U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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Truth Squad: Is “Obamacare” Pushing Health Care Spending Higher? What Will Happen in 2014?

In last Tuesday’s debate Mitt Romney suggested that, under Obamacare, health insurance premiums have spiraled by $2,500 per family. Not true.  (Hat tip to Healthcarefinancenews.com.)

 First let’s get the number right: According to an annual survey of employer plans  by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust, since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010, the average annual premium for family coverage has risen by $1,975 not $2500.  $1975 is a hefty sum, but 20% less than Romney claimed.

More importantly, $1,975 represents the combined increase in contributions made by employers and employeeswith employers picking  up the lion’s share of the hike. “In reality, premiums paid by employees haven’t changed that much.Factcheck observes. In fact, when you look at the rise in how much employees contributed, “the federal health care law was responsible for a 1 percent to 3 percent increase because of more generous coverage requirements.” In other words, employees were paying a little more, but getting value for their dollars.

After telling a whopper about how much employee’s health care premiums have risen in the past, Romney went on to assert that if Obamacare is  “implemented fully, it’ll be another $2,500 on top” of that. His evidence?  None.

                                              The Media Spreads the Myths

Yet the media continues to swallow the notion that under “Obamacare” health care spending will levitate. A few days ago, the Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson wrote: “Almost every expert agrees that controlling health costs is the crux of curing chronic budget deficits. Health-care spending already exceeds a quarter of federal outlays. With Obamacare’s coverage of the uninsured starting in 2014 and retiring baby boomers flooding into Medicare, the share is headed toward a third.”

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Breakfast with Atul Gawande

Sunday, Boston Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the importance of a hospital being able to “Rescue Success from Profound Failure.”   (Long-time Health Beat readers will recognize Gawande as the author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect ScienceThe Checklist Manifesto  and a number of brilliant New Yorker articles that I have written about in the past, including: “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”,  “It Will Take Ambition It Will Take Humility,” and  “The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine”  (Hat-tip to the New Yorker for publishing so many stellar articles illuminating an extraordinarily complicated subject: healthcare and healthcare reform.)

Before Gawande’s talk began, IBM, the event’s sponsor, hosted a small breakfast where Gawande spoke informally to a group of doctors, health plan executives, hospital administrators and people from IBM who are in the vanguard of healthcare reform. The New Yorker was kind enough to invite me to attend the breakfast and blog about the conversation.

                              Less Expensive Medical Care Can Mean Better Care   

At Sunday’s breakfast Gawande began by observing that “in just the past four or five years we have seen a huge shift in the national conservation about health care.” Since 2007 or 2008 many have come to realize that when it comes to medical care in the U.S., “there is no direct relationship between the amount of money spent and positive results.”  In other words, although we spend twice as much as many other developed countries on health care, medical care in the U.S. is not twice as good. In some ways it is worse.

Yet this epiphany is not as discouraging at it sounds. As Gawande pointed out, “Recognizing that expensive care does not necessarily equal top-quality care has enabled a decoupling of the two issues in the public mind, and opened up the possibility for real beneficial change in the system. The Affordable Care Act’s goal” of securing high quality care for everyone is, in fact, affordable. “We don’t have to ration care.”
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