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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“Fiscal Cliff” Talks: An Update

Today, for the first time since the election, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met alone, face-to-face, at the White House to discuss ongoing negotions over the budget.   (I can’t help but see the photo, which shows Obama with a hand on Boehnr’s shoulder, as a reference to the “Saturday Night Live” skit that appeared last night.  

I’m more and more hopeful about the budget negotiations. Recentlly, I wrote that Obama had “won round one,” explaining that I believed CNN’s report that  the Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal on taxes. “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.”  Based on everything I know about the economics and the politics of the situation, this makes sense. /

Since then Boehner has said:  “No progress has been made.”

This does not change the story:  If, as CNN’s sources say, (and I believe) Republicans have conceded that taxes cuts for the top 2% must expire Janauary 1, while cuts for the remaining 98% will continue, that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the agreement public.

Understandably, Republicans are not willing to acknowledge that they lost round one of negotiations until they can also announce that they won something in round two.  Nor does  President Obama want to blind-side Boehner by letting it leak that a tax deal is in place. That would be counter-productive.

                          The Inside Story and the Outside Story

Recentlly, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reported:  “Right now, the fiscal cliff negotiations are proceeding on two tracks.

“One track includes the press releases, public statements and legislative tactics the two parties are deploying to prove the purity of their faith and their commitment to beating the other side to a bloody pulp. Watch these closely and it’s easy to get depressed.  . . ‘There isn’t a progress report;’ Republican House Speaker John Boehner sighed Friday, ‘because there’s no progress to report.’

“The other track includes the offers, counteroffers and red lines proposed by Boehner and President Obama. If you look at these closely, a deal is taking shape.”

 I agree with Ezra about the “two tracks”. But I don’t agree regarding the “shape” of the deal that is emerging.

First, I agree that  the majority of Republicans in Congress have accepted the fact that the Bush-era tax breaks for folks earning over $200,000 (and couples earning over $250,000) will have to expire. I won’t try to guess when politicians will complete the two stages of bargaining and be ready to announce a deal. We may go right up to the January 1 deadline.

Moreover, it is  possible that when it comes to cutting government spending, too many Republicans will remain stubbornly, and foolishly, intransigent — insisting on concessions that would inflict pain on the middle-class.

If that happens, I predict that President Obama will let us sail over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  He knows this wouldn’t do any permanent damage to the economy.  As Rutgers reported today, even Wall Street does not seem panicked by the prospect: “Investors have peered over the cliff and realized they are looking at a gentle slope . . . . some investors say lawmakers still have time in early 2013 to strike a deficit-reduction deal without imperiling the economy. A survey of 62 Wall Street money managers released on December 5 showed market losses would be manageable if the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff, even though worries still run deep.

Many on Wall Street understand that, early in the spring, the administration could undo Draconian spending cuts, while lowering tax rates for the 98%. Public pressure will ensure that happens. (In the meantime, the Treasury Secretary could lower withholding rates so that middle-class Americans didn’t suddenly see their paychecks trimmed.)

But taking a ride down that slope would do lasting damage to the GOP.  Polls show that voters would blame Republicans. This is why I think that, in the end, Republican leadership in Congress will do whatever it must to make a deal before January.  As I indicate in the post below. Tea Party extremists in the Republican party are being side-lined.

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How Much Will We Save If We Raise the Age When Seniors Can Apply for Medicare to 67? Less than Zero

The budget deadlock continues.

President Obama is clear: if we want to strengthen the economy, we can no longer afford President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. At the same time,  he is equally firm that he will continue tax relief for the other 98%.

House Speaker John Boehner has responded by characterizing Obama’s proposal as coming from “La-la land.”  Once again, Boehner has insisted that his party will not agree to let marginal tax rates for Americans earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for couples ) rise back to where they were in the 1990s.

Instead, Boehner proposes slicing social safety net programs. As part of the package, he continues to insist that we raise the age when Americans can apply for Medicare from 65 to 67. If we did this, the Congressional Budget  Office says, Medicare spending would decline by about 5 percent. 

                                     “We Are Not Living Longer”

On the face of it, lifting the eligibility age for Medicare might sound like a reasonable idea. After all, longevity has increased. Can’t we wait a couple of years before we ask the government to cover our health benefits?

