The people are sad. If holiday shopping is any measure of public mood, the joy vanished this year. The grade-school massacre depressed everyone, and now our rapid approach to the “fiscal cliff” has many scared and afraid to spend money.
The fiscal cliff is a phony crisis dropped on us by the politics of threat. Rather than further their goals through the normal process, so-called conservatives are using threats against the economy to get what they want. They tried it during the debt-ceiling fiasco of 2011. They’re trying it now.
The cliff is itself the result of that scandalous threat by the Republican right to let the United States go into default as a “negotiating tool” to force cuts in programs. To avoid economic catastrophe, the sides agreed to automatic tax increases and spending cuts, starting on Jan. 1, if budget deficits haven’t been dealt with by then. They haven’t. Removing $500 billion from a still weak economy could send us back into recession.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner seemed ready to deal before Christmas, but the right-wingers in his caucus wouldn’t let him. His Plan B proposal would have let tax rates rise only for those making more than $1 million, and “conservatives” in his party still rejected it. Heaven forfend that folks with seven-figure incomes be asked to pay more in taxes.
Obama doesn’t seem to have much to negotiate over and, in any case, is politically stronger this time. For one thing, if the Bush-era tax cuts expire (as was written into the law by Bush-era Republicans), Democrats could try to restore them for the middle class. For another, Republicans lost the last election. For a third, some responsible Republicans are finally standing up to their own extortionist, Grover Norquist, and his threats of political annihilation against any Republican willing to raise tax rates. They’re telling him to take a hike.
Threats, threats, threats. One major tea party website is promoting a “Fax Blast” to end the “political cancer” of deficit spending. The recent election showed the tea partiers to be a menace mainly to the Republican Party, and the party elders are speaking up about it. The movement’s power-of-the-threat is clearly not what it was, which is why the site blusters: “Just about the time they thought the Tea Party is growing weak from battle, giving up, WHAMMY! They get fax hammered with boiling hot faxes!”
Guess what. I don’t care for deficit spending, either, and neither do most Americans. But we’re not running deep deficits because we have unsustainable programs, as Republicans claim. Programs are sustainable if you sustain them. Things are paid for with tax revenues, and federal taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product are at their lowest level in six decades.
No one likes a profligate government, and savings are there to be found. Obamacare starts to address the enormous waste in the biggest source of entitlement spending, Medicare. Republicans want to slash its spending deeper through a voucher system. Fine, if they can sell Americans on their voucher plan, they should go ahead and do it. But note that they haven’t because the people want more medical security.
Since the right can’t get what it wants through normal channels, it is trying the back door of threats to the American economy. We can all go over the Cliff, and everyone suffers. That’ll teach us a thing or two. After Plan B went down, congressional Republicans’ approval rating inched even lower to 26 percent. Perhaps the public is getting tired of being threatened.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board.