax cuts expire during an economic recovery would be smoother.  But if we do go over the cliff, I don't know who will end up dead, who will end up injured, and who will get up and walk away ok.

Meanwhile, on this day after the election, the bottom of Fiscal Cliff could very appropriately describe where conservative PAC billions were thrown during the campaign.

It appears that Citizens United has led to the biggest income transfer from the rich in quite a while. 

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