First, “We” are not living longer. “Some of us” are living longer. But low-income and median-income Americans (who most need these benefits) die sooner than the  politicians who propose that we raise the age requirement for Medicare.

Research from the Social Security administration shows that increases in life expectancy have not been shared.  In 1977, life expectancy at age 65 for a man who was in the bottom half of earners during his peak earning years was 79.8 years; a 65 year-old male who was in the top half of earners at the same point in his career, could assume that he would live roughly 10 years longer,  to 80.5

Over the past 30 years, the gap has widened, During those three decades life expectancy  grew dramatically for the top half of earners, while remaining nearly flat for the bottom half

Education serves as another marker for life expectancy: According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC) between 1996-2006, the difference in life expectancy at age 25 between those with less than a high school education and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 1.9 years for men and 2.8 years for women.  On average in 2006, 25-year-old men without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 9.3 years less than those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  Women without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 8.6 years less than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Race also plays a role. For example, a white male born in 2009 can expect to live to be 76.3 while an African-American male born that year is likely to  die shortly after he turns 70.  Lift the age when he becomes eligible for Medicare to 67, and he may be  be suffering though the final stage of a chronic disease before he qualifies. Yet, he, like every other working American, will have contributed to Medicare for decades.

Finally, occupation helps determine how long you live. Low-income workers are more likely to be engaged in work that is physically grueling. By age 65, the body is wearing out. At that point, a person needs Medicare.

As David A. Smith, Director, Public Policy Department, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) testified at a 1998 hearing on the Future of Social Security before the House Ways and Means Sub Committee on Social Security:  “It is clear that people who spend their work lives scrubbing floors in a nursing home, moving 5 liter engine blocks around a factory floor, pouring steel into a Bessemer mill, or hauling bricks around a construction site can count on a shorter life span and a shorter work life. They are more likely to experience work place injuries and to lack the continued physical endurance necessary to perform their jobs very far into their 60’s.”

As a simple matter of fairness, asking those who have worked harder to wait another  two years before receiving Medicare seems cruel.

                                       The Bogus Financial Argument 

Admittedly Republicans might not acknowledge the “fairness” argument. If you believe that a person’s health is a matter of “personal responsibility,” you might say that if the poor are aging faster than the rest of us, it is because they smoke, eat too many carbs, and generally “don’t take care of themselves.”                                           

But, fairness aside, when you look at the numbers, it turns out that the claim that we can save billions by requiring that everyone wait until 67 before applying for Medicare is bogus.
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As We Approach the Fiscal Cliff: What is the GOP’s Primary Goal?

In theory, the GOP’s main concern is the deficit. We must reduce it they say—and we must do it now–or face a financial Armageddon. But somehow or other, “cutting the deficit” always turns out to mean “reducing entitlement programs.”

Let me suggest that cutting those entitlements programs is the GOP’s primary goal.

Why would I say this?

Earlier this week , wh en Republican House speaker John Boehner presented his party’s counter-proposal for solving the budget deadlock, he once again put lifting the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 near the top of his list. Yet, it you take a hard look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this proposal would not save money–or strengthen the economy. Moreover, entitlement programs did not create the current deficit.

Begin with forcing seniors to wait until they are 67 before they can apply for Medicare. As I explain in the post above, this proposal simply shifts costs to employers, the states, everyone buying insurance in the Exchanges, other Medicare beneficiaries, and 65 and 66-year-olds themselves. It does not lower the nation’s total healthcare bill. Indeed, the GOP’s remedy would wind up costing us twice as much as we now spend providing Medicare benefits for people who are 65 and 66. (See graph in the post above).

I am not  the first person to make this argument. The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities  offer  eye-opening numbers that prove the point.  One would think that, if the GOP’s main goal were to save the economy, Republicans would be interested in these numbers.

One would be wrong.  They ignore them (and seem to have persuaded the mainstream media to follow suit.) Why would conservatives close their eyes to the financial facts? The GOP has an agenda, and it’s not about the deficit. The party’s main fear is “creeping socialism.”

Conservatives use the deficit as an excuse for slicing benefits that they acknowledge will inflict pain on the people who most depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—the elderly and the poor.

 

